by D L Ennis
Robert Hayden’s poem, “Monet’s Waterlilies” was written in one of the most turbulent eras that this country has ever known. As if daily reports from Saigon, of the escalating numbers of deaths of young, American soldiers, and of supposed atrocities being inflected on innocent civilian’s weren’t enough, there was civil unrest of an extreme nature taking place, primarily, in the southern United States; people were dying in the streets of Selma, Alabama. On that day in 1966, that Robert Hayden’s poem speaks of, it seems that the speaker is seeking sanctuary, apparently in a museum, where he finds peace and tranquility in Monet’s painting “Waterlilies.”
Today as the news from Selma and Saigon
poisons the air like fallout,
I come again to see
the serene, great picture that I love.
Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in iridescence, becomeillusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.
O light beheld as through refracting tears.
Here is the aura of that world
each of us has lost.
Here is the shadow of its joy.
In such trying times as Hayden portrays, “Today as the news from Selma and Saigon poisons the air like fallout…” (1 & 2) most of us seek some form of relief from the insanity. The poems speaker does just that “…I come again to see the serene great picture that I love…” (3 & 4). Lines one and two are so powerful, and the second line, “…poisons the air like fallout…” (2) is so profound, in that, it speaks for so many of us who see violence as a poison.
As an impressionist painter, Monet depended on light and shadows to bring his paintings to life, allowing the observer to be drawn into the painting. When the speaker says, “Here space and time exist in light…” (5) he is being drawn in to the painting; permitting himself to find liberation from the disconcerting news of the day; time no longer exist and the space his mind occupies, at the moment, is all there is; a perfect world.
The speaker says, “…the eye like the eye of faith believes.” (6); what he is saying here is that, the eye, while viewing the painting, believes that the waterlilies literally exist, and live within the canvas; just as we must have faith in our fellow man in spite of our selves.
What our eye sees is what our mind knows exist, even though in the impressionist painting, as in life, it is not always clear that any beauty, or good, exists, “The seen, the known dissolve in iridescence, become illusive flesh of light…” (7, 8 & 9). In such troubling times, as the mid-nineteen-sixties, it seemed that no goodness existed in man, though it did, and will for all time, “That was not, was, forever is.” (10). Just as the speaker allows his minds eye to see the waterlilies, he can also see the goodness in mankind, in spite of the truth of the day.
Although the speaker can see that goodness does exist in mankind, something is missing; that something is our innocence, “O light beheld as through refracting tears.” (11). The innocence of the nineteen-fifties was gone, “Here is the aura of the world each of us has lost.” (12 & 13) and a kind of darkness seemed to own this day in 1966. Evil seemed to overshadow the goodness and innocence of the previous decade, “Here is the shadow of its joy.” (14).
You can’t have true joy without sorrow, otherwise, how would you recognize it? In such maddening times, as when Hayden wrote “Monet’s Waterlelies”, 1966, we must seek to remember that there is still beauty and good in the world, and if that means going to a museum and allowing yourself to be consumed by the beauty of art, as in Hayden’s poem, then by all means, do so; for without calm and serenity in our lives, we can become a part of the insanity that surrounds us.Powered by Sidelines