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 forLife, Kirk Douglas won the GoldenGlobe award for best motion picture actorand was nominated for an Oscar as bestactor in a leading role. In this film biography,Douglas played Vincent Van Gogh, agreat but hyper-neurotic artist. Van Goghis keenly aware that his neurosis is chronic,and this knowledge only intensifies theneurosis.
Two episodes in the film relate to DavidMiddleton's splendid collection of poems,The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy. In thefirst, Van Gogh, friendless, seeks consolationin drawing, meticulously imitatingworks of Millet. Van Gogh's early drawingsshown in the background of his shabbyroom are copies of Millet's, in particularpeasants engaging in the primordial tasksof rural life. Yet, in spite of the drudgery oftheir existence, Van Gogh understood thatMillet saw in these peasants' subtle gesturesa certain quietude of soul attributableto their sense that they are inextricably andinescapably linked in some mysterious wayto the nature of things. Toil is their way oflife, but they do not despair.
The second episode is extensive andhighly dramatic. When Paul Gauguin,already admired by fellow artists and criticsalike, praises Van Gogh's creativity,Van Gogh, desperate for companionshipand hoping he has found a kindred spirit,persuades Gauguin to share his garret.Gauguin, who has abandoned his wife andchildren, agrees. However, their tumultuousfriendship is brief. Gauguin, havingknown hard labor in the past, is adamantlyconvinced that there is no glory or satisfactionin suffering. In their heated argumentVan Gogh contends that suffering is inevitable.Better to confront the fact, attemptto ameliorate it by forming close relationshipswith other sufferers, ponder its cosmicmeaning, and express it in one's art.
Van Gogh and Millet view the toil ofpeasants in a similar way, but Millet wasnot neurotic. For him art was not a therapeuticsubstitute for companionship.
Millet was born in 1814 into a Frenchpeasant family in Gruchy at a time whenthe age-old agricultural economy inEurope and elsewhere was rapidly beingsuperseded by an industrial economy. Asfarming became an increasingly mechanizedoperation requiring fewer laborers,peasants migrated from the country to thecity where they were no longer bound tothe soil but to the factory. As a young child,Millet manifested such an extraordinarytalent both in reading classical, Biblical,and contemporary literature and in drawingthat his father sent him to Cherbourgto study art under Bon Dumouchel. Later,Millet continued studying art in Paris atthe École des Beaux-Arts. The fashion inart at the time favored Biblical and classicalthemes, but Millet preferred to depictscenes of peasant life he recalled from hisyouth, a life of routine clocked by therecurring seasons. Though Millet's peasantsare sometimes physically exhaustedfrom their continuous and strenuouslabors, they are not consumed by anxietyor despair. The pace of their work is neverfrenetic, but done in a measured, serene,almost resigned manner.
What Millet achieved in his picturesDavid Middleton has achieved in this collectionof poems, The Habitual Peacefulnessof Gruchy. The inspiration for Middleton'scollection of sixty poems is acknowledgedin its sub-title: Poems After Pictures by Jean-François Millet. Each poem is titled after adifferent drawing or painting of Millet's,and each is a perceptive reading, a descriptivemeditation, of the habitual peacefulnessof peasants Millet depicted withcharcoal, crayon, pastels, and oil. As apoet, Middleton records his observationsand the signifi cance of Millet's pictures indiction that is clear, precisely controlled,and rhythmical. Each picture is treated byMiddleton in the same poetic form: fourquatrains, each line of which is smoothlypolished iambic pentameter.
By his reverent study of a past masterMiddleton has come to see and namewhat Millet had seen and valued. He hasobserved closely and considered carefullyeach of Millet's settings and the dispositionsof his chosen subjects. Only after becomingintimately familiar with the works ofthe master artist could Middleton havecomposed such a finely crafted collectionof poems. Bothpictures and poems depicta variety of personages, scenes, and situations,but they convey a single mood, rarein our times, a calm peacefulness of spirit.Although Middleton's book of poemscontains only two illustrations of Millet'spictures, "Madame J.-F. Millet," and, onthe cover, "Little Goose Girl," his poemscan be read profitably without referenceto Millet's images. However, the depth ofMiddleton's interpretation of them wouldbe more apparent to readers with Millet'spictures before them as they read.
Readers of Modern Age undoubtedly arefamiliar withMillet's "The Gleaners," oneof the four most widely recognized of Millet'sworks. Among others who have championedthis painting were Marxists mindfulof their founder's judgment of peasant life:"The bourgeoisie has subjected the countryto the rule of the towns . . . and has thusrescued a considerable part of the populationfrom the idiocy of rural life . . . ." Fouryears after Marx published his manifesto,Millet began working on this painting,which he completed in 1857. In it, as in allof his art, Millet never defaults to politicalpropaganda, and neither does Middleton.In his poem he observes the great distancebetween the three foregrounded womengleaners and those in the background whodo not notice them, the paid field handsand 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
- 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
In "A Sower," another of Millet's wellknownpictures, Middleton recognizes inthe figure dominating the scene a calmcountenance knowingly and confidentlylooking forward where his steps will takehim on the furrowed ground ahead. Witheach even step as he broadcasts anotherhandful of winter-wheat seed
- He strides with massive thighs and
- torso turned
- Like Michaelangelo's Adam now
- At last with the Apollo Belvedere,
This Norman peasant scattering the
- . . .
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
The controlled, confident stride of thesower marks one season of the annualrhythm of peasant life, but before seeds canbe sown, the earth must be tilled.
In the well-known poem, "The Manwith a Hoe," Edwin Markham sees Millet'ssubject as a dehumanized, exploitedforce 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'sexhausted man leaning on his hoe to catchhis breath after a long day's work a muchdifferent and a more complex toiler:
- He dominates the land as serf
- and lord,
- The subject monarch of his stark
- 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
Revolutions for the peasant are continuousand recurring, but not the type of politicalrevolution Markham prophesied. Therhythm of peasant life is characterized byrevolutions that occur with each changingseason.
During the season of short days andlong nights, peasant families retreatedto their humble homes to regain theirstrength from the past year's work and toprepare for the next season's work. Thesetting of Millet's "Winter Evening" iswithin a small peasant dwelling. In themiddle, a small flame from an oil lamppushes back the darkness to reveal in a triangulararrangement a husband, wife, andtheir tiny babe nestled in a crib. While thebaby sleeps peacefully in the background,the father, his back to the viewer, mends abasket while the mother tends to her sewing.The faces of mother and child, as inMillet's "Flight into Egypt," are illuminedin 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
- 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 ofpoems to "Madame J.-F. Millet, who boreMillet nine children," and in his dedicatorypoem he describes Millet's portrait ofher as revealing by her downward glance ayoung, mature woman who knows herselfand her lot in life. She is the wife of anartist and the mother of their children; sheis 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
- Gathering fi eld, hearth, garden into
What Middleton intuits from Millet'sintimate, carefully rendered portrait ofhis wife is his gratitude. This serenelyreflective woman's beauty and strengthof character has graced his life as a manand inspired him as an artist. Browning'sAndrea del Sarto and Fra Lippo Lippi werenot as blessed.
Middleton's "The Angelus" is a fittingand well-chosen poem to bring his collectionto an end. This final poem complementsthe first. In the portrait of MadameMillet, only her face, deep in thought, anda nondescript shawl around her shouldersare shown. In Millet's panoramic scene ahusband and wife pause together for a fewminutes from their harvesting labors toheed the call of a pealing church bell in thedistance. It has reminded them of a youngvirgin who had been told of her vocationby a messenger from God.
- The sky stays gold
Although the sun is gone and
- shadows pass
- Over potato fi elds where standing
- In attitudes of prayer a man and
- Think of the Incarnation of their
- The flesh redeemed, a graced cre
- ation saved,
- Bells pealing from the New
- Through history back to Eden's
- speaking leaves.
- Yet here between these dreams
- of paradise
- Potatoes must be planted, tended,
- Then sacked on barrows pushed to
- winter bins
- To feast on till the final angels
The other poems in the volume, likethose considered here, express in wordwhat Master Millet has shown in his pictures:the sweat and the carnal pulls of life,the death of loved ones, the weaving of basketsand mending of clothes, the tending offlocks, the tilling, planting, and harvestingof fields. The scenes capturing moments ofthe seasonal rhythm of peasant life werefor him acts of recovery, a rememberingof the habitual labor and the peace andthe quiet dignity he knew in his youth.His pictures often evoke a twilight mood,not melancholic but aware that a mode ofbeing was passing away. Yet, there is nothingsentimental about his art; his picturesare neither pretty nor morose.
It may seem strange that Middleton haschosen to write poems about a mode oflife so remote from our own. During thecentury-and-a-half since Millet crafted hisscenes, the peasant economy and habits ofpeasant life are now virtually extinct, havingbeen replaced by industrial, technological,and agribusiness economies. Thepace of modern life is set by market cyclesand the time-clocks of factories, no longerby recurring seasonal changes. Whatrelevance can Millet's scenes have nowthat work is less physically exhausting andhours of free time can be spent engagedwith an ever-new variety of man-madeinventions?
What Middleton recognizes in Millet'spictures is that in the transition to modernmodes of life something has been lostbesides the necessity of surviving by hardphysical labor. Lost, too, are a certain dignityand interior peace that characterizedthe lives of Millet's peasants. Today, workersin cubicles may feel secure in their sedentaryexistence, but they can derive nosatisfaction from knowing that their workproduces nothing directly related to thewell-being of their own lives, except a paycheck.Millet's peasants seem not to sufferfrom a deep and self-conscious lonelinesscommonly relieved today by recreationaldrugs or by virtual companionship on theInternet or cell phone.
What readers of Middleton's poems willrecognize immediately is that he has renderedMillet's scenes masterfully and withutmost respect. He has made himself intimatelyfamiliar with the works of the masterartist and has an accomplished poet'scontrol of diction in crafting mood, tone,and rhythmical form. There are no wildlycolored moments of emotional exaltation,no scenes of heightened exuberance or ofself-absorption that would adulterate thepoems' dominant mood of quiet solitude,even when describing lives possessing purposeand companionship.
Drawing on a rich vocabulary, a perceptiveanalysis of Millet's scenes, and a broadunderstanding of human nature, Middletonsympathetically interprets in wordsthe pictures Millet rendered in line andcolor. He is a keen observer of detail, andhis controlled imagination never breaksbeyond the boundary set by his focusedeye. His poems are deeply felt, and theymanifest an interior life, but not so interiorthat he averts his eye from the object heis contemplating. His craftsmanship drawsreaders' attention not to itself but to eachscene's quietude and gravity. He neversings a "song of myself." These poems arerather odes to what he reverently beholds.
Middleton has captured the twilightmood of Millet's pictures without addinga trace of nostalgia. His are not "ubi sunt"poems wistfully describing a culture thathas irrecoverably passed away. He knowsthe modern habit of mind looks forward,anticipating new inventions that will alterand improve the conditions and habits oflife in some unknown way. Middleton'sreflections on Millet's peasants are, rather,reminders of what is easily overlookedbecause of the habit of adjusting quicklyto the rapidly changing circumstances ofmodern life. His poems are a reminder ofwhat Eliot called the "permanent things" ofthe human condition. The narrator of thesepoems models a confidence that a greatermeasure of consolation and peace is possiblein modern times by contemplating therecurring rhythms of nature, the mysteryof spousal love, the joy of children, and theenigmatic promise of a better life to come.
Middleton correctly observed that inMillet's "Landscape with Shepherdess andSheep, Winter," "He sensed at last his art'sprofoundest ground,/ The pastoral raisedto epic dignity." Readers of The HabitualPeacefulness of Gruchy will recognize thatregardless of their vocation, David Middleton'spoems make imaginable the possibilityof cultivating a habit of a peacefulliving that will raise the level of dignity intheir own lives.