“Musée des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden

"Musée des Beaux Arts" was the first poem I memorized, when I was about fifteen. I knew little about the world or about painting, either, having grown up in Denver at a time when there was no art museum. But like all teenagers, I knew something about suffering, and reading the poem for the first time, I got that shiver along my spine (an effect still produced)and I thought to myself: Yes, this is the way the world goes. Years later, of course, I saw the Breughel painting and decades after that, I was given a beautiful charcoal and ink drawing of a decidedly childlike Icarus, plunging head-downwards and helplessly into a very dark and ominous sea. It hangs in my apartment today.

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
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.

This poem was selected by js, liu post faculty.

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