February 21: Happy birthday, Mr. Auden

"Landscape with The Fall of Icarus", ca. 1590-95, by Pieter Breugel the Elder

“Landscape with The Fall of Icarus”, ca. 1590-95, by Pieter Breugel the Elder

In celebration, here is Wystan Hugh Auden‘s poem about Breugel’s painting (above).

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.

____________________________________________________________
“Musée des Beaux Arts” is my favorite of Auden’s poems; I’m suppose it’s almost everybody’s favorite (if they read him), but I love it dearly so I won’t pretend to be original. It has everything I need – poetry, painting, death and survival. That first line has been stuck in my head forever.

Click here for a much larger version of the painting. The Breugel images are from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain.

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5 thoughts on “February 21: Happy birthday, Mr. Auden

  1. Brilliant. You continually reward me for reading your blog. Auden has the pacing down. No lyricism here. He kicks blocks in the way. “How” “But” “Had” “About” and the very best, “Anyhow” …if anyone cares…he seems to say… Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I agree, there are words to make you trip and stumble there – he’s such a physical poet. The thought that came into my head when I reread it is that pain and tragedy are not somehow more (or less) valid if they’re accompanied by great drama. I don’t think I can unpack that any further right now.

  3. Pingback: Friday Flashback, Funeral Blues by W. H. Auden | The Dad Poet

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