The Treaty of Paris, 1783

Poem by George Green

Benjamin West, Treaty of Paris, also titled American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement with Great Britain, 1783–84, Winterthur Museum & Country Estate, Winterthur, Delaware
 

In this unfinished work by Benjamin West
our ministers are grouped off to the left,
and where, across from them, our vanquished foes,
the Brits, should be, there’s just a misty blur.
Their envoys wouldn’t sit, and so it seems
our ministers are meeting with a cloud.
 
It looks just like a Larry Rivers, too,
with Rothko pitching in (he did the cloud).
The painting’s incompleteness can suggest
some metaphysical perplexities,
some problems that we might as well address.
The cloud could be a symbol, here, of absence,
 
a phantom delegation from the void,
or it might mean much more than that. The cloud
could be a metaphor for modern art
eating away the ancien régime
of neo-classicism. That explains it.
These foolish men, now styled our “founding fathers,”
 
have sold us down the river of abstraction.
The War of Independence—what a joke!
It was a blank, the shot heard ‘round the world.
For surely it is they who must surrender,
John Jay, Ben Franklin, Adams, and the rest.
And what terms, after all, could they expect?
 
Those odious poltroons—they’ve sold us out!
That’s not a treaty that they’re signing. No!
It’s utter and complete capitulation!
Those dunderheaded dolts, how dare they treat
with total vacancy? How dare they treat
with embassies of fog? So, now we see
 
our flocks and herds, our mills and fisheries,
are stippled down in tiny specks and blotches
or swathed in deep and ever-darker hues.
Our people will dissolve. The weaker ones
will fade like ghosts into an atmosphere
where memory itself is brushed away.
 
Some will seek refuge in the Cubist missions.
Others will melt in surrealistic towns.
It can’t be stopped. The very hand that guides
this pen is vanishing. It won’t be me
in streaming rags “escaped alone to tell thee.”
It won’t be me that gets you out of this.

 

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2010, Volume 27, Number 2