Candle Hat

Candle Hat   (a poem by Billy Collins)

In most self-portraits it is the face that dominates:
Cézanne is a pair of eyes swimming in brushstrokes,
Van Gogh stares out of a halo of swirling darkness,
Rembrandt looks relieved as if he were taking a breather
from painting The Blinding of Samson.

But in this one Goya stands well back from the mirror
and is seen posed in the clutter of his studio
addressing a canvas tilted back on a tall easel.

He appears to be smiling out at us as if he knew
we would be amused by the extraordinary hat on his head
which is fitted around the brim with candle holders,
a device that allowed him to work into the night.

You can only wonder what it would be like
to be wearing such a chandelier on your head
as if you were a walking dining room or concert hall.

But once you see this hat there is no need to read
any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.

To understand Goya you only have to imagine him
lighting the candles one by one, then placing
the hat on his head, ready for a night of work.

Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,
then laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.

Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his house
with all the shadows flying across the walls.

Imagine a lost traveler knocking on his door
one dark night in the hill country of Spain.
“Come in,” he would say, “I was just painting myself,”
as he stood in the doorway holding up the wand of a brush,
illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat.

Don’t you just love the playful humor in Billy Collins’ poems?
I’m not sure which self-portraits Collins had in mind,

and each painter made several self-portraits,
but here are my guesses:


Cézanne, Self-Portrait


Van Gogh, Self-Portrait


Rembrandt, Self-Portrait

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8 thoughts on “Candle Hat

  1. Terrific! 
    You have outdone  yourself with this well-crafted entry.  I just love it!
    In my effort to read Billy Collins at your suggestion, I discovered that my library system has only one volume of his poetry, yet at another branch.  So I will have to wait a little longer.  Interestingly enough, one of my nephews likes Collins.
    Now for the punchline (which came up on the list when I searched for Collins):  he features in the book, The Book That Changed My Life:  71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them.  I expect that you, Carol, would love this voume, and I’ll bet never guess his favorite book.  Actually, he claimed two.
    Furthermore, Donna has posed this question about a book changing one’s life and I have never been able to answer it.  This unability really gets my goat – that I can’t come up with a title.
    I’ll check back later to see what your guesses are.
    Or perhaps you’ve already seen this book.

  2. Mel, I’ll give a shot at answering a good question.  The words are combined in a metrical fashion. Read the first word of every line: the first syllable is soft and the second hard.  So this foot is an iamb.  But he doesn’t follow this slavishly so it doesn’t have a sing-song feel, i.e. “You can only” begins with a stressed syllable.  But, hey, I’m no expert on modern poetry.  Dana, I am so tempted to research this.  How will I be able to wait?  Of course I would really like The Book That Changed My Life. Please excuse me for a minute while I go add it to my PBS Wish List…Billy Collins’ favorite book?  Wild guess:  The Odyssey and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Please don’t keep me waiting too long, my friend!

  3. Nettie, if you click on the poetry tag for my blog you will find three other posts on Billy Collins.  He’s my newest interest.  We read a poem a day.  I was working through an anthology, but with my niece joining us I wanted something accessible and winsome.  So this month we’re reading a Billy Collins poem every day.

  4. Ok – his favorites are The Yearling (good) and Lolita (oh my!), but he has a detailed essay in the book which explains his choices.
    I didnt buy the book; I just checked it out of the library.  Maybe I’ll do a short book review on it, but it will be a couple of weeks before I have the time

  5. eeewwwwww!  Lolita?  Why?  I’ll check and see if my library has the book just so I can read that essay.  I need to take a sabbatical to read for a year..   Thanks for getting back so quickly

  6. You’d think I’d have picked that up since all my Homer and Aeneid readings are in iambic hexameter…..oh, well. I don’t know if I’ll ever gain an appreciation for poetry.

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