Thursday, 16 January 2014

Ekphrasis 2: 'What wholly blameless fun...'

This is A Dutch Courtyard by Pieter de Hooch (of whom I wrote recently), which hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Delft again, of course - that's the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk in the background, as seen in Vermeer's great view of the city - and it's a conventionally convivial scene, executed with De Hooch's customary tenderness and precision. In his poem, A Dutch Courtyard, Richard Wilbur ponders on the picture's - any picture's - ultimate impenetrability, and imagines it driving the collector Andrew Mellon to distraction, or rather to purchase. Wilbur's subtle and delicate craft mirrors that of De Hooch. What fine enjambment... 


What wholly blameless fun 
To stand and look at pictures, Ah, they are 
Immune to us. This courtyard may appear 
To be consumed with sun,

Most mortally to burn, 
Yet it is quite beyond the reach of eyes 
Or thoughts, this place and moment oxidize; 
This girl will never turn,

Cry what you dare, but smiles 
Tirelessly toward the seated cavalier, 
Who will not proffer you his pot of beer; 
And your most lavish wiles

Can never turn this chair 
To proper uses, nor your guile evict 
Those tenants. What surprising strict 
Propriety! In despair,

Consumed with greedy ire, 
Old Andrew Mellon glowered at this Dutch 
Courtyard, until it bothered him so much 
He bought the thing entire.

(The glass the woman holds, by the way, is a 'pass-glass', as used in drinking games. Each drinker has to drink down precisely to the level of a circular ring in the glass - missing it means having to drink down to the next one, and so on. Convivial indeed. And the little girl is bringing hot coals to light the soldiers' pipes.)

2 comments:

  1. Feel the poem is rather quaint and pedestrian in sentiment, though technically impressive - more De Hooch than Vermeer! Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts' more satisfying on Breughel's 'Fall of Icarus". It teases one into thought far more successfully.

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