My God - free verse! That most abused of forms used to elevate common schlock to the heady status of poem where, once deigned a "poem" in the eyes of its writer it becomes immune to critique and somehow sacrosanct. "How dare you criticise my poem? It comes from my soul and conveys exactly what I wanted to say! You're an idiot if you don't understand it! It's because you don't understand me!" Sigh.
Part of the problem, I think, lies in the name of the form. Free verse is not, or should not be, entirely free. It is free of a structured meter but is not free of other poetic elements. Naming a form after that which it is not does not help in defining what it is. It is for this reason that I want to consider Auden's magnificent poem Musee des Beaux Arts.
The first thing one needs to know is that the title, translated from the French means Museum of Fine Art. Although not essential for an understanding of this poem, the particular museum referred to is the Royal Museums of Fine Art in Brussels which houses Flemish work including that of Breughel, who gets a special mention in this poem.
Second, we can see that much of the poem's time is devoted to a description of The Fall of Icarus by Breughel. The painting is important and we will return to it later.
What is it about – understanding the broader context
Let's dive in. Auden opens on an inversion. Instead of "The Old Masters were never wrong about suffering" he says "About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters;" Although the poem goes on to describe paintings, he doesn't want the poem to be about the Old Masters. It is, instead, about suffering and so he focuses us in on it right up front at words 1 and 2. The poem is about suffering.
Then note that he refers to "Old Masters" with capitals. If you don't know what this is a reference to just google it and you will find that it refers to artists who worked before 1800. So we know that these Old Masters understood suffering. This begs the question: What was it exactly about suffering that they understood?
He summarises this understanding in lines 3 & 4. Suffering takes place while ordinary life goes on elsewhere. Suffering is an individual experience which doesn't touch on or remove the necessities and tasks of everyday life. Really, what Auden means, is that we have an indifference to suffering.
In the next line he introduces his first Breughel allusion: Census at Bethlehem. Poems that describe paintings as this one does are known as ekphrastics. Take a look at Census at Bethlehem. It looks at first like an ordinary village scene, someone is loading firewood, people are carrying sacks across a frozen stream, a pig is getting gutted, a man changes his shoes, a woman sweeps, a house is being built and children play on the frozen river. In the foreground on the left people crowd at a house to register for the census which has brought them to Bethlehem and to collect their meat (the pig being gutted) which is their reward for having complied with their duty. In the centre-foreground Mary and Joseph arrive unnoticed by the village, notwithstanding the passionate, reverent waiting for the miraculous birth. But we can see from Census that the waiting is not a standing around, a suspension of life, but a condition of expectancy while working through daily tasks. While the villagers go about their tasks of living the children play, not specifically wanting the birth (or anything else for that matter) to happen, but not being opposed to it either. They are indifferent to it. It means nothing to them.
The next lines introduce a second painting by Brueghel: Christ carrying the cross. Again, the theme of the work, Christ carrying His cross up to calvary, is almost over-powered and subsumed by the busy overwhelming activity of the rest of the piece. And again, there is indifference and oblivion to the suffering. This painting also warrants careful study.
In the upper right hand corner a ring of people have gathered whose attention is completely away from that which is occurring in the centre of the painting. Over on the right is the horse Auden refers to, scratching its flank, and up towards the top the dogs. Auden adds a new element with this allusion. The horse is described as “innocent” and the dogs are having a “doggy life”. Not only are they indifferent to the martyrdom and suffering of Christ, but they are innocent of it because, like the children, they don’t understand or comprehend it or its consequences. People are, in other words, not only apathetic of other’s suffering, but they can’t even comprehend it.
He then turns to Brueghel’s Icarus and devotes the last eight lines of the poem to it (after four for Census and five for Christ). Again, a study of the picture will help here. In case you don’t know the mythology, Icarus and Daedalus (his father) are exiled on Crete by King Minos. To escape the island, Daedalus, a master craftsman (he built the labyrinth for King Minos to imprison the minotaur), fashions two pairs of wings out of wax and feathers. He warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sea (which will wet the wings) or too close to the sun (which will melt the wax). Icarus is overwhelmed by the experience of flight, however, and forgets his father’s caution. He flies too close to the sun, the wax melts and he crashes into the sea and drowns. It was Daedalus’s craft-work that gave Icarus the means of escape from Crete. But it was Icarus’ inability to handle the tool his father had built that brought about his demise.
I imagine that Icarus must have screamed as he fell and that the observers in Brueghel’s scene could not have been unaware of the tragedy. Indeed, unlike the Census and Christ paintings, it cannot be said that they don’t notice it. Rather Auden says they turn leisurely away, the ploughman may have heard the cry and the splash. And, in fact, Auden says “everything turns away” and, indeed, when you look at the painting, they do. The ship, the ploughman, the shepherd, the sheep and the horse are all turned away (only one man and a sheep face Icarus). But it is not just a case of them happening to be facing away – they turn away. The ploughman heard the splash and the cry after all. In other words, it is not a complete indifference to the tragedy that is being played out before them. They realise it is a tragedy but cannot look upon it –they turn away. It is a tragedy, after all, just not a tragedy for them.
And Auden tells us why they have this attitude. We are indifferent to suffering not only because we cannot always understand it or its consequences but, more importantly, because it has no consequence for us. For the ploughman – the sun still shone and the sea was still green. The ship had a destination to get to. We all have things to do, lives to get on with, just like in Census at Bethlehem. We don’t often have the time to stop what we are doing just because someone who we don’t know has suffered an accident. It is rare that we will stop unless we have a reason to do so. We can only experience events from our own individual standpoint and their impact on us as individuals.
It is also relevant that the observers experience of the suffering is the same whether it is ordinary, on-going and long-standing (Census at Bethlehem), potentially miraculous and life changing (Census at Bethlehem), inflicted by the cruelty of others or even ourselves (Christ Carrying the Cross) or self-inflicted (Icarus).
The subject of the paintings Auden alludes to are significant as well. The first is the birth of Christ – a miraculous event which changed the course of history forever. The second is the death of Christ – the founding moment of an entire religious movement. The third, the death of Icarus, has been romanticised and philosphofied (if there is such a word). Humankind’s apathy or indifference towards these tragedies of history is an indication that at the time they were happening, those around the events saw them as ordinary inconsequential events, because they held no impact for the observers or, if they did, the observers did not understand this and their daily tasks would take precedence, even if they did understand them.
What Auden’s poem, and Brueghel’s paintings, focus attention on and celebrate are not the extra-ordinary history-altering events but the ordinary everyday currency of life.
For Auden, tragedy must be this way. This is the ordinary and usual occurrence of things. And the rhyme scheme contributes to this. If you look at the rhyming words you will see that they couple together and link the tragedy with the banal.
The only witness to Icarus fall was literature, art, Brueghel and Auden. The ship and the plough go on. Industry continues with its duties, only art pauses, observes and preserves.
The poem is an ekphrastic - it describes a work of art. But, as I think you will have recognised by now, it is not mere description. In fact, while there are sufficient allusions to lead us to Census and Christ he barely describes those works at all. Similarly, he gives us a direct reference to Icarus and spends eight lines describing the piece but doesn't even begin to do it descriptive justice.
Nor is it a case of a mere translation of Brueghel's depiction of suffering into language (although it does do this). Auden does something more: the three Brueghel pictures covered by Auden's poem all have the same basic effect, namely a turning away from and de-centralisation of suffering. Auden's poem does the same thing. He is faithful to Brueghel's central idea by under-emphasising suffering.
His first two words tell us that the poem is "About suffering". He then tells us that the Old Masters understood suffering best. But the first poem he deals with, Census, doesn't portray suffering at all. He walks us through the museum of fine arts in the same way that a museum-visitor would experience it - a dull walking along, viewing a picture and then another in no particular order. When it comes to tragedy, we are not witnesses but, like the ploughman and the shepherd in Icarus, we glance temporarily on the scene and then walk away on the next. Auden imitates this meandering walk through a museum with the irregular line lengths and the subtle, unobtrusive, irregular end-rhyme of the lines.
Direction, Time and Space
Note the direction of the piece, how Auden moves from generalities and abstraction (lines 1 – 3), to ever greater levels of detail and specificity. Auden also does a good job of demonstrating how the response to suffering which he describes transcends time and space. He is standing in the Musee dex Beaux Arts making a comment about human tragedy which was obviously true then, but which had been captured by Old Masters (pre-1800). And the subjects of their work span the birth and death of Christ to Greek mythology.
The rhyme is subtle enough that one barely notices it, but it is there, albeit with no recognisable rhyme scheme to speak of. The line lengths vary and the tone of the whole piece is rather conversational. There’s no “poetic” language. It’s as if Auden was standing in front of Brueghel’s paintings in the Brussels museum and chatting to a companion about what was on his mind.
Like Brueghel’s work, and like the de-romanticising of death, the tone belies the subject matter, which is anything but causal. This is remiscent of what we saw in Robert Frost's Design - a reflective musing tone about a serious subject, perhaps in part to make it more accessible and to lessen the impact of what is being said.