Position yourself in the gallery at the Portland Art Museum near Van Gogh's The Ox Cart and you'll usually hear someone comment on what a gray morning it seems to be. The grayness stands out now as it did for Van Gogh in 1884. He had moved to Neunens to live with his parents after a failed attempt at being a minister. He wrote to his brother Theo in Paris of his life in this northern part of The Netherlands.
Out of doors everything is mournful. In fact the fields consist entirely of patches of black earth and snow; on some days one seems to see nothing but fog and mud; in the evening the red sun, in the morning crows.There are a number of works of poetry about fog but this one by Giovanni Pascoli seems to capture the grayness of Van Gogh's Neunens.
In the Fog
I stared into the valley: it was gone—
wholly submerged! A vast flat sea remained,
gray, with no waves, no beaches; all was one.
And here and there I noticed, when I strained,
the alien clamoring of small, wild voices:
birds that had lost their way in that vain land.
And high above, the skeletons of beeches,
as if suspended, and the reveries
of ruins and of the hermit’s hidden reaches.
And a dog yelped and yelped, as if in fear,
I knew not where nor why. Perhaps he heard
strange footsteps, neither far away nor near—
echoing footsteps, neither slow nor quick,
alternating, eternal. Down I stared,
but I saw nothing, no one, looking back.
The reveries of ruins asked: “Will no
one come?” The skeletons of trees inquired:
“And who are you, forever on the go?”
I may have seen a shadow then, an errant
shadow, bearing a bundle on its head.
I saw—and no more saw, in the same instant.
All I could hear were the uneasy screeches
of the lost birds, the yelping of the stray,
and, on that sea that lacked both waves and beaches,
the footsteps, neither near nor far away.