Sunday, 15 February 2015

W.H Auden: Musee des Beaux Arts


Musee 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.

Written in 1938, Musee des Beaux Arts was inspired by WH Auden's trip to Brussels, and visit to 'Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique', from which the title is derived. It is written about the paining 'Landscape of the Fall of Icarus' by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

At first, it seems as though the speaker criticizes the onlookers in the painting for not helping the drowning escapee; some of them, especially the 'expensive delicate ship', are incredibly close to the waving legs of Icarus.

At second glance however, it could be said that the poem, like the painting, focuses on the ordinary people in the picture such as 'the ploughman' rather than the better known and remembered character of Icarus.

Interestingly, 'Musee des Beaux Arts' is somehow reminiscent of Auden's better known poem 'Funeral Blues', which deals with the issue that even after a tragedy such as the death of a loved one, life goes on. This is well summed up with the fact that even though the ship must have seen a boy fall from the sky, it 'had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on', and the failure of Icarus 'was not an important failure' to the ploughman.

Poetry can sometimes be labeled as boring or dull, but I think this preconception can be cured with more modern, and perhaps more relatable, poets such as WH Auden.

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