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Brueghel's Icarus and Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts" [by David Lehman]

Landscape With the Fall of Icarus’ (c. 1560s), by Pieter Brueghel the Elder—the focus of Auden’s final stanza.


By David Lehman

Published in The Wall Street Journal under the heading “Art’s Lessons, Filtered Through Verse”
May 13, 2016 12:00 pm ET

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.

If the point is that regardless of circumstance, people go on with their daily lives, oblivious to the “miraculous birth” or the “dreadful martyrdom,” the most crucial adjective appears in the final line: “innocent” meaning both “ignorant” and “guiltless.” People in general are like the children skating on a frozen pond, the dogs that bark and run and chase and fetch, and the “torturer’s horse” that scratches its backside. It is not so much that the “human position” is callous. Rather, it is that a world-historical event rarely announces itself as such—and that we are so wrapped up in our lives that we wouldn’t notice in any case.

The poem segues, in its second and final stanza, to “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus” (c. 1560s) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, a painting about an incident culled not from the Christian calendar but from Roman myth as recorded in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” To escape from a labyrinthine prison, Dedalus, the craftsman, fashions wax wings to permit him and his son Icarus to fly to safety. Father instructs son not to fly too near the sun, but to no avail. The wings melt, the boy falls to his death, and the incident illustrates the principle about the Old Masters and their understanding of human suffering:

In Brueghel’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.

Unlike mediocre writers, who rely on modifiers to do the work of verbs, Auden chooses his adjectives and adverbs with great care. Consider the work done by “the forsaken cry.” Does this not link the falling Icarus with the dying Christ, who, expiring on the cross, is said by St. Matthew to utter the words “My father, why hast thou forsaken me?” The linkage suggests a universality of experience transcending the differences between the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman worldviews.

Even better is “an important failure.” The adjective is devastating. It is not enough to have failed; the failure is not even deemed worthy of notice. So transitory is the glory of the world that the ploughman in the foreground of the painting and the “expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,” take no notice. They have “somewhere to get to,” and life goes on.

I teach poetry in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York. A favorite prompt of mine is to read “Musée des Beaux Arts” and other poems about paintings. Then I suggest that the students visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and write about Brueghel’s sublime depiction of summer, “The Harvesters.” Try it—not in competition with Auden (you can’t win), but with Auden’s marvelous poem as your model.

For other readings of great poems click on these links:

January 12, 2021

September 01, 2020

September 01, 2019

August 31, 2019

April 28, 2019

April 18, 2019

January 16, 2019

September 22, 2018

September 01, 2018

August 30, 2018

April 12, 2018

March 10, 2018

March 02, 2018

February 28, 2018

February 21, 2018

November 09, 2017

June 05, 2017

March 03, 2017

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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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