Tuesday, February 20, 2007

W. H. Auden, "Musée 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.



This poem shows Auden's voice shading into something more intimate, or at least spanning between the hawkeye-view of the world and time and close-ups on specific scenes and individual suffering - the contrast between the two being the theme. It also shows the heavy irony that is at play in much of his work, his deadpan capturing of mundane, bathetic detail, as in the pitch-perfect "doggy life" and the torturer's horse's "innocent behind". I've also always loved the deft parenthesis enacted by the breaks of the final three lines, and the mimetic syntax of the final line, providing alternative purpose and then carrying on with action.

(Other paintings alluded to: Brueghel's The Numbering at Bethlehem, Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap, and The Massacre of the Innocents.)

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