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On Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”

Three centuries have passed since it was wrought—
A work of art transcendent yet humane.
The tender play of feelings Rembrandt caught:
A wastrel son disgraced, prostrate with pain;
Humiliated by the sin he sought
But somehow freed from Pride’s eternal stain,
His clothes in tatters soiled by filth undreamed,
But in his weakness ripe to be redeemed.

Rembrandt’s study of the father’s face
Displays the beating heart of human love:
Sorrow in compassion, joy in grace,
Luminous like God’s love from above.
A parent’s mercy may such sin erase
As would restore a life to be proud of.
Rembrandt used that sin to let this saint
Reveal the soul of charity in paint!

But Rembrandt shows a darker side as well:
The jealous brother holding back his hurt
And judging how his brother courted hell.
His “welcome back” at first is brusque and curt
Begrudging any home where they might dwell,
Yet choosing peace as would cold hate avert.
When kindness falters, goodness too grows thin.
It’s hard to let our better angels win.

Hate’s poison need not permeate the soul,
Nor arrogance, nor love of vengeance cold;
It’s better to admit our own flawed role
When we have also lived life uncontrolled.
For Heaven’s kind forgiveness makes us whole
And gives us back the goodness that we’ve sold.
Rembrandt’s painting shows a truth profound:
By lifting others up, we all are found.

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Why Einstein Loved Mozart

That truth and beauty are both intertwined
Was made immortal in an ode by Keats.
Attempts to reconcile soul and mind
Are harder. Battles rage among elites.
Yet Albert Einstein played the violin!
The symphonies of Mozart touched his soul
And fugues made his equations more precise.
None but Einstein would have dared extol
The force that governs hearts makes planets spin;
That with Creation God did not play dice.

For gravity is more than just a force
And music more than melody and key.
As comets sail through space seeking their course
So human beings crave infinity.
Our wisest know a Mozart String Quartet
Is holy as a universe of stars;
As Relativity, The Magic Flute.
No branch of Physics yet can heal our scars;
No formula can banish Evil’s threat;
And souls cannot be saved by a square root.

That science goes to war with faith is wrong.
Divine Creation lives in both of them.
The forces that move hearts are no less strong
Than thermal pressures which turn coal to gem.
The doubters who confine truth to a chart,
And poets who deem everything sublime,
Can share the Power of the sky at night!
O, heed the Scholar who saw into Time!
Art and science should not live apart—
Joined they show God’s shadow and His light.

By lifting others up, we all are found.

.

.

A Meditation on The Tempest

The Pageant’s purpose changed as Shakespeare aged.
The tragedies of blood to which crowds thronged
Fell short. A brave new world had to be staged
Which brooded on how Prospero was wronged,
And how revenge loomed while a tempest raged
Upon an island where few innocents belonged.

But that is not the spirit of the play!
The tragedy that comes from lust for power
And avarice that leads good men astray
Is banished in the isle’s enchanted bower—
Wrongs thwarted by a magical display
Of clemency cast from a cloud-capped tower.

This isle of fathoms deep and pearl-changed eyes,
Of treachery by men and witch-born fiend
Is also Eden! Pure Miranda sighs
For goodly men that she has never weened.
Her virtue schooled by Prospero the wise,
For whom Fair Providence has intervened.

If Prospero could share with me his wit—
The magic that steered Ariel through schemes
That made foes friends, that caused the storm to quit,
Restoring peace to ocean, hills and streams,
I’d break my staff of vengeance and commit
To forgive wrongs—the very stuff of dreams.

.

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Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


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17 Responses

  1. James Sale

    I am a big admirer of your poetry, Brian, and this does not disappoint: there are many beautiful things in all this. I like, for example, the great rhyme of Magic Flute with square root, quite literally a bringing together of science and art, or Mozart and Einstein. But your Tempest is a stand-out piece: ‘To forgive wrongs – the very stuff of dreams” is a brilliant line and goes beyond technique – the Muse speaks at such moments.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      James, I am so honored by your comments. I am an admirer of your very accomplished work as well, so your kind words mean a lot to me. Thank you! And I’m especially pleased that you liked my Tempest poem. The play means a lot to me and I wanted to do it justice.

      Reply
  2. Yael

    All three poems are very thought provoking and interesting, as the technical aspects of rhyme and meter vie for my attention as much as the engaging narratives of the subject matter. I get the sense of a pleasing synergy, as the whole of each poem is greater than the sum of its parts.
    On Rembrandt’s is my favorite of the three. The first stanza is smooth and lays the introductory ground work, the second stanza is as awkward as the Prodigal Son’s family reunion, the third stanza revs up the emotional suspense and the fourth stanza is a solution of pure genius. Well done!
    As the spelling cop I will point out that the first word in the fourth line in the last stanza of Why Einstein Loved Mozart should be “Than” instead of “Then”.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Thank you very much, Yael. I appreciate your kind words. The painting by Rembrandt is my favorite in the universe of fine art so I’m especially glad you liked my thoughts on it and that my choices paid off. And thanks to SCP for correcting my typo! I have a pair of reading glasses. I should start to use them.

      Reply
  3. James A. Tweedie

    Brian, Somehow you manage to combine insight, analysis, wisdom, and lyricism in each of these finely-wrought poems. You owned me when I read these lines in Why Einstein Loved Mozart:

    None but Einstein would have dared extol
    The force that governs hearts makes planets spin;
    That with Creation God did not play dice.

    The poem, captured both my heart and mind—which was, of course, the point of the verse in the first place.

    These poems succeed on so many levels—more than space and time permit. So I’ll close by simply saying Thank You. Please post more of your poetry soon.

    Reply
  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, this trio of beautifully crafted poems is an absolute treat. I like the message and execution of each, with “Why Einstein Loved Mozart” being my favorite. I particularly like the form in keeping with the reference to Keats in the opening couplet. But, much more than that, all the carefully chosen words and images flowing with a mellifluous mastery, come up with a great poetic take on the age-old debate of God or Science? Your poem will be my go-to marvel of an answer whenever this subject next crops up… it will disarm everyone with its intelligence, charm, truth and beauty.

    “On Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” is also impressive with “Rembrandt used that sin to let this saint/Reveal the soul of charity in paint!” enforcing the message of your well-wrought verse perfectly.

    “A Meditation on The Tempest” is beautifully written and takes me back to my Shakespeare-studying days. I was lucky enough to see Patrick Stewart play Prospero at the Barbican in London… but, for me, Caliban always steals the show. I love his speech on his knowledge of the island. Your closing stanza is a triumph!

    Bravo and thank you!

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      Susan, thank you so much! I think you already know that I adore your work so it means a lot to me when I get a kind word from you! I’m especially glad that you picked on my echoing Keats’ slightly unusual rhyme scheme, and the line you quoted in Rembrandt is also my favorite. As for The Tempest, I am so jealous! I would love to see Patrick Stewart as Prospero. I can’t think of better casting! It’s a lovely play which has great personal meaning for me.

      Reply
      • Anna J. Arredondo

        Brian,

        I will borrow and echo James T’s commendation of your insight, analysis, wisdom, and lyricism.

        In the first poem I love how the last four lines of the first stanza express an enormous truth wonderfully and succinctly.

        As a poet-scientist myself (though far outside the league of Einstein and Mozart!), I love the entire idea of the second poem. Thank you for creating such a piece.

        Finally, your reflections on The Tempest are spot on, especially well summarized in the last two lines.

  5. Cynthia Erlandson

    I agree with everything James said above, Brian. All three of these are brilliant! Thank you for them. (And now I think I’ll go read “The Tempest.”)

    Reply
  6. BRIAN YAPKO

    Thank you very much, Anna. I’m very happy to get your poet-scientist point of view and approval!

    Reply
  7. David Watt

    Brian, there are many memorable lines in these finely executed poems.
    The lines which stay with me above all others are:
    “The force that governs hearts makes planets spin;” and
    “I’d break my staff of vengeance and commit
    To forgive wrongs—the very stuff of dreams.”

    Reply
  8. C.B. Anderson

    I am an advocate for large stanzas, Brian, but I insist that they hold to form, which is something that you accomplished admirably. In all three of these poems you melded form and meaning with rare finesse.

    The second poem was probably closest to my heart’s ideal, because I have long been an amateur theoretical physicist. I think you captured Einstein’s essence, in both a special and a general way. In fact, it might well be, in the execution of these three works, that you are something of an Einstein yourself.

    Reply
    • BRIAN YAPKO

      C.B., thank you so much for your kind words! I greatly value your views on poetry so this means a lot to me. The discipline of poetry is difficult, but I’m learning. As for the middle poem, thank you for the compliment. I’m no Einstein, but I’m fascinated by what he discovered and how he discovered it! I’m a big science fiction fan so the idea of time dilation and other aspects of special and general relativity particularly intrigue me.

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        Ditto on your comment about science fiction. Currently I am engrossed in David Weber’s Safehold series. Vernor Vinge’s A Fire upon the Deep and it’s sequel are must-reads. And so is almost anything by Jack Vance. There are many others I would recommend highly, but this is not the right time or place.

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