I do not know of a better combination of myth, art, and literature than W.H. Auden’s “Museè de Beaux Arts” (1938)—a poetic meditation on Pieter Breugel’s sixteenth century painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which is itself a stunning reinterpretation of an ancient Greek myth. The original myth was about many things, such as daring greatly, following instructions, disobeying parents, and invading the realms of the gods. Both the painting and the poem are more focused. They are about the human failure to notice stuff.
Breugel’s painting is a masterpiece of dark irony. It is a fairly typical Dutch landscape painting, with a seascape, a few peasants going about their business tending sheep and plowing a field, and, in the bottom right hand corner, a pair of legs sticking up from the ocean, completely unnoticed by anything else in the painting. This, Breugel suggests, is what suffering looks like to the non-sufferer: it doesn’t look like anything because we rarely notice it.
If we’re not careful, we can read this painting as something like God’s voice from the storm at the end of Job: “Get over yourself because what happens to you just isn’t that important in the grand scheme of the universe. So stop pretending that your suffering matters and figure out a way to live.” That, indeed, is how I read both the painting and the poem the first time I encountered them together, and I cheered this message because it fit with my worldview at the time–which was that I wasn’t very important and nobody else was very important either and we should all just stop complaining about stuff and get on with our lives.
But Auden works very hard to deprive us of this reading. In the first stanza of the poem, he combines Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with two other Bruegel paintings in the same museum: The Census at Bethlehem, which is about people not noticing the birth of Christ, and The Massacre of the Innocents, about the children that Herod killed while trying to kill Christ:
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.
The opening words, “About suffering,” misdirect us slightly. Only one of the two scenes that Auden examines here is about suffering. The other is about the greatest miracle in the Christian world: the birth of Jesus Christ. What ties them together is not “suffering,” but “not noticing.” The children skating on the pond (Breugel’s themes are biblical, but his landscapes are solidly Dutch) aren’t doing anything wrong, but they are missing the greatest event in history that is taking place just a few yards away.
On the other hand, all of the people in The Massacre of the Innocents know exactly what is going on. But Auden focuses on the animals, the dogs and the horses, who have no idea. The implication is fairly clear: an essential element of humanity is the ability to recognize the human stories—tragedies as well as miracles—that are taking place around us. If you don’t notice this, you might as well be a happy dog or a horse scratching itself on a tree trunk.
This is the insight that Auden brings into the second stanza of ““Museè de Beaux Arts,” which deals specifically with Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
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.
In Auden’s description of the painting, we can have no doubt that the people in it have missed something incredible: “a boy falling out of the sky.” If I am reading correctly, I believe, the best question that I can ask myself at the end of the poem is, “what amazing human stories happening in my world that am I missing because I am not paying attention?”
We human beings are unique in our ability to understand and empathize with the lives and perspectives of other human beings. But, most of the time we would rather not. It’s messy. It’s time consuming. And the Internet now gives us so many opportunities for recreational outrage and vicarious triumph that the joys and sorrows of actual people around us hardly seem to matter at all.
I’m not talking here about family members and best friends–or the people we love because they are just like us. Anyone can pay attention to their doubles. I mean the people at the margins of our lives–in our wards and schools and communities–where we rarely take the time to look. It is by paying attention to people who aren’t like us at all that we will begin to notice miracles and tragedies and boys falling out of the sky.
And it is also how we will find God. The Old Masters knew this, and so do the poets–since art and poetry are both mainly about noticing stuff. So is religion when we are doing it right. When we are doing it wrong, it is about reading old books and looking for God in the sky.