Poetry Review: “Musee De Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by Brueghel

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Brueghel

While literary history is filled with American writers becoming British (Henry James, T.S. Eliot) or Continental (Ezra Pound), W.H. Auden represents the reverse. This is one of the things that make him an interesting poet – classic British English becoming Americanized in the hands of a master.

In the same way, he occupies a peculiar artistic in-betweeness – behind him lies the Modern (Yeats, Eliot, Pound) and ahead of him the Post-Modern, the disparate directions and trajectories we think of as contemporary poetry. Auden fairly belongs to neither, and yet seems the master of both.

“Musee Des Beaux Arts” is poetic meditation on a painting and on the concept of good and evil. It is above all a great work by a great poet.

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.

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