Saturday, March 28, 2015

"There is a gold light in certain old paintings" - Donald Justice


There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and nowhere at once, this light,
          And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
          Share in its charity equally with the cross.


Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back
          I say the song went this way: O prolong
          Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.


The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth from good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
          And all that we suffered through having existed
          Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.

One of my favorite poets as of late, Donald Justice offers this meditation on art and mythology as it relates to our daily lives.  While I could find the paintings he references here (chances are you can picture them yourself) I will not, because I don't want to color your mind with the art, but rather let the light Justice describes fill you.

In the first stanza, we can look at the scene in both a religious or non-religious context.  The religious context is clear; this is a scene from the Passion, wherein Christ is crucified.  The heavenly light that shines down shines on all.  Even those who killed Christ can be forgiven is the message implicit there.  We all "share in its charity equally."  This can have a non-religious context as well.  The same sun shines on all of us, humans, animals, dirt, everything.  We are equal parts of the world and are only special because of our internal monologues.  While the religious context here is the most clear, I think the lesson is largely the same with or without that framework.

In the second stanza, we see the tragic scene where Orpheus turns and Eurydice, recently rescued from the underworld, disappears.  The prolonging of sorrow is the only way he can hang onto any shred of his love.  I love the line, "We think he sang then, but the song is lost."  What else could Orpheus do?  At that point, his song was all he had.

The last stanza, despite being couched in language of ending, is reassuring.  All the suffering in the world will be forgotten with your death, and it will be as though it never existed.  I see no bleakness here.  The work these two do "will be seen as strong and clean and good."  Virtues of hard work are seldom forgotten.  Sickness will pass in time, even if we pass before it.  That's calming.


  1. What a wonderful poem. Thank you for this, and for your commentary, which, as ever, added depth to my appreciation. I am loving your choices of poems - they enrich my day.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, Tig. They mean a lot to me. I'll work hard to make sure you can enjoy this blog for a long time to come.