Wystan Hugh Auden
WH Auden has two identities. He is, many would argue, the greatest English lyric poet of the 20th century. He is also, few would deny, a top-ranked American lyric poet of a rather different, more reflective character. Auden is, in one of his many parts, a religious poet, concerned as much with the human spirit as John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The 1930s were, as he memorably put it, ‘The Age of Anxiety’ and ‘a low dishonest decade.’ Along with the so-called ‘gang’ – Spender, Christopher Isherwood and himself at the centre – he spent time in pre-Nazi Germany, cultivating personal and literary freedoms. He travelled obsessively to scenes of war, notably Spain and China. War would be, in his term, ‘the climate of his time’.
‘Musée des Beaux Arts’
Ekphrasis poetry is a vivid, often dramatic, and verbal description of a visual work or art or scene, either real or imagined, which is produced as a rhetorical exercise by the poet. Having based on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ is not, in itself, a difficult poem, but it is baffling, if one does not know where it is coming from. The ‘Musee’ herein is the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, in Brussels.
In the Fall of Icarus, there are no seething crowds here. The painting is a parable on human aspiration. Icarus, ambitiously, flew too near the sun and plunged into the sea and was drowned after the wax holding his wings together melted. If looked carefully, one can see “the white legs disappearing into the green water.” They are dwarfed by the horse’s rump. Most visitors to the Museum miss the detail which gives the poem its title.
The poem explains “how everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster.” Earth abides: the ploughman ploughs. Trading vessels go about their commercial business. Life goes on. The death of an unlucky aviator is of no more importance than the fall of a sparrow. Mankind deludes itself if it thinks otherwise. The poem is explaining the notorious eccentricallity of the world at the fall of Icarus, an event that was given high importance by the poets of the past—but for the modern man “it was not an important failure” and this is how it has lost its value and charm altogether, may be due to materialism.
The poem is an exquisitely written sermon, advocating stoicism, and does not mean anything without the pictures—and it is completely dependent on things outside itself.
The poem has no rhyme scheme – it’s a stream of unstructured consciousness.
The critic John Fuller argues that this was in Auden’s mind when he took the first line of ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ away from the syntax of ordinary speech: ‘About suffering they were never wrong…’ rather than, say, ‘The Old Masters were never wrong’.[ W. H. Auden: A Commentary (London: Faber, 1998), p. 266.]
Importantly, though, like Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’ (1952), ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ is a poem, rather than a painting, and cannot present a variety of scenes together at the same time, backgrounded or foregrounded: it unfolds rhythmically in time, with long lines that hide tight argumentation behind its deceptively conversational tone.
'The Shield of Achilles'
'The Shield of Achilles', be warned, is Auden’s most terrible poem – terrible because it is hopeless. It is a powerful rejection of war-related violence.
War which threatened to destroy civilisation was the background to Auden’s life–from the Great War of 1914–1918, through WW2, to the cold war, with its imminent threat of planetary extinction within four minutes from the launch of the rockets. The first H-bombs, weapons of awesome destructive power, were exploded a few months before Auden published the poem.
20th-century war bore no resemblance to the heroic conflict chronicled in the oldest, greatest poem we have – Homer’s The Iliad – the story of the Trojan War. Auden had been sent, by the US military authorities to examine damage in post-war Germany. What he saw left an indelible mark on him. Equally as terrible as the actual destruction was the wasteland which modern war left: there are few more chilling lines in the whole of English verse than the stanza beginning ‘A ragged urchin.’
Some understanding of the mythological framework of the poem is necessary. Thetis, the mother of the great Greek warrior Achilles had the armourer Haphaestus forge, and ornament, a shield for her son to protect him in battle. Emblazoned on it were all the things a ‘good war’ is fought for. See the stanzas beginning ‘She looked over his shoulder.’ But what, in the age of Auschwitz, Dresden, Hiroshima, would be etched on the shield? The poem gives a grim answer.
In the poem, Auden questions the validity of traditional notions of honour and fair war in an age in which war has become mechanised and impersonal. The poem references Homer’s The Iliad, in which Thetis, mother of the warrior Achilles, asks Hephaestus to forge a shield. Achilles’ shield is beautifully engraved with scenes representing war and peace, work and leisure. In his poem, Auden re-imagines how the shield of a modern Achilles would look in the modern age, when the rules of war and the role of the hero have been rewritten. The poem explores the complex relationship between art and war, and the ethical problems that the representation of violence for aesthetic purposes entails.
The poets, as said by PB Shelley, ‘are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ No poet of the 20th century fulfilled that role better than Auden.
In this second lecture on W.H. Auden, the relationship between art and suffering is considered in Auden’s treatment of Brueghel’s “Fall of Icarus” in the poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Auden’s reflections on the place of art in society are explored in the elegies “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.”