Charles Demuth

Charles Demuth's painting
The Figure 5 in Gold
inspired by
William Carlos Williams'
poem: The Great Figure

Edited by Peter Y. Chou


William Carlos Williams


Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
The Figure 5 in Gold (1928)
Alfred Stieglitz Collection
Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Great Figure

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
Sour Grapes: A Book of Poems
Four Seas Company, Boston, 1921

Notes: In the song "The 12 Days of Christmas," the traditional symbolism of "5 golden rings" was the Torah or the "5 books of Moses." When writing the poem "The 12 Days of Christmas: Re-vision", I saw them as the 5 sheaths (kosas) leading us to focus more on the inner senses (Christ's parable of the 5 wise virgins). While reading Barbara M. Fisher's Noble Numbers, Subtle Words about Charles Dumuth's "The Figure 5 in Gold", I realized how important the 5 outer senses are, and recalled the Ten Oxherd Drawings. The Zen Master Kakuan (12th century) seeing a former master depicting the final stage of enlightenment as an empty circle, added two more scenes— "Returning to the Source" (oneness with Nature) and "The Sage Enters the Market Place" (oneness with humanity). That is, the enlightened sage is not far away on the mountain top enjoying his bliss of serenity, but actively engaged in everyday life, helping others to realize their true nature. I've seen Demuth's painting in the Metropolitan many times, but didn't know that it was inspired by Williams' poem "The Great Figure." After reading Williams' Autobiography, I learned that Demuth was his good friend during his college days. Here is an example of how the sharpened senses of the poet captured the audio sensation "gong clangs/siren howls/wheels rumbling" upon seeing the flash of "figure 5/in gold/on a red/fire truck" in his poem. That his friend, Demuth transformed Williams' poem into an equally evocative painting is doubly delightful. Exploration of our inner self as well as attention to our outer world through great art are both effective means to spiritual enlightenment. Below are the references I've traced in the original books at the Stanford Library.

William Carlos Williams, Autobiography, New Directions, NY, 1967, p. 172:
Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic, I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden [Hartley]'s studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it. [Poem in Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume I 1909-1939, New Directions, NY (1986), p. 174]

Bram Dijkstra, The Hieroglyphics of a New Speech: Cubism, Stieglitz, and the Early Poetry of William Carlos Williams, Princeton University Press, 1969, pp. 76-78:
After Kora in Hell Williams continued to experiment with the techniques he had learned from the visual arts during the years between 1913 and 1917. Many of the poems in his next book of poetry, Sour Grapes (1921), reflect these efforts. The Great Figure is perhaps one of the most effective... The image "flashes" onto the poet's field of awareness, is suspended and lifted outside the sequence of time— a snapshot taken by the poet's perception, as it were— and when the imagination takes hold of it the action has been caught and because of that continues forever. Movement is stilled within time, but continues on a new, strictly limited, plane outside of time, determined no longer by actual progression but by visual tensions. The poet now analyzes the details of his unit of perception and transposes them by means of verbal equivalents onto paper in the order of their visual importance. The poem is the painting which results, its words are the pigment. the effects of instantaneous perception and of continued movement lifted out of the usual sequence and development of time which result could not have been achieved by a prose statement or a conventional poem dependent on narrative sequence and metaphor, which would have failed to isolate the incident in its original intensity. The poem as it stands is the product of a visual experience and should be regarded as such. If it is approched from within a literary framework it loses its significance...

In his poetry, one can find motifs caused by the struggle with shyness, self-doubt, against which a young man can develop erectile dysfunction, for the treatment of which today you can order medicines online, but in 1913 you had to overcome your complexes.

One look at Charles Demuth's visual interpretation of the poem, executed in close association with Williams, should suffice to indicate the appropriateness and accuracy of Williams' use of the word "tense." Demuth's figure 5 strains and pulls, receding and projecting itself again onto the canvas, its original movement in time transformed into visual tensions, caught within the warring pressure lines of darkness and lamplight, a golden object held suspended on the red fires of sound. Demuth and Williams, men with a similar background and both profoundly interested in painting and literature, understood each other's creations because their understanding of the nature of the creative imagination was similar and because the development of their means of expression had been determined by the same sources. The visual power of Williams' original image and Demuth's transposition of it into what might be called its "native" visual medium is indeed so strong that it still has the force to inspire artists of an entire new generation. [See Robert Indiana, The Figure Five (1963), X-5 (1963), Five (1984), and American Dream (1998)]

Barbara M. Fisher, Noble Numbers, Subtle Words: The Art of Mathematics in the Science of Storytelling, Associated University Presses, London, 1997, pp. 21-23:
William Carlos Williams's "The Great Figure" (1921) prompted Charles Demuth's brilliant painting, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold (1928). Together, the painting and the poem illustrate the multidimensional properties of number in an aesthetic context. With its visual echoes of the number five— a series of "fives" constant in design, yet diminishing in size as they recede inward, and enlarging outward almost past the picture plane— the painting seems to penetrate mathematical space. Demuth places the poet's name, "BILL," above the horizontal of the largest numeral, and the letter abbreviation for "number" (No.) withing the curve of the five, graphically illuminating the relation of word to number. the cleanly executed graphics seem to honor abstract number itself, while the painting pays several kinds of tribute to its original stimulus— a poem charged with energy, color, and resonance, yet spare in form, precise in content, rich in signification. The thirteen lines of Williams's poem launch a powerful image.

"The Great Figure" closely conforms to Williams's famous definition of a poem as "a machine made of words." Each of its thirty-one movable parts— that is, each individual word— functions as a precsion-tooled component of the whole, while the "Great Figure" of the title introduces a wonderfully complex piece of verbal machinery. As a rhetorical "figure of speech," it announces the "howling" fire truck, the trope of the "unheeded" quintessential entity, and the poem, the figural "machine" itself. One of the more "clangorous" intonations of the Great Figure— its red and gold coloration— suggests the whore-of-Babylon splendor of the Church, so that on a subtle level, Williams's iconic fire-engine cartoons a religious emblem. The "figure 5" at the end of the third line contributes the abstract arithmetical sense of "figure," while the numeral itself stands apart as the poem's point of focus. Singled out typographically as a digit— not a number word— and underscored by terminal placement, the golden "5" is the object of the single sentence that constitutes the poem. It is the grammatical- mathematical object about which all the rest revolves. Reinforcing the centrality of the "5," Williams has chosen a numeral that occurs at the center or half-way point among the digits that compose the decimal system. On a metaphysical level, the moving but unmoved figure projects the notion of constancy in the midst of flux— not a new idea, even according to Aristotle. "For in mathematics motion is a fiction, as the phrase goes, no mathematical entity being really moved." In the most graphic sense, then, the "5" exists as the unmoved/moving object and symbolic subject of this modernist poem. But it is the complex term "figure" that sounds a chord, as it were, simultaneously joining the verbal and visual arts to the mathematical like a C-major triad.

Web Links to Charles Demuth:
Charles Demuth Online
Charles Demuth Museum
Demuth Biography at Artchive
Demuth Biography: Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery
The Figure 5 in Gold (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Art on Art on Art: Charles Demuth, Robert Indiana and William Carlos Williams

Web Links to William Carlos Williams:
Academy of American Poets: William Carlos Williams
Modern American Poetry: William Carlos Williams
William Carlos Williams' Poems & Paintings (dead links)
Annotations of Physician Authors: 16 Williams' Poems Analyzed
Communion: Essay on Williams & Whitman (By Eric Elliot, 1989)
Image and Text in William Carlos Williams's Poetry of the 1920s (in German)
William Carlos Williams's Influence on Kenneth Burke (By David Blakesley, 1997)

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (1-13-2003)