Sunday Poetry: Musee des Beaux Arts, by W. H. Auden

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.

– by W. H. Auden


Ordinary life versus the extraordinary. Most people read this poem as a statement of how life continues on, and how ordinary life diminishes the astonishing. Even the spectacular fall of Icarus from the sky (when he ventured too close to the sun and the heat melted the wax of the wings his father had crafted to help him escape the Minotaur’s maze) does not draw the attention of the common folk in Breughel’s painting of the scene.

It is, of course, a completely accurate reading of the poem. We are like that expensive delicate ship, in that we are vaguely aware of the amazing tragedies and joys that surround us. A friend had a son this past week; another friend was diagnosed with a horrid and terminal disease. I went to the Chiefs game today and I’ll go to work tomorrow. As Auden wrote about the day that his friend William Butler Yeats died:

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

Life does go on.

There is another reading, though. The world is an incredibly rich place, filled with exquisite pain and beauty that can stop you at full sail. The old masters saw that – that we cannot always be fully aware of the beauty of each birth, or the tragic failure of those who strive greatly. But it’s there, if we look, and if we dare to see and feel it.

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