“The Peasant Dance” (1568) Pieter Bruegel the Elder

“The Peasant Dance” (1568) Pieter Bruegel the Elder

It’s very common when seeing a movie that is based on a book to be asked, “Was it better than the book?” Very, very rarely have I ever answered “Yes” to that question; in fact, I can’t think of a single example when the movie was even as good as the book. But my point is that we are used to making that kind of comparison: the translation of one art form into another: art in a dynamic audio-visual form compared to art in text.

I have experienced a translation where I’d answer “Equal” when asked to compare the two forms: Peiter Bruegel the Elder’s painting, “The Peasant Dance” and William Carlos Williams’s poem, “The Dance,” based on that painting (the full poem is below). Even though the painting predates the poem by nearly 400 years—1568 compared to 1962—I find something equal between them…very different, but equal. Despite the fact that the painting is guided by Medieval religion while the poem is guided by modern objectivity…I find them equal. Despite the fact that the painting is de facto a visual medium while the poem is per se an auditory medium…I find them equal. Despite the fact that the painting expresses a somber mood while the poem portrays a joyful dance…I find them equal.

Bruegel captures “a moment in time” in the painting, portraying peasant life on a Saint’s day celebration among the common people—no pompous royalty here: the peasants are seen mid-step enjoying their festival of dancing, feasting, drinking, arguing, kissing. He limits the scene within the town square surrounded by buildings, importantly including the church in the background…the revelers literally turn their backs on the church and Bruegel includes images of most of the Seven Deadly Sins. He gives us a lively, lusty moment of abandon with only slight editorial comment on the sinfulness of the world.

Williams works to equal the painting itself through lyrical language and vivid images. He pays no attention to possible symbols and focuses on the actual visual effect of the painting. He contains the scene, not in a town square but within matching first and last lines; he captures “a moment in time” with his run-on lines (few sentences end at the end of a line) and rhythm that pull the reader continuously through the poem…don’t pause at the end of a line, run on and on, like the figures in the painting. The rhythm gives movement to one’s reading…try reading “dancers go round, they go round and around” without feeling musical movement. The sound is repetitive—round, around, grounds, sound; and lusty—hips and bellies and butts; and kinetic—tipping, kicking, rolling, swinging, and rollicking. I think that Williams portrays exactly the response we all have to the Bruegel painting—the thought, the sense, the feeling—and puts it into poetic words.

Two media—one visual, one auditory—but equal portrayals: lyrical, playful, lusty, kinetic, continuous, self-contained. Maybe it is something unique to Bruegel’s style that makes his work translatable—Williams tried it in a second poem and W.H. Auden wrote a famous poem that focused on Bruegel paintings, "Musée des Beaux Arts." Or maybe it is something about modern poets who want to capture in their own words an idea that may be antique, but remains true.

The Dance
William Carlos Williams
In Brueghel's great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and
around, the squeal and the blare and the
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound)
their hips and their bellies off balance
to turn them. Kicking and rolling
about the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those
shanks must be sound to bear up under such
rollicking measures, prance as they dance
in Brueghel's great picture, The Kermess.

Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962)