In 1956, the American poet Randall Jarrell was selected as a consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (a position now called poet laureate). One year later, in October 1957, ARTnews kicked off a series of previously unpublished poetry about art with Jarrell’s “The Bronze David of Donatello.”
Compared to Michelangelo’s David, Donatello’s David is much smaller and more feminine, and Jarrell did not hesitate to meditate on the weirder aspects of Donatello’s bronze work. In honor of the “Sculpture in the Age of Donatello” show currently on view at the Museum of Biblical Art, we turn back to Jarrell’s poem, published in full below. —Alex Greenberger
“The Bronze David of Donatello”
By Randall Jarrell
Introducing a series of unpublished verse on art by leading American poets is Randall Jarrell’s The Bronze David of Donatello, ca. 1430, in Florence’s Bargello, was the first free-standing Renaissance nude. The slightly under-life-size statue may have been for a fountain.
A sword in his right hand, a stone in his left hand,
He is naked. Shod and naked. Hatted and naked.
The ribbons of his leaf-wreathed,
Are tassled; crisped into the folds of frills,
Trills, graces, they lie in separation
Among the curls that lie in separation
Upon the shoulders.
Lightly, as if accustomed,
Loosely, as if indifferent,
The boy holds in grace
The stone molded, somehow, by the fingers,
The sword alien, somehow, to the hand.
The boy David
Said of it: “There is none like that.”
The boy David’s
Body shines in freshness, still unhandled,
And thrusts its belly out a little in exact
Shameless. Small, close, complacent,
A labyrinth in the gaze retraces,
The navel, nipples, rib-case are the features
Of a face that holds us like the whore Medusa’s—
Of a face that, like the genitals, is sexless.
What sex has victory?
The mouth’s cut Cupid’s-bow, the chin’s unwinning dimple
Are tightened, a little oily, use, take, notice:
Centering itself upon itself, the sleek
Body with its too-large head, this green
Fruit now forever green, this offending
And efficient elegance draws subtly, supply,
Between the world and itself, a shining
Line of delimitation, demarcation.
The body mirrors itself.
Where the armpit becomes the breast,
Becomes back, a great crow’s-foot is slashed.
Yet who would gash
The sleek flesh so? the cast, filed, shining flesh?
The cuts are folds: these are the folds of flesh
That closes on itself as a knife closes.
The right food is planted on a wing. Bent back in ease
Upon a supple knee—the toes curl a little, grasping
The crag upon which they are set in triumph—
The left leg glides toward, the left foot lies upon
A head. The head’s other wing (the head is bearded
And winged and helmeted and bodiless)
Grows like a swan’s wing up inside the leg;
Clothes, as the suit of a swan-maiden clothes,
The leg. The wing reaches, almost, to the rounded
Small childish buttocks. The dead wing warms the leg,
The dead wing, crushed beneath the foot, is swan’s-down.
Pillowed upon the rock, Goliath’s head
Lies under the foot of David.
Strong in defeat, in death rewarded,
The head dreams what has destroyed it
And is untouched by its destruction.
The stone sunk in the forehead, say the Scriputres;
There is no stone in the forehead. The head is helmed
Or else, unguarded, perfect still.
Borne high, borne long, borne in mastery,
The head is fallen.
The new light falls
As if in tenderness, upon the face—
Its masses shift for a moment, like an animal,
And settle, misshapen, into sleep: Goliath
Snores a little in satisfaction.
To so much strength, those overborne by it
Seemed girls, and death came to it like a girl,
Came to it, through the soft air, is like a bird
Standing on something it has pecked to death.
The boy stands at ease, his hand upon his hip:
The truth of victory. A Victory
Angelic, almost, in indifference,
An angel sent with no message but this triumph
And alone, now, in his triumph,
He looks down at the head and does not see it.
Upon this head
As upon a spire, the boy David dances,
Dances, and is exalted.
Blessèd are those brought low,
Blessèd is defeat, sleep blessèd, blessèd death.