Derek Mahon’s poem, ‘Courtyards in Delft’ is based upon the world-renowned painting of the same name by Pieter de Hooch (1658, National Gallery).
I stumbled across this poem when reading Stephen Cheeke’s book Writing for Art: The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis (2008), and found Cheeke’s description of its relationship with de Hooch’s painting really interesting. It is useful in terms of understanding the complex often ambivalent nature of ekphrastic writing, but also of reflecting upon the painting itself, and learning more about it. Cheeke’s point, which in my view is proved by my own experience, is that ekphrasis serves a purpose that goes above and beyond merely rhetorical descriptions of a visual imagery. Rather, for him, and also myself, ekphrasis can, well done well at least, convey much about social culture. For Mahon’s poem not only reflects upon de Hooch’s image, but in turn communicates subtle messages about Protestantism, Dutch values, gender roles, class, and lifestyles of the seventeenth century: as Mahon puts it the ‘modest but adequate’ ‘thrifty lives’ of those who inhabited that society.
Cheeke discusses the absence of Catholic (Southern as he puts it) sensuality, and we are left with a cooler light, where ‘Nothing is random, nothing goes to waste’.
Despite the sense of action threatened by the entry of the woman and child, the scene is halted. Real life becomes suspended, silent, and we, like the woman in the background, are paused. She waits, as Mahon says: That girl with her back to us who waits / For her man to come home for his tea / Will wait til the paint disintegrates /
She waits for eternity, and we as viewer wait in front of a painting with a ‘refusal to disclose a story’. Cheeke thoughtfully reminds us that despite this inaction, the painting, particularly via the poem, makes reference to something that was palpably alive, and that is (now past) human existence. Through the poem, we learn around the edges, beyond the frame if you will, of the culture and context of de Hooch’s own experience and visual landscape. Of the world from which he drew Courtyards in Delft from.
Despite the silence of de Hooch’s painting, Cheeke argues that Mahon’s poem makes meaning not only through examination of what is there, but of what may be and what is not there. Mahon is an interested, rather than disinterested, viewer, and we too become ever engaged through his interrogative ekphrasis. I have deliberately placed the poem first, in order to prompt your own visual memory (if you know the image).
Courtyards in Delft
(For Gordon Woods)
Oblique light on the trite, on brick and tile–
Immaculate masonry, and everywhere that
Water tap, that broom and wooden pail
To keep it so. House-proud, the wives
Of artisans pursue their thrifty lives
Among scrubbed yards, modest but adequate.
Foliage is sparse, and clings. No breeze
Ruffles the trim composure of those trees.
No spinet-playing emblematic of
The harmonies and disharmonies of love;
No lewd fish, no fruit, no wide-eyed bird
About to fly its cage while a virgin
Listens to her seducer, mars the chaste
Perfection of the thing and the thing made.
Nothing is random, nothing goes to waste.
We miss the dirty dog, the fiery gin.
That girl with her back to us who waits
For her man to come home for his tea
Will wait till the paint disintegrates
And ruined dikes admit the esurient sea;
Yet this is life too, and the cracked
Out-house door a verifiable fact
As vividly mnemonic as the sunlit
Railings that front the houses opposite.
I lived there as a boy and know the coal
Glittering in its shed, late-afternoon
Lambency informing the deal table,
The ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon.
I must be lying low in a room there,
A strange child with a taste for verse,
While my hard-nosed companions dream of fire
And sword upon parched veldt and fields of rain-swept gorse.
 Stephen Cheeke, Writing for Art, The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis (Manchester: Manchester Uni Press, 2008)
 Cheeke, Writing for Art, The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis, p. 32.