How could the painter Pieter Bruegel and writer Wislawa Szymborska have anything remotely in common, when the
fact is that four hundred years separate their works? A painting by Pieter Bruegel connects these two artists over
four hundred years of time.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder was born sometime between 1525 and 1530. Originally a student of Pieter Coecke van
Alost, he was later accepted into the Antwerp painters’ guild in 1551. In 1563 he married Coecke’s daughter, and
they later had two children. Both children would prove to have their own artistic abilities and would carry on the
painting tradition. Only six years after his marriage, he would be buried at the same church in which he had been
Pieter Bruegel the Elder was considered, “the most perfect painter of his century”(198) by Walter S. Gibson, an
author of a book on Bruegel. He chose not to follow the same Flemish style that was popular amongst many fellow
artists. This made him an individualist. Surprisingly, his works grew popular nonetheless. Bruegel often painted
scenes of vast landscapes, but was more known for his paintings of peasant life. Because he spent much of his time
working on peasant scenes, many think of him as one of the Flemish peasants. In reality, he was the same as any
townsman and actually regarded peasants as a form of low life and a social class to mock. This mockery is evident
in his painting Peasant Wedding and Feast. The wedding takes place in a barn, people are shoveling food into their
mouths, and as E.H. Gombrich puts it, the bride “sits quietly, with folded hands and a grin of utter contentment on
her stupid face”(380). This seems to be one of Bruegel’s happier paintin!
gs of peasants, and their activities.
Due to the detailed nature of his paintings, Bruegel’s works have often aided in deciphering events of the past. For
example, the Labours of the Month paintings distinctly show us the monthly routines of a peasant and his family: the
spring planting of fields, the long summer hours of work, and the fall harvesting. Without these paintings, peasant
life would not be portrayed as realistically as it was. When you hear that peasants had it bad, it is difficult to really
understand how bad it was. When you look at these paintings, you see little joy or happiness in the routines of
One observer of Bruegel’s works is Wislawa Szymborska, last year’s winner of the Nobel prize for literature. Now
seventy-three years old, Szymborska lives in Krakow, Poland. Married twice (once to a writer and once to a poet),
she is considered to be one of the finest European artists of these times. She is also one of five Polish winners of the
Nobel prize for literature. Upon winning, Szymborska was quoted as saying, “I’m afraid I will not have a quiet life
now. It is hard to believe but I was never hoping for an award” (Heintz). This year’s prize was the richest ever at
$1.12 million dollars. With only a few close friends, Szymborska has always led a private life, but that may all
change now that she is very rich.
Edward Hirsch says that “her writing has often reflected philosophical and ethical issues rather than the post-modern
fads that contemporary writers everywhere have been swept along by”(46). This next piece of her writing shows her
Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.(Heintz 48)
She is saying that we can never be prepared for what the future may have in store for us. We don’t have enough time
in life for second chances, for “practice.” Unfortunately, we cannot go back and fix the things that practice would
have made perfect.
The opening lines of many of her poems often seem trivial and obvious, when read or heard separately. After
reading the rest of the poem, the opening line seems to take on more meaning and significance. In the opening line
of “Nothing Can Happen Twice,” my first reaction is, “Well, that’s not true.” But after I finished the poem, I realized
that she is right. We can never really relive our past experiences. Nothing is exactly the same as it was before.
A poet and a painter, what could these two people have in common? Bruegel’s painting of two monkeys. Bruegel
painted Two Chained Monkeys in 1562, and Wislawa Szymborska wrote a poem about the painting four hundred
years later. The poem “Brueghel’s Two Monkeys” reads as follows:
This is what I see in my dream about final exams:
two monkeys, chained to the floor, sit on the windowsill,
the sky behind them flutters,
the sea is taking its bath.
The exam is History of Mankind.
I stammer and hedge.
One monkey stares and listens with mocking disdain,
the other seems to be dreaming away-
but when it’s clear I don’t know what to say
he prompts me with a gentle
clinking of his chain.(Stanford color plate #7)
Bruegel’s of Two Chained Monkeys was painted to portray the oppression of Flanders under Spanish rule “Bruegel,
Family of Painters”. The monkeys represent the people of Flanders. The chains holding the monkeys down are the
strength of the Spanish rule. The monkeys looking out at the sky and sea symbolize the people watching the Spanish
taking control of everything that they owned. The monkeys sit in the window sill, and are powerless to the terrible
oppression that surrounds them. One monkey watches what is going on around him, while the other monkey looks
away in disbelief and denial. The cracked nut shell was all that was left of good things in their lives. If you didn’t
know the history of the painting, it might look like two cute little monkeys, but, in reality, this picture depicts a drab
and dreary scene.
Wislawa Szymborska interprets the painting as not only the oppression of the Flemish people, but of all mankind as
well. In the first two lines, she is saying that the final exam is the history of mankind. The second two lines are about
how the world will remain regardless of whether or not Mankind will survive. The next two lines she is
uncomfortable thinking or admitting the fact that humans at times are cruel and unkind. Life depends on how well
humans interact with each other. The next two lines she talks about how some people live their lives by just going
with the flow and not contributing anything during their lives. The other people may not make actual contributions
to their fate and the fate of humankind, but at least some people try to think of ways to make life a little better. The
last three lines she says that just when she doesn’t feel like trying anymore, and is ready to accept life in a passive
way, she is prompted to fight again for a better life becau!
se she doesn’t want to just be alive, she wants to live life for all that it’s worth.
Even though Bruegel’s painting was created in 1562, it is obvious from Szymborska’s writing that his works still
apply to contemporary issues and modern-day lives.
“Bruegel, Family of Painters.” http://sunserv.kfki.hu/arthp/bio/b/bruegel/biograph.htm/ 5
Bruegel,Peter. Two Chained Monkeys. Stanford color plate #7.
Gibson, Walter S. Bruegel. New York and Toronto: Oxford UP, 1977.
Gombrich, E.H. The Story of Art. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1995
Heintz, Jim. “Polish Poet Gets Nobel Prize.” The Associated Press News Service 3 Oct.
Hirsch, Edward. “A Poetry that Matters: Wislawa Szymborska.” The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 1,1996: 46-
Stanford, Judith A. Responding to Literature. Mountain View, California: Mayfield, 1996
Szymborska, Wislawa. “Bruegel’s Two Monkeys.” Stanford color plate #7.