“Musée des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden (Favorite Poem Project)


My name is Susan Hambleton. I’m a painter, I live in
New York, and I’m 58. I had a slow coming
into loving poetry because for a long time,
I thought it was way over my head. Well, my father had
always loved poetry, and when we were kids,
he not only read to us, I certainly remember me getting
a lot of Kipling short stories. It was nice kind of
understanding of the psalms, because we’d read a psalm every Sunday, too. When I was a kid, I always
loved art, and I had exposure to a wonderful book called “Masterpieces
of Art” and I loved going through it. And from early age, I
would say from about 4, I got to know this painting by
Pieter Bruegel called “The Fall of Icarus.” And when I was
in my early 20’s and then read this odd
poem, which of course makes a distinct reference
to Fall of Icarus, it just merged
together beautifully. My own understanding
of, you know, his grasp of the ridiculousness
and absurdity of life and my own seeing it from
my own childhood in this painting. “Musée 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 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 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; 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. I feel it’s very direct. I mean, I can’t claim I understand
everything Auden is saying, but somehow it’s just a two part
poem and yet it has such a fullness about it. Not only the beauty and
the sacredness of the moment, but it’s what’s happening
which is profane. Eyed outside the window or
what’s every day as well. It’s just a it’s like a whole universe within itself.
So that’s one of the reasons I really love it.

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