Poetry and Peace [i]The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy: Poems After Pictures by Jean-François Millet[/i] by David Middleton - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

Poetry and Peace [i]The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy: Poems After Pictures by Jean-François Millet[/i] by David Middleton

The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy: Poems after Pictures by Jean-François
Millet by David Middleton (Baton Rouge, LA:
Lousiana State University Press, 2005)

ANDREW TADIE is an associate professor of English at Seattle University

For his role in the 1956 film, Lust for
Life, Kirk Douglas won the Golden
Globe award for best motion picture actor
and was nominated for an Oscar as best
actor in a leading role. In this film biography,
Douglas played Vincent Van Gogh, a
great but hyper-neurotic artist. Van Gogh
is keenly aware that his neurosis is chronic,
and this knowledge only intensifies the
neurosis.

Two episodes in the film relate to David
Middleton’s splendid collection of poems,
The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy. In the
first, Van Gogh, friendless, seeks consolation
in drawing, meticulously imitating
works of Millet. Van Gogh’s early drawings
shown in the background of his shabby
room are copies of Millet’s, in particular
peasants engaging in the primordial tasks
of rural life. Yet, in spite of the drudgery of
their existence, Van Gogh understood that
Millet saw in these peasants’ subtle gestures
a certain quietude of soul attributable
to their sense that they are inextricably and
inescapably linked in some mysterious way
to the nature of things. Toil is their way of
life, but they do not despair.

The second episode is extensive and
highly dramatic. When Paul Gauguin,
already admired by fellow artists and critics
alike, praises Van Gogh’s creativity,
Van Gogh, desperate for companionship
and hoping he has found a kindred spirit,
persuades Gauguin to share his garret.
Gauguin, who has abandoned his wife and
children, agrees. However, their tumultuous
friendship is brief. Gauguin, having
known hard labor in the past, is adamantly
convinced that there is no glory or satisfaction
in suffering. In their heated argument
Van Gogh contends that suffering is inevitable.
Better to confront the fact, attempt
to ameliorate it by forming close relationships
with other sufferers, ponder its cosmic
meaning, and express it in one’s art.

Van Gogh and Millet view the toil of
peasants in a similar way, but Millet was
not neurotic. For him art was not a therapeutic
substitute for companionship.

Millet was born in 1814 into a French
peasant family in Gruchy at a time when
the age-old agricultural economy in
Europe and elsewhere was rapidly being
superseded by an industrial economy. As
farming became an increasingly mechanized
operation requiring fewer laborers,
peasants migrated from the country to the
city where they were no longer bound to
the soil but to the factory. As a young child,
Millet manifested such an extraordinary
talent both in reading classical, Biblical,
and contemporary literature and in drawing
that his father sent him to Cherbourg
to study art under Bon Dumouchel. Later,
Millet continued studying art in Paris at
the École des Beaux-Arts. The fashion in
art at the time favored Biblical and classical
themes, but Millet preferred to depict
scenes of peasant life he recalled from his
youth, a life of routine clocked by the
recurring seasons. Though Millet’s peasants
are sometimes physically exhausted
from their continuous and strenuous
labors, they are not consumed by anxiety
or despair. The pace of their work is never
frenetic, but done in a measured, serene,
almost resigned manner.

What Millet achieved in his pictures
David Middleton has achieved in this collection
of poems, The Habitual Peacefulness
of Gruchy. The inspiration for Middleton’s
collection of sixty poems is acknowledged
in its sub-title: Poems After Pictures by Jean-
François Millet. Each poem is titled after a
different drawing or painting of Millet’s,
and each is a perceptive reading, a descriptive
meditation, of the habitual peacefulness
of peasants Millet depicted with
charcoal, crayon, pastels, and oil. As a
poet, Middleton records his observations
and the signifi cance of Millet’s pictures in
diction that is clear, precisely controlled,
and rhythmical. Each picture is treated by
Middleton in the same poetic form: four
quatrains, each line of which is smoothly
polished iambic pentameter.

By his reverent study of a past master
Middleton has come to see and name
what Millet had seen and valued. He has
observed closely and considered carefully
each of Millet’s settings and the dispositions
of his chosen subjects. Only after becoming
intimately familiar with the works of
the master artist could Middleton have
composed such a finely crafted collection
of poems. Bothpictures and poems depict
a variety of personages, scenes, and situations,
but they convey a single mood, rare
in our times, a calm peacefulness of spirit.
Although Middleton’s book of poems
contains only two illustrations of Millet’s
pictures, “Madame J.-F. Millet,” and, on
the cover, “Little Goose Girl,” his poems
can be read profitably without reference
to Millet’s images. However, the depth of
Middleton’s interpretation of them would
be more apparent to readers with Millet’s
pictures before them as they read.

Readers of Modern Age undoubtedly are
familiar withMillet’s “The Gleaners,” one
of the four most widely recognized of Millet’s
works. Among others who have championed
this painting were Marxists mindful
of their founder’s judgment of peasant life:
“The bourgeoisie has subjected the country
to the rule of the towns . . . and has thus
rescued a considerable part of the population
from the idiocy of rural life . . . .” Four
years after Marx published his manifesto,
Millet began working on this painting,
which he completed in 1857. In it, as in all
of his art, Millet never defaults to political
propaganda, and neither does Middleton.
In his poem he observes the great distance
between the three foregrounded women
gleaners and those in the background who
do not notice them, the paid field hands
and their overseer on horseback, a

Boaz remote from these three
silent Ruths
Or, more so, the Fates, stark
daughters of Night,
Allotters whose dark word destines
the child,
Who spin cut hay or wheat in auric
weave,
Birth-spirits, from the Second
Empire born.
In early drawings, they bow down
toward us,
And children bind black sheaves in
gay bouquets
While far carts, weighed with grain,
are brought so near
We all must breathe the fatal golden
dust.

In “A Sower,” another of Millet’s wellknown
pictures, Middleton recognizes in
the figure dominating the scene a calm
countenance knowingly and confidently
looking forward where his steps will take
him on the furrowed ground ahead. With
each even step as he broadcasts another
handful of winter-wheat seed

He strides with massive thighs and
torso turned
Like Michaelangelo’s Adam now
combined
At last with the Apollo Belvedere,
This Norman peasant scattering the
corn
. . .
The earth disturbed again by
human need.
His clothes are red and blue, his
eyes unseen
Beneath his low-brimmed hat, his
look intent,
Inscrutable in fearful dignity,
Mysterious with life’s prime
mystery.

The controlled, confident stride of the
sower marks one season of the annual
rhythm of peasant life, but before seeds can
be sown, the earth must be tilled.

In the well-known poem, “The Man
with a Hoe,” Edwin Markham sees Millet’s
subject as a dehumanized, exploited
force that will rise up in revolution:

Bowed by the weight of centuries
he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on
the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face
And on his back the burdens of
the world.

. . .

How will it be with kingdoms and
with kings
With those who shaped him to the
thing that he is—
When this dumb Terror shall rise to
judge the world,

After the silence of centuries.

Middleton recognizes in Millet’s
exhausted man leaning on his hoe to catch
his breath after a long day’s work a much
different and a more complex toiler:

He dominates the land as serf
and lord,
The subject monarch of his stark
domain,
His thistle-crown root-bound in
freehold earth.
Not fallen from some paradise
whose crops
Turned golden while he plucked a
harp’s ripe strings,
He’s come down long hard centuries
the same,
Man’s bent-back state no revolutions
change.

Revolutions for the peasant are continuous
and recurring, but not the type of political
revolution Markham prophesied. The
rhythm of peasant life is characterized by
revolutions that occur with each changing
season.

During the season of short days and
long nights, peasant families retreated
to their humble homes to regain their
strength from the past year’s work and to
prepare for the next season’s work. The
setting of Millet’s “Winter Evening” is
within a small peasant dwelling. In the
middle, a small flame from an oil lamp
pushes back the darkness to reveal in a triangular
arrangement a husband, wife, and
their tiny babe nestled in a crib. While the
baby sleeps peacefully in the background,
the father, his back to the viewer, mends a
basket while the mother tends to her sewing.
The faces of mother and child, as in
Millet’s “Flight into Egypt,” are illumined
in an aura of light:

A single oil lamp, hanging like
a star,
Shines from its pole down on the
hooded crib
Whose infant sleeps deeper than
night and day.
. . .
What lies outside this Norman
Nazareth
The fireside cat that stares at
flames recalls:
Snow filling darkness with its cold
white glow,
Each flake unique and common in
its fall.

Middleton dedicated this book of
poems to “Madame J.-F. Millet, who bore
Millet nine children,” and in his dedicatory
poem he describes Millet’s portrait of
her as revealing by her downward glance a
young, mature woman who knows herself
and her lot in life. She is the wife of an
artist and the mother of their children; she
is also her husband’s—and Middleton’s—
inspiration:

Each long precisest lash, each
hooded lid
Protects in downcast eyes a mystery
Whose depths rise sympathetic to
pressed lips,
This Breton Mona Lisa’s dimpled
smile.
. . .
This portrait, all those paintings,
tell much more:
For you’re the farm wife pasturing
a cow,
Teaching a daughter knitting,
shearing sheep,
Washing at dusk in water of the sun,
A planter tending, gleaner bending
down
Gathering fi eld, hearth, garden into
one.

What Middleton intuits from Millet’s
intimate, carefully rendered portrait of
his wife is his gratitude. This serenely
reflective woman’s beauty and strength
of character has graced his life as a man
and inspired him as an artist. Browning’s
Andrea del Sarto and Fra Lippo Lippi were
not as blessed.

Middleton’s “The Angelus” is a fitting
and well-chosen poem to bring his collection
to an end. This final poem complements
the first. In the portrait of Madame
Millet, only her face, deep in thought, and
a nondescript shawl around her shoulders
are shown. In Millet’s panoramic scene a
husband and wife pause together for a few
minutes from their harvesting labors to
heed the call of a pealing church bell in the
distance. It has reminded them of a young
virgin who had been told of her vocation
by a messenger from God.

The sky stays gold
Although the sun is gone and
shadows pass
Over potato fi elds where standing
still
In attitudes of prayer a man and
wife
Think of the Incarnation of their
Lord,
The flesh redeemed, a graced cre
ation saved,
Bells pealing from the New
Jerusalem
Through history back to Eden’s
speaking leaves.
Yet here between these dreams
of paradise
Potatoes must be planted, tended,
dug,
Then sacked on barrows pushed to
winter bins
To feast on till the final angels
come.

The other poems in the volume, like
those considered here, express in word
what Master Millet has shown in his pictures:
the sweat and the carnal pulls of life,
the death of loved ones, the weaving of baskets
and mending of clothes, the tending of
flocks, the tilling, planting, and harvesting
of fields. The scenes capturing moments of
the seasonal rhythm of peasant life were
for him acts of recovery, a remembering
of the habitual labor and the peace and
the quiet dignity he knew in his youth.
His pictures often evoke a twilight mood,
not melancholic but aware that a mode of
being was passing away. Yet, there is nothing
sentimental about his art; his pictures
are neither pretty nor morose.

It may seem strange that Middleton has
chosen to write poems about a mode of
life so remote from our own. During the
century-and-a-half since Millet crafted his
scenes, the peasant economy and habits of
peasant life are now virtually extinct, having
been replaced by industrial, technological,
and agribusiness economies. The
pace of modern life is set by market cycles
and the time-clocks of factories, no longer
by recurring seasonal changes. What
relevance can Millet’s scenes have now
that work is less physically exhausting and
hours of free time can be spent engaged
with an ever-new variety of man-made
inventions?

What Middleton recognizes in Millet’s
pictures is that in the transition to modern
modes of life something has been lost
besides the necessity of surviving by hard
physical labor. Lost, too, are a certain dignity
and interior peace that characterized
the lives of Millet’s peasants. Today, workers
in cubicles may feel secure in their sedentary
existence, but they can derive no
satisfaction from knowing that their work
produces nothing directly related to the
well-being of their own lives, except a paycheck.
Millet’s peasants seem not to suffer
from a deep and self-conscious loneliness
commonly relieved today by recreational
drugs or by virtual companionship on the
Internet or cell phone.

What readers of Middleton’s poems will
recognize immediately is that he has rendered
Millet’s scenes masterfully and with
utmost respect. He has made himself intimately
familiar with the works of the master
artist and has an accomplished poet’s
control of diction in crafting mood, tone,
and rhythmical form. There are no wildly
colored moments of emotional exaltation,
no scenes of heightened exuberance or of
self-absorption that would adulterate the
poems’ dominant mood of quiet solitude,
even when describing lives possessing purpose
and companionship.

Drawing on a rich vocabulary, a perceptive
analysis of Millet’s scenes, and a broad
understanding of human nature, Middleton
sympathetically interprets in words
the pictures Millet rendered in line and
color. He is a keen observer of detail, and
his controlled imagination never breaks
beyond the boundary set by his focused
eye. His poems are deeply felt, and they
manifest an interior life, but not so interior
that he averts his eye from the object he
is contemplating. His craftsmanship draws
readers’ attention not to itself but to each
scene’s quietude and gravity. He never
sings a “song of myself.” These poems are
rather odes to what he reverently beholds.

Middleton has captured the twilight
mood of Millet’s pictures without adding
a trace of nostalgia. His are not “ubi sunt”
poems wistfully describing a culture that
has irrecoverably passed away. He knows
the modern habit of mind looks forward,
anticipating new inventions that will alter
and improve the conditions and habits of
life in some unknown way. Middleton’s
reflections on Millet’s peasants are, rather,
reminders of what is easily overlooked
because of the habit of adjusting quickly
to the rapidly changing circumstances of
modern life. His poems are a reminder of
what Eliot called the “permanent things” of
the human condition. The narrator of these
poems models a confidence that a greater
measure of consolation and peace is possible
in modern times by contemplating the
recurring rhythms of nature, the mystery
of spousal love, the joy of children, and the
enigmatic promise of a better life to come.

Middleton correctly observed that in
Millet’s “Landscape with Shepherdess and
Sheep, Winter,” “He sensed at last his art’s
profoundest ground,/ The pastoral raised
to epic dignity.” Readers of The Habitual
Peacefulness of Gruchy will recognize that
regardless of their vocation, David Middleton’s
poems make imaginable the possibility
of cultivating a habit of a peaceful
living that will raise the level of dignity in
their own lives.

Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For

Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.

Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles

Join the ISI community. Membership is free.

You might also like