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Icarus: entering the world of myth
Icarus: entering the world of myth

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4.3 Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts

The next activity asks you to read the poem Musée des Beaux Arts and investigate the way Auden conveys his thoughts and feelings about the Breughel painting.

Auden and his work

Auden was one of a group of intellectual poets who hoped to prick the public conscience with their poetry. They promoted the cause of anti-fascism in the 1930s and, according to Stephen Spender, ‘were the divided generation of Hamlets who found the world out of joint and failed to set it right’ (1951, p. 202). Auden was poetically inspired by T.S. Eliot and he followed a similar technique of incorporating short poems into longer works. Eliot advised Auden not to apologise for rather recondite allusions, and Auden seemed to follow Eliot’s style of composition as well as his sense of doom and resignation at a culturally impoverished and diminishing civilisation.

What to look for in a poem

The Auden poem you are about to read is composed in free verse and this can be a challenging form to analyse in purely ‘technical’ terms, but the following general guidelines should help you work out how the poet conveys his feelings on viewing the Brueghel painting.

A first relatively (or deceptively) straightforward question to ask is ‘what is the poem about?’ Is it descriptive, reflective, a message of some sort or an outpouring of emotion? Is anyone specifically addressed? Does it work on more than one level of meaning and are we encouraged to read between its lines?

The technical skills employed by a poet are actually his or her artistry (and armoury) of expression. If there is no identifiable rhyme scheme or regular rhythm it could have quite a conversational feel. (This is also enhanced by the sense carrying over from line to line – called enjambment.) What type of language characterises the poem – archaic, specialised or colloquial – and are there any vivid, emotive or surprising choices of words?

If consonants are repeated (alliteration) or vowel sounds are repeated (assonance), and if there is only occasional rhyming or slant rhyme (similar sounding words but not quite a perfect match), what kind of effect does this have?

What about the figurative language of poetry and its impact on the reader? Does the poet use simile (an image in which one thing is likened to another; e.g. ‘my love is like a red, red rose’) or metaphor (where one thing is actually substituted for another; e.g. ‘life is a walking shadow’) to expand our visualisation and understanding of a scene or a situation?

Activity 5

Now read Auden’s poem Musée des Beaux Arts and answer the questions that follow.

W.H. Auden, Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,1
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 waiting5
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 course10
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 may15
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,20
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
W.H. Auden (1966) Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, London, Faber and Faber
  • What kind of message do you feel Auden has received from Brueghel’s painting?
  • Can you detect any vestiges of Ovid in Auden’s literary response to Landscape with the Fall of Icarus?
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‘About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters,’ is the arresting opening to Auden’s poem. It is as if the reader has stumbled upon Auden’s train of thought or that he has deliberately stopped us in our tracks with his musings. The poem masquerades as something conversational and so technically it is free verse (although there is a detectable, if lackadaisical, rhythm and rhyme scheme). The form of this poem – the continuous present of the verb in the first stanza (especially line 4); the flow of one line into the next (enjambment) – reflects and simultaneously reinforces the reverie-like state of the poet.

The second stanza constitutes a sonnet-like ‘turn’ (the volta which marks a change in direction, pace or tone) as the poet stands in front of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Auden’s commentary on the Brueghel painting has been prefaced then by the common message he has found in a gallery of representations that refuse to foreground suffering and set even significant martyrdoms against scenes of ‘life going on’. The movement of the lines keep in step with Auden who seems to be circling around the paintings and then stopping in front of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Thinking back to Brueghel’s technique of promoting surroundings over important historical subjects in other works, you might safely assume that Auden sees the painting as a centrepiece for human suffering that has no universal significance. Auden imports scenes from other Brueghel pictures to stress the general lack of interest from those engrossed in activities of the moment (lines 7–8 and 12–13).

The poet apparently accepts, even approves, the fact that Brueghel and the Flemish school of painters saw suffering as it really was, no great issue in the grand scheme of things. This is a bleak reaction on Auden’s part but there might be some hint of comfort about the constancy of elemental things and the fact that the natural world keeps its core aspects unchanged whatever personal tragedies occur within it.

There is an alternative way of dealing with grief: the assumption that the natural world not only suspends all activity but that it might partake in the mourning. The notion that the natural world should grieve over individual bereavement is known as ‘the pathetic fallacy’ and Auden does seem to be up-ending this romantic view of a universe in tune with personal suffering. For Auden, Brueghel is the sane counterpoint to such a sentimental view of suffering; and yet Auden himself in his apparently heartfelt poem, commonly known as Stop All the Clocks demands that the world stop turning because of his personal loss, and that living creatures cease to carry on the daily round and routine.