Sunday, September 18, 2016

Poems I journey With 9

This morning I want to introduce the reader to another favourite poem, this time from the pen of the great twentieth century English poet, W.H. Auden (1907 - 1973) whose work never failed to inspire me and set me thinking.  One of my favourite poems of his is "Musée des Beaux Arts," a short poem that was composed in 1938 and which was published a year later in a newspaper.  The eponymous title of the poem is the museum in question and it is situated in Brussels, Belgium.  The painting is by the Dutch Pieter Brueghel, the Elder (c. 1525 - 1569) and is called "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus." (1558)  This is a fairly simple poem and it basically sums up the thoughts and feelings inspired by a viewing of this great painting.  The description is ekphrastic that is it verbally describes all the images that occur in the painting. In short, the poem does "exactly what it says on the tin" or exactly what it says it will do in the title. 

The Painting in question

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.

I love the opening as it draws the reader in with its inversion of the normal way of saying thimgs as we have to read on to find out who was never wrong about suffering.  Why were they never wrong?  In the second line we know it was the Old Masters, those old painters from the Dutch School.  Those old Masters were never wrong about human suffering.  When one views this painting, according to W.H. Auden, one realises quickly that while someone is suffering (like Icarus hitting the water after flying too close to the sun that caused the wax to melt on his constructed wings) others are blithely going about their daily tasks: like eating, opening a window or "just walking dully along" and so on.  They simply never notice Icarus' suffering and pain. If they never noticed the tragic fall of Icarus to his watery destruction how would they ever notice ours either?  He tells us also that the elderly people amongst us hold out some desperate hope for some miracle to transform their brittle and fragile lives. While these elders amongst us vainly hope, the children play on in their own constructed reality, totally unconcerned and oblivious to all worry and anxiety.  Even a saintly martyr must die on the margins of society. Those who live are too busy going about their daily tasks to note even a martyr's demise: they are just too busy living. 

The young Wystan Hugh Auden
Auden states his conclusion even more clearly as we proceed down through the poem: Brueghel's depiction of poor Icarus' falling from the heights of his hubris to his watery grave shows how uncaringly "everything turns away" from this disaster which is simply sidelined. The ploughman might have heard the splash as Icarus hit the water, but even if he did he chose to ignore it and get on with his work.  The passengers on the nearby ship must surely have noticed this tragic disaster, but again, even if they had, they chose to sail away to wherever they were going.  It would also appear that scenes from other pictures by Brueghel, also hanging in the Musée des Beaux Arts are alluded to in Auden's poem as his lines about people "dully" walking along and the elderly waiting for a miraculous birth and children skating may derive from a painting called "The Numbering of Bethlehem."  Furthermore the following lines:

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.

may be inspired by another of Brueghel's paintings, namely, The Massacre of innocents.  In this latter painting, there are indeed dogs and horses.

One of the most pleasing features of this poem is its straight-forward description of life in the various paintings in clear images, that is, what we mean when we use the Greek term "ekphrasis."  Another is its lack of more poetic and formalised language.  However, the most satisfying feature for the present reviewer is Auden's lack of didacticism or direct moralising. The poet is far too authentic an individual to be a self-righteous preacher. Rather, he is making a subtle point as indeed did the Grand Masters who were so right about the human condition.  Humans really don't so much care about the fate of their fellow men and women insofar as they have to get on with their own concerns to eek out a living and survive. In this context, it is interesting to underscore the fact that this poem was written about a year before the outbreak of the Second World War.  One might not be too far from the truth to guess that the poet was picking up the international feeling of this lack of concern for the welfare of others. To my mind, this is a well-structured poem with considerable poise and delicacy shown by its oblique criticism of mid-twentieth century humanity.

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