Rembrandt to Rembrandt by Edwin Arlington Robinson
And there you are again, now as you are. Observe yourself as you discern yourself In your discredited ascendency; Without your velvet or your feathers now, Commend your new condition to your fate, And your conviction to the sieves of time. Meanwhile appraise yourself, Rembrandt van Ryn, Now as you are—formerly more or less Distinguished in the civil scenery, And once a painter. There you are again, Where you may see that you have on your shoulders No lovelier burden for an ornament Than one man’s head that’s yours. Praise be to God That you have that; for you are like enough To need it now, my friend, and from now on; For there are shadows and obscurities Immediate or impending on your view, That may be worse than you have ever painted For the bewildered and unhappy scorn Of injured Hollanders in Amsterdam Who cannot find their fifty florins’ worth Of Holland face where you have hidden it In your new golden shadow that excites them, Or see that when the Lord made color and light He made not one thing only, or believe That shadows are not nothing. Saskia said, Before she died, how they would swear at you, And in commiseration at themselves. She laughed a little, too, to think of them— And then at me.… That was before she died.
And I could wonder, as I look at you, There as I have you now, there as you are, Or nearly so as any skill of mine Has ever caught you in a bilious mirror,— Yes, I could wonder long, and with a reason, If all but everything achievable In me were not achieved and lost already, Like a fool’s gold. But you there in the glass, And you there on the canvas, have a sort Of solemn doubt about it; and that’s well For Rembrandt and for Titus. All that’s left Of all that was is here; and all that’s here Is one man who remembers, and one child Beginning to forget. One, two, and three, The others died, and then—then Saskia died; And then, so men believe, the painter died. So men believe. So it all comes at once. And here’s a fellow painting in the dark,— A loon who cannot see that he is dead Before God lets him die. He paints away At the impossible, so Holland has it, For venom or for spite, or for defection, Or else for God knows what. Well, if God knows, And Rembrandt knows, it matters not so much What Holland knows or cares. If Holland wants Its heads all in a row, and all alike, There’s Franz to do them and to do them well— Rat-catchers, archers, or apothecaries, And one as like a rabbit as another. Value received, and every Dutchman happy. All’s one to Franz, and to the rest of them,— Their ways being theirs, are theirs.—But you, my friend, If I have made you something as you are, Will need those jaws and eyes and all the fight And fire that’s in them, and a little more, To take you on and the world after you; For now you fare alone, without the fashion To sing you back and fling a flower or two At your accusing feet. Poor Saskia saw This coming that has come, and with a guile Of kindliness that covered half her doubts Would give me gold, and laugh… before she died.
And if I see the road that you are going, You that are not so jaunty as aforetime, God knows if she were not appointed well To die. She might have wearied of it all Before the worst was over, or begun. A woman waiting on a man’s avouch Of the invisible, may not wait always Without a word betweenwhiles, or a dash Of poison on his faith. Yes, even she. She might have come to see at last with others, And then to say with others, who say more, That you are groping on a phantom trail Determining a dusky way to nowhere; That errors unconfessed and obstinate Have teemed and cankered in you for so long That even your eyes are sick, and you see light Only because you dare not see the dark That is around you and ahead of you. She might have come, by ruinous estimation Of old applause and outworn vanities, To clothe you over in a shroud of dreams, And so be nearer to the counterfeit Of her invention than aware of yours. She might, as well as any, by this time, Unwillingly and eagerly have bitten Another devil’s-apple of unrest, And so, by some attendant artifice Or other, might anon have had you sharing A taste that would have tainted everything, And so had been for two, instead of one, The taste of death in life—which is the food Of art that has betrayed itself alive And is a food of hell. She might have heard Unhappily the temporary noise Of louder names than yours, and on frail urns That hardly will ensure a dwelling-place For even the dust that may be left of them, She might, and angrily, as like as not, Look soon to find your name, not finding it. She might, like many another born for joy And for sufficient fulness of the hour, Go famishing by now, and in the eyes Of pitying friends and dwindling satellites Be told of no uncertain dereliction Touching the cold offence of my decline. And even if this were so, and she were here Again to make a fact of all my fancy, How should I ask of her to see with me Through night where many a time I seem in vain To seek for new assurance of a gleam That comes at last, and then, so it appears, Only for you and me—and a few more, Perchance, albeit their faces are not many Among the ruins that are now around us. That was a fall, my friend, we had together— Or rather it was my house, mine alone, That fell, leaving you safe. Be glad for that. There’s life in you that shall outlive my clay That’s for a time alive and will in time Be nothing—but not yet. You that are there Where I have painted you are safe enough, Though I see dragons. Verily, that was a fall— A dislocating fall, a blinding fall, A fall indeed. But there are no bones broken; And even the teeth and eyes that I make out Among the shadows, intermittently, Show not so firm in their accoutrement Of terror-laden unreality As you in your neglect of their performance,— Though for their season we must humor them For what they are: devils undoubtedly, But not so parlous and implacable In their undoing of poor human triumph As easy fashion—or brief novelty That ails even while it grows, and like sick fruit Falls down anon to an indifferent earth To break with inward rot. I say all this, And I concede, in honor of your silence, A waste of innocent facility In tints of other colors than are mine. I cannot paint with words, but there’s a time For most of us when words are all we have To serve our stricken souls. And here you say, “Be careful, or you may commit your soul Soon to the very devil of your denial.” I might have wagered on you to say that, Knowing that I believe in you too surely To spoil you with a kick or paint you over.
No, my good friend, Mynheer Rembrandt van Ryn— Sometime a personage in Amsterdam, But now not much—I shall not give myself To be the sport of any dragon-spawn Of Holland, or elsewhere. Holland was hell Not long ago, and there were dragons then More to be fought than any of these we see That we may foster now. They are not real, But not for that the less to be regarded; For there are slimy tyrants born of nothing That harden slowly into seeming life And have the strength of madness. I confess, Accordingly, the wisdom of your care That I look out for them. Whether I would Or not, I must; and here we are as one With our necessity. For though you loom A little harsh in your respect of time And circumstance, and of ordained eclipse, We know together of a golden flood That with its overflow shall drown away The dikes that held it; and we know thereby That in its rising light there lives a fire No devils that are lodging here in Holland Shall put out wholly, or much agitate, Except in unofficial preparation They put out first the sun. It’s well enough To think of them; wherefore I thank you, sir, Alike for your remembrance and attention.
But there are demons that are longer-lived Than doubts that have a brief and evil term To congregate among the futile shards And architraves of eminent collapse. They are a many-favored family, All told, with not a misbegotten dwarf Among the rest that I can love so little As one occult abortion in especial Who perches on a picture (when it’s done) And says, “What of it, Rembrandt, if you do?” This incubus would seem to be a sort Of chorus, indicating, for our good, The silence of the few friends that are left: “What of it, Rembrandt, even if you know?” It says again; “and you don’t know for certain. What if in fifty or a hundred years They find you out? You may have gone meanwhile So greatly to the dogs that you’ll not care Much what they find. If this be all you are— This unaccountable aspiring insect— You’ll sleep as easy in oblivion As any sacred monk or parricide; And if, as you conceive, you are eternal, Your soul may laugh, remembering (if a soul Remembers) your befrenzied aspiration To smear with certain ochres and some oil A few more perishable ells of cloth, And once or twice, to square your vanity, Prove it was you alone that should achieve A mortal eye—that may, no less, tomorrow Show an immortal reason why today Men see no more. And what’s a mortal eye More than a mortal herring, who has eyes As well as you? Why not paint herrings, Rembrandt? Or if not herrings, why not a split beef? Perceive it only in its unalloyed Integrity, and you may find in it A beautified accomplishment no less Indigenous than one that appertains To gentlemen and ladies eating it. The same God planned and made you, beef and human; And one, but for His whim, might be the other.”
That’s how he says it, Rembrandt, if you listen; He says it, and he goes. And then, sometimes, There comes another spirit in his place— One with a more engaging argument, And with a softer note for saying truth Not soft. Whether it be the truth or not, I name it so; for there’s a string in me Somewhere that answers—which is natural, Since I am but a living instrument Played on by powers that are invisible. “You might go faster, if not quite so far,” He says, “if in your vexed economy There lived a faculty for saying yes And meaning no, and then for doing neither; But since Apollo sees it otherwise, Your Dutchmen, who are swearing at you still For your pernicious filching of their florins, May likely curse you down their generation, Not having understood there was no malice Or grinning evil in a golden shadow That shall outshine their slight identities And hold their faces when their names are nothing. But this, as you discern, or should by now Surmise, for you is neither here nor there: You made your picture as your demon willed it; That’s about all of that. Now make as many As may be to be made,—for so you will, Whatever the toll may be, and hold your light So that you see, without so much to blind you As even the cobweb-flash of a misgiving, Assured and certain that if you see right Others will have to see—albeit their seeing Shall irk them out of their serenity For such a time as umbrage may require. But there are many reptiles in the night That now is coming on, and they are hungry; And there’s a Rembrandt to be satisfied Who never will be, howsoever much He be assured of an ascendency That has not yet a shadow’s worth of sound Where Holland has its ears. And what of that? Have you the weary leisure or sick wit That breeds of its indifference a false envy That is the vermin on accomplishment? Are you inaugurating your new service With fasting for a food you would not eat? You are the servant, Rembrandt, not the master,— But you are not assigned with other slaves That in their freedom are the most in fear. One of the few that are so fortunate As to be told their task and to be given A skill to do it with a tool too keen For timid safety, bow your elected head Under the stars tonight, and whip your devils Each to his nest in hell. Forget your days, And so forgive the years that may not be So many as to be more than you may need For your particular consistency In your peculiar folly. You are counting Some fewer years than forty at your heels; And they have not pursued your gait so fast As your oblivion—which has beaten them, And rides now on your neck like an old man With iron shins and fingers. Let him ride (You haven’t so much to say now about that), And in a proper season let him run. You may be dead then, even as you may now Anticipate some other mortal strokes Attending your felicity; and for that, Oblivion heretofore has done some running Away from graves, and will do more of it.”
That’s how it is your wiser spirit speaks, Rembrandt. If you believe him, why complain? If not, why paint? And why, in any event, Look back for the old joy and the old roses, Or the old fame? They are all gone together, And Saskia with them; and with her left out, They would avail no more now than one strand Of Samson’s hair wound round his little finger Before the temple fell. Nor more are you In any sudden danger to forget That in Apollo’s house there are no clocks Or calendars to say for you in time How far you are away from Amsterdam, Or that the one same law that bids you see Where now you see alone forbids in turn Your light from Holland eyes till Holland ears Are told of it; for that way, my good fellow, Is one way more to death. If at the first Of your long turning, which may still be longer Than even your faith has measured it, you sigh For distant welcome that may not be seen, Or wayside shouting that will not be heard, You may as well accommodate your greatness To the convenience of an easy ditch, And, anchored there with all your widowed gold, Forget your darkness in the dark, and hear No longer the cold wash of Holland scorn.