Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits is a four stanza poem written by Elizabeth Jennings and published in 1975. This piece is an in-depth look at the way in which a painted self-portrait can reveal to the artist, or sitter, elements of their own soul they must come to understand better if they wish to know themselves.
The poem does not have a formal rhyme scheme but there are a number of end rhymes and half rhymes that give the poem a clear rhythm. Additionally, Jennings chooses to cut off lines halfway through complete sentences, forcing the poem onward and bringing the reader to the end of the poem quickly. Read full poem here.
Summary of Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits
The speaker of this poem is describing the way in which Rembrandt, through all of his work, but especially his late self-portraits, took an honest look at himself and others. She speaks of the way in which he looks “unflinchingly” at his own face, and reproduces it just as it is. He does not attempt to embellish or improve what he sees. Through this authentic way of creating art he helps himself confront his own past and future. The speaker lavishes praise on Rembrandt’s skill and technique, as well as the way in which painting allows one to confront “darknesses” and find all the elements of one’s soul that must be “reckon[ed] with.”
Analysis of Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits
Jennings begins this piece by describing the way in which an artist, in this case, Rembrandt, would have viewed his own self-portraits.
You are confronted with yourself.
She describes how, on viewing a completed painting of oneself, the artist would be confronted with his or herself through their own medium. Additionally, this first line is notable for its abruptness, the placement of punctuation cuts off the thought, giving it more force.
The poem continues with a description of the way in which the artist is physically changing. These lines are written in second person, meaning that if the reader did not have the title to inform them, one could assume the subject of the poem was actually the reader.
The speaker addresses the “you,” clearly meant to be Rembrandt, saying that, “Each year / The pouches fill, the skin is uglier.” As time drives onward, the subject of this poem is only getting less attractive, or at least less like their younger self. It is possible to understand this poem as one critiquing themselves, just as one would when viewing a self-portrait he/she created.
The third line of this first stanza describes the painter as,
…giv[ing] it all unflinchingly.
There is no hesitation on the part of the painter to reveal himself as he truly is. It is an element Rembrandt’s craft that he is stayed true to; his depictions of himself and others were always brutally honest. The painter is also described as, “star[ing] / Into yourself, beyond” and that his “brush’s care / Runs with self-knowledge.” Rembrandt has the ability to see deeply into his own soul and convey its essence onto canvas, he truly sees himself and is able to replicate who he is. His brush does not run with paint, but “self-knowledge,” and that is the material with which he crafts his portraits.
The second stanza expands on what the first leaves off: Rembrandt’s ability to see himself truly without expansion.
Is a humility at one with craft
There is no arrogance.
Humility runs along as an integral part to Rembrandt’s work, his paintings would not be the same without it. It gives them an added element of excellence. There is “no arrogance” in the work he creates, he does not seek to show himself as anything other than what he is. He could, if he so chose, improve his physical appearance, cover himself in jewels and expensive clothes, but he does not.
Any pride that the painter has is separate from the “self-scrutiny” required for painting a self-portrait.
At this point the speaker provides us with some additional detail as to what the paintings actually look like. Rembrandt is able to “make light drift / The way [he] want[s],” or more simply, he has complete control over the materials he uses. His use of lights and darks is masterful.
He is also said to have a face which is “bruised and hurt” but in which one may still find love. He bares all the days of his life on his face but there is still the capacity for more love. The speaker of the piece is able to read all of these details just from looking at Rembrandt’s “Late Self-Portraits,” another testament to Rembrandt’s skill.
Just as the transition from the first to second stanza continued a thought, so does this new transition from second to third. The speaker expands on what exactly Rembrandt still has more love for. She speaks of his ability to love not just art, but “others,” until the end of his “last / Experiment,” or work of art.
Jennings next chooses to have her speaker take a more overarching view of Rembrandt and his impact on the world of art, and beyond. She speaks of his ability to stare “beyond / Your age, the times.” He, as an artist, was able to see more than others. Through his creation of these highly realistic and self-critical portraits, he was taking an artistic stance that was novel. He is also said to have, “plucked the past” and brought it forward, making it easier to accept and move forward from.
Self-portraits, the speaker says, are able to provide the painter with greater understanding of themselves and the world around them; just as old age, and the truthful examination of one’s aging body, can “divest…us of fear of death.”
The fourth stanza begins in the middle of the last thought, in which the speaker is touting the ways in which seeing oneself can “divest” one of a “fear of death.”
Jennings concludes the poem by pointing out elements within a portrait that one must “reckon with.” She speaks of, “a new anguish” and “the bloated nose” as well as “sadness” and “joy.” These are all things that might reveal themselves to the artist as he/she paints, or to the sitter who is being painted. These parts of one’s self become clear through paint and are said to be the elements that the sitter must “reckon with” or come to understand and accept in order to see who they truly are.
The last three lines of the poem speak on the power of painting. Jennings states that through painting,
…all darknesses are dared.
Through the act of painting the painter is able to address all the dark in the world, confront it, understand it, and therefore conquer it. Finally, the last line gives Rembrandt the ultimate power of choosing, through the way in which he depicts himself and others, what one must “reckon with.” He was in a sense, the great revealer of the truth of his own, and other’s, existence.
About Elizabeth Jennings
Elizabeth Jennings was born in Lincolnshire, England in July of 1926. She was a devout Roman Catholic and was educated at Oxford High School, through which she discovered her love for poetry, and then at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. After graduating she became a librarian at Oxford City Library and it was during her time there that she published her first collection of poetry, Poems. It was released in 1953 and was followed by A Way of Looking, in 1955. This collection won her a Somerset Maugham Award.
Throughout her life Jennings published over twenty books of poetry and she continued to write, preparing new volumes, until she died in Bampton, Oxfordshire in 2001.