'The Old And The New Masters' by Randall Jarrell

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About suffering, about adoration, the old masters
Disagree. When someone suffers, no one else eats
Or walks or opens the window--no one breathes
As the sufferers watch the sufferer.
In St. Sebastian Mourned by St. Irene
The flame of one torch is the only light.
All the eyes except the maidservant's (she weeps
And covers them with a cloth) are fixed on the shaft
Set in his chest like a column; St. Irene's
Hands are spread in the gesture of the Madonna,
Revealing, accepting, what she does not understand.
Her hands say: "Lo! Behold!"
Beside her a monk's hooded head is bowed, his hands
Are put together in the work of mourning.
It is as if they were still looking at the lance
Piercing the side of Christ, nailed on his cross.
The same nails pierce all their hands and feet, the same
Thin blood, mixed with water, trickles from their sides.
The taste of vinegar is on every tongue
That gasps, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"
They watch, they are, the one thing in the world.

So, earlier, everything is pointed
In van der Goes' Nativity, toward the naked
Shining baby, like the needle of a compass.
The different orders and sizes of the world:
The angels like Little People, perched in the rafters
Or hovering in mid-air like hummingbirds;
The shepherds, so big and crude, so plainly adoring;
The medium-sized donor, his little family,
And their big patron saints; the Virgin who kneels
Before her child in worship; the Magi out in the hills
With their camels--they ask directions, and have pointed out
By a man kneeling, the true way; the ox
And the donkey, two heads in the manger
So much greater than a human head, who also adore;
Even the offerings, a sheaf of wheat,
A jar and a glass of flowers, are absolutely still
In natural concentration, as they take their part
In the salvation of the natural world.
The time of the world concentrates
On this one instant: far off in the rocks
You can see Mary and Joseph and their donkey
Coming to Bethlehem; on the grassy hillside
Where their flocks are grazing, the shepherds gesticulate
In wonder at the star; and so many hundreds
Of years in the future, the donor, his wife,
And their children are kneeling, looking: everything
That was or will be in the world is fixed
On its small, helpless, human center.

After a while the masters show the crucifixion
In one corner of the canvas: the men come to see
What is important, see that it is not important.
The new masters paint a subject as they please,
And Veronese is prosecuted by the Inquisition
For the dogs playing at the feet of Christ,
The earth is a planet among galaxies.
Later Christ disappears, the dogs disappear: in abstract
Understanding, without adoration, the last master puts
Colors on canvas, a picture of the universe
In which a bright spot somewhere in the corner
Is the small radioactive planet men called Earth.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Old and the New Masters: A Literary Criticism

The Old and the New Masters is a poem written by Randall Jarrell that explores the contrast between traditional and modern art. The poem takes readers on a journey through the world of art, highlighting the differences between old and new masters. In this literary criticism, I will discuss the themes and motifs explored in the poem, analyze the structure and form, and present my interpretation of the poem.

Themes and Motifs

The central theme of The Old and the New Masters is the contrast between traditional and modern art. Jarrell explores the idea that old masters, who followed a set of established rules and techniques, have been replaced by new masters who are more innovative and experimental in their approach to art. The poem also touches on themes of nostalgia and loss, as the narrator muses on the beauty of the old masters and the loss of their influence in the modern world.

One of the main motifs in the poem is the use of color. The old masters are associated with muted colors such as brown and grey, while the new masters are associated with vibrant, bold colors. This use of color helps to reinforce the idea that the old masters were more reserved and traditional in their approach to art, while the new masters are more daring and experimental.

Another important motif in the poem is the use of light and shadow. The old masters are associated with the use of chiaroscuro, a technique that uses a strong contrast between light and dark to create a sense of depth and drama in the painting. The new masters, on the other hand, are associated with bright, even lighting that emphasizes the flatness of the canvas. This contrast between light and shadow helps to convey the idea that the old masters were more interested in creating a sense of depth in their paintings, while the new masters are more concerned with the surface of the canvas.

Structure and Form

The Old and the New Masters is a poem composed of three stanzas, each consisting of six lines. The rhyme scheme of the poem is ABABCC, with the final line of each stanza serving as a sort of refrain that emphasizes the contrast between the old and new masters. The poem is written in a free verse style, with no fixed meter or rhyme scheme, allowing Jarrell to experiment with the form and structure of the poem.

The use of the refrain at the end of each stanza helps to create a sense of unity and coherence in the poem, while also emphasizing the central theme of the contrast between old and new masters. The repetition of the refrain also serves to create a hypnotic effect, drawing the reader deeper into the world of the poem.


In my interpretation of The Old and the New Masters, I see the poem as a meditation on the nature of art and its evolution over time. The poem suggests that art is constantly changing and evolving, with new masters emerging to challenge the traditions of the old masters.

The speaker of the poem seems to be nostalgic for the old masters, expressing a sense of loss at their passing. However, the poem also acknowledges that the new masters have their own unique beauty and power. By contrasting the old and new masters, the poem suggests that both have something valuable to offer, and that the evolution of art is a natural and necessary process.

Overall, The Old and the New Masters is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that explores the themes of tradition and innovation in art. Jarrell's use of color, light, and shadow, as well as his experimental approach to form and structure, creates a captivating and immersive world that draws the reader in and invites them to reflect on the nature of art and its evolution over time.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Old and the New Masters: A Timeless Poem by Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell's poem, The Old and the New Masters, is a timeless masterpiece that explores the relationship between the old and the new in art. The poem is a tribute to the great artists of the past, while also acknowledging the importance of innovation and progress in the world of art. In this article, we will take a closer look at the poem and analyze its themes, structure, and language.

The poem is divided into three stanzas, each with a distinct tone and message. The first stanza is a celebration of the old masters, who are described as "great" and "immortal." Jarrell pays homage to the likes of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Vermeer, who have left a lasting legacy in the world of art. He describes their works as "perfect" and "timeless," and acknowledges their influence on the art world.

The second stanza takes a different tone, as Jarrell shifts his focus to the new masters. He acknowledges that the world of art is constantly evolving, and that new artists are emerging with fresh ideas and perspectives. He describes the new masters as "bold" and "original," and praises their willingness to take risks and experiment with new forms and styles. He also acknowledges that not all of their works will be successful, but that their willingness to try is what sets them apart.

The third and final stanza brings the two worlds together, as Jarrell reflects on the relationship between the old and the new. He acknowledges that there is a tension between tradition and innovation, but ultimately argues that the two are not mutually exclusive. He writes, "The old is not old enough to have died away / The new is not new enough to be afraid." In other words, he believes that there is room for both the old and the new in the world of art, and that they can coexist and even complement each other.

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is its use of language. Jarrell's words are carefully chosen and beautifully crafted, creating a sense of rhythm and flow that is both musical and poetic. He uses metaphors and imagery to convey his message, such as when he describes the old masters as "stars" and the new masters as "comets." This creates a sense of contrast between the two, while also acknowledging their shared brilliance.

Another notable feature of the poem is its structure. The three stanzas are each six lines long, and follow a consistent rhyme scheme (ABCBDD). This creates a sense of symmetry and balance, while also allowing Jarrell to explore different themes and ideas in each stanza. The repetition of the final line ("The old is not old enough to have died away / The new is not new enough to be afraid") also creates a sense of unity and continuity throughout the poem.

In conclusion, The Old and the New Masters is a timeless poem that explores the relationship between tradition and innovation in the world of art. Jarrell's use of language and structure creates a sense of rhythm and balance, while his message is both thought-provoking and inspiring. The poem reminds us of the importance of honoring the past while also embracing the future, and encourages us to continue pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the world of art.

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