Poems About Paintings: Part 2

"As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be..."

 --John Donne, "To His Mistress Going to Bed"

 

"Diana and Actaeon" by Titian, 1556-1559

 Actaeon

O, my America, my Newfoundland
John Donne, "Elegy 20"


O, my America, discovered by slim chance,
behind, as it seemed, a washing line
I shoved aside without thinking –
does desire have thoughts or define
its object, consuming all in a glance?

You, with your several flesh sinking
upon itself in attitudes of hurt,
while the dogs at my heels
growl at the strange red shirt
under a horned moon, you, drinking

night water – tell me what the eye steals
or borrows. What can't we let go
without protest? My own body turns
against me as I sense it grow
contrary. Whatever night reveals

is dangerously toothed. And so the body burns
as if torn by sheer profusion of skin
and cry. It wears its ragged dress
like something it once found comfort in,
the kind of comfort even a dog learns

by scent. So flesh falls away, ever less
human, like desire itself, though pain
still registers in the terrible balance
the mind seems so reluctant to retain,
o, my America, my nakedness!

George Szirtes (2012) 

I can't pretend to really understand this poem by George Szirtes, but I love the imagery.  The feeling of the dogs, the hot teeth, the beautiful anguish of being human, and of having a body that can turn against you...  Also it gave me cause to look at the Titian painting again.

What's going on here?  Actaeon shouldn't be looking at this virginal goddess.  She's about to have her hounds rip him apart!  But could that adorable little dog really do any harm to a sincere and well-meaning-but-still-lusty man like Actaeon?

When I was on the internet looking for poems, I was initially hooked by the John Donne quotation.  I love John Donne!  Incidentally, if you haven't read any John Donne poems, you should.  Start with "Song."  It's just like a magic spell...

Of course I had to go and read some of George Szirtes' blog, and I encourage you to do the same.  He has a lot to say about the Titian painting, my favorite sentence being this:

"Paint is like flesh in his hands: the colour is voluptuous, the paint glows and is stirred, caressed, pinched, dabbed, blurred and  slapped into depiction."

 

I don't know if it's the full moon, but I'm in love with the visceral substance of oil paints, and in turn, the paint itself seem to be in love with the idea of flesh, at least for Titian.  I love that a poet can make me feel something new for an old painting, and that mere words can reinvigorate images.  Feeling generous, I'll even admit to being in love with Actaeon.  I certainly wouldn't have set my hounds on him, if I were the Goddess of the Moon...

Click here for another great resource for poetry and paintings.