Home  »  Collected Poems by Robinson, Edwin Arlington  »  15. Rembrandt to Rembrandt

Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869–1935). Collected Poems. 1921.

VIII. Avon’s Harvest, Etc.

15. Rembrandt to Rembrandt


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.