For my penultimate entry, we will once again be visiting one of my favorite poets, W.H. Auden. He often used art and scenes from the past as inspiration for his works, a method I have also found to be very rewarding. It is wonderful when you find an artist (either visual or musical) who has the same appreciation for other artists that you do. That sweet moment when you hear a band you love reference a prior band that you also love and realize that they are fans just like you are. It stacks, and you have a piece of art with a depth of personal meaning that is deeper for it.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder is one of my favorite artists. He was a Dutch Renaissance painter who lived in the first half of the 16th Century. You undoubtably know his works but may not know who painted them. The style is creative, busy, captivating, complex, and sometimes mythological in subject. “The Tower of Babel” is one famous work of his, but I have always been fascinated with “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”.

Auden was as well, it seems, and although he is not the only poet to write about the painting, his result is my favorite. “Musée des Beaux Arts”, named for the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique (the museum where the painting resides), is a piece about what is unseen. A lot of Bruegel’s works were also about village life— his unique take on it, but regular people nonetheless. Life is about perspective: things happen in the foreground and the background for each of us, that are only noticed when they impact our own path.

Look at the painting first, just for a moment, as you would any other you came across. It’s a beautiful landscape of a port city with its usual comings and goings. Then read the poem and look again. So much is happening around us that we naturally filter out. What are we missing, I wonder— maybe something… amazing?


Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

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.

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.


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