Of the many memorable poems about paintings and sculpture—“ekphrastic poems” is the technical but ugly term for them—my favorite is W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Named for the Brussels museum of fine art that Auden visited late in 1938, the poem begins with a stanza about two emblematic if generic paintings, one that depicts the birth of Christ (lines 5-8), the other depicting the crucifixion (lines 10-13)—the two most solemn moments in the Christian year:
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.
The poem’s opening statement is guaranteed to stop you in your tracks. To appreciate the artistry, imagine a more conventional way of saying the same thing: “The old masters were never wrong about suffering.” Though virtually identical in language, the sentence loses all its power. There may be no better demonstration of a crucial lesson in the rhetoric of verse: that word order—combined with the strategic pause at the end of the line—is crucial in arousing and sustaining the reader’s attention. Note, too, the staggered rhymes in the stanza, which approaches prose but turns back to verse at each line’s end. Not until line four of this 13-line stanza do we encounter the first rhyme, and the last word of line six does not meet its mate until the stanza’s end.