Learn English » English Literature » Poem 'Visit to an Artist' by Elizabeth Jennings


Visit to an Artist

Window upon the wall, a balcony
With a light chair, the air and water so
Mingled you could not say which was the sun
And which the adamant yet tranquil spray.
But nothing was confused and nothing slow:
Each way you looked, always the sea, the sea.
And every shyness that we brought with us
Was drawn into the pictures on the walls.
It was so good to set quite still and lose
Necessity of discourse, words to choose
And wonder which were honest and which false.
Then I remembered words that you had said
Of art as gesture and as sacrament,
A mountain under the calm form of paint
Much like the Presence under wine and bread –
Art with its largesse and its own restraint.

Analysis

The theme of Visit to an Artist is the entrance into the world of art. Elizabeth Jennings is a highly esteemed poet. The poem is dedicated to the Seven Man of Vision, David Jones, the poet and artist, who did many of his works from the window of his lodgings in Harrow-on-the-Hill, where he lived alone in the last part of his life. His world had slowly reduced to the experience of trench warfare in the First World War, Arthurian and Welsh legends, apprenticeship in Eric Gill’s extended family, and a devout understanding of the sacramental theology of the Church, with an eye for details and particularity. His art culminated in studies of flowers in a chalice-like goblet, living trees, and of seascapes seen through a window. Elizabeth Jennings’s poem Visit to an Artist refers to paintings like these.

Summary

In this first stanza of the poem, the poet seems to be in an Art Gallery, or a place where the paintings of David Jones are displayed for public view. The poet may be one of those visitors come to visit this Art Gallery.

The poet could also be in a secluded place where she could be in the thought of her David Jones, remembering all the paintings that she had seen in his company. She makes her admiration for the painter clear, on seeing or remembering a painting in front of her, she explains what she sees in it.

The poet describes the painting as quite remarkable. She sees a window and a balcony with a light chair. The air and water are so blended that it is difficult to say “which was the sun/And which the adamant yet tranquil spray.”

In the next two lines, the poet is quick to point out that there is no confusion or slowness in understanding the painting. Whichever way you look at it, it represents the sea.

In the following lines “every shyness that we brought with us” the poet is suggesting that the relationship between the painter and herself goes deeper than mere friendship. However, the awkwardness soon disappears as the poet is absorbed in looking at the painting. It felt good for the poet to be silent, devoid of all need for talk. When we talk, often there is a need to filter what we are about to say and “wonder which were honest and which false”.

In the final five lines, the poet remembers words that David Jones shared with the poet. She remembers what he had said about the art. “as gesture and as sacrament,

A mountain under the calm form of paint

Much like the Presence under wine and bread –

Art with its largesse and its own restraint.”

It is at once a “gesture and sacrament”. In other words, art is the superficial blend of paint (gesture) that has a deeper, sacred meaning (sacrament). Just like the catholic ritual items of wine and bread, it has a physical form and a spiritual meaning. In its spiritual meaning, it is generous (largesse) and in its physical form it is “its own restraint”, that is, it may be limited.

Language and imagery

Elizabeth Jennings’s poem Visit to the artist is a delightful poem which describes the paintings of a friend. It uses natural imagery: water, the sea, the sun, and the mountain. As is usual in Elizabeth Jennings’s poems, there is spiritual imagery: Catholicism is a constant presence in her poems. In this poem, art is compared to bread and wine, in the sense that both have a deeper meaning. Such metaphors convey the idea that the poet views art to be of deeper, spiritual significance.

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