Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
This post marks the beginning of a new theme – poems about painters, painting and art.
Musee des Beaux Arts is more than just one of my favourite Auden poems, it's also one of those poems that have become an integral part of how I think – it's rare, for instance, that I visit a museum and come away without the first four lines popping into my head.
What I love about it is how visual it is, how Auden's marvellous description makes it possible to visualise the painting so precisely. Auden has two challenges here – he has to make you see the painting, and then make you see the message in the painting, and he manages both admirably.
For more commentary see Minstrels.
Oh, and by way of contrast, consider this W.C. Williams take on the same theme:
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings' wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
– W. C. Williams, 'Landscape with the fall of Icarus' from Pictures from Brueghel (1962)