Daily Archives: August 4, 2006

Musee des Beaux Arts by 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 plowman 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.

(painting: Bruegel, Pieter, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1558, Oil on canvas, mounted on wood, 73.5 x 112 cm, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels)

A poem about a painting! How wonderful!

Although the poem is not strictly about the painting, of course. The painting is but an example of the feeling that the poem is trying to convey. That life is big, huge, gigantic and that things balance out somehow. That we can somehow continue, when so much suffering surrounds us.

This is a good thing. This is not good.

But what else can we do? How else are we to respond to suffering, to rockets and bombs falling today across the world on innocents? How am I to face one more day walking by the women who sit outside the homeless center, one whose own face she constantly rubs raw, the other in a wheelchair and who has enormous swollen legs?

So we can blot it out, when we need to.

And the poem rhymes, by the way. You may not notice, but it does. You may not notice because the rhyme scheme is like abca dedb fgfg e hh ijkkij. I can’t offhand think of another poem with that same scheme. Heh.

When I’d been thinking about featuring poetry in this space, this was one on the top of the list, along with Yeats’s Irish Airman, or anything Wilfred Owen but especially Dulce et Decorum Est, or what will probably be next, In Tenebris II by Thomas Hardy.