Musee des Beaux Arts Revisited by Billy Collins
As far as mental anguish goes,
the old painters were no fools.
They understood how the mind,
the freakiest dungeon in the castle,
can effortlessly imagine a crab with the face of a priest
or an end table complete with genitals.
And they knew that the truly monstrous
lies not so much in the wildly shocking,
a skeleton spinning a wheels of fire, say,
but in the small prosaic touch
added to a tableau of the hellish,
the detail at the heart of the horrid.
In Bosch's The Temptation of St. Anthony
for instance, how it is not so much
the boar-faced man in the pea-green dress
that frightens, but the white mandolin he carries,
not the hooded corpse in a basket,
but the way the basket is rigged to hang from a bare branch;
how, what must have driven St. Anthony
to the mossy brink of despair
was not the big, angry-looking fish
in the central panel,
the one with the two mouselike creatures
conferring on its tail,
but rather what the fish is wearing;
a kind of pale orange officer's cape
and, over that,
a metal body-helmet secured by silvery wires,
a sensible buckled chin strap,
and, yes, the ultimate test of faith-the tiny sword that hangs from the thing,
that nightmare carp,
secure in its brown leather scabbard.