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Saturday, March 12, 2011

Number 92: W.H.Auden: "Musee des Beaux Arts"

Musee des Beaux Arts

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 along;
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 ploughman 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.

-- W. H. Auden

Hap Notes: Okay, Auden is talking about a lot of stuff here so let's take it one at a time. The poet is talking about "the old masters" of painting (classical artists who worked before 1800- examples would be Botticelli, Tintoretto, Da Vinci, Rubens, Rembrandt etc.) of whom Breughel, the artist he is mentioning, is one. Auden is specifically referencing Breughel's painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" in this poem which is reproduced in its entirety on the masthead of the blog today.

The painting features the fall of Icarus- you may remember the Greek myth, if not, here's the salient points referenced in the painting and the poem: Icaraus and his dad, Daedalus, are imprisoned on the island of Crete. Daedalus makes two pairs of wax wings with feathers so that they can fly out of prison (remember, I said it was a myth). Icarus uses the wings and flies too close to the sun, the wax melts and he falls into the water and drowns in the Aegean Sea. This story is the origin of the cliche' about flying too close to the sun when talking about someone who has gotten too confident.

If you notice in the Brueghel painting, first and foremost is a guy plowing. There are a couple of ships , a man herding sheep and goats, mountains and a town. In the right hand corner, near the big ship we see a pair of legs and the shadow of a wing. That's Icarus. See him?

Now what is Brueghel and Auden telling us about tragedy and life? Well, first off, life goes blithely on as tragedy hits others. Most people can relate to this idea. Have you ever had a loved one in the hospital or, even sadder, die? You are wrecked with sadness but the rest of the world goes on about its business oblivious to you and your family's pain. Auden is saying that the old masters- particularly Brueghal- painted this truth. When you see pictures of the birth of Jesus (done by the old masters) there are often observers who are less than interested- donkeys, children, a fella looking at the ground. In these paintings people often are going on about their lives while something miraculous or strange or tragic is happening in the background. The focal point could actually be the guy plowing in the foreground- not the kid falling into the sea. It's hard to see the tragedy of the fallen boy- just as we are often oblivious to tragedy when observing everyday life.

So, perhaps what the poet is saying is that tragedy is all a matter of perspective in the grand scheme and cycle of life. You may see someone else's tragedy and never even notice it. Its impact is minimal to those who do not understand what is going on. The men in the ship see a boy falling out of the sky- and sail on- they have business to do.

Now that you know the details- you can brew on the poem yourself. What do you think Auden is saying- even about the arts? Remember the title of the poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" is referencing a museum. In December 1938, while visiting Brussels, W.H. Auden went to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, and saw this painting. The title, though, means "Museum of Fine Arts." Is he making a comment about art and artists as well as about the suffering of others?

We have already talked about Auden here:

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