Musee des Beaux Arts
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 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.
I’m not sure when I first read this poem. I remember in French class one assignment was to write post cards from different places and I chose assorted museums. (I’m better at foreign art than languages I’m afraid.) This was one, and I tried (badly I’m sure) to discuss the poem in French.
I knew it was based on a painting that was in turn based on classical mythology; this version is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s the story of Daedalus and Icarus.
Daedalus was one of the greatest inventors of his age. Then his nephew Perdix showed signs of outdoing him, so he set up the boy to fall to his death. Athena saved Perdix by turning him into a partridge.
Daedalus and his son Icarus fled and got work for King Minos. There he created many things, built the Labyrinth and then was imprisoned so that no one would find out its secrets. Daedalus built wings out of feathers and wax for himself and his son. He warned his son not to fly too close to the waves for fear the spray might crack them, nor too close to the sun for fear the heat would melt the wax. Icarus enjoyed the flying too much, flew too high, the wax melted and he crashed into the sea and died.
Some versions have the partridge Perdix around to watch these events and see himself avenged. Later ones have Minos hunting Daedalus and Daedalus’s pupils saving him in the end.
There were a few things I didn’t know then. For instance I thought the painting was by Pieter Breughel, apparently now it’s believed to be a good copy of a lost original by Breughel. It is thought to be a copy because it was done in oils (with two layers of the ominous lead white) rather than tempera, which was the material Breughel used when working on canvas. But the style is considered his.
Daedalus isn’t in the painting. Some experts wonder if he was in the original, and that the shepherd staring into space in this painting was staring at a flying man in the original.
Breughel took care to paint elements Ovid mentioned: fisherman, shepherd and ploughman are all here with the tools of their trades.
There’s also a small bird, a partridge. In the legend Athena turned Perdix into a partridge, and here he sits watching his cousin fall.
Auden’s poem struck me as viewing the painting’s world as a combination of wearing down of daily life and indifference, each person lost in their own struggles. I guess I didn’t pay much attention to the pretty brutal moral components attributed to the painting.
Oddly enough it’s on two intersecting points of Greek paganism and Christianity: pride and punishment. (That’d made for a much more depressing book, I’m sure.) Icarus’s death is either viewed as the result of his own pride or else as a punishment for his father’s crimes.
Both emphasize the insignificance of a single human life against fate/gods. The painting underlines this with the futile flailing of Icarus juxtaposed with all the people staying in their place and working fruitfully. (So perhaps a measure of social control fits in here somewhere?)
Presumably it’s that intersection of values that made the myth a good choice for a painting. It lines up with the morality of the times, has respected historical pedigree, and gave the artist a chance to show off his skills at a range of painting genres.
I still like Auden better.