readings i

W.H. Auden – 'Musėe 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.
December 1938

Simon Gray in his Smoking Diaries records that he “used to nag away at Ian [Hamilton] about it, 'About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters' – how can you be right or wrong about suffering? And as for the 'Old Masters' – well, the old masters, whoever they were, were young, or anyway alive when they painted their paintings, they weren't being old masters, or masters of anything except the palette to hand, the canvas in front of them – so I would nag away at Ian, hey, what about the horse at the end, scratching its 'innocent' behind against a tree, what would a 'guilty' behind be like?” .. and on, for another page.

Gray's choleric disdain for Auden does come across as faintly absurd, almost hysterical – yet it seems a trace-memory of the patriotic brickbats cast at the poet for leaving Britain at the outbreak of war. It also hints at the charge of dilettantism often pointed at Auden, his fondness for the bold argument-sealing rhetorical flourish, the unearned authority that enabled him to speak, for example, of that 'low, dishonest decade' as if he had greater claim than anyone else to assess it as such. Auden's shabby patrician indifference to the commonsensical reading of the times, of a work of art, appears to scandalise Gray to the point of apoplexy; until he finally harrassed Ian Hamilton into admitting, “Auden stinks!”

In any case the poem belongs loosely to the ekphrasis genre, and – at least to the readers at the time of its composition, who'd been following Auden's career – works, stylistically, on a more discursive, essayistic level than his earlier work; the former with its verbal opaqueness and air of teasing enigma, its debt to Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, and exhortatory note. The register of 'Musée des Beaux Arts' is more that of casually learned disquisition, or something overheard in the Senior Common Room. (Donnish chit-chat, such as Philip Larkin portrays in 'Livings III': “Tonight we dine without the Master/(Nocturnal vapours do not please);/The port goes round so much the faster,/Topics are raised with no less ease...”) Far from signing up to Orwell's advocacy of political quietism for the artist in 'Inside the Whale', Auden experiments in this poem with a medium that is craftily engagé – a coded political commentary, ghosting the lines, and a considered, serious piece on the nature of art and the function of the bystander poet.

The fourth line enacts the image it conveys: scrolling out from the penfold of the stanza, it wanders off, just walks dully along, disrupting the symmetry of the poem's opening, indifferent to the prosodic requirement that it be metrically in keeping with the other lines... The thought itself, simply stated, sets forth the premise of the poem: the 'human position', which is one of incurious self-absorption, immersion in the works and days, blind to the scandal of suffering – or of 'something amazing'. (Note the terminal 'place' has no corresponding rhyme, a flaw that calls to mind the stray thread Islamic artists would leave in carpets, say, so as not blasphemously to presume to emulate God's perfection – out of this almost imperceptible 'crack' in Auden's formal framework, the aesthetic leaks into a brutally indifferent world.)

A commonplace, today, to dismiss Auden as a political naïf. His flight to the States some nine months before the declaration of war tends – not unreasonably - to be interpreted as cowardice – and, by the lights of what Milan Kundera has called 'criminography', we're at our leisure to condemn Auden for it.

The singularity of the birth of Christ and the Crucifixion – the fall of Icarus, too – are firmly lodged in the muck and mire of the material universe. Unobserved they may even be drained of meaning. Auden suggests – in a kind of tenebrous irony – that the aged who are 'reverently, passionately waiting' are themselves mortgaging their spiritual lives to a timeless instant (which may or may have not come) while those innocent of the desire to attend on 'the miraculous birth' are joyously, vitally free. (The 'waiting/skating' rhyme underscores the poem's central antithesis.) For one, paralysis and spiritual stagnation; for the others, blithe velocity and energy. The great topoi of myth and religion rely for their power on the 'reverent' and 'passionate' attention of their clients. Suffering's universality – its democratic licence – almost makes these exemplary tragic myths redundant. The ploughman will endure his own pain, and come to terms with it as he may.

Auden intimates in this poem the marginal quality of art (and religion as a symbolic act) in a period of political turmoil. Yet what Auden really means by 'suffering' seems to me to be ill-defined, perhaps evasive. That oftentimes it goes unnoticed, is true. But being unaware of something doesn't indicate indifference. The phrase “[E]verything turns away..”, enjambed so pointedly as it is, directs it moral thrust beyond the frame of the poem. The eclipse of magic can be countered by a retreat into the safely domestic; but the moral duty to tend to the suffering of others becomes proportionately the greater.

[For Alexander Nemerov's interesting art-historical study of the poem, 'The Flight of Form: Auden, Breugel, and the Turn to Abstraction in the 1940s', click here.]

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