Musée des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,The Old Masters: how well they understoodIts human position; how it takes placeWhile someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waitingFor the miraculous birth, there always must beChildren who did not specially want it to happen, skatingOn a pond at the edge of the wood:They never forgotThat even the dreadful martyrdom must run its courseAnyhow in a corner, some untidy spotWhere the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horseScratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns awayQuite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman mayHave heard the splash, the forsaken cry,But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shoneAs it had to on the white legs disappearing into the greenWater; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seenSomething amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.--W.H. Auden
Auden's wryly observant poem is maybe the most familiar example of poetry as art criticism, and has been widely imitated. Some of the imitations are direct homages to Auden's poem, like Billy Collins's:
Musée des Beaux Arts Revisited
As far as mental anguish goes,the old painters were no fools.They understood how the mind,the freakiest dungeon in the castle,can effortlessly imagine a crab with the face of a priestor an end table complete with genitals.
And they knew that the truly monstrouslies not so much in the wildly shocking,a skeleton spinning a wheel of fire, say,but in the small prosaic touchadded to a tableau of the hellish,the detail at the heart of the horrid.
In Bosch's The Temptation of St. Anthony,for instance, how it is not so muchthe boar-faced man in the pea-green dressthat frightens, but the white mandolin he carries,not the hooded corpse in a basket,but the way the basket is rigged to hang from a bare branch;
how, what must have driven St. Anthonyto the mossy brink of despairwas not the big, angry-looking fishin the central panel,the one with the two mouse-like creaturesconferring on its tail,but rather what the fish is wearing:
a kind of pale orange officer's capeand, over that,a metal body-helmet secured by silvery wires,a sensible buckled chin strap,and, yes, the ultimate test of faith --the tiny sword that hangs from the thing,that nightmare carp,secure in its brown leather scabbard.--Billy Collins
I'm sure William Carlos Williams also knew Auden's poem, but he found a particularly musical way to evoke his chosen painting:
In Breughel's great picture, The Kermess,the dancers go round, they go round andaround, the squeal and the blare and thetweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddlestipping their bellies (round as the thick-sided glasses whose wash they impound)their hips and their bellies off balanceto turn them. Kicking and rolling aboutthe Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, thoseshanks must be sound to bear up under suchrollicking measures, prance as they dancein Breughel's great picture, The Kermess.--William Carlos Williams