Decades ago, British novelist Kingsley Amis declared that “nobody wants any more poems about paintings.” I suppose he had a point, as many such exercises in translating the visual into the verbal come across as just that—mere exercises. There are notable exceptions, of course—W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” being one of them. An engagement with a marvelous piece by 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Breughel (the Elder) depicting the fatal fall of wax-winged Icarus, Auden’s poem invites us to reflect on how “suffering”—that common denominator of the human condition—“takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Observing how in Breughel’s painting “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster” of Icarus’ headfirst plunge into the sea, his “white legs disappearing into the green / Water” while the ploughman on the clifftop above holds heedlessly to his task behind his plodding horse and the ship in the shimmering bay sails on its way, the poet affords us perspective on a particular catastrophe relative to the larger canvas of general human history.
Its characteristic is floridness. It seems, in scenery and coloring, too fine for its subject. But when the artist’s judgement shall have been sobered down, somewhat, to the forcible simplicity of things as they are, we think he will be capable of a great deal. His figures on the left are well disposed, though rather too crowded, and too freshly tinted. Those on the right are very expressive and very good. The squire, or well-dressed young farmer, leaning forward, less to mark the chances of the bowl, than to put his ‘commether’ on the coquettish little peasant girls before him, is very well imagined and executed. The principal figure—yes, really, we should be much better pleased if that principal figure was left out altogether, by particular desire. The head seems arranged for an appearance on the stage, and it wears pumps—the figure, we mean. Moreover, the face is the very facsimile of a portrait in the room by the same artist. Mr. MacDonald has much to unlearn.
00000you were so taken with that painting