Saturday, December 19, 2009

Poem of the Day: Musée des Beaux Arts

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.

-- W. H. Auden
For some reason, every online text of the poem I saw lacked a capital at the beginning of the final line; having checked the print version in my copies of both Auden's Collected Poems and his Selected Poems, this seems like a repeated mistake. So I fixed it.

The painting (source):

(click for larger version)

(To be honest, I've never liked the painting nearly as much as the poem. But I guess at the end of the day I'm a word person. (Also, I've never seen the original; perhaps it just doesn't come through in the crappy web reproductions.) Interestingly, according to the painting's wikipedia page's reporting of a scholarly article, recent technical analysis indicates that the extant one seems to be a copy of a Bruegel and not the original work.)

A video of Auden himself reading the poem:

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