Auden’s Vineyard 1/3

by onepuzzledspecies

Brueghel's Icarus

Here is one part of that Auden essay I mentioned in the previous post.  The ‘vineyard’ in the title refers to the following lines in Auden’s elegy for W. B. Yeats:


Follow, poet, follow right

To the bottom of the night

With your unconstraining voice

Still persuade us to rejoice


With the farming of a verse

Make a vineyard of the curse

Sing of human unsuccess

In a rapture of distress


In the deserts of the heart

Let the healing fountain start,

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise         



In “Musée des Beaux Arts”, the subject of poetic analysis is introduced to us in the very first line. The words “About suffering” prepare the reader for the topic about to be discussed, and create some additional expectation as to how it might be discussed. Already there is a tension: The words sound, on the one hand, as the title of a dissertation; on the other hand one could imagine them as a casual conversation opener, albeit in an unusual combination. After all, ‘suffering’ and ‘casual’ are two uncommonly paired concepts.

This ties in with a larger theme in the poem, namely the triviality of individual suffering when one looks at the ‘big picture’. Seen from the right perspective, the death of a child by drowning is un-dramatic: something to be observed, but that fails to make an impression. Auden illustrates this point by referring to a sample of concrete, everyday events and actions, partially repeating the items in Brueghel’s painting: walking, eating, ‘opening a window’, waiting, skating on ice, etc.  The people who take part in these situations are outside the range of significance of the suggested tragedy, and come to represent the indifference of the world at large.

Significantly (no pun intended), Icarus himself – the subject of the painting that inspired these reflections – does not appear in the poem until in line 14. The reader must roam about within the lines to spot him; search for him within the framework of ideas and images – just as an observer of Brueghel’s painting might not even notice the “white legs disappearing into the green water” unless she reads the title. By the time we “find him”, we have absorbed enough information about his surroundings that his appearance is instinctively compared to the other events being described, echoing the sentiment of the poem. In addition to the careful “physical” architecture of the poem, the idea of suffering is being placed within a context (in the middle of descriptions of more or less unrelated events) that makes us realize new things about the concept.

The fact that Auden chose to write about Brueghel’s depiction of Icarus rather than the story of Icarus itself adds another layer of complexity. Instead of ‘plainly’ writing about the relative gravity of suffering according to perspective, he addresses the Old Masters’ understanding and recollection of that subject. Although he lets his imagination take the impression of the painting one step further into the verbal world, and thus formulates his own understanding of the underlying themes, the narrative is reigned in by Auden’s own onlooker perspective. As readers, the repetition of how’s remind us that we are looking at Auden looking at another artist’s treatment of the theme. This has the effect of creating a distance to the statements made by giving us the impression that he is merely relating the insights of others, thereby seeming to welcome readers to make up their own minds rather than telling them what to think. In other words, this ‘double distance’ softens the impact of the assertive, lecturing aspects of the poetic voice.

In addition, it contributes to the ambiguity of the admission of insignificance, which is somewhat self-contradictory: Putting an event into a carefully wrought work of art is itself a way of asserting its significance. Things attain importance because we choose to see them as important, and we make them so by creating stories and art and meaning out of them. By writing this poem Auden can be seen to signal his own understanding of the importance of suffering – as an individual occurrence – as well as his recognition of the position and judgement of the Old Masters. This is emphasized by the short, powerful line “They never forgot”, which serves as a contrast to those lines describing the subjects of the poem, who are depicted as barely noticing: Everything “turns away”, everyone “had somewhere to get to”, except the artist.  In other words, Auden is implying the potential of artists to notice the details, the out-of-place, and the significant, and their ability to keep that knowledge or insight alive through their craft.

Stylistically, the poet’s diction reinforces the contrasts within the narrative. The lines about trivial tasks and situations (ll. 4, 7-8 and 12-13) are longer and seem more ‘aimless’, implying the endless possibilities of distraction from the tragedy being witnessed. The words “reverently, passionately” applied to the elders’ waiting draw the syllables out on the tongue as if one is being made to taste the waiting. They suggest something almost sublime, implying a depth and sincerity of emotion – that contrasts with the flippant “not specially” used to describe the attitude of the children. Colloquial and dismissive, “not specially” evokes the image of a shrug, whereas the refined “reverently” of the elders suggests an acquired, elevated language. An even stronger contrast appears when the childish phrase of the “dogs…doggy life” is followed by a reference to such a depraved and cruel figure as that of a torturer. The dissonance jumps out at us and catches us off guard, consequently sharpening our curiosity and attention to what is going on.

So far four devices pertaining to form and style have been identified: The distancing effect of looking at a concept through the lens of another artwork; the contradiction between the narrative statement and the implications of there being a poetic narrative in the first place; the reinforcement of ‘opposites’ to be found in the language and diction, and, not least; the intrinsic narrative contrast between the extremity of Icarus’ situation and the indifference of the distant witnesses, functioning as an allegory for the incongruity between a person’s perception of his place and importance in the world and the reality of individual insignificance on the large scale.

A common pattern of juxtapositions emerges as the major technical device in Auden’s poem, uniting the various devices listed above in a pattern of implicit comparisons. Auden uses a range of these juxtapositions – between people, figures, concepts, arguments and words – to create irony, ambiguity, paradoxes and contrasts. The use of paradox, in particular, has the effect of defamiliarizing the reader with the concepts that are discussed; knocking us out of what Victor Sklovskij termed the automatization of perception.  The poem thereby achieves a tension of expression, engaging the reader in a debate between truths, challenging and stimulating our imagination. However, the internal contradictory elements combine to form a coherent whole, so that the poem arrives, as Cleanth Brooks phrased it, at an “organic” harmony through the reconciliation of contradictions.