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“Musee des Beaux Arts” by WH Auden and “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Brueghel

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The first time I read the poem “Musee des Beaux Arts”, by W.H. Auden, I was under the impression that the poem was a simple interpretation of a painting. In order to fully grasp the significance of the poem, I suggest that one become familiar with the history behind not only the myth of Icarus, but also Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”. A thorough background allowed me to make a more skilled analysis of the painting-poem relationship and how it affected me.

In the beginning, I found it beneficial to analyze each piece individually. Brueghel seems to depict typical peasant scenery in sixteenth century Belgium. The farmer in the forefront who is plowing his field on the rocky hillside appears to be the obvious subject. Meanwhile, a shepherd and a fisherman farther away also tend to their daily chores. It takes careful observation to even notice Icarus; eventually, I noticed a tiny pair of white legs thrashing around in the turquoise water. If not for the straightforward title, many would likely overlook the most important aspect of the painting! The obscurity of the main character, who is obviously struggling just to stay alive, makes a forceful impact on an unsuspecting viewer.

Using the painting as a guide, I was able to re-read the poem with more careful consideration of Auden’s intended meaning. The more times I compared the painting to the poem, the more I extended my interpretations. Using free verse and a conversational tone, the author applies a psychological approach to Brueghel’s painting.

Opening with generalizations and moving to specifics, the poem focuses on Icarus’ fate in “Landscape” to verbally illustrate that individual human suffering is often viewed with apathy by others. Combining images of suffering and tragedy with the ordinary images of everyday life suggests that individual tragedies are individual burdens, as our fellow man often responds with indifference. The poem gives meaning to the cliche “Life goes on.” Each time a person suffers a personal catastrophe, often abandoned and alone, there are others who continue with their daily lives with no regard to the suffering and pain of their fellow man.

The first stanza gives only a general depiction of the injustices of the world, perhaps spiritual, perhaps social. A subject is never specifically identified. Auden alludes to Brueghel in the second line, but only generally, by mentioning the “Old Masters”. He begins the poem with indifference, much like that he criticizes:

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

At this point, the poem still had little meaning to me. However, Auden specifically references “Landscape” in the first line of the second stanza, as an example of human reluctance to acknowledge or sympathize with suffering:

In Brueghel’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;

It was this second stanza that prompted me to make a more comprehensive analysis of “Landscape”. This time, both works of art had an impact on me. The central image of the painting and the main theme of the poetry had both escaped me when I analyzed them separately. However, shifting back and forth between the poem and the painting, serious issues began to weigh more heavily on my heart and conscious. The concrete images in the painting brought to life the emotions expressed in the poem. I felt disappointed in myself as I realized that this poem was written about people just like me. I tried to attribute my immunity to such human suffering to the gloomy news reports that are so routine in today’s society. Yet, “Landscape” is almost 500 years old and the same indifference existed, perhaps even to a greater degree, in a time and place so different from here and now.

The irregular line length and erratic rhythm that underscore this poem distract readers from the rhymes (“waiting”/”skating”, “course”/”horse”) at the end of every line. The rhyming is so subtle that I was not even aware of it when casually reading. The simplicity of the language doesn’t require careful reading, so it is natural to quickly read the words like prose, rather than poetry. With this irregular form Auden was reinforcing in yet another way his claim of habitual inattentiveness.

After learning to uncover the hidden connotations of both pieces, I began to understand that Auden didn’t merely translate the Brueghel’s painting into words. Nor do I think that was his intention. “Musee des Beaux Arts” demonstrates Auden’s dissatisfaction with the ways of the world, but also his resignation that the world will never change. However, the literary value of the poem is lost without a personal analysis of Brueghel’s painting as a guide.

NOTE: I found much of this interpretation on the internet. Who could think of this stuff? It is not word for word, but I would still reword some things (reluctance to acknowldge or sympathize with suffering, tiny pair of white legs in the turquoise water)

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