KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 6: Fall 2016
Tanka Prose: 589 words

John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral
from the Meadows

by Charles D. Tarlton

Painting by John Constable: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows

Donde termina el arco iris,
en tu alma o en el horizonte?

—Pablo Neruda


Rainbows, in my experience, are infrequent, and so everyone would always go crazy whenever they saw one. Rainbows were miraculous things and hard to see, and for the whole time you were looking at it you worried when it would go away. Most important, though, we wondered where the end of it came down and if there really was a pot of gold waiting there. Constable’s rainbow is the first thing you see because it has what rainbows never have, and that’s weight (as heavy as the tree stump or the tower). It distracts from the rest of the painting.

doesn’t even look real
you know, the stagey way it’s
framed, like scenery, flat
trees obviously painted on
the wagon makes its entrance

a summer shower has passed
and left this bouncing rainbow
in a cauliflower 
sky as if some kind of sign
were meant—life’s a ritual

a fence post’s shadow
and the bright chiaroscuro 
on the Ash tree’s trunk
those, and the storm clouds passing
make the rainbow possible


Constable said: “I mean more than the rainbow itself, I mean dewy light and freshness, the departing shower, with the exhilaration of the returning sun.” Even so, when it comes to this painting, Constable criticism cannot sit still. There is an urgency to translate this work into its symbolic meanings: the passing of traditional English rural life, the dangers arising from the emancipation of Catholics, Constable’s grief at the death of his wife, his friendships with the Bishop of Salisbury and his son, the spirituality of Nature, and even the early indications of the rise of abstraction in painting.

seems to mean little
to the figures looking on
(I count a dozen)
caught up in their own affairs
not looking at the rainbow

is it still raining
the other side of that rainbow
does the storm now pound
the trees down, flood the gardens
over there, where there’s lightning?

over time the wind
has torn off leaves and branches
stripping the Ash bare
along the side facing us
a tree out of brothers Grimm


Only the black and white dog seems to notice the rainbow, but, then, the two of them, the dog and the rainbow, were late additions. Much more has been said about that rainbow (perhaps just because it was an afterthought) than about the large hoop-raved wagon and three horses entering the stream, which like the framing trees, is an image more carefully wrought than his rainbow was. But, once you’ve seen that little dog contemplating the whole scene, seeing everything just as you do, just as Constable must have, but seeing it through a dog’s eyes....

a kind of witness
to the extravaganza
being choreographed
the meeting of heaven and earth
grating where they intersect

while the church tower
fights off the harsh heavens 
civilized nature
resists the lightning’s wilding
inviting the wagon in

a view of nature
that’s found in well-trimmed gardens
in plowed, productive
fields, there in the countryside
wild forests kept hemmed in



Publisher’s Notes:

1. The epigraph above translates as, “Where does the rainbow end / in your soul, or on the horizon?” and is one of 320 questions composing the sequence of 74 poems in Pablo Neruda’s Libro de las preguntas [Book of Questions], completed shortly before his death in 1973.

2. The painting above by John Constable is in the public domain, and the reproduction was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

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