Daily Archives: 20 October 2009

#23 “Musée des Beaux Arts” (W.H. Auden)

W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” is a free-verse poem that makes an idiosyncratic observation about art history. If that doesn’t sound like a promising idea for a great poem, it’s perhaps symptomatic of what we’re learning this semester: there are no great poetic ideas per se, but there’s the possibility of great poetry in any idea followed with enough verbal inventiveness and energy.

I don’t know the precise pictures referred to in the early lines of Auden’s poem. But the device he’s talking about is familiar from many paintings of the European Renaissance. A momentous event from sacred history or secular mythology is presented, and in the background people are doing something awfully ordinary. Take, for instance, Carpaccio’s “Birth of the Virgin,” where Mary, Mother of God, has just been born to St. Anne. You’d think everyone would stop in their tracks and think upon holy things, but Anne, propped up in bed, needs some hospital food, servants in the background are seeing to the laundry and other postpartum needs, two critters that look like rabbits are eating some scraps on the floor, and Our Lady herself is fixing to get her first bath.

The birth of the Virgin is a happy scene, where such laid-back behavior is at least in character. But details in horrendous scenes from Renaissance art can share this same oddness. In Fernando Gallego’s “Martyrdom of St. Catherine,” the saint is about to be put to death by a method too horrible to be contemplated. But in the foreground, the artist has painted a little dog. He doesn’t look too upset by the proceedings. Why the dog?

Auden has his theory, of course: that such mundane details add to, instead of detract from, the sacredness of the events being depicted.

The artwork described in “Musée” is Breughel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” where it’s hard to see Icarus at all. There he is, in the lower right-hand corner, just having hit the drink, with his feathers still fluttering above him like a cartoon character gone very wrong. The picture is a masterpiece of indirection. But Auden’s reimagination of the picture may be an even greater work of art. As Oscar Wilde said,

The meaning of any beautiful created thing is, at least, as much in the soul of him who looks at it, as it was in his soul who wrought it.

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#24 “Dover Beach” (Matthew Arnold)

Matthew Arnold is one of the main inspirations for the Poetry Countdown: well, Matthew Arnold and Casey Kasem. Arnold insisted that we should study “the best that has been thought and said,” partly on the theory that life is too short to do anything else. Arnold’s idea is a profoundly humanist thought, one that might scandalize a religious dogmatist or provoke the scorn of a postmodernist.

As one of the great humanists, Arnold often pictured himself alone in the world. Religious certainty eluded him, though he often wished that religion could be accepted unquestioningly. “Two things about the Christian religion must surely be clear to anybody with eyes in his head,” wrote Arnold. “One is, that men cannot do without it; the other, that they cannot do with it as it is.” Because he couldn’t accept religion or do without it, he found himself, as he says in another poem, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, / The other powerless to be born,” and in yet another poem, he pictured each human individual as alone on an island in the middle of the “unplumbed, salt, estranging sea.”

Aside from establishing Matthew Arnold as one of the most quotable guys of the 19th century, these snippets from his writings establish a context for his greatest poem, “Dover Beach.” Here, too, he uses imagery of oceans and isolation, though somewhat in reverse: the “Sea of Faith” that was once so comforting has no withdrawn, leaving us high and dry.

The solution? There is no good solution, but the speaker of “Dover Beach” suggests that we “be true / To one another,” in a deeply humanist answer to a universe that may well make no sense at all.

This is another poem in the grand Victorian mode, like “Ulysses”, and just as noble in sentiment. Unlike “Ulysses,” though, “Dover Beach” employs a “free-rhyming” form that is looser than stanza form or blank verse. It is as if the speaker were trying out an idea that wouldn’t fit in the formulas of verse established for English by Shakespeare and Milton. In that respect, “Dover Beach” is a very “modern” poem, one that confronts uncertainties (“negative capability” again) with its own kind of plain-spoken grandeur.

#25 “The Convergence of the Twain” (Thomas Hardy)

One of the most amazing scientific feats of my lifetime was Robert Ballard’s discovery of the ruins of the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The Titanic, as its name suggests, is a pretty large object, but looking for it on the sea floor was like trying to find a contact lens on a hockey rink.

The photos Ballard’s team took of Titanic artifacts impressed me all the more because they seemed to be a case of life imitating art. Imitating, specifically, “The Convergence of the Twain”, Thomas Hardy’s great poem. Objects that Ballard’s expedition found on the ocean’s floor (note: brief slideshow) seemed to echo lines from Hardy’s poem. The “gilded gear” that Hardy imagined in the immense loneliness of the ocean depths came to life in the expedition’s photography.

“The Convergence of the Twain” is a very grand poem, full of unusual words, an attempt to throw all the resources of the English language at one of the most momentous historical events of Hardy’s lifetime. Two of the common elements of Countdown poems are operating in “The Convergence” at full throttle. First, there’s the imagination of something sublime (the “Immanent Will” that brings ship and iceberg together), realized in precise, sharply-etched details.

Second, there’s the strongly heightened, energetic language. The poem, like many we’re studying, has a unique form. Each three-line stanza rhymes AAA, with the first two lines very short and the third very long indeed. The effect is oddly like that of waves, retreating, building, and breaking again – in fact, Hardy imagines “cold currents” at the bottom of the sea, though one supposes that in real life there are no waves there, and not much movement of any kind. The effect, whatever its verisimilitude, is that of ceaseless, inexorable movement.

“The Convergence of the Twain” is an attempt to do justice in art to an event too enormous to contemplate by any other human means – and to imagine the aftermath of a disaster that it took another 75 years of technological progress to uncover.