Skip to main content

Analysis of Poem 'Monet Refuses the Operation' by Lisel Mueller

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Poem based on artist Monet's refusal of cataract surgery

Poem based on artist Monet's refusal of cataract surgery

'Monet Refuses the Operation' Analysis

'Monet Refuses the Operation' vividly explores the argument voiced by none other than Monsieur Monet himself who, later in life, decided not to have surgery on his eyes to remove cataracts.

He wanted to paint the light and not the object, to go beyond the 'youthful errors' and into the realm of a unified field. This must have been difficult to understand from a medical point of view, but Monet insisted, producing some of his best-known works known for their hazy content.

He did give in eventually, however, having the cataracts removed in 1923, three years before his death. So the poem concentrates on his initial reaction to the idea of surgery and the subsequent unnatural alteration of his sight.

  • In this respect, the poem is an idealistic monologue of a great artist whose mastery of the palette and intuitive grasp of light and colour helped give rise to one of the most influential artistic movements in the western world.
  • The speaker is the artist's persona created by the poet to explore the tension between patient and doctor, the concept of consent and the way in which we as individuals experience the world around and within us.

Monet, rather than accept the effects of the cataracts as a negative, in the poem sees them as an opportunity for a new kind of vision which would enhance his creativity.

Lisel Mueller, a German-born poet and translator who escaped the terror of the Nazis with her family, is best known for her imaginative lyrical poems on family and the human condition.

'Monet Refuses the Operation' first appeared in her book The Private Life, 1975/76.

'Monet Refuses the Operation'

Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

Analysis of the Poem

'Monet Refuses the Operation' is a poem based on fact - the impressionist painter Oscar-Claude Monet did refuse an operation on cataracts that developed later on in life - but creates an imagined scenario in which the speaker, a persona of the artist, answers the doctor.

The single long stanza, sans rhyme and metrical pattern, reflects the passion and the style of the artist himself, as if Monet had taken a single breath to give freedom to his vocal chords, as he did with his paintbrush.

In the poem, there are references to actual paintings Monet created - of Rouen cathedral in France, of the Houses of Parliament in London, of his garden at Givenchy. These were attempts to capture light and its effect on colour and texture and he painted many canvases of the same subject at different times, masterful studies which took years to develop.

The poem is an answer to a possible question or comment by a doctor, who refutes the idea that streetlights possess haloes. You can picture the doctor stating quite scientifically that the artist is getting old and his vision is affected.

Monet is having none of this. The first-person speaker is adamant that streetlights are angels, the horizon does not exist and that the elements are unified, all one. This must have exasperated the doctor.

  • What we have here is an eloquent argument for mysticism over rationalism. The speaker, in the tradition of say, William Blake, is saying that he sees the world in a different light and that this world is without borders and hard edges. They exist within, and as, the one.
  • This poem is also about the human condition, sure enough, specifically senescence (the process of deterioration with age) as experienced subjectively by an artist who is now convinced that the supposed disability is nothing of the sort.
  • Into the mix comes the tensions set up when a patient questions the diagnosis of a doctor, and the rights of that patient to go against medical advice.
Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

The speaker gives examples of how his new vision has enhanced his work and helped him understand just what it means to paint the light and not a 3D object. No longer is the world made up of separate things, the language in several lines reflects this theory of oneness:

are the same state of being.

the illusion of three-dimensional space,

to become the fluid dream

of objects that don't know each other,

The world/is flux,

blue vapor without end.

This monologue is an anti-reductionist statement if ever there was one.

Of course, there is the alternative viewpoint that says here we have a bombastic old painter trying to evade responsibility, going against the wishes of his doctor who wants only to help his patient but instead has to put up with a stubborn mystic, afraid of the reality of minor surgery.

Whatever the reader's opinion there's no doubting the eloquent manner in which the speaker makes his plea. The vivid imagery, the language and the artistic insights all gather momentum as the poem progresses towards a spiritual appreciation of all things.

Literary Devices Used

'Monet Refuses the Operation' is a free verse poem, a single stanza of 46 lines with no set rhyme scheme and no consistent metrical pattern.

There are several literary devices employed, including:


Words beginning with consonants, close together in certain lines, bring added interest to the sound as the reader progresses. For example:

an affliction



same state

how heaven.


When lines continue on without punctuation carrying the meaning to the next line. Overall, there are 26 lines enjambed, which helps the lines flow into one another.


When something is something else, as in:

the Houses of Parliament dissolve

night after night to become

the fluid dream of the Thames?

And also here:

as if islands were not the lost children

of one great continent. The world

is flux, and light becomes water, lilies on water,


© 2018 Andrew Spacey


Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on June 04, 2018:

Grateful for the visit and comment. Monet Refuses is an unusual yet enlightening poem.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on June 04, 2018:

I like words beginning with consonants as found on your list. Another informative hub and the video was really something! Thanks, again.

Related Articles