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.