Tag Archives: art

The value and significance of flesh

One of my favorite groups of poems is Men and Women by Robert Browning. Each of these long poems is a monologue by a different person, and the ones I’ve read are fascinating. One of my favorites is Fra Lippo Lippi, about a (medieval?) monk who paints art in churches and monestaries.

In the poem, Lippi meets some men (city watchmen, I think) and tells them his story. He was homeless, living on the street at 8 years old, when the church took him in. He can’t read much Latin, he says, but he’s a shrewd judge of people and can paint them as they are. The trouble is, the head monks think his paintings are too realistic, saying:

Your business is not to catch men with show,
With homage to the perishable clay,
But lift them over it, ignore it all,
Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh.
Your business is to paint the souls of men—
Give us no more of body than shows soul!

Why put all thoughts of praise out of our head
With wonder at lines, colours, and what not?
Paint the soul, never mind the legs and arms!

Lippi disagrees, of course. Here are my favorite parts of his response:

Why can’t a painter lift each foot in turn,
Left foot and right foot, go a double step,
Make his flesh liker and his soul more like,
Both in their order?

Can’t I take breath and try to add life’s flash,
And then add soul and heighten them three-fold?

And my whole soul revolves, the cup runs over,
The world and life’s too big to pass for a dream,

For me, I think I speak as I was taught;
I always see the garden and God there
A-making man’s wife: and, my lesson learned,
The value and significance of flesh,
I can’t unlearn ten minutes afterwards.

You speak no Latin more than I, belike;
However, you’re my man, you’ve seen the world
The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises,—and God made it all!
—For what? Do you feel thankful, ay or no,
For this fair town’s face, yonder river’s line,
The mountain round it and the sky above,
Much more the figures of man, woman, child,
These are the frame to? What’s it all about?
To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,
Wondered at?

We’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted—better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out.

This world’s no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.

You can read the whole thing here. It’s long, but it’s worth it.

The Mysterious

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”

– Albert Einstein

A Sudden Line of Poetry

Two girls discover the secret of life
   in a sudden line of poetry.
I who don’t know the secret wrote
   the line. They told me
(through third person) they had found it
   but not what it was, not even
what line it was. No doubt by now, more than a week
   later, they have forgotten the secret,
the line, the name of the poem. I love them
   for finding what I can’t find,
and for loving me for the line I wrote:
   and for forgetting to so that
a thousand times, till death finds them, they may
   discover it again, in other lines,
in other happenings. And for
   wanting to know it, for
assuming that these is such a secret, yet,
   for that most of all.

– Denise Levertov

{There’s an entire branch of philosophy dedicated to defining “art.”  I’d say that something can be described as art when there’s more there than the author put into it – when it’s beautiful/expressive/??? enough that people can enjoy and learn from it in ways the author never imagined.

{I’m not advocating the style of criticism that ignores what the author intended and says that only the text matters, and you can pull out of it what you want. But a good book or symphony or painting can speak to you in ways the author wouldn’t have imagined, or give you comfort in a situation they never thought to address. Art takes on a life of its own.}

For the joy of the working

When Earth’s Last Picture Is Painted

When Earth’s last picture is painted and the tubes are twisted and dried,
When the oldest colours have faded, and the youngest critic has died,
We shall rest, and, faith, we shall need it — lie down for an aeon or two,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall put us to work anew!

And those that were good shall be happy: they shall sit in a golden chair;
They shall splash at a ten-league canvas with brushes of comets’ hair;
They shall find real saints to draw from — Magdalene, Peter, and Paul;
They shall work for an age at a sitting and never be tired at all!

And only The Master shall praise us, and only The Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They Are!

– Rudyard Kipling

One of the things I’m looking forward to the most in heaven is doing and enjoying good things perfectly. Loving to sing without becoming vain about my voice, loving someone else’s skill without becoming jealous of it, loving people without become possessive of them. That’s what this poem reminds me of.

This was painted by my father.