Bruegel the Elder Never got Called an Asshole

Dan Melling



I saw a Bruegel painting not long ago. I don’t remember which one. I do remember thinking, “If they came—the gun-to-your-head men, the would-you-rather enforcers—which Bruegel painting would I eat?” It would have to be Bruegel the Elder. Bruegel the Younger’s compositions don’t seem to have the same rich, thick density as his father’s. I wouldn’t eat the snow one. Everyone would eat the snow one. The one with the men with the spears and the dogs. The one with one sad carcass between three of them. I wouldn’t eat that. I think I’d eat the one that W.H. Auden wrote that poem about. The one that just looks like a normal, pastoral scene. A serf ploughing his field and a boat just leaving the harbour. But if you look closely you can see a pair of legs and little splash just next to the boat. The painting’s called The Fall of Icarus, so those little legs must be Icarus. That’s the kind of thing I want to eat. A painting in which the titular character is just a little pair of legs disappearing into a splash, in a busy three-by-four-foot canvas. Unnoticed by anyone. Delicious. I wonder what it would be like to eat W.H. Auden. When he was alive, of course. Not now. This is purely hypothetical. I’m not going to dig him up. That’s disgusting. He spent twenty years living what he called the chemical life. It involved him taking speed every morning and secobarbitol every night, for sleep. This is the stage in his life at which I would like to have eaten him. Presuming The Men would give me a choice. I have no idea what barbiturates taste like, but I’ve always thought that amphetamine tastes like celery. Maybe that’s why people say eating celery makes you lose weight. Because it’s actually an amphetamine. W.H. Auden would probably taste like celery, if one were to eat him during his chemical period. A woman performed fellatio on me once, after a party that had lasted a few days. Afterwards, she told me that my spermatozoa tasted like amphetamine sulphate. Maybe that’s why I used polysyllabic words, rather than suck, cum, phet. To distance myself from it. William Carlos Williams also wrote an ekphrastic poem about that Bruegel painting. It was much less dense than Auden’s. Taller and slimmer. It’s funny how poems come to look like their owners. I used to have a copy of Williams’ collected works. I bought it used. The cover was beaten and faded and had a picture of Williams looking out at me. The photo was from his later years when he was bald and wore little round glasses. For a long time, I wondered why there was a picture of Ghandi on that book. But it wasn’t Ghandi. It was William Carlos Williams. I always knew it was William Carlos Williams. But he did look a lot like Ghandi in that photo. When my brother was a child, he had trouble pronouncing Granddad. He often had need to use the word but couldn’t form it with his young lips and tongue. The closest he could get was Ghandi. The name stuck. Strange how some names stick and some don’t. I wonder if anyone has ever come up with a formula for the type of nicknames that stick best. As few syllables as possible and funny, perhaps. When my Granddad died, we were young. My brother spelt Ghandi on the living room floor with dominos. The floor was grey and the dominos were black and white. My Granddad died from being exposed to asbestos when he worked with it in factories. Before he died, I had a running-race with him. He fell. We were running down a hill and he rolled the rest of the way. The bruises never went away. And then they spread. And then he died. For a while I thought I’d killed him. I don’t think that any more. That it was my fault. No one knows how Bruegel the Elder died. They know it was in Brussels, on the 9th of September, 1569. He was somewhere between thirty-nine and forty-four years of age. It must have been nice living in a world where details like your age and date of birth were disputable. I’m thirty. Or nearly thirty. This morning I had to show my passport to buy a packet of cigarettes. When I was sixteen I rarely had to show ID for cigarettes. The laws have become stricter as I’ve aged. For the last decade and a half, I’ve never been trusted to be as old as I say I am. I’ll certainly miss it when it’s gone. Life, I mean. My friend claims his son’s first word was death. I choose to believe him. He also acknowledges it may have been dad. As in, himself. According to his mother, Picasso’s first word was lápiz. This sounds like a myth, but it’s a good one. Imagine the most famous artist of his era learning to speak in order to ask for a pencil. It’s too good to be true. It’s too good not to be. It doesn’t matter. According to my mother, my first word was goydly. It’s what I used to call dogs. She used to take me to the park and I’d point at all the goydlys. I wonder why my young mind thought that dogs should be called goydlys. It doesn’t make any less sense than dog. Neither words are onomatopoeic and goydly is much more mellifluous. All words should be onomatopoeic when they can. I wonder what Picasso’s real first word was. Maybe it was dog. Or perro. Or goydly. Jonathon Richman said that Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole. I wonder if it’s true. Probably not. It doesn’t matter. I’ve heard he used to try to pay people in little sketches instead of money. Plumbers, etc. It sounds like something an asshole would do, but I’m sure it was after he was famous, so it doesn’t matter. I wonder if Bruegel the Elder ever got called an asshole. Not in New York. His son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger spent most of his life making copies or variations of his father’s works. It must be kind of dispiriting to have your father’s name, with a diminutive suffix, and to be known as someone who copies his work. Melling the Worse. Melling the Shorter. For a while Bruegel the Younger was known as de helse Bruegel. Which means Hell Bruegel. They called him that because they thought he painted busy, hellish scenes like Hieronymus Bosch. Hieronymus Bosch the Younger. Hieronymus Bosch the Worse. They found out later that it wasn’t Bruegel the Younger who painted them, it was Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s other son, Jan Bruegel the Elder. Jan was also known as Velvet Bruegel, Paradise Bruegel, and Flower Bruegel. Some Bruegels have all the luck. Pieter Bruegel the Elder was also known as Peasant Bruegel. Goydly Melling. Phet-cum Melling. Pablo Picasso was actually 5’4”, not 5’3”, as Jonathon Richman suggested. I wonder if that’d make him angry. Picasso, I mean. To be known for perpetuity because of a song that gets his height wrong. And Guernica. If I had to eat a Picasso, I’d probably go for something from his blue period. I think a painting from his blue period would be much smoother and easier to chew than a Cubist one. Better mouthfeel. I wonder if Picasso took more drugs than Auden. It doesn’t matter. Auden the Less Chemical. Picasso the More Cubist. I take 15mg Lexipro every morning and Klonopin as and when necessary. I usually drink whiskey or wine on weekdays and beer at weekends. Most nights I smoke weed before going to bed. I don’t like taking sleeping pills. I smoke weed all day if I’m hungover. I do cocaine once or twice a month and speed every Christmas eve. No psychedelics for half a decade. Melling the Medicated. I wonder what Auden would think. I wonder what Bruegel the Elder would think. When did they stop calling people the Younger or the Elder? Now it’s jr. or III. the Dynastic. the Abhorrently Wealthy. Pliny, Bruegel, Pitt. Those are the only the Elders I can think of. Bruegel’s probably my favourite. No disrespect to Pliny. Pitt the Elder was a prick. He was also known as The Great Commoner. Peasant Pitt. Except he wasn’t. He was an imperialist. He was born rich and added to his family’s fortune by pillaging India. While he was there he stole a very large diamond. Later, he was known as Diamond Pitt. Pitt the Fuck. Pitt the Imperialist. Pitt the Elder definitely got called an asshole. I don’t know how tall Pitt the Elder was, but Pitt the Younger was famous for his height. Taller than Picasso. Who was himself much taller than Toulouse-Lautrec. They say Toulouse-Lautrec’s height was due to inbreeding. They. Them. Them the Imperialists. Pitt was a them. Would Bruegel the Elder have been a them? Is there a grey area? If there is, it’s the space that most academics and artists inhabit. Bourgeois but empathetic, perhaps. Melling the Empathetic. Is going into the arts selling-out one’s working-class heritage? My parents are artist-class, so I guess— in my case— it doesn’t matter. Melling the Bourgeois. Most mornings, when I open my curtains, there are groundhogs sniffing about on the grass. I like them. I don’t have names for them because names are human inventions and I’m not even sure if I like them on humans. Even if some of them do seem to stick organically. Groundhog the Nameless. Melling the Nameless. It’s strange that animals sometimes answer to names that they’re given in human languages. They couldn’t dream of recreating that sound. Do they know that that sound is being used to refer to them? It doesn’t matter. I far prefer the groundhogs who live outside my house to a pet. Surely coexisting is preferable to owning. What is the human obsession with ownership? Is it innate or conditioned? I wouldn’t call them my groundhogs. I wouldn’t want to give them a name that they couldn’t understand. Or one that they could. What did El Greco think of the name he was given? Being named The Greek, in Spanish, when he was from Crete, which was, at the time, part of the Republic of Venice. El Greco spoke Spanish, of course, so it wasn’t the same as calling a groundhog Pierre-Joseph. I did a painting in the style of El Greco in an A-level art class. I think it was of a box of cigarettes on a cross in that proto-expressionist style of Jesus Christ on the Cross. That was the last painting I ever did. As in, I haven’t done one since. I might do another one at some point but, at this time, the last painting I did was a copy of El Greco’s Jesus Christ on the Cross, but replacing Christ with a packet of cigarettes. There’s a last time that someone does anything. That might be the last painting I ever do. There was a last time that Picasso said pencil. Or lápiz. A last time that Matisse asked for les ciseaux or propositioned a nun. His relationship with Sister Jaques-Marie was above board, as far as I’m aware. Sister Jaques-Marie’s name before she became a nun was Monique Bourgeois. Louise Bourgeois’ real name was Louise Bourgeois. I wonder if she liked that name. She didn’t change it. It doesn’t matter. Was bourgeois pejorative before Marx? Has it ever been pejorative in French? Would she have changed it even if it had been pejorative? I imagine not. It doesn’t matter. Did Picasso ever consider the fact that his name is, in English, a half-rhyme for asshole? There’ll be a last time I listen to Jonathon Richman. Does Bourgeois, the surname, come from bourgeois the word? Who cares. Somewhere along the line Louise and Monique’s families were them. Monique Them. Jonathon Richman as well, presumably. There’s a few possibilities as to where Melling comes from. Mell is an old Scots word meaning a big hammer. The verb to hit something with a big hammer is also to mell. The continuous version of that verb is melling. Dan Continuously Hitting with a Big Hammer. The other is that it’s a habitational name for a town near Liverpool. Dan of Melling. Which is much more likely. The town itself is named after a tribe, Meallingas. Dan Melling wouldn’t exist without the Meallingas tribe. Would I exist if Dan Melling didn’t exist? It doesn’t matter. Would anyone know Picasso if El Greco hadn’t decided to put those few brush strokes showing the light reflecting off Christ’s legs, paving the way for impressionism, cubism, expressionism? I know that Picasso’s first word was lápiz because El Greco was bored of how Spanish Renaissance painters were painting Christ’s legs. Was it being called El Greco or Doménikos Theotokópoulos that made him paint the way he did? Maybe it was neither and he’d have painted in the exact same way even if he’d been named Dan Melling. The word goydly may still have been coined if the Meallingas people hadn’t decided to settle on the coast of Lancashire. But Bruegel the Elder could never have existed if it hadn’t been for Bruegel the Younger. Without Bruegel the Younger, he would just have been Pieter Bruegel and that’s nowhere as grandiose. That being said, Henry Matisse created the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence without a grandiose suffix. I wonder what Matisse thought the last time he looked at that chapel. I wonder what Sister Jaques-Marie felt the last time she thought about the name Henri Matisse. What about the man that inhabited that name? I wonder which of his paintings she’d eat.


Dan Melling is a poet and creative non-fiction writer, originally from the UK. He is currently studying for an MFA in poetry at Virginia Tech University, where he also teaches. His work has appeared or is upcoming in The Rialto, Real Story, and others . He can be found online at