Art which references, or is based on, other works of art or other forms of artistic expression open up a broader experience by sending the reader to check out the work or art form which is referenced, and consider it in the way suggested by the initial piece of art. This is what WH Auden achieves in this poem, in which he writes about Old Master paintings which he has seen in an art museum. And there is even a reference to a particular painting, Breughel’s Icarus, of which the image can be seen here.
Its nice to read the poem and then look at the image to see if you draw the same conclusions as the poet.
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 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.
In fact, the first 13 lines of the poem are a general commentary on the relationship in Old Master paintings between the everyday reality of ordinary people and the suffering or momentous event which is occurring to the protagonist of the painting. So in paintings depicting martyrdom, suffering, horrible, bloody deeds, you also see children playing, people, eating or walking, dogs doing whatever dogs do, etc.
And then in the final eight lines of the poem, the poet refers directly to Breughel’s painting of the Fall of Icarus, where he rightly draws attention to the foreground of the painting where a am is ploughing a field, oblivious of the drama that is happening elsewhere on the canvas. There is also a shepherd tending to a flock of sheep and a man sitting on the bank of the bay fishing, all getting on with their daily tasks as if nothing unusual is happening. You have to look hard at the painting to finally notice the pair of legs kicking above the water, near the ship, where Icarus has fallen and is presumably drowning. Even the ship has more important things to attend to, and sails on.
The poem opens up another dimension to our consideration of the work of art which is Breughel’s painting. It may also be a commentary in general about people’s willingness to immerse themselves in their daily routine rather than get involved in the momentous events of their time. In Auden’s era, that might have been something like the rise of Nazi Germany, facilitated by people in Germany and elsewhere turning a blind eye and just focussing on their own lives. And there are parallels In every age, including our own.
So this is an invitation to look at art for the unexpected or the aspect which usually goes unremarked. And the poem also makes us think about what should our balance be between earning our paycheck and making the world a better place.
The Poetry Dude