About suffering they were never wrong

W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” written in 1938, is one of the better-known examples of ekphrasis, or poems inspired by artworks, up there with Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”Auden’s subject is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus.”In December of 1938, Auden was in Brussels, where he visited the city’s Royal Museums of Fine Arts. Like today, it was a period of crisis in Europe, and we can presume the looming war was on his mind. But the poem doesn’t mention war directly; it’s sneakier than that.

MUSÉE DES BEAUX ARTS

by 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 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

This entry was posted in Art, Books, Europe, Museums, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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