Marianne Moore: Poetry

July 24, 2010

“The Hero:” El Greco

“the startling El Greco / brimming with inner light” (ll 51-52)

We may never know whether Moore had in mind a particular painting by El Greco when she wrote these words, but she is directing us to a work that suggests the opposite of greed. With that as a cue, if we look to works by El Greco in New York by 1930, where she might most easily have seen them, we find a view of Toledo, several Princes of the Church, a vision St. John, and “The Purification of the Temple” in the Frick Collection.

The bequest of Henry Clay Frick in 1909, the  c. 1600 oil on canvas painting is small, 16 1/2 x 28 5/8 inches.  It depicts the biblical moment narrated in Matthew 21:12:

“And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves.” (King James Version)

Readers may judge whether this is the “startling El Greco.”

1 Comment »

  1. From my ALA conference paper on Moore:
    In “The Hero” (a kind of prologue to a play) Moore turns to another Old Master: El Greco–an artist who couldn’t differ more from Dürer. Here we encounter Southern, Counter Reformation Europe, and “altogether new shape” (MM) that declares not descriptive accuracy or calculation but the power of hte invisible ; not fantasy but “reverence for mystery.”. In fact El Greco was admired in Moore’s time as a precursor to expressionism and cubism.
    . Various candidates for the title “hero” come before us–the hero is like us, but also different–his ancestry is both Roman (the heros of Republican civic virtue who rise to leadership but relinquish absolute power, covet nothing that they have let go), Old Testament (flawed heros Jacob, Joseph, Moses), Christian–Bunyan’s struggling Pilgrim,– and Revolutionary (Washington, who was hindered to succeed, and who willingly limited his powers and refused kingship over the new republic). All figures who “covet nothing that they have let go.” The scene is quite different from that of The Steeple Jack–not a resort full of sights but the grave site of a founder, as if to say to America:–et in arcadia ego. [show Poussin] Despite his Colonial costume the Negro reminds us that America’s story is unfinished. The poem rests in his eyes, and his eyes do not settle on mere facts of human history; there is a higher truth than history, that guides it.
    Moore had read enough about El Greco to know the apocryphal story : asked why he sat in a darkened room, he claimed the daylight disturbed his “inner light.” “The startling El Greco brimming with inner light.” El Greco makes the perfect dialectical partner with Dürer– [show El Greco images] We might say that El Greco takes over where the sight-seeking Dürer leaves off–. The star on the steeple in the poem dedicated to Dürer “stands for hope.” But the hero understands “hope not being hope until all cause for hope has vanished.” Moore had thought of El Greco in connection with the idea of the hero well before she wrote the poem. In her Dial review of 1928, on a new translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, one Spaniard calls another to her mind:
    “The humble grandeur which DQ achieved through ‘good sense and good conduct,’ ‘modesty, liberality, courtesy,’ ‘chaste ears and compassionate deeds,’ has somehow acquired an angelic quality–akin to what Mr. Henry McBride finds in the paintings by El Greco–a ‘curiously lambent inner glow’ that gives it ‘an unearlthly impressiveness’.” We might say that the distorting El Greco “let’s go” of Dürer’s descriptive/materialist accuracy, and “calculation” in favor of revelation. (reflecting anti materialist values in the Depression)

    Comment by Bonnie Costello — August 19, 2010 @ 11:43 am |Reply

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