Reading Poetry during a Global Pandemic

What Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” Can Tells Us About the Current Crisis

by Andrew Millman

Executive Editor

For one of my now-online classes this week, a course on modern poetry, one of the assigned readings was W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” published in May 1939 while Auden was living in Brussels, about a year before Belgium would fall under Nazi occupation. The titular museum, also located in the Brussels, is renowned for its extensive collection of paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Three of his paintings (The Census at Bethlehem, Massacre of the Innocents, and Landscape with the Fall of Icarus) are referenced in the poem.

Both Brueghel’s paintings and Auden’s poems focus on human suffering, and society’s indifference to it, as principal themes, which obviously has relevance to the current moment in which the global coronavirus pandemic has ravaged dozens of countries and states. The indifference to suffering feels almost as relevant now as it did during Auden’s time. Large segments of the population flout stay-at-home orders to continue life as normal or even go on vacation, believing that the virus only affects other people, like the elderly and immuno-compromised, and not caring if they become carriers for the disease. Even more distressing, some conservative politicians and pundits have suggested that people should go back to work despite the continuing health crisis because, from their perspective, economic interests are more important than human life.

Now, I must confess that I was already a fan of “Musee des Beaux Arts” before it was assigned in this class. I first came across the poem in another poetry class last year. While I studied abroad in London last fall, I took a day trip to Brussels specifically to see the Brueghel paintings in the actual Royal Museum of Fine Arts. I have a poster of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus hanging in my apartment back in the Bronx.

Suffice to say, I had already read and reread the poem dozens of times, but this week I found new meaning in Auden’s words. Suffering’s “human position,” according to Auden was understood by Brueghel and other Old Masters, because it “takes place/while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” These lines reference Census at Bethlehem, which depicts Mary and Joseph traveling in a crowd to Bethlehem, imagined as a European village. Here, instead of central to the painting, the two are small and almost lost within the scene, where others are also dealing with hardship or just going about their day.

Throughout this whole ordeal, I’ve been shocked by how much casual indifference there has by on the parts of so many to this crisis based on the belief that it “only” affects other people. Many have expressed the desire to continue their daily lives or semester without interruption, even if that endangers the lives of many in their communities. The navel-gazing is not exclusive to Gen Z and millennials, as many on twitter and the in the media have suggested. Brueghel’s and Auden’s works are testaments that these attitudes have been common throughout history, whether it be eighty or five hundred years ago.

Brueghel’s Massacre of the Innocents depicts the eponymous biblical story (Herod ordered the killing of all newborns shortly after the birth of Christ, trying to prevent the messiah from taking his power), but superimposes the scene onto a Northern European village. As anyone viewing the painting at the time of its creation would realize, this alludes to the antisemitic pogroms that were rampant throughout the region at the time.

In referencing the work in his poem, Auden was likely alluding to the anti-Jewish violence and discrimination that was being perpetrated by the Nazis. Kristallnacht occurred just a month before the poem was written, so Auden would have been well aware of the painting’s relevance.

Auden devotes most of his poems to Brueghel’s Icarus, which depicts the mythical Icarus’s drowning as just a small part of the overall scene, obscured and small in a far corner of the painting. Instead of focusing on the drowning boy, Auden turns his attention to three other characters. The figure the eye is usually drawn to first with the painting is the ploughman at its center, who Auden writes “may/have heard the splash.” The ploughman himself is too far away from the scene of the drowning to have any chance of saving Icarus and necessity dictates that he continues on with his job to sustain his own life, so he is a neutral bystander with no ability to help the situation. The situation forces him to be indifferent to the horrific death, as there is no other option.

The vulnerable populations for this disease are those already at the margins of society. If you’re elderly or have a poor immune system (as I do), but you have the means to uproot yourself from an infected area or quarantine for an extended period of time (as I have been able to do, going back home instead of remaining in New York), then you can ride out this crisis in the safety of your home. However, if you work a low-paying job without benefits such as paid time off or have other circumstances that prevent you from following the CDC’s precautions, then unfortunately you’re out of luck in our society. Coronavirus has exposed many of the flaws and cracks in our social fabric.

Next, Auden focuses on the sun, which caused the incident then “disappear[s] into the green” after causing the suffering, and then continues on with its own day. Unknowingly and probably unintentionally, many of us have likely spread the disease to someone vulnerable to it and then just simply gone about with the rest of our day. We’re so focused on our own survival and continuing on with our lives with any semblance of normalcy we often forget that what we do can unintentionally impact others deleteriously.

Finally, there is a “delicate ship” in close proximity to the drowning and in a position where it could potentially save Icarus, but instead “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly along.” The ship, as the painting depicts, was traveling to a port, likely with good to sell, and believed that its financial interests were more important than possibly saving a life.

Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, said recently “do we have to shut down the entire country for this? I think we can get back to work.” Texas, despite having over a thousand cases so far and growing, has not issued a stay-at-home order like dozens of other states such as New York, California, and Michigan. People like Lt. Gov. Patrick are willing to risk the lives of thousands, if not millions, of people, so the Dow doesn’t dip below pre-Trump levels.

There is at least some comfort in knowing that this appalling indifference to human suffering is nothing new, it’s been with society for generations. Eventually, we’ve overcome that indifference to do the right thing. Eighty years ago, the Nazis murdered eleven million people in the Holocaust. Shamefully, the United States and many of the Allied nations who would later stop the Nazis’ reign of terror denied entry into their countries for Jewish refugees fleeing the initial persecutions, based on xenophobia and nativism. They believed these immigrants would be a drag on the economy. That indifference should be a warning to everyone that we should worry about saving lives first and personal or economic interests later.

Reading poetry in the midst of this global pandemic has given me some comfort that humanity’s overcome even more dire circumstances before and the worst of our tendencies that have been revealed by this crisis are also nothing new (and similarly can be overcome). Some people read or watch television to escape the present nightmare, but equally art can reaffirm our resolves and remind us of the necessity of treating everyone with kindness and respect during this incredibly difficult era we’re living in.

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