Understanding Art?

The arts festival continues in Bagni di Lucca with unabated breath. Painting, sculpture, music, photography and poetry are flourishing here, at least until September (and beyond, I hope!)

Artists are there to meet you and if you don’t “get” something they have created, or are just curious to know more about it, then it’s possible to talk to the ones who are behind the creation..

Some artists are more open than others about their work, but there are clearly some who feel their creations should speak for themselves. When Robert Schumann was asked by a listener what a particular piece of music he wrote, and had just played, meant he replied “it means this” and played it again.

Art is its own message and ideally there should be no explanations, no interpretations, no dissections – just the piece of art itself.

There is, however, a big problem with many pieces of art, especially if they are either very old or if they are very new. To take two examples at both ends of the spectrum: can one appreciate the “Romance of the Rose” without knowledge of mediaeval codes of chivalry or can one really enjoy TS Eliot’s “Wasteland” without referring to the notes which the poet added to it?

I have sometimes been asked to provide a commentary to my poems and, so far, have refused, in the spirit of Schumann. But there is always a first time, so here goes.

The poem I have selected was written around 1998 and is part of a series of eight sonnets (now don’t tell me you need a sonnet form explained to you) called “Victorian Vignettes” which, themselves, comment on a set of old prints which line our staircase well. The picture for this poem is as follows:


And the poem is this one:


In temple courtyard of the thrice-great god

you feed the sacred ibis: from your bowl

small silver minnows drop and curved beaks prod

Nilotic offerings of the lunar soul.


Without His power these lines would not exist;

inventor of first script, recording thought,

our hearts are weighed before the judgement tryst

by feathered head in Osirian court.


Maybe for you this eschatology

in iconed columns holds no massive weight;

the hungry birds are no mythology

but messy pets, impatient if you’re late.


As sungod’s envoy flames bright evening star

Cooled temple priests chant languid hymns to Ptah.

Here is a commentary and explanations of some of the phrases and words in the poem:

Thrice-great god”.

The origin of the description “thrice great”, which relates to the Egyptian god Thoth,  is unclear but this name is first found in the minutes of a meeting of the council of the Ibis cult, held in 172 BC near Memphis in Egypt.

“Sacred Ibis”.

This refers to the African Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) Venerated and often mummified by Ancient Egyptians as a symbol of the god Thoth, the Ibis was invoked against incursions of winged serpents and the flies that brought pestilence died immediately upon propitiatory sacrifices of this bird.

lunar soul”

Ra was the Egyptian sun and ka was Egyptian name for the soul so the moon was called Ra ka  because it is made up of souls for the sun. Thoth is the god-messenger of the Moon.

“inventor of first script”.

This is again Thoth. The Egyptians credited him as the author of all works of science, religion, philosophy, and magic and believed that he was the real author of every work of every branch of knowledge, human and divine.

“feathered head”

Osiris is identified in tomb paintings by his wearing a distinctive crown with two large ostrich feathers at either side.


Ptah is the demiurge of Memphis, god of craftsmen and architects. Hence he is the inspiration behind the temple and its columns in which the girl feeds the sacred birds.

(PS I always think that my rhyming of “star” with “Ptah” is my best one).

Now is that meant to help you appreciate the poem more or make you more confused? Good poetry is meant to communicate before it is understood. I hope my one does.


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