Old King in the New World: Restraint and Art in ‘Madame X’

by Olivia Zhu

MadamexThe pale neck of John Singer Sargent’s most notorious portrait subject graces the cover of William Logan’s latest book, a collection of poetry that pays homage to the artist in its themes and style. Madame X, named after the painting, opens with two epigraphs that establish the themes of the work: the first explicitly links Herman Melville’s Ahab to “that wild Logan of the woods,” in reference to a Native American chief who literary historian Jonathan Elmer calls “a melancholic relic,” of the same lonesome breed as both captain and poet (119). The last of his kind, fanatically in search of a poetic white whale: this is how Logan announces himself.1 The second epigraph, a quote from Roman Holiday, reveals the object of his pursuit. Gregory Peck’s expat character, attempting to resist an undressing, Shelley-reciting Audrey Hepburn, advises her to “Keep [her] mind off the poetry and on the pajamas and everything will be all right.” Taken together, the two inscriptions position the poet as an old king, yearning for the classicality of the Old World, its elegant poetry, and its restrained sexuality. Madame X, with all its recurring images of ancient soldiers and overexposed young women, is a testament to Logan’s self-assigned role as a guardian of taste and timelessness.

Like Logan, Sargent might have also been called an “old king.” Toward the end of his career, Sargent’s devotion to his brand of “realism was viewed increasingly as anachronistic and facile,” paralleling Logan’s fidelity to “a certain sense of tradition that was antipathetic to the traditions that most of the poets [his] age were following” (Churchwell; qtd. in Jalon, 16). Nevertheless, the artist and poet soldiered on. Both have defended their relatively traditionalist work, and the very first poem of Madame X hints at the poet’s artistic loneliness in doing so. “The Hedgehog in His Element” indicates that Logan, oft-maligned for his “miserable” and “bullying” criticism, is the titular creature, very much at home in his attitude and medium (1). During a phone interview, Logan admitted he “was attracted to the sense of a hedgehog as a masochistic figure—it looked as if he had been shot full of arrows.” Is Logan’s tenth work a vindication of how he has suffered for his formal style? Its introductory poem suggests so, for “like a Sherman tank forced out of the brush,” the poet is made to emerge and set up a defense in whatever prickly way he might choose (“Hedgehog” 2). The image of a self-sacrificing soldier is driven home by the poem’s concluding image of “St. Sebastian bristling with arrows,” with the patron saint of warriors—and a martyr twice over—shown as angry and defiant even when wounded (“Hedgehog” 3).

Read more »