reading poetry through art w h Auden William Carlos Williams

Reading poetry through art (I): W.H. Auden’s ‘Musee des beaux arts’ & William Carlos Williams’ ‘Landscape’

If literature is the peanut butter of culture, then art is the grape jelly that goes with it. 

stop motion GIF by Evan Hilton

Before the invention of motion pictures, ‘art’ would have exclusively meant visual arts, a la paintings and sculptures. With the swerve into modernity, art has seen its definition expand to include cinema and films. 

But is literature a kind of art?

After all, literary experience is so often enriched by artistic appreciation. Most of us are likely to read Harry Potter in a new light after watching its film adaptation, or respond to Christ’s ‘Last Supper’ with his apostles in a different way after seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s magnificent mural at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. 

The Last Supper 1490s, Leonardo Da Vinci
‘The Last Supper’, 1490s, Leonardo Da Vinci

It’s especially interesting to see how literature and art portray – and repurpose – religion and myth, observe the areas where these mediums overlap and diverge, and reflect on how such similarities and differences open up new avenues of interpretation. 

How does poetry differ from art? 

Back in Ancient Greece, philosophers the likes of Socrates and Aristotle had considered the intersections between poetry and art.

Specifically, Socrates pointed out that what makes poetry and art similar is their openness to subjective interpretation, despite a singular representation of objects, people and events.

This means that a poem is always going to be composed of the same set of words however way we read it, but the meaning we’d glean from this same poem could differ radically from person to person. 

This same phenomenon applies to painting. The concept behind poetry-as-art is called ‘ekphrasis’, which literally means ‘description’ in Greek, and is defined as:

A vivid description of a scene or a work of art within a poem. 

Basically, it’s the representation of painting through the use of words. 

differences between poetry and art
A particularly interesting point of divergence for poetry and art concerns temporality – how do poetry and art present time differently?

While poems may seem to have more temporal freedom (being of a more narrative mode of representation than art), this depends, too, on the genre of poetry we’re talking about.

An epic poem like John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) – being a narrative work in itself, would be a lot more temporally elastic than say, an Imagistic specimen like Ezra Pound’s notorious ‘In a Station of the Metro’ (1913), the entirety of which is just two lines – 

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

This relates to the age-old debate of focusing on ‘the individual’ vs ‘history’.

Is it the intensity of the moment or the expansiveness of our representation that matters more?

Should our concern be with the angle of the gaze, or with the distance of one’s perspective? 


Such questions, it appears, always seem to arise at major historical crossroads, like the first half of the 20th century.

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that the early-to-mid 20th century was a concatenation of turbulence and tragedy for the world, with WWI followed by the Spanish Flu and the Great Depression, finally culminating in WWII, which remains one of the biggest blots in human history.

Introducing W. H. Auden & William Carlos Williams 

Unlike hardcore war poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, W. H. Auden (1907-1973) didn’t necessarily portray the pain of war by depicting violence on the field, but more often, focused on the philosophical and psychological questions that came out of large-scale human suffering, like the two global wars. 

One such poem, ‘Musee des beaux Arts’ (1939), interrogates this notion of suffering with an allusive nod to myth and art. The poem points to Ovid’s account of Icarus’ fall in Metamorphoses via the Flemish Renaissance painter Brueghel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1590), which is an example of the ‘world landscape’ (weltlandschaft) genre. 

'Landscape with the fall of Icarus' (1590), Pieter Brueghel the Elder
‘Landscape with the fall of Icarus’ (1590), Pieter Brueghel the Elder (Can you spot the fallen Icarus…?)  

About two decades after the publication of Auden’s poem, the American Modernist poet William Carlos Wililams (1883-1963) would also publish a poem named after Brueghel’s painting, dealing with a similar subject matter as Auden’s ‘Musee’ but conveying it in a starkly different manner. 

w h Auden William Carlos Williams landscape with the fall of icarus
WCW PC: Poetry Foundation; WH Auden PC: Lit Hub

Before we look at the specifics, it’s worth paying attention to the title of each poem.

While Brueghel’s painting is featured in both Auden’s ‘Musee des beaux Arts’ and Williams’ ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, Auden chooses to name his poem after the museum which houses this painting (‘Musee des beaux arts’ literally translates into ‘The Royal Museum of Fine Arts’, which is located in Brussels, Belgium), whereas Williams names his poem after the painting itself.

Immediately, we see a contrast in the two poets’ distance with the object in question (i.e. Brueghel’s painting): Auden’s scope is more macro, and concerned with context; Williams’ is more zoomed-in, and buttressed by a desire to deal with the thing in and of itself. 

In this post, then, let’s close read these two poems alongside Brueghel’s painting, and see how the synthesis of poetic and artistic appreciation yields new ways of reading and looking. 

Reading W. H. Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ (1939): “the sun shone as it had to”

w h Auden Musee des beaux arts analysis

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 Brueghel’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.

Despite the heavy subject matter – suffering, the poem’s overall tone is remarkably blase. It begins with the hyperbaton of “About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters”, reflecting a sense of dislodgement, of normalcy uprooted and things gone awry.

Having introduced such a grave topic, however, the persona goes on to enumerate a series of mundane events – 

                                                                How it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or
just walking dully along

It’s hard to think there should be pain, death, torture, starvation and sundry other forms of suffering happening at the same time as we’re having lunch with friends, going about our household chores, or simply walking on the street.

Somewhere out there, something awful is happening to someone, but the truth is, 99% of the world doesn’t know – or care.

bart simpson shock GIF

Auden’s point is that this sort of troubling synchronicity is weaved into the very fabric of our daily existence, but we never really think about it.

Humans tend to consider incidents on a chronological plane (yesterday, today, future), but this poem tilts our temporal awareness from a vertical to a horizontal axis, and forces us to ask the difficult, but empathetic, question: while I’m living and breathing now, is someone else struggling and dying at this very same moment elsewhere in the world? 

While there are those in the first world “passionately waiting/For the miraculous birth” of a newborn, “there always must be/Children who did not specifically want it to happen” (perhaps those who live in impoverishment, where families suffer from constant shortage in resources).

Yet, the sharp, sobering truth about existence is that the world just doesn’t care that much, whether it be the greatest joy or “the dreadful martyrdom” – it’s all just part of nature and its grand scheme of things.

This sense of apathy is tragicomically expressed in the euphemism of “dogs go[ing] on with their doggy/life and the torturer’s horse/Scratch[ing] its innocent behind on a tree”.

A hero would be burning at the stake, but the dogs and horses would still have to take a dump and go about their days. 

puppy eyes GIF

Having set the scene, Auden alludes to “Brueghel’s Icarus” in the second stanza as an example of nature’s indifference to man’s misfortunes (notice how he establishes the big picture idea in this poem not through art, but words) – 

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.

The word “quite” is certainly interesting here, as it could mean either “fully, absolutely”, or “somewhat”. But the point here is that either way, it doesn’t matter, because Icarus’ fall into the sea “was not an important failure”, and that’s not just for the ploughman, but also for the ship.

This idea that somehow only events or lives of ‘importance’ deserve attention underscores the utilitarian brutality of a war-torn world, when there’s just too many deaths and tragedies for a single person’s life to matter.

What’s worse, keeping a distance from others’ suffering could also lead to the aestheticisation of pain, like how the ship saw “a boy falling out of the sky” as “something amazing” – a sort of a romantic spectacle.

animation drowning GIF by weinventyou

But this urge to aestheticise suffering is dangerous, because it turns everything into a cinematic experience, in that we consume, experience, forget, and ultimately, go on with our own ‘humanly’ lives after the ‘show’.

The prevalence of obligation modal verbs like “must” and “had to” is also worth noting: 

“There always must be/Children who did not specially want it to happen”

“even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course”,

“The sun shone/As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green/Water”

“The expensive delicate ship that must have seen/Something amazing…” 

When people say that someone “must” do something”, they tend to either convey a real sense of necessity, or a self-convinced belief that no other course of action could apply.

This sense of something having to happen is perhaps a coping mechanism for people living in precarious times, when their values are at risk of being turned upside down with every shock they witness in a conflict-ridden world.


But how could such incredible suffering happen, they ask?

And why does one not feel sorrier for those who suffer?

How is it possible for morally decent people to carry on laughing and living – all the while being aware that pain and suffering are happening every day?

And so, we will ourselves into thinking that such tragedies ‘must’ happen, only because they had and have to, only because it’s all just one other element in cosmic inexplicability. 


Reading William Carlos Williams’ ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ (1960) 

William Carlos Williams

Anyone who’s read William Carlos Williams’ work would know that he’s a man of few(er) words, at least in the context of poetry.

Periphrasis and verbosity have no place in his craft, which to a large extent reflects his modernist sensitivities as a poet.

While Auden is well-known for concision, when juxtaposed against WCW’s writing, even he can seem wordy. 

Here’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ in full – 

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

In ‘Landscape’, the poet starts with a journalistic tone (“According to Brueghel”), and interestingly, frames his allusion to Icarus’ tale within the artistic, not mythical (Ovidian), tradition. 

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

It’s like he’s reporting a scene.

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

This sense of reportage, however, cuts against the artificiality of end rhymes (“Brueghel/fell/spring/ploughing”), all which quickly fizzle out to leave behind weak echoes in “tingling” (stanza 3) and the final word “drowning”.

The way Williams’ poem begins is a lot more optimistic than Auden’s, with references to “spring” and its fertile harvest (“a farmer was ploughing/his field/the whole pageantry”).


Yet, the word “pageantry” suggests an unnatural, theatrical quality to the environment. 

As the poem reaches stanza 4 – 

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

– the phrase “the edge of the sea” would perhaps recall “the edge of the wood” in Auden’s ‘Musee’.

“At the edge of” something means being close to danger and disaster, which, in Williams’ case, forebodes the “Icarus drowning” at the end, but in Audens’ situation, reverberates with faint historical notes of 1939 being at the brink of WWII. 

But Williams’ observation of the sea being “concerned/with itself” exposes a problem that’s not as explicitly spelt out in Auden’s work.

It is solipsism, selfishness and the ready willingness of one to trivialise human misfortune that results in the tragedies of our world. 

black and white art GIF

This idea is reinforced in the last two stanzas – 

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

In “unsignificantly” and “quite unnoticed”, the negative prefix “un-” suggests the modern urge to deny, erase and unwrite what is significant and what should be noticed – individual suffering.

Not unlike how warfare wipes out entire generations, and how cruelty demolishes whole races of people (e.g. the Holocaust).

Just like how “everything turns away/Quite leisurely” from unpleasant events in Auden’s poem, so the splash from Icarus’ fall went “quite unnoticed” in Williams’ final stanza.

Humans are always too quick to ignore that which doesn’t have to concern us, as long as our conscience and memory don’t come a-knocking. 


Curiously, the poem ends on an abrupt note – but in continuous tense – “drown-ing”.

This, perhaps, is faithful to Brueghel’s portrayal in the painting, with Icarus’ legs kicking mid-air as he struggles against the engulfing sea.

And so the act of suffering, as it were, is suspended mid-frame, with the viewer and reader not being given the satisfaction of closure.

landscape with the fall of icarus icarus drowning
There’s Icarus in the painting – captured in mid-drown

At least in Auden’s version we get to zoom out at the end and turn away to sail “calmly on” together with the ship; Williams doesn’t even allow for this.

It’s as if he’s just switched off the television: the poet is the one who’s turned away, leaving us hanging, and granting no narrative, psychological, or philosophical coda. So there. 

But if we finish reading the poem being preoccupied with the ‘then what’ and ‘now what’, then perhaps we would have fallen into the ‘trap’ of being too “concerned/with [our]selves”, with our need to complete.

Get over it, Williams seems to suggest, because if we find suffering to be just like an insignificant, unnoticeable splash, then really, the need for resolution should likewise be just as unimportant. 

Stay tuned for Part II! 

To read my analysis of other poems, check out the posts below: 

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