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Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "In Goya's Greatest Scenes We Seem"

Updated on October 8, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti



Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "In Goya's Greatest Scenes We Seem to See" employs extended hyperbole to compare the suffering of humanity today with an earlier time.

In Lawrence Ferlinghetti's In "Goya's Greatest Scenes We Seem to See," the speaker has observed paintings by Francisco Goya and compares the suffering humanity portrayed in them to the suffering of Americans on American freeways. The Goya paintings are likely those of the painter's later years, a series titled, Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War).

The comparison is hyperbolic because the annoyances sustained by Americans on their highways cannot logically compare with suffering of the victims in Goya's pectoral study. The victims in Goya's painting are truly suffering slaughter and death at the hands of an enemy, and although people on freeways die from traffic accidents, the number of those accidents is relatively small and do not pile up bodies the way the war paintings do.

The speaker wishes to make the exaggerated claim in order to emphasize the highway problem, as he sees it. The poem is divided into two movements. The first movement focuses on the Goya paintings, and the second focuses on American freeways.

First Movement: "In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see"
The first hyperbolic claim is stated by the speaker when he says, "In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see / the people of the world." It is impossible to see the people of world in Goya's scenes; no artist would ever be capable of portraying the people of the world—not even a photographer could snap all the people of the world.

The speaker literally sees a sampling of people in one country during a particular time of war. He then claims that he seems to be seeing all of the people at the precise point in time when humanity took on the label "suffering humanity."

Because the exact moment in time for labeling humanity as suffering humanity cannot be pinpointed, the speaker again engages his hyperbolic trope.

In the rest of the first movement, the speaker offers some specific images of that suffering humanity: "they writhe upon the page," "they are Heaped up / groaning with babies and bayonets," there are "cadavers and carnivorous cocks," and they represent "all the final hollering monsters / of the / 'imagination of disaster'."

All of these stark and disturbing images prompt the speaker to opine that the images seem so precise and accurate that they might well still exist. He then declares that, in fact, they do still exist; the only difference is "the landscape is changed."

Second Movement: "They still are ranged along the roads"
The speaker then focuses on the problem of the American freeway. That suffering humanity is now in automobiles driving from place to place, encountering traffic problems. Some are bothered by "legionnaires," while others are annoyed by "false windmills and demented roosters."

These people along the American freeways are the same suffering humanity as the war victims of Goya's painting, but they are just "further (sic, farther) from home."

Again, another exaggeration; the people are not, in fact, the same as Goya's. They differ in time and place and many other characteristics, not least of which is that they are drivers, not victims of war.

The Americans are travelling these huge freeways that are "fifty lanes wide / on a concrete continent." The exaggeration of the number of lanes assigned to the freeways logically implies that the American landscape would be taken up by a lot of concrete.

To express his disapproval, the speaker exaggerates again by claiming that those highways are on a concrete continent. Of course, he knows the entire continent is not concrete, but through his hyperbole, he is complaining that there is too much concrete, in his opinion.

And to add insult to injury, not only are Americans now harassed with multilane complexes of concrete highways, but the motorists are also constantly harangued by the numerous billboards that advertise products offering happiness. But the speaker insists that the happiness offered by those commercial eyesores promise only "imbecile illusions of happiness."

The speaker reports that the modern American landscape offers "fewer tumbrils / but more strung-out citizens / in painted cars." Those painted cars have "strange license plates / and engines / that devour America."

The final hyperbolic claim gives the automobile engine the unique mammalian ability to gobble up the entire country—his final exercise in exaggeration capping his strong antipathy to modern modes of travel in America.

A reading of Ferlinghetti's ""In Goya's Greatest Scenes We Seem"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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