Category Archives: Andrea Mantegna

I like a look of Agony

The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, 1460, Andrea Mantegna
Background Image: The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, 1460, Andrea Mantegna

I’m going out of order from the book because I’m taking a class on Emily Dickinson and I’m going to follow the syllabus for the next few months.

There is embedded here the image of the passion of Christ. Her use of “Agony” comes from the Latin agonia which refers to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the final image of the “Beads” could be an allusion to the “homely” crown of thorns he wore. The question is is she suggesting that this is the one thing (suffering in death) we all have in common with Christ? This poem also shares some similar images with “A throe upon the features“.

I assumed on my first reading that she was referring to death in both stanzas, and while this reading is certainly possible, the major noun in the first stanza is “Agony” which isn’t necessarily “Death”, but rather the struggle all mortals contend with between good and evil, right and wrong, and life and death. Thus what she could be saying in this first stanza is that she likes “a look of Agony” because it’s a sign that a person is truly struggling to live – it’s not that she likes “a look of” “Death”, she likes “a look of” life, of the “homely” person who must contend with the difficult decisions of life and deal with the consequences of those decisions, be they good or bad.

This is why, I believe, she is alluding to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane whose “Agony” (agonia) was described in Matthew 26:41, “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”. Her poem mirrors Christ’s dilemma in that he is alive (just as the first stanza deals with being alive) but that “Death” is going to come for all of us and thus the second stanza deals with this inevitable outcome.

Yet I don’t believe she is suggesting that “Death” is necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something we all fear and struggle with, but like Christ who died to forgive sin, our own struggle with death is the end result of our coming to terms with our own lives and the decisions we’ve made and the struggles we’ve endured and which we may have to answer for in the next life once we cross over.