Friday, 22 August 2014

In Bruegel's Icarus for instance

Perhaps for want of trying on my part, I never liked W.H Auden's poetry very much with one or two exceptions and one of which is his poem Musée des Beaux Arts. In this he contemplates the works of the Old Masters and the messages they were imparting and, focusing in particular on Brueghel's rendition of Ovid's story of Icarus - the boy who tried to fly, but flew to close to the sun, the wax melting his wings and he fell into the sea.

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.

I like Auden's simple laconic description  - "where the dogs go on with their doggy life". It really says it all without really saying anything. It would not work so well with horses, cats or pigs. The cats go on with their catty life !  

I particularly like the commanding assonance which demands our attention in the opening line of the second stanza  - "In Breughel's Icarus for instance".

Breughel was a dutch painter - one of the "Old Masters" who was born in 1525 and died aged 44 in 1569. He was painting at the time of the Renaissance. His paintings are quite striking.

The Peasant Wedding

Netherlandish Proverbs

The blind leading the blind
WH Auden's poem leads us to re-look at the Ovidian myth of Daedalus and Icarus. The story is told by the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC - AD 18), better known to posterity as Ovid. The story is found in Metamorphoseon libri  or translated from the Latin "Books of Transformations" better known to us as The Metamorphoses. This magnum opus contains fifteen books and 250 myths. Many of these myths figure in the works of the Old Masters. The story of Icarus and Daedalus is found in Book viii.

Daedalus a wily architect had been exiled to Crete and placed in the service of King Minos who ordered him to build a labyrinth to contain the Minotaur, half beast and half man. Theseus, King of Athens, arrived in Crete to slay the minotaur. King Minos's daughter Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and persuaded Daedalus to reveal the secret of the labyrinth which allowed Theseus to slay the beast and make good his escape from the labyrinth. When King Minos heard this he imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the labyrinth.

Daedalus in plotting his escape from exile in Crete, made for him and his son Icarus a set of wings made from feathers and bound with bees wax. He told his son not too fly to close to the water nor too high. He then :

"kissed his son and, as the future showed,
This was a last farewell - then he took off.
And as a bird who drifts down from her nest
Instructs her young to follow her in flight,
So Daedalus flapped wings to guide his son.
Far off, below them some stray fisherman,
Attention startled from his bending rod,
Or a bland shepherd resting on his crook,
Or a dazed farmer leaning on his plough
Glanced up to see the pair float through the sky,
And taking them for gods, stood still in wonder.

By this time Icarus began to feel the joy
Of beating wings in air and steered his course
Beyond his father’s lead: all the wide sky
Was there to tempt him as he steered toward heaven.
Meanwhile the heat of sun struck at his back
And where his wings were joined, sweet-smelling fluid
Ran hot that once was wax.  His naked arms
Whirled into wind; his lips, still calling out
His father’s name, were gulfed in the dark sea.
And the unlucky man, no longer father,
Cried,   “Icarus, where are you, Icarus,
Where are you hiding, Icarus, from me?”
Then as he called again, his eyes discovered
The boy’s torn wings washed on the climbing waves.
He damned his art, his wretched cleverness,
Rescued the body and placed it in a tomb,

And where it lies the land’s called Icarus".  

Daedalus warned Icarus not to go to close to the sun but Icarus did and the sun  melted the wax which bound his wings and he dropped into the green sea  and that was that.

Lanscape with the Fall of Icarus

The landscape is classic or Arcadian so often depicted in the works of the "Old Masters". The sun is indeed shining brightly, the plough-man is busy ploughing his plot, the shepherd tending his flock and the fisherman is casting his line.  The sails on the expensive delicate ship are billowing  - everybody is busy doing what they are doing and life goes on but not for Icarus whose white legs are seen disappearing into the green sea. 

Here's another painting by Brueghel also in Musée des Beaux Arts

Winter Landscape with a bird trap

 Could this be the painting that WH Auden had in mind when he wrote the lines:

"there always must be 
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating 
On a pond at the edge of the wood"

In the Ovidian myth the plough-man, the shepherd and the fisherman are indeed present and they bear shocked witness to the flight and the plight of Icarus, unlike in the painting, where they are too busy except perhaps for the shepherd who is simply looking away. 

WH Auden published his poem in 1938 at a time when war clouds were gathering over Europe. We can picture him standing in front of the painting in contemplation of our indifference to suffering and how so often we turn away like the shepherd.


  1. Nice post, Phil.
    If my memory is correct, Auden and Isherwood were in Brussels writing up their account of the 1938 visit to China to observe the war with Japan.

    1. Thanks Brian - I think we have similar passions for history and poetry - and I think you must be right it was after their visit to China - where they witnessed war and suffering - and then, for them, back in Europe the winds of war were blowing the squalls of impending doom in a troubled world ……and then perhaps some solace or not …..reflecting on the Old Masters.

    2. Hi, Phil.
      Linking up history and literature: Auden and Isherwood started their trip to China in Hong Kong. They stayed first in a luxury matshed at Repulse Bay and then moved to the house of Duncan Sloss, the Vice Chancellor of the University. Both were very negative about Hong Kong, and neither mentioned (in anything I've read) that they'd been the guests of someone who by all accounts was a delightful and polymathic conversationalist! Especially significant because Auden was interested in and influenced by Blake and Sloss was, as you know, a distinguished early editor. I think they were determined to see the British in Hong Kong as nothing but racist philistines who didn't care about the Sino-Japanese War - in fact Sloss was a pro-Chinese campaigner, although unlike his future wife Margaret Watson and her friend Hilda Selwyn-Clarke he supported the Nationalists rather than the Communists.
      This is not of course to deny that their portrait of Hong Kong was completely wrong, but like everyone else they saw to a rather large extent what they wanted to see.

    3. Sorry 'to claim that their portrait of Hong Kong was completely wrong'. I mixed two constructions and this was NOT a Freudian slip as pre-war Hong Kong obviously had many of the elements they described!

    4. Thanks Brian - most interesting. Emily Hahn in China to Me laments the lack of focus in pre war Hong Kong on the Sino Japanese War and the struggle facing the Chinese from a brutal invasion of their country. She complains how all the focus in Hong Kong seemed to be on the war in Europe

    5. The online press at the time bears this out - it was generally the war with Germany that made headlines. In the period leading up to the Japanese attack there was a lot of focus on the Russian front. Generally it was Hong Kong's tiny far left that was trying to help the Chinese - just as in the UK the 'Aid China' movement was led by the Communist Party. Interestingly when Auden and Isherwood returned home they made no effort to help Aid China and soon left for the USA while Vandeleur Grayburn, who was Isherwood's main example of an ex-pat who didn't care about the Chinese war - well that's a story you know very well!

  2. Seem to have strayed back to history so let me add that my two favourite Auden poems are 'Get there if you can' and 'This Lunar Beauty'. But there are so many I like, mainly from the pre-war period. How about 'It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens'?

  3. Brian: I am going to check out these Auden poems you named - thanks.