Ekphrasis: Thom Gunn on Edouard Vuillard

Edouard Vuillard -  Two Woman Drinking Coffee

Edouard Vuillard – Two Woman Drinking Coffee


Nige reflects on a poem about a painting…

I only recently came across the word Ekphrasis (adj. ekphrastic), but I’ve been enjoying Ekphrasis, all unknowing, for many years. It describes a work of art (or part of one) whose subject is another work of art – from Homer on the shield of Achilles to Keats on that Grecian urn, Walter Pater on the Mona Lisa… and, by way of a more recent example, Thom Gunn on a painting by Edouard Vuillard (which I’m pretty sure must be the one above). Ekphrasis lends itself very well to the blog form – painting and poem together in one place.

Gunn’s poem – strongly formal and controlled, neatly divided into two unequal parts, 8:12 – begins with his remembered love of the painting and what he saw portrayed there; then, after the break, contrasts it with his own experience of growing older. Age, Gunn finds, is not as it seemed in the picture, ‘not simpler’ – but at least it is not ‘less enjoyable’.

Looking about him on the steps of the National Gallery (in Washington, DC, where a Vuillard exhibition was held in 2003, the year before Gunn’s death), he finds the world still vividly present, ‘pungent and startling’.

The painting, which he ‘loved’ (past tense), has actually told him nothing about growing old – why should it?- but it has gifted him an image, and the seed of an ekphrastic poem.


Painting by Vuilllard 

Two dumpy women with buns were drinking coffee
In a narrow kitchen—at least I think a kitchen
And I think it was whitewashed, in spite of all the shade.
They were flat brown, they were as brown as coffee.
Wearing brown muslin? I really could not tell.
How I loved this painting, they had grown so old
That everything had got less complicated,
Brown clothes and shade in a sunken whitewashed kitchen.

But it’s not like that for me: age is not simpler
Or less enjoyable, not dark, not whitewashed.
The people sitting on the marble steps
Of the national gallery, people in the sunlight,
A party of handsome children eating lunch
And drinking chocolate milk, and a young woman
Whose t-shirt bears the defiant word WHATEVER,
And wrinkled folk with visored hats and cameras
Are vivid, they are not browned, not in the least,
But if they do not look like coffee they look
As pungent and startling as good strong coffee tastes,
Possibly mixed with chicory. And no cream.

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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

8 thoughts on “Ekphrasis: Thom Gunn on Edouard Vuillard

  1. guy.walker63@hotmail.co.uk'
    November 16, 2014 at 16:44

    I’m sure this is a philistine response to the Gunn poem but it seems like a poetic non-event to me. Am I missing something? I know Auden says poetry makes nothing happen but does this even qualify as poetry?

    • Brit
      November 16, 2014 at 17:04

      I like it.

      It’s about the brutal banality of reality, which even unglamorous art somehow glamorises.

      • guy.walker63@hotmail.co.uk'
        November 16, 2014 at 19:57

        Can one glamorise chicory or brown?

        • guy.walker63@hotmail.co.uk'
          November 16, 2014 at 19:58

          I’ll second that it’s brutally banal though.

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    November 16, 2014 at 19:45

    If a particular poem fails to move the soul then read it in the voice of Pam Ayres, works wonders, particularly regarding the output of Roger McGough, takes on an entirely new meaning. When reading, in my head, in the voice of Pam Ayres I tend to visualise The Haywain, this brings on images of nineteen sixties pub car parks in the weald of Kent. There was a tendency, especially in Headcorn, to utilise horse-drawn transport for the night out down The Bull. Thinking of pubs in Kent called The Bull frequently throws up that image of Joseph Beuys ‘wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt’ Wealdish pubs frequently accepted rabbit and hare in lieu. I digress.

    • guy.walker63@hotmail.co.uk'
      November 16, 2014 at 19:59


    • philipwilk@googlemail.com'
      November 18, 2014 at 15:46

      There are certain things one does, furtively but sometimes pleasurably, thinking one is alone in doing them. Reciting poetry in the voice of Pam Ayres is such an one for me. I am delighted that I am in good company. I find Keats’ ‘La Bella Sans Merci’ particularly affecting in the voice of La Ayres.

  3. Brit
    November 17, 2014 at 09:08

    Guy and all commenters:

    We’ve got an annoying issue in the comments at the moment where in some browsers the autofill defaults to putting your email address in the Name box (the top one). We can go in manually afterwards and change it for you, but only when we notice it and have the time, so do take a second to make sure the correct name is entered in the top box before hitting ‘Post comment’.

    This is one of a number of things we’re going to fix in the next round of edits (when we’ve scraped together the funds), so apologies for the inconvenience – and do please keep commenting!

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