In this poem, art reflects art, but more interestingly, it also reflects myth. In this discussion of “myth” in poetry, I wanted to talk about how myth is so prevalent in culture that sometimes the subject isn’t even the myth itself, but the one who is talking about the myth.
The poet took a trip to the Museum of Beaux Arts and saw this painting:
Look at the painting carefully. Can you find Icarus? He’s difficult to spot and that’s the point. While others may suffer, our lives will go peacefully on. Icarus is violently drowning in the sea while the ploughman tills his field and the sheep herder tends to his flock. A ship is near him, but the winds are too violent and the sailors too busy to notice. After trying to touch the sun and falling, Icarus is cursed to his fate of dying young just as, “even that dreadful martyrdom must run its course.”
You know that with the poet is using the painter’s statement on the myth of Icarus to make a statement of his own. He’s taking this pastoral scene with a bit of violence off to the lower right corner and highlighting it. He isn’t saying, “this is what I say the meaning of the myth is,” but, “this is what Breughel says,” or better yet, “this is what we say.”
Has time changed the meaning of the myth? Or has time, with its luxury of perspective, added to it? Does Auden really see the same things that Breughel saw? When you go to a museum and look at a painting made in the 16th, or 15th, or 14th century whose subject is a myth or a sacred story, do you understand what the story said and what added meaning the painter is giving it? Do you see something very different from your cultural and distant perspective?
Spinning yarns over yarns over yarns. That’s the nice thing about myth, it can be deeply meaningful on its own, but its meaning can be added to, much as with all great literature. Even this poem, written in 1940, might now have added meaning with the passage of time and many added tragedies on top of World War II.
Musee Des Beaux Arts
by W.H. Auden
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
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 Brueghel’d 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.