This painting by American artist Thomas Hart Crane (1899-1975) depicts the story of Susanna from the Book of Daniel, a story excised from the Old Testament. Susanna and the Elders forms part of the narrative of “Peter Quince and the Clavier” by Wallace Stevens, a poem we read in a course I’m taking.
Stevens used the story as a way of illustrating the concept of lust, although in the poem he merely calls it desire. When I read the poem I was a little confused (and I still am) by Stevens’ choice of subject matter. To me, the elders were basically peeping toms or voyeurs. Anyway, I like this painting. It’s a contemporary spin on an old image.
Published by Christine
Christine Swint’s poems have appeared in Calyx, Birmingham Poetry Review, Slant, a Journal of Poetry, Tampa Review, Heron Tree, Ekphrasis, and others. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best New Poets, and she has won first place prizes from the Georgia Poetry Society and Agnes Scott College. Her first collection, Swimming This, was published in 2015 by FutureCycle Press. She teaches first-year composition at a metro-Atlanta university and writes about poetry, art, hiking, and yoga at Balanced on the Edge, https://balancedonedge.blog
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7 thoughts on “Thomas Hart Benton, Susanna and the Elders”
Isn’t it cool hearing stories that you might otherwise not have heard had you not been studying? I’ve never heard the story of Susanna, but really like the title ‘Peter Quince and the Clavier’. Doesn’t it evoke sepia images and the smell of must?
I can see why you’d say that, Michelle. The whole poem sort of does the same, in an odd way.
If I remember correctly, the elders were much worse than voyeurs in the Old Testament version. They cornered Susanna in the garden and told her they would have her put to death if she did not have sex with them. If she said no, they told her they would publicly announce that she had been having sex with a young man. The penalty would be death.
She remained loyal to God, and would not have sex with the elders, regardless of the threat of death. God saved her for her faithfulness. The elders were put to death for their false witness. It was unusual in her time and culture for a woman to be spared death when accused by elders.
I’ve always thought of Susanna’s story as one of the strength of a woman. I could be wrong with my interpretation (and I need to go back and read the Old Testament version…my facts may be off), but I think it took a lot of guts to do what she did. The reason I love this picture is because it feels like Susanna’s strength to me. I love the muscles in her legs!
As a student, Steven’s poem annoyed me, because it portrays her as an object of “desire” and nothing more. Or at least it felt that way to me at the time I read it. Now I’m interested to go back and read it again. Thanks, Christine! I ramble too much, but your posts are so interesting. Have a beautiful weekend:)
Julie, thanks for providing a fuller story of what happened to Susanna. Now I’m wondering why this story was cut from the Book of Daniel. I read it was part of the apocrypha. The plot thickens…
It would be a severe misreading of Wallace Stevens, one of our greatest and most exquisitely discerning poets, to think that he had himself misread the essence of the story of Sussana and the Elders. The tale, of course, is of Virtue steadfast, triumphing in the face of unvirtuous lust and deceit…and Susanna is the innocent victim of what her own beauty stimulates in the inconstant elders.
Do go back to Stevens’ marvelous poem, a lyric in praise of timeless and enduring beauty–its enduring essence, not its momentary expression–and of Sussana herself. It ends with these words:
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
Wallace Stevens was not infallible. He was a man of his times, possibly racist:
It happened during the meeting of the National Book Award committee that gave the poetry prize to Marianne Moore. While waiting for Peter Viereck, the last of the judges, delayed by a snowstorm, to arrive, the other five (Winfield Townley Scott, Selden Rodman, Conrad Aiken, Wallace Stevens, and William Cole) passed the time looking at photographs of previous meetings of National Book Award judges. Gwendolyn Brooks appeared in one of these. On seeing the photo, Stevens remarked, “Who’s the coon?” (The meeting, it should be noted, took place after lunch, which for the poet had probably begun with two healthy martinis and continued with a fine bottle of wine.) Noticing the reaction of the group to his question, he asked, “I know you don’t like to hear people call a lady a coon, but who is it?”
– Joan Richardson, Wallace Stevens – The Later Years (1923-1954). New York: Beech Tree Books, 1988. (Pgs. 388-389)
–Major Jackson,”After Lunch,” The Poetry Foundation.
Many of his poems are exquisitely rendered, highly philosophical, and well thought out. Others are purposely obtuse, such as The Emperor of Ice Cream.
As a woman and a poet of the 21st century, I reserve the right to look at the poetry of those who have come before me and evaluate it. I understand Stevens’s ultimate goals with Peter Quince at the Clavier. The language is beautiful. But the story of Susanna is not about mere desire. By treating the subject in this way, Stevens reveals a certain disregard for women. He objectifies Susanna in this poem. Probably he couldn’t help it. He was a man of his times.
I’m ignorant of Stevens’ racial attitudes, and of course find it distressing that any poet could harbor such thoughts. And I do not attribute infallibility to anyone…
On the immediate topic, I hope I am not heard to say that the story of Susanna is about mere desire.
I read it in part about her being “victimized by beauty,” a constant theme of woman’s presence in a rapacious world right through history…in part about the inability of supposedly righteous and ‘spiritually trained’ males to overcome the lust that is a constant theme in male history, and the triumph of Virtue (in this case, at least–how many equally innocent women [and men] have been stoned to death in the run of years in roughly equivalent circumstances?).
The story is an important one, I think, in the Jewish tradition of self-examination and the commitment to the rule of law (although the intended punishment for her, and the actual one meted out to the Elders, seems excessive).
As my earlier offering suggests, I have felt that Stevens did have an understanding of the complexities, and that they are discoverable in a reading of the poem.
I will leave any final thoughts to you, with an appreciative note on having found your site, and with all best wishes.