How Art Inspires Art

A Comparative Analysis of W. H. Auden's 'Musée des Beaux Arts' and Dannie Abse's 'Bruegel in Naples'

Seminar Paper 2010 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Myth of the Fall of Icarus

3. Pieter Bruegel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'

4. Analysis and Interpretation of the Poems
4.1 Formal Aspects of the Poem 'Musée des Beaux Arts'
4.2 Content and Interpretation
4.3 Formal Aspects of the Poem 'Bruegel in Naples'
4.4 Content and Interpretation

5. Comparison of the Poems

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

'Ekphrasis or [the] description of a work of art by a verbal text is an ancient literary practice.'1 In our daily life, we are surrounded by visual arts all the time. For some of us those paintings, films or photographs are just products of an artist's creative work, for others, they are the greatest source of inspiration in life. Wystan Hugh Auden and Daniel (Dannie) Abse, two famous British poets of the 20th Century, both found their muse in Pieter Brueg[h]el's painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”.2 In two fundamentally different poems they point out that for them, both 'writing and the visual arts are ways of engaging with the world, ways of knowing' (MOORMAN, 50)3. Poems are verbal responses to a visual image, a response that comes from the deepest of the poet's emotions and that we commonly know as 'human intuition'. Moorman mentions that '[…] indeed, both, poetry and art speak to our imaginations through the power of images' (47). By comparing Auden's 'Musée des Beaux Arts' and Abse's 'Bruegel in Naples' we are able to recognise how visual arts can be perceived by its recipient and how poetry written in various perspectives can influence the reader.

This paper will deal with the interpretation of these two poems by Auden and Abse as well as with their comparison concerning the structure, formal appearance and content. More exactly, it will elaborate on the similarities and differences in reflecting Bruegel's masterpiece by having a closer look on the diverse perspectives of writing in connexion with word choice and meaning.

Before the paper will attend to the crucial questions of analysis and interpretation of the two poems in consideration of Bruegel's painting 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus', it is of immense importance to clarify and to explain Pieter Bruegel's painting in its most essential aspects as well as the myth of the falling Icarus by Ovid, to understand the context of the poems. Beyond that, the poems will be analysed separately. First of all this paper will develop the main aspects of structure and form in W. H. Auden's poem 'Musée des Beaux Arts'. Hence, word choice and content will be focused and compiled.

Dannie Abse's poem 'Bruegel in Naples' will be assayed in the same way.

Furthermote, the aspects analysed in the chapter before will be reviewed in comparison. W.H. Auden's poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” is often discussed. Thus, one can resort to a huge abundance of literature. Nevertheless, this mass of literature leads, for instance, to the problem of versatile terminology and dating, which might be confusing for laymen. In contrast, Dannie Abse's poem 'Bruegel in Naples' does not resort to a huge abundance of secondary literature. The part of this term paper which is concerned with the actual analysis of the poem's content, is based on my own thoughts, supported by a few elementary works and essays.

2. The Myth of the Fall of Icarus

Before we start to analyse and to interpret the poems, we have to explain what the myth of 'The Fall of Icarus' (Ikaros) is about. This has to happen in a rather short, but nevertheless essential way.

Icarus is a character of Greek Mythology. The myth was written by the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (about 43 BC - AD 18), better known as Ovid, who wrote the story of Icarus with educational intentions by displaying hubris, presumption and a lack of moral as negative attributes in human behaviour.

Icarus was the son of Daedalus, a famous Athenian inventor and architect. But Daedalus was a very envious man. One day he killed his own nephew who was a dangerous potential competitor. Accused of murder, Daedalus and his son Icarus were sent into exile to the island of Crete. Once Daedalus had constructed the Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete. In this Labyrinth the King wanted to hide Minotaur, which was the result of his wife's relationship with a bull. The King had plenty of use out of his maze. To make sure that Daedalus and Icarus would not expose the secret of the Labyrinth, they were kept imprisoned in a tower. But Daedalus wanted to escape. He made two pairs of wings made of feathers and wax to fly up to the sky. The father warned his son Icarus to fly at a moderate height, because if he rose too high, the heat would melt the wings. Unfortunately, Icarus ignored his father's warning and soared upward in the aim of reaching heaven. The blazing sun melt the wax which glued the feathers together, they dropped out and Icarus fell into the sea.4

The Myth of the 'Fall of Icarus' influenced many classical painters in their producing and even today it inspires modern artists. In the 16th Century the famous Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder created one of his best known masterpieces, 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' based on Ovid's Myth

3. Pieter Bruegel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'

Pieter Bruegel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' is dated about 1558. It was painted in oil on canvas in dimensions of 73.5 x 112 cm. Today, it is kept in the 'Musee royaux des Beaux-Art' in Brussels, Belgium. Bruegel was a representative of the Baroque, painting with an realistic background. Despite of his affinity to realism, he never simply copied his environment in its natural appearance: he had 'a style of painting that was about something' (FULLER, 318)5. From the beginning of his career, Bruegel's works invited pessimistic interpretations and most of them had moralizing or educational significance. The masterpiece 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' shows us a Mediterranean landscape, with the sea stretching from the foreground to the background of the painting. And there is Icarus, a character from Greek Mythology, drowning in the sea, looking quite ridiculous with his pale, naked, pedaling legs, but in fact, his appearance is marginal. His father Daedalus, who had a significant role in Ovid's Myth, is not shown in the picture. The important roles in the painting are reversed. Bruegel focused the peasant, the fisherman and the shepherd, who, in contrast, are marginalised in Ovid's story. They are all going about their daily business, while a young man is falling from the sky into the deepest of the sea, drowning. The painter calls our attention to the suffering of human beings. 'Trade and agriculture can take no account of individual fate, not the corpse in thicket […], not even a boy falling from the sky. An 'important failure' would be something like the failure of a harvest' (FULLER, 318). Consequently, suffering in Bruegel's interpretation is people's disinterest towards each other in society, which leads to reclusion and worthlessness of individual human life.

This different sense of understanding was what Auden was interested in while observing Bruegel's painting. Inspired by this masterpiece, Auden wrote a poem, which lies heavy on the reader's heart. It demonstrates all the pain a human being feels, as a result of daily recklessness in an elbow society.

4. Analysis and Interpretation of the Poems

To fully understand the meaning and the intention of the author it is necessary to know both: the formal aspects and the content of the poem. By all means it is not enough to see those two components in isolation. We have to take a closer look at the connexion between structure and content to find out, how they influence each other.

4.1 Formal Aspects of the Poem 'Musée des Beaux Arts'

If we initially contemplate the outer appearance of the poem 'Musée des Beaux Arts', we can see that it consists of two stanzas, divided into fourteen, or rather thirteen lines in the first stanza, and eight lines in the second stanza. For that reason, the association with a sonnet is not far-fetched, although, based on some conventions concerning classical poetry, one might expect a division 8:6 or a 12:2 lines sonnet. The first stanza is an introduction of the main theme of the poem, whereas the second stanza, by introducing Pieter Bruegel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus', gives the reader a specific example to understand the abstract idea of the first stanza. Auden's poetry contains long irregular lines, an irregular rhythm and an irregular rhyme pattern, creating a casual atmosphere which seems to be more prosaic than lyrical. At first sight, there seems to be no rhyme in the poem at all, but that is fallacious: in fact, 'every […] end-word has a rhyming word, even if separated by six lines' (MALAN, 27) and even though there is no clear regularity or order visible. Auden consciously creates these rhymes by using strange enjambements between the lines. 'Strange' in that case means that the ending of each line seems to be a kind of 'unnatural', ripped out of the logical, rational syntactic order of a sentence. There is just one line in the whole poem, which does not have an adequate rhyming word - the word 'place' in the third line of the first stanza is detached from any rhyme pattern. Furthermore, 'Auden deploys the rhymes to enforce a subdivision into something like quatrains and tercets (abca | dedb | fgfge | hhij | kkij) with the 'e' rhyme acting as a unifying link' (FULLER, 319).

However, poetry, and especially Auden's poetry, is of course not only made out of stylistic and technical devices, but also out of words whose '[…] message is a message about language' (REPLOGLE, 177)6. Consequently, the content of the poem will be analysed and interpreted in consideration of the formal aspects and their influence on the topic of the poem.

4.2 Content and Interpretation

As one of the most famous and important British representatives of the so called 'Red Decade' in the 1930s, Wystan Hugh Auden (1907 - 1973) doubtlessly followed the political left tendencies. In his youth inspired by Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, the older Auden changed his mind and turned towards Christianity instead of being engaged in Freudian an Marxist ideologies, which had later on an tremendous impact on his poetic practice.

'About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters […]'.7 By reading the first and the second line in the first stanza of the poem, the recipient immediately knows what the poem is about. It is obvious that it deals with suffering, but it is not clear what kind of suffering is meant. The usual English syntax of the sentence is inverted. The specific subject corresponding with the verb of the sentence was placed in the very end of the whole clause, which mostly is untypical for ordinary English syntax. Hence, there seems to be a deliberately produced emphasis on 'suffering', which sensitizes the reader for the following theme of the poem. But who are 'The Old Masters'? Those three words sound like an academic title, they sound like something of tremendous importance. The whole expression is strongly specified, not at least because of the consequent capitalization of the words. Old Masters were the '[European] painters of the 15th to 18th centuries' (MALAN, 26).8 By using the term Old Masters, Auden evidently refers to all the great European artists for instance, Peter Paul Rubens, Albrecht Dürer, Harmensz van Rijn Rembrandt or Pieter Bruegel the Elder.


1 http://traumwerk.stanford.edu/philolog/2005/11/ekphrasis_ovid_in_pieter_breug.html

2 Some historian critics spells Pieter Bruegel's name with <h>. It is not fully cleared, which spelling is correct. In the following, the name will be spelled in the obviouly more commen way, without <h>.

3 Moorman, Honor. 'Backing into Ekphrasis: Reading and Writing Poetry about Visual Arts'. English Journal, Vol. 96, No. 1. Illinois: NCTE, (September 2006): 46-53.

4 Ovid. The Metamorphoses. translated by: Gregory, Horace. New York: NAL, 2001.

5 Fuller, John. W. H. Auden: A Commentary. London: Faber and Faber, 2007. 3

6 Replogle, Justin. Auden's Poetry. London: Methuen, 1969.

7 Auden, Wystan, H. Collected Poems. Ed. Edward Mendelson.London:Faber & Faber,1991: 179. All unmarked quotations in chapter 3.2 will be cited from the primary source above.

8 Malan, Robin. New poetry works: a workbook anthology. Cape Town: New Africa Books, 2007. 5


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Warsaw University – Anglistik
inspires comparative analysis auden musée beaux arts dannie abse bruegel naples



Title: How Art Inspires Art