“The Painter” is an elegant, seriously thoughtful, and philosophical but a bit enigmatic (ﮦ--÷-)
poem by John Ashbery. As we know that most of Ashbery’s poems revolvers around the ideas of
life, death, soul and art. This poem too revolves around such ideas but in a unique light hearted
and allegorical style. The poem is a typical example of John Ashbery’s obscurity (.- ·-او·-=) which is
deceptively simple. What is the purpose of art? How does the conscience of an artist move about?
What are the various pressures on an artist and above all how an artist can touch the heights of
satisfaction in his art? These are the questions which make the crux (ہ=-- »ﮨا ﮯ- --) of this poem.
The magical quality of this poem is very captivating and it reveals that there is always psychological
complexity and soul-stirring analysis in all Ashbery’s work, which capture the attention of modern
day reader. In short, present poem is a typical specimen of Ashbery’s great skill.
The surface story of the poem is very simple having hardly any ideas of complexity or
allegorical thoughts. We find a painter (perhaps the poet himself) sitting between the sea and
some huge buildings behind. The painter is thinking about his next master piece and decides to
portray “the sea” as the subject of his painting. Somehow are the other; he could not find the
inspiration that is needed to paint such a complex and puzzling painting. Soon leaving his
meditation as an artist, he wished like an innocent child:
To rush up the sand, and seizing a brush
Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.”
Naturally, the wish is too childish to be fulfilled and he remains sitting without painting
anything. The people watching him busy in his work give him their own views about painting. They
advise him to paint something easier, common and the way the tradition has been going on. Thus
their view is:
”Select for a portrait,
Something less angry and large…”
However, the painter finds it tiresome to convince the people of his own conception of art
“That nature, not art, night usurp ('-·ﮨ .و'=،'-·ﮨ .-'·) the canvas.”
To please the people around he decided to change the subject and attempted to paint his
wife. However, he was thoroughly unsatisfied with his efforts. After some efforts to ignore the call
of painting going in him, he returns to the wild urge of burning in him i.e. to paint sea. Now too
much of concentration and dilemma about the choice of painting had destroyed him mentally as
well as emotionally. He lost his energy and vitality even to lift up the brush and the other artists
from the buildings around made fun of him. Some ridicule his impossible idea of painting sea, the
others rebuked him for self love and:
“Others declared it a self-portrait.”
In this dilemma of “to be or not to be”, he is not able to put a single stroke on the canvas
and it is left “perfectly white”. Suddenly a huge voice is raised by the crowd, agitated at the unique
and unacceptable idea, they threw him, his canvas and the brush into the swallowing waves of the
sea. Thus his desire remained a futile dream for him and could not be actualized.
This is the story around which the whole texture (ٹو'--) of the poem is woven. On the
surface reading, it seems a simple tale of a painter who wanted to paint something but could not.
However, a thorough critical analysis would suggest that it is not all. In fact, the poem captures in
its very essence, Ashbery’s conception of an artist, the purpose of art and the very method would
be adopted by an artist. In this regard, the present poem can be compared to Robert Browning’s
famous art poem, “Fra Lippo Lippi”. In that poem also, Browning highlight the attitudes of the so-
called authorities and traditionalists, who would like that their views in art whether it be painting
or poetry should be followed. The idea of beauty in painting is not a new one and depends upon
the intellect that perceives it. Thus, every genuine artist has his particular way of looking at the
beauties of God and appreciating them. However, any naïve (ح·' ﮦد'-) reader may be deceived in
considering it a poem related to the theme of art. The poem can be called a contrast on three
i) Traditional approach and the modern approach.
ii) Authority and masses.
iii) Personal will and social conscience.
The painter of this poem is a conscious artist and knows that:
“The real art lies in concealing art.”
An imitation of the worldly objects in a blind way, may not suit his purpose. For him, the
copy of the objects is not the honesty which is demanded by the conscience of an artist. To find
the truth inherent in the outer surface of beauty may lead someone to go in the abstract (ا·ﮨ '-+÷)
neglecting the concrete. Thus any innovation in the existing tradition may be taken as ‘blasphemy’
by the mediocre ('´ ﮯ=رد =-وا) minds, as happened with the painter of this poem. This very aspect
of the poem can be called autobiographical one as well. John Ashbery too was harshly criticized for
his style of writing, even his rank as a poet was challenged by few. The poet, thus, has attempted
to propagate that a genuine and true artist is the one who challenges the existing norms and finds
his own of identification.
In short, if we visualize the poem in this context then the ‘sea’ stands for originality of an
artist and the people in the ‘buildings’ are the traditional artists who would challenge every new
move. If the poem is taken in more general context, then the painter is a living soul whose
conscious is not dead, by the popular yet baseless concepts of society. The huge buildings are the
popular views of the society and the sea is a symbol of an ideal. However, society too in its
execution is orthodox (ﮦ---·'ا --ار،---- --ا-·) and never allows its norms to be trespassed. This a price
which an individual has to pay for being a member of social set up. In short personal will has to be
sacrificed to suffer the greater pressure of the society, otherwise we should be thrown violently
into the sea; a sea of troubles.
“The Painter” can also be viewed as an indirect attack on the authorities and the so called
champions of humanity, who will implement their rules as absolute solution of every problem. The
poem was written in 1956, which was the worst period in terms of the freedom granted to the
writers. The painter by painting the sea wants to use the basic right of the freedom. But the
authorities would like to listen the truth which they want.
In the end, it can be said “The Painter” is a highly symbolic, allegorical and deeply
philosophical poem by John Ashbery. The credit goes to him for giving deep thoughts in such a
simple and easy language and style.
“Melodic Train” is an informative, symbolic and meditative poem by John Ashbery. It gives
a deep philosophy of life in a simple manner, which is typical of John Ashbery. The poem deals
with the image of a journey through train, but the poet travels through the deep secrets of human
mind and tries to analyze the complexity prevailing there. Personal feelings of the poet about
some of the touching realities and a curious blend of reality and imagination, makes it an
unforgettable commentary on the life around us. In short, apparently the poem is simple but it has
hidden philosophy which is beyond the reach of common readers.
The start of the poem is dramatic and a bit suspenseful, when we find the poet travelling
through a train and is asked about time by a young girl. However, her watch is a dummy and
naturally there is no conception of time on it. The poet realizes that the girl is wearing the watch
just for fun, just as sometimes adults use pipe or wears clothes for fun. He then begins to think
about the train and the way it travels across the valley. The train seems to him as a pair of pencil
and ruler, moving against the map of the mountains. To Ashbery, he and the little girl are the
visitors who watch the train as a symbol of curiosity.
As the poet thoroughly meditates over the various phenomena related with the journey on
the train, he also reaches an irritating aspect of it. The time-table of the trains, thus departure and
arrival, the affairs of the station and other such events are not comprehensible to poet. This
unclear system of trains creates a type of confusion and chaos on the stations as well. When the
train arrives at some station, breaking the norms of the schedule, there is sadness of the faces of
the children and concerns of the grownups. People look either for their relatives or taxis so that
they may be evacuated of a tense situation. The passengers leaning forward for various taxi-cabs
give an image of “tower of figures” to the poet. Ashbery being a poet and a sensitive person has
also noticed the nervous temperament of the people, right before reaching the final destination.
The passengers get so much anxious that they lose all the sympathy and respect for others. This
thought makes him sad and he asks a very stirring question:
“Why could not we have been more considerate?”
Further, the look on the face of the passengers makes him more tense as they seem
dissatisfied and frustrated. However, the poet ardently hopes that anxiety of these people would
somehow diminish when they would reach their homes.
After such long thoughts about his fellow passengers, the attention of the poet is soon
captured by the “bluish vague landscape”. He gets absorbed in the beauty of the nature and
forgets all that was going on in his mind for a long time. The poet tells us that by listening to the
others can make us to lose ourselves and loss contact with own selves. It is only by neglecting the
hustle and bustle around that we can enjoy the real beauty of the town around. However, as the
meditation of the poet and his various views about the entire journey go on, perhaps, he too
realizes the end or the approaching end of his railway journey. The idea of reaching his destination
creates the image in which the people gather, tossing hats and preparing for welcome. However,
all this seems quite too familiar to the poet, an event which has happened a number of times prior
A deep critical analysis of the poem suggests that a surface reading may mislead a naïve
reader to take it as a poem describing a journey by train. The poem is ambiguous and is quite
symbolic. This ambiguity is created right at the start by the title of the poem: “Melodic Train”.
Now this suggests a smooth and rhythmical journey. But, the content of the poem suggest that the
title is ironical, as the journey is centered on chaos and frustration. In fact, the journey conducted
here may symbolize journey of man in this world, a journey conducted in tension, anxiety,
weariness. The poem is exploratory (.--ﮩ--) in nature and the poet moves from known to the
unknown, familiar to unfamiliar and above all from time to timeless. The opening dialogues of the
poet with the little girl may seem an ideal talk between an adult and a child, but the underlying
idea is the complicated idea of time in this world. The time for us may appear on the clock and
watches but we are not familiar with the broader and historical vision of time. Hence, in our life,
we may be using the concept of time but the poet in here gives it a more complex and mysterious
air. However, this aspect gives the poem a greater depth and touch of universality.
Another aspect of the poem is the metaphor of journey, which might have been used for
our stay in this world. John Ashbery projects the world like a journey which is undertaken under
nerve breaking circumstances. The journey of us is a mixture of contradictory feelings. At time it
seems to us like “a heave”, at other times it is too much for us. In fact, metaphorically the
comment on the haphazardness (' -='· ﮯ-،---·- ﮯ-) of the railway system is the concept of the
universe. Moreover, while in this world man is in a constant state of turmoil and a thorough
penetration of the worries around haunt his mind. The ultimate result of all is frustration.
The poet also gets a bit sad at the idea that these demands of the tense journey have made
us prisoners to our thoughts. We remain so much occupied with our own selves that we hardly
find time to look around and share the joys and grief of others. That is why the poet compares the
motion of these exhausted passengers with “mechanical puppets”. To him, they are “tower of
Pisa figures” who have hardly any motion and feelings for others. This in here that the poet
introduces, perhaps, the most important question of the poem:
We have been more considerate?”
Thus, the above question becomes a mild satire and a strong protest by the poet against the
modern-psyche of the modern man. At a moment, when train stops and the platform is crowded
with the people, there is a mood of hum-drum activities and the poet feels the people to be “my
brothers” yet the bond is superficial. In such, variously tense mood people come, sit with each
other, but like huge glaciers remain far apart of each other. They carry their dull mechanical mood
in public places and then move to their houses with the same mood. If this is man’s life in this
world, then it is really pathetic.
To conclude, we may say that it is typical Ashbery’s poetic style. The poem reveals his
dramatic as well as narrative talent as a poet. The philosophy of the poem may not be crystal clear
but the massage is very clear. In short, the poet has conveyed very deep thoughts in extra-ordinary
Characteristics of Ashbery’s Poetry
John Ashbery today is one of the most influential poetic voices of America and his
popularity is increasing with every coming day. However, one cannot eliminate the shadow of
doubt and controversy from his status as a poet. He is great experimenter in the modern day art of
versification. He with some of the younger poets of the era tried to prove that the tradition of
American poetry can still have vitality if freed from its conventional restraints. It will not be wrong
to say that no other American poet of modern day has enjoyed such varied and abundant criticism
as is enjoyed by John Ashbery.
The chief feature of Ashbery as a poet may be his complexity. He is more complex than he is
often thought to be. He is a highly conscious artist and a penetrating thinker. According to Bayley,
his primary artistic achievement rests on his blending of thought and emotion and symbolic
imagery which give a greater vitality to his poetry. What may add complexity to his themes is his
conversational tone is almost every poem. Using familiar tones and topics and employing technical
symbols, he compels the reader for deep thinking. His complexity is enhanced by the metaphysical
( ت·=-'ا ق··'- .ارو'-، ) thoughts in his poetry. He follows some of the traits of his poetry in the traditions
of Emerson, Frost and Emily Dickinson. He tries to go beyond the seen to unseen. A hasty reading
of his poems will not allow us to see anything, rather its looks as the poet is describing only a
common event or object observed by him. As in all great poetry of such kind, the tension increases
between the simple fact and the mystery which surrounds it.
Ashbery in his poems either isolates the individual or treats mankind in the mass as a nation
or race. Poem after poem shows the speaker running off ('-·ﮨرود) or living alone. Most of his poems
deal with the modern themes such as alienation ('-·ﮨ -'ا،'-·ﮨا-=) and isolation of man from his fellow
men. In his poems as “The Painter” and “Melodic Train”, he does deal with the themes of
alienation and isolation but he does not approve it. In his poetry, he portrays the barriers between
man and man and makes a projection of the theme of isolation. He dislikes this isolation for man
being the member of society. He insists on recognizing these barriers and not avoids the topic. In
short, Ashbery’s view of society and man is consistent throughout. Each man to him is a stranger
and an isolated being and so he remains for most of the time.
John Ashbery is also an expert in using symbols in his poetry. While many of Ashbery’s
poems are simple and plain, there are many which expose their true meanings when probed
deeper. We can take the example of “The Painter” in this regard. The painter depicted in the poem
fails to follow his will as the people in the buildings do not like it. Thus, through the use of very
simple symbols Ashbery comments on the aggressive attitude of the society and so called
authorities, who may consider every individual action as a rebel one. The beauty of all this has
been that the simplest and common words have been used in the poem, yet it is deeply meditative
and has a profound significance. Thus, John Ashbery being the poet of modern day realities was
well aware of the literary methods that may suit to his poetic temperament.
Nature and natural surroundings are certainly important ingredients of Ashbery’s poems.
But, we cannot certainly call him a “Nature Poet” in the tradition of William Wordsworth. His
poems suggest that nature is a fairly comprehensive term, meanings of which changes from poem
to poem. He is not very much concerned with developing a philosophically consistent concept of
nature. Though, nature is important to him, but he does not take it as an object of philosophical
speculation (ل'-=،ر·--). What really interests him is man’s reaction to his surroundings and other
human beings. Such phenomena do not require elaborated philosophical analysis for their
understanding. In short, he takes nature as a part of the things to which we have to confront.
John Ashbery is a modern poet in every sense of the word. Apart from their themes, the
most modern aspect of his poems is the delineation of characters. His characters tell us the bare
truths and the process by which they arrive at that truth. Ashbery not only depicts the outwards
events and conditions of the modern day world but also the uncertainty and the painful sense of
loss, which are characteristics of modern age, are always there in his poems. The contemporary
nature of Ashbery’s poems is a fact that must be readily (ﮯ- -·=) recognized. Another modern
aspect of his poetry has been his description of individuals and their problems in modern
capitalistic world. It is through the depiction of the individual psyche and his set of problems that
he takes us to some of the larger realities of life. However, we should not quote any writer as
beings modern because he was born in the present age and wrote in it. Modernity is a concept
strictly related to spirit and Ashbery is modern in that sense too. His concern with the world,
greater importance to the individual freedom, condemnation of so called protectors of humanity
and above all the way he tries to study the flaws of human thoughts, make him a modern poet.
To conclude, we may say that Ashbery’s career is of great importance for the world in
general and America in particular. He restored that poetry to the reader that had been lost. He
wrote almost twenty books on poetry, in which he packed all sorts of information and messages. In
short, it would not be wrong to say that Ashbery is an echoing (را-=-·') voice of the present day
American society because of his poetic appeal.