Liberal Arts Blog — Poems about Paintings: Auden and Breughel, Keats and the Grecian Urn, Sexton and Starry Night

Liberal Arts Blog — Tuesday is the Joy of Literature, Language, Religion, and Culture Day

Today’s Topic: Poems about Paintings: Auden and Breughel, Keats and the Grecian Urn, Sexton and Starry Night

Ekphrasis is poetry about painting. It’s so exciting to learn a new word. So I just had to write a post about it. For Plutarch, the Greek philosopher, historian, and biographer: “Painting is silent poetry and poetry is painting that speaks.” Wow! Did he nail or what? Today, three examples of poems about works of art. Experts — please chime in. Correct, elaborate, elucidate.


1. “About suffering they were never wrong, // The old Masters: how well they understood // Its human position: how it takes place // While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;”

2. “Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot // Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse // Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”

3. “In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away // Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may // Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, // But for him it was not an important failure;

NB: “the sun shone // As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green // Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen // Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, // Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

JOHN KEATS AND THE GRECIAN URN (1819), one of the six great odes written in 1819

1. “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, // Thou foster-child of silence and slow time, // Sylvan historian, who canst thus express // A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme: // What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape // Of deities or mortals, or of both // In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? // What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? // What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? // What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”

2. “More happy love! more happy, happy love! // For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, // For ever panting, and for ever young; // All breathing human passion far above, // That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, // A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.”

3. “O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede // Of marble men and maidens overwrought, // With forest branches and the trodden weed; // Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought .. As doth eternity: // Cold Pastoral! When old age shall this generation waste, // Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe // Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, // “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all // Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

ANNE SEXTON AND VAN GOGH’S STARRY NIGHT — “This is how I want to die”

1. “The town does not exist // except where one black-haired tree //slips up like a drowned woman into the hot sky. // The town is silent. // The night boils with eleven stars. // Oh starry starry night! // This is how I want to die.”

2. “It moves. They are all alive. // Even the moon bulges in its orange irons to push children, like a god, from its eye. // The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars. // Oh starry starry night! // This is how I want to die:”

3. “Into that rushing beast of the night, sucked up by that great dragon, to split from my life with no flag, no belly, no cry.”

NB: The poem begins with this: “That does not keep me from having a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars. Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother.”

FOOTNOTES — Auden, Keats, Sexton

1. Very few works of literary criticism have ever impressed me. One of those is is an essay on Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” by Elise Gabbert, the poetry critic of the New York Times. See the first link below.

2. The other five odes of 1819 by Keats are: Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on Indolence, Ode on Melancholy,. Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to Psyche, and Ode to Autumn, See seventh link below for details.

3. “Sexton suffered from severe bipolar disorder for much of her life, her first manic episode taking place in 1954. After a second episode in 1955 she met Dr. Martini Orne, who became her long-term therapist at the Glenside Hospital. It was Orne who encouraged her to write poetry….” In 1974, aged 45, she locked herself in her garage, turned on the car engine, and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. In 1967 she had won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her book,”Live or Die.”

A Poem (and a Painting) About the Suffering That Hides in Plain Sight

Musée des Beaux Arts (poem) — Wikipedia

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus — Wikipedia

The Starry Night by Anne Sexton | Poetry Foundation

Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats | Poetry Foundation

John Keats’s 1819 odes — Wikipedia

4 Powerful Poems Inspired by Famous Paintings — Read Poetry

Plutarch — Wikipedia

Anne Sexton — Wikipedia


“The single biggest challenge in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” (William H. Whyte, author of The Organization Man” (1856)


#1 A graphic guide to justice (9 metaphors on one page).

#2 “39 Songs, Prayers, and Poems: the Keys to the Hearts of Seven Billion People” — Adams House Senior Common Room Presentation, 11/17/20

Here is a link to the last four years of posts organized by theme: (including the book on foreign policy)

PDF with headlines — Google Drive


Please share the coolest thing you learned this week related to words, language, literature, religion, culture. Or, even better, the coolest or most important thing you learned in your life related to Words, Language, Literature (eg. quotes, poetry, vocabulary) that you have not yet shared.

This is your chance to make someone else’s day. Or to cement in your own mind something that you might otherwise forget. Or to think more deeply than otherwise about something dear to your heart. Continuity is key to depth of thought.

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