One of my favourite poets is Wystan Hugh Auden (1907 – 1973), better known as W. H. Auden. I was first introduced to him by a great college lecturer called John Devitt back in the late 1970s. John had a great impact on us students as he opened our minds and hearts to great poetry and great authors. W.H. Auden was an Anglo-American poet who was born in England but who later became an American citizen. He is regarded by many as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century because his poems are finely crafted pieces of a high quality of stylistic and technical achievement. His work is also noted for its timely and often lively engagement with moral and political issues. John Devitt taught us how to read poems, how to engage with them as text and how to unravel the various strands and layers that make them up. In Auden we found a wide variety of tone, form and content. As young students we also encountered the central themes of his poetry such as love, politics and citizenship, religion and morals, and the relationship between unique human beings and the anonymous, impersonal world of nature.
Marie Heaney, spoke of the poem I have appended below - Musée des Beaux Arts - as one of her favourites in a recent publication. Here is what she had to say:
This poem contemplates beauty, suffering and human indifference in a clear-eyed way. By being a beautiful thing itself, it assuages pain to some degree. It does make something happen. (Lifelines: New and Collected, TownHouse, Dublin, 2006, p. 81)The title of this wonderful poem refers to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. Auden visited the museum in 1938 and viewed the painting by Brueghel, which the poem is basically about. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a painting in oil on canvas (73.5 cm × 112 cm) long thought to be by Pieter Brueghel the elder. The story of Icarus is largely derived from Ovid, though obviously its provenance was in Greek mythology. In Ancient Greek mythology, Icarus succeeded in flying, with wings made by his father Daedalus, using feathers secured with wax. However, poor Icarus chose to fly too close to the sun, melting the wax, and fell into the sea and drowned. His legs can be seen in the water in this painting, just below the ship. The painting itself became the subject of a poem of the same name by William Carlos Williams, and is described in W. H. Auden's poem Musée des Beaux-Arts, named after the museum in which the painting is housed in Brussels.
Nietzsche often referred to the indifference of nature to humankind's suffering - a far cry from the Romantic/Victorian idea of pathethic fallacy (a concept proposed by the art critic John Ruskin the famous Victorian art critic) where nature is seen as reflecting the feelings of human beings. Here in this poem Auden reflects on the theme of apathy with which humans view the suffering of others. It is interesting and indeed insightful for us when we read that Auden wrote that "In so far as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate." Indeed, we expect all art to be truthful and honest, to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.
This poem below juxtaposes ordinary events and exraordinary ones, although extraordinary events seem to be transformed into everyday ones with his descriptions. Life goes on while a "miraculous birth occurs", but also while "the disaster" of Icarus's death happens. Brueghel's painting portrays several men and a ship peacefully performing daily activities in a charming landscape. While this occurs, Icarus is visible in the bottom right hand corner of the picture, his legs splayed at absurd angles, drowning in the water.
The allusions in the first part of the poem to a "miraculous birth" and a "dreadful martyrdom" refer obliquely to the Christian story that is also the subject of other paintings by Breughel in the museum that the poem evokes The "forsaken cry" of Icarus alludes to Christ crying out on the cross, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
Musée des Beaux Arts
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.
Above Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Peter Brueghel the elder (c. 1525 – 1569).