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Pavel Tchelitchew and "Adam's Grave"

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By Edward Mendelson

Auden's "Vespers" (written probably in 1954) in the sequence "Horae Canonicae" opens with this verse paragraph:

If the hill overlooking our city has always been known as Adam's Grave, only at dusk can you see the recumbent giant, his head turned to the west, his right arm resting for ever on Eve's haunch...

This hill is not Auden's invention. It was suggested by a painting made in 1940 by Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957), whom Auden knew through Lincoln Kirstein, a close friend of both poet and painter. The painting, in oil on canvas, is titled "Fata Morgana (Derby Hill Theme, Summer)." Fata Morgana is the name of a fairy in various chivalric legends (known in the Arthurian cycle as Morgan le Fay), and later took on the secondary meaning "mirage."

Thumbnail image of Tchelitchew painting; link to larger image (32 KB) spacer The original canvas measures 20 3/4 by 25 1/2 inches.

Tchelitchew's painting corresponds closely but not precisely to the poem. Auden, not Tchelitchew, seems to have identified the two figures with Adam and Eve and added the detail that Adam's head is turned in the Utopian direction of the west. Auden has the male figure's right arm resting on the female figure's "haunch"; Tchelitchew has the male figure's left arm resting on the female figure's thigh.

Auden probably saw "Fata Morgana" either in Tchelitchew's studio or in the collection of Ruth Ford, where the painting is now. It seems to have been reproduced only after the poem was written: first in Parker Tyler's The divine comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew, a biography (New York: Fleet, 1957), then in Lincoln Kirstein's Tchelitchev (Santa Fe: Twelvetrees, 1994).

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