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Robert Hayden's "Monet's Waterlilies"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Portrait of Robert Hayden

Portrait of Robert Hayden

Introduction and Text of "Monet's Waterlilies"

The speaker in Robert Hayden's American sonnet, "Monet's Waterlilies," is seeking to transcend the depression brought on by listening to the news reports of the day, finding upliftment in the paintings of Claude Monet, the French Impressionist.

The poem features a marvelous example of an American (or Innovative) sonnet that combines the English quatrain with the Italian sestet. The fascinating innovation places the sestet between the two quatrains in an unrimed, varied-line-length poem.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Monet's 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, become
illusive 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.

Reading of Hayden's "Monet's Waterlilies"

Claude Monet's Water Lilies

Commentary

The speaker in Hayden's "Monet's Waterlilies" finds solace while viewing the artistry of the French Impressionist, Claude Monet.

Quatrain: Depression by News

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.

The speaker has experienced a mood of depression fostered by "the news from Selma and Saigon." The references to Selma and Saigon alert the reader that the time frame for the poem's drama is the turbulent American 1960s: Selma, the struggle for African-American civil rights and Saigon, the war in Vietnam.

The news of these events "poisons the air like fallout." Every individual who was aware of those conflicts during that time period will experience a moment of recognition, remembering the constant clashes over civil rights and the daily death counts from Vietnam.

To escape, at least, temporarily the effects of the poisoned news, the poem's speaker returns to contemplate "the serene, great picture that [he loves]." The title of the poem identifies that great picture, the water lilies studies of French Impressionist, Claude Monet.

Sestet: Art's Way of Knowing

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Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in iridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.

Unlike the uncertainty of the supposedly objective reality posed by the poisonous news reports, "Here space and time exist in light / the eye like the eye of faith believes." The way of knowing and feeling offered by this impressionist painting inspires the heart and mind in thrilling, mysterious undulations of light.

Guided by mere flecks of paint, the eye accepts the representations as it accepts God through faith. What a human being is capable of seeing and knowing, for example, the water lilies, seems to dissolve in iridescence.

The melting images then become the very essence of light itself even as it remains an "illusive flesh of light." And this is light that did not exist at one point in time, then came into being and now "forever is." The light differs from the uncreated light of God because it has a beginning with the human artist, but once created is takes its place along with God's eternal uncreated creations.

Quatrain: Transcending the Physical World

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.

The speaker then describes the light "as beheld as through refracting tears." This portrayal reflects the speaker's mood that has been poisoned by the world's bad news. The skillful artistry of placing this description in direct exclamatory address to light renders this poem one of Hayden's masterpieces.

The final three lines summarize the refreshed attitude for which the speaker has come: "Here is the aura of that world / each of us has lost. / Here is the shadow of its joy." The spiritual realm of joy and bliss that each human being loses after too close identification with the physical world is restored by the contemplation of beauty as fashioned by the skillful, inspired artist.

Comemorative Stamp - Robert Hayden

Comemorative Stamp - Robert Hayden

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 15, 2017:

Yes, poems that focus on paintings are always fascinating, enlightening, and entertaining, when both the poet and the painter are masters of their crafts. Hayden's skill coupled with Monet's brilliance results in a magnificent piece of work.

Robin Carretti from Hightstown on December 15, 2017:

I love Monet everything about the art since I went to France such beauty it put me in a trance-like way how beautiful art is its always something to speak about

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on February 15, 2016:

Thank you, John! I love those paintings too. And Hayden's poetry is some of the best ever written.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on February 15, 2016:

Linda, I love Momet's paintings so I enjoyed this review and explanation of Robert Hayden's poem. Thank you.

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