I thought of John Berryman’s poem about Pieter Bruegel’s painting ‘Hunters in the Snow’ as I walked through the winter wonderland this morning. Transforming the every-day, a snowfall makes you see the world more clearly — or in a new way — at least for a little while.
Bruegel’s paintings do the same thing, I think, which is probably why they’ve inspired so many poems over the years, including W. H. Auden’s wonderful Musée des Beaux Arts, Walter de la Mare’s Bruegel’s Winter, and William Carlos Williams’s final book Pictures from Bruegel and Other Poems which was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Bruegel’s deep feeling for nature, his clear-eyed yet loving depictions of humankind, and his joyful sense of occasion make us want to stop — and look — and appreciate all over again what this Dutch genre painter set down so precisely on canvas almost 500 years ago.
Here’s Bruegel’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’ followed by Berryman’s one-sentence poem:
by John Berryman, 1914 – 1972
The three men coming down the winter hill
In brown, with tall poles and a pack of hounds
At heel, through the arrangement of the trees,
Past the five figures at the burning straw,
Returning cold and silent to their town,
Returning to the drifted snow, the rink
Lively with children, to the older men,
The long companions they can never reach,
The blue light, men with ladders, by the church
The sledge and shadow in the twilit street,
Are not aware that in the sandy time
To come, the evil waste of history
Outstretched, they will be seen upon the brow
Of that same hill: when all their company
Will have been irrecoverably lost,
These men, this particular three in brown
Witnessed by birds will keep the scene and say
By their configuration with the trees,
The small bridge, the red houses and the fire,
What place, what time, what morning occasion
Sent them into the wood, a pack of hounds
At heel and the tall poles upon their shoulders,
Thence to return as now we see them and
Ankle-deep in snow down the winter hill
Descend, while three birds watch and the fourth flies.
Thank you Liza for sharing your picture of the snow yesterday and this beautiful painting and poem. As I slushed down Fifth Avenue with frozen toes through the storm yesterday I couldn’t help but stop and look in amazement at the frozen pure white wonderland of Central Park.
Nothing like a painting by Breugel and a poem by Berryman for a long winter’s night!
The alle of trees in Central Park is always beautiful – your photo has caught the essence of winter…lucky us to have it right here in our own hometown!
I took the photo on the upper esplanade of Riverside Park right when the snow was starting to ebb on Friday morning. By mid-afternoon, the fairyland had disappeared!
Thanks for encouraging me to stop and look and listen, again. Bruegel’s painting here is somehow very familiar to me, though I can’t recall why. And the poem, a delight just on its own, has nudged me to look closer and appreciate more. Our daughter has married into a family of farmers, woodcutters, trappers, and hunters in this area of eastern Pennsylvania just off the Kittatinny Ridge. As hunters in the snow, they too return home at evening. Possibly someone will paint that picture as well one day.
Thanks, Curtis. So nice to hear from you. How lucky you are to have farmers, woodcutters, trappers, and hunters in your family!