Randall Jarrell

Here you will find the Long Poem The Old And The New Masters of poet Randall Jarrell

The Old And The New Masters

About suffering, about adoration, the old masters 
Disagree. When someone suffers, no one else eats 
Or walks or opens the window--no one breathes 
As the sufferers watch the sufferer. 
In St. Sebastian Mourned by St. Irene
The flame of one torch is the only light. 
All the eyes except the maidservant's (she weeps 
And covers them with a cloth) are fixed on the shaft 
Set in his chest like a column; St. Irene's 
Hands are spread in the gesture of the Madonna, 
Revealing, accepting, what she does not understand. 
Her hands say: "Lo! Behold!" 
Beside her a monk's hooded head is bowed, his hands 
Are put together in the work of mourning. 
It is as if they were still looking at the lance 
Piercing the side of Christ, nailed on his cross. 
The same nails pierce all their hands and feet, the same 
Thin blood, mixed with water, trickles from their sides. 
The taste of vinegar is on every tongue 
That gasps, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"
They watch, they are, the one thing in the world. 

So, earlier, everything is pointed 
In van der Goes' Nativity, toward the naked 
Shining baby, like the needle of a compass. 
The different orders and sizes of the world: 
The angels like Little People, perched in the rafters 
Or hovering in mid-air like hummingbirds; 
The shepherds, so big and crude, so plainly adoring; 
The medium-sized donor, his little family, 
And their big patron saints; the Virgin who kneels 
Before her child in worship; the Magi out in the hills 
With their camels--they ask directions, and have pointed out 
By a man kneeling, the true way; the ox 
And the donkey, two heads in the manger 
So much greater than a human head, who also adore; 
Even the offerings, a sheaf of wheat, 
A jar and a glass of flowers, are absolutely still 
In natural concentration, as they take their part 
In the salvation of the natural world. 
The time of the world concentrates 
On this one instant: far off in the rocks 
You can see Mary and Joseph and their donkey 
Coming to Bethlehem; on the grassy hillside 
Where their flocks are grazing, the shepherds gesticulate 
In wonder at the star; and so many hundreds 
Of years in the future, the donor, his wife, 
And their children are kneeling, looking: everything 
That was or will be in the world is fixed 
On its small, helpless, human center. 

After a while the masters show the crucifixion 
In one corner of the canvas: the men come to see 
What is important, see that it is not important. 
The new masters paint a subject as they please, 
And Veronese is prosecuted by the Inquisition 
For the dogs playing at the feet of Christ, 
The earth is a planet among galaxies. 
Later Christ disappears, the dogs disappear: in abstract 
Understanding, without adoration, the last master puts 
Colors on canvas, a picture of the universe 
In which a bright spot somewhere in the corner 
Is the small radioactive planet men called Earth.