Today we’re going to take a look at the art that inspired one of my favorite poems, “Musée des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden! Composed in 1938 after Auden’s trip to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels (hence the title), the text of the poem reads:
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.
It’s largely based off of the 16-century painting The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel (typically known as Brueghel the Elder). Auden was struck by how little the painting focuses on Icarus himself. This is partially due to the fact that Dutch painters at the time this painting was composed wanted to valued showing extreme attention to detail, which made the so-called subject of a painting less of a main focus. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Brueghel’s work. Take a look at his Procession to Calvary. Finding Jesus is a bit like playing Where’s Waldo–hint: do as the poem says and look in the “corner, [at] some untidy spot.”
Anyways, Auden was moved by the sentiment that through no fault of their own, humans can be completely oblivious to each others’ suffering. In looking at both Brueghel’s work and the rest of the museum, Auden was moved enough by this singular sentiment to write a poem about it (making it an ekphrastic poem). The other works referenced in Auden’s poem allude to pieces featured at various levels of the Art Docent Program’s curriculum–the nativity scene in Brueghel’s The Numbering at Bethlehem as well as scenes in Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap. Brueghel’s The Massacre of the Innocents may have been a source painting as well.
There are probably some unnamed paintings that inspired Auden as well. It’s always interesting to see what inspiration you’ll find in a museum or gallery. Take a closer look at the images of the paintings above and see if you can figure out which lines in “Musée des Beaux Arts” correspond with the paintings!
Want to know more about W. H. Auden? Check out this biography here!
Poem text courtesy of english.emory.edu.