Musée des Beaux Arts

I was reading Indigo Roth’s latest post just now and, I’m not sure why, it triggered a thought of this poem, which I first read when I was about fourteen and it struck some sort of chord with me.  I probably had not heard of Breughel before then, I was pretty ignorant about painting.  But, being a child who needed words to trigger the imagination, I loved the thought of that picture.

I visited Brussels in my teens, but I didn’t then have an opportunity to go to the art gallery.  However, years later, Weeza worked in a hotel there for a year.  Ronan and I went to visit her there in early December – 17 years ago, nearly 18, he was only 13.  I’d thought he was older than that.

Anyway, my mother advised taking warm clothes “They don’t call them the Low Countries for nothing,” she said gnomically.  Whatever she meant, she was right.  It was absolutely bloody freezing, far colder than at home, ever.  We went on Eurostar, the first time we’d been through the Tunnel – it was splendid, and great to disembark right in the centre of the city, be met by Weeza and hop straight on the Metro to get to our hotel.

I was very keen to go to the Musée des Beaux Arts, almost entirely because I wanted to see the Fall of Icarus painting.  I haven’t been back to Brussels for many years (I visited Weeza again, but haven’t returned since) but I was surprised that the buildings were so dirty and so were the paintings in the musée.  Now, to be honest, I sometimes feel that paintings in this country are over-cleaned, but these ones looked as if they’d never been cleaned since they were painted, however many hundred years ago that had been.  And the layout of the museum was very poorly labelled.  We spent the first hour looking disconsolately at old religious paintings and didn’t enjoy ourselves very much.  I couldn’t find any guidance – though we did find our way to the Surrealists, eventually, and cheered up considerably.  Ronan particularly liked Magritte and Dali, so was pleased to see those.  I kept slogging on, though, determined to see the Fall of Icarus.

We found it in the end and I was enchanted.  Weeza and Ro clearly thought “is that it?” They declared, very politely, that they’d never go to an art gallery with me again.

I still like the poem, too.

Musée des Beaux ArtsW. H. Auden

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

4 comments on “Musée des Beaux Arts

  1. IndigoRoth

    Hey Z! This is a curious poem, for me. Structurally, thematically, it’s very different from anything I’ve ever read. Thanks for broadening my horizons. And thanks for the link, I hope Mike and the others enjoy my post too. Indigo x

  2. Z Post author

    I liked its obliqueness and, as an essentially prosaic child, I understood the point he made about the ordinary things going on while drama happens to someone else. I also loved the Greek and Roman myths, which I’d read since I was little, so I probably felt quite clever at getting the reference.

    Yours was a lovely post and I liked the flaxen photo too.

  3. 63mago

    Nobody looks at poor Icarus, the ploughman goes his way, the shepherd looks in the opposite direction, even the angler (with his cup of worms besides him) looks away, the “expensive delicate ship” just moves on, “e la nave va”. I think there is a second version where Daedalus is also in the picture and the shepherd looks at him (upper left corner) – so poor Icarus is not only ignored, but the successful other is at least seen, perceived.

  4. Z Post author

    Poor Daedalus, how horrifying it must have been, to watch his son fall to his death. If it were not myth, it would be too much agony to think about.

    It’s so often the details that are the most appealing in a painting, isn’t it? Especially when they show a touch of sly humour from the artist. It gives a flash of the painter’s personality.


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