Turning from Gone With the Wind and 1937, I find myself arriving in a new poetic year at last—I will return to Whitman and the other poets of the Civil War again, I know, but for now Poetry Friday’s attention is centered once more on the America whose novel I am reading. 1938 is a year in which many important Anglophone poets are at work, and I will begin with an old favorite of mine, Wystan Hugh Auden, who in 1938 wrote the first poem of his I ever fell in love with: “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.
Auden is ultimately ruminating on a beautiful painting by perhaps my favorite visual artist, Pieter Brueghel the Elder*—the painting is called “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus“. But before he gets there, Auden is letting himself sink into the idea of suffering, and he does so with a simplicity of language that is refreshingly direct for poetry. He pulls back from the sufferer and the pain which blots out the senses, and sees the immense context that swallows up our most piercing moments. The tragedy Auden sees operates on a limited scale, not touching more than a handful of lives, while all around the world presses on with its business. Even the sufferer themselves is not placed in a light that bathes them with pathos, posed as though artfully arranged—no, Auden reminds us that death and pain happen here and there, in places not especially remarkable or noteworthy. He scales back the importance we place on these elevated moments of martyrdom even with the jocular, prosaic phrases and images that he turns out—dogs going on “with their doggy life” and a horse scratching its behind on a tree. He’s clearly reacting to something more than just the painting, but I wonder what: a person, or a group of people, he knows who are, for lack of a better term, “drama queens”? Or is it more of a societal problem he’s responding to—our modern tendency to melodrama in the art we revere, while the unnamed “old Masters” are held up to us as examples of a better way?
At last, though, Brueghel* and his painting of Icarus are front and center, and he couldn’t have chosen a better image through which to explore his point. The Icarus painting almost lacks an Icarus—if you are viewing too small a reproduction, or if your eyes don’t focus sharply, it is easy to miss the tiny legs of the drowning man, surrounded by flailing feathers. What impresses you about the painting is the scope of the world: the sweep of the field in the foreground, the immense billowing sails of the merchantman about to get under way into a vast beyond (or else newly returned from distant shores, laden with gems and spices), and then the expanse of the sea reaching as far ahead as the eyes can travel, in the distance melding with mountains and clouds so that water, land, and sky fuse into one. I don’t know if Auden’s interpretation of Icarus is exactly what was intended by the painter, but it certainly is plausible, given the painting’s scale and where it draws the eye. There is a heartlessness to Auden’s words, but I don’t find them callous—he isn’t making the farmer and the sailors into monstrous beings. He is simply acknowledging the world that exists, both in the painting and outside of it, where failures are rarely “important” when they do not touch us closely, where the light that falls on our sorrows does so because “it had to”, because the sun (and rain) fall on the just and unjust alike.
I wonder how differently Auden would have written this poem only a few years later, when the Second World War had taught the nations how universal a tragedy could be—when we all learned a new word, “genocide”, not because it was new to the human experience but because we had been forced to see the concept in a way we could not turn away from, no matter how much the plough and sail called to us. I wonder how strange it might have seemed to him to turn to this poem after the London Blitz, after Dresden, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when suffering had occurred on scales too great to be encapsulated in this way. I’m not saying all of this to deny Auden’s point or the power of the poem. As Niels Bohr semi-famously remarked, “the opposite of a great truth is also true”—Auden is right about suffering, and wrong. There are days when the indifference Auden describes is too painful for me to envision, because suffering is not this isolated, and the world does turn its head to look, as it should. And there are days when I need the reminder Auden gives, when I need the context in which to understand the sufferings of the world, when I need that landscape to help give a sense of order to my vision of the world. I like the poem, in the end, because it articulates a way of seeing the world that is not at all complicated, while simultaneously opening me up to some very complicated thoughts about the world. And I like it because it reminds me that I should look at some more pieces by Brueghel, who never fails to reach me. This is a good way of beginning 1938—the last of the years before the world is engulfed in war—if for no other reason than that it makes me ponder how everything was about to change (and how nothing really has).
*I place this asterisk twice in my text simply to point out what can be read if you follow the links to Wikipedia’s coverage of the painting and artist—art historians now suspect, thanks to the help of technology, that the Icarus is in fact a copy (a very good copy, they suspect) of an original by Brueghel now lost, and so it’s not 100% correct to call the painting Brueghel’s. But Auden thought it was Brueghel’s (and so did everyone else) when he wrote the poem, I thought it was Brueghel’s (and so did everyone else) when I first read the poem, and to this day we don’t completely know the truth about it. Anyway, I love the painting, and my totally non-expert eyes see it as very consistent with the work we know was Brueghel’s, so if it is a copy by one of his students, they were really good at their work, and I’m grateful the work survived by that means.