If you find yourself confused, thwarted, and frustrated when you try to understand poetry, fear not. Over a series of ten upcoming posts in the Literature 101 category, I will explain one method of helping you unlock and enjoy the meaning of poetic texts.
Let’s start with Step 1. This seems so simple, and yet for some reason I have noticed that many readers overlook it: stop and think about what the poem’s title means. In this post, we’ll talk about one poem in which understanding the title really sets us up to understand what is going on in the whole poem: W. H. Auden’s “Museé des Beaux Arts.”
When Reading Poetry, Take Your Time
Let’s back up for a second, though, to consider that, in general, reading poetic texts is not the same as reading regular prose. Expect to read poems more slowly, and to read multiple times, for one thing. However, reading a little slower is not at all a bad thing, as you can learn by reading and enjoying more poems. Slower reading gives time to savor the beauty, the language, and the ideas of a good poem.
Also, be aware that readers can’t always depend on context to help them guess what words mean, if they don’t know those words already. Truly great poems are built tightly and efficiently, so that sometimes the whole meaning of a poem turns on one word or phrase, especially the title. Sometimes the title of a poem is the only clue given about the situation being depicted in the poem. That’s why it’s helpful, before you begin reading a poem, to spend a couple of minutes looking up unknown words in the title and generating some ideas about what the title might mean.
I’m NOT suggesting you just go search for some website that will “explain” the poem for you before you have read it for yourself. That would be to miss the real value of reading poetry, which is to unfold the meaning and savor the beauty of its language and its challenging ideas in your own mind.
Instead, begin reading a new poem by doing a quick Internet search to uncover a few pieces of information you might need to make some sense of the poem on your own. There is plenty of time later, after we develop our own ideas, to look for other people’s interpretations of the poem.
Auden’s “Museé des Beaux Arts”: Understanding the Situation Described in the Poem
Let’s practice by reading Auden’s poem. As an experiment, try reading the poem on your own, without looking up any information you don’t already know:
Have you read it through a couple of times? Then let’s think about this question: in line 2, who are “the Old Masters”? Over the years, my college students have given a lot of different answers to this question, saying things like “they are wise older people,” or “they are people who have suffered a lot,” (based on the first line), or “they are people who are good at understanding others.”
None of these is exactly correct, which you will understand if you already know what “Museé des Beaux Arts” means. If you didn’t already know, how does your understanding change when you learn that it means “Art Museum”? The poem’s speaker is standing in an art museum looking at the paintings. Now, who are “The Old Masters?” The “Old Masters” must refer to the great painters of the Renaissance and a maybe of a few earlier eras. A lot of students have joked that the Old Masters are the painters with names like those of the friendly cartoon turtles: Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo.
So now, understanding the title of the poem, we can see that the speaker is standing in an art museum looking at a paintings by old master painters. The following lines in stanza 1 must refer to things he is seeing in one, or several, of the paintings at which he is gazing. Also with just understanding the title, it will be clear that in line 16, “Breughel’s Icarus” must refer to a specific painting. To understand this stanza, it will be helpful to see the painting, something else you can find easily on the Internet, or in the picture at the top of this post.
Old Master Painters, Suffering, and Breugel’s “Icarus”
Having understood the situation being described from information in the title, we can now follow the thoughts of the speaker through the first stanza. (Note: a stanza is a separated section of the poem, much like a poem’s paragraph.) First, the speaker says that the Old Master Painters were never wrong about “suffering.” What did they know about it?
First, the speaker says, that while some people are undergoing terrible suffering, other people are going about their business without noticing at all, “eating or opening a window or just / walking dully along.” Even martyrdom, which means undergoing horrific suffering on behalf of a cause (another word to look up if you don’t know it), “must run its course / anyhow in a corner, / some untidy spot.” Martyrdom of Saints is often a subject for master painters. We can imagine the speaker thinking about the choices different painters have made about how to show these scenes, such as including details like the “torturer’s horse” scratching “its innocent behind on a tree.”
When we read stories of famous martyrs undergoing their sufferings, we tend to imagine the scene as something that would be at the center of public attention. The speaker in Auden’s, poem, though, is saying that the wise Old Master painters are showing him, surprisingly, that the opposite is usually true. When people suffer, even for great causes, some folk may be aware of it. But many other people, as well as innocent animals like the torturer’s horse, don’t notice or care. The world does not stop to take note of one person’s suffering. Even “the miraculous birth” for which “the aged” are passionately waiting goes unnoticed by children who are at play. Like suffering, great miracles are not necessarily at the center of public attention.
But Where is Icarus?
Stanza 2 (the second section of the poem) provides an example of one painting that conveys this idea to the speaker. In Breughel’s painting, you can see what the speaker is talking about, if you look carefully. The painting is supposed to be about Icarus, the youth who was fitted with wings made of wax and feathers by his father Daedalus. According to the Greek myth, Icarus was so excited by his new flying ability that he flew too close to the sun; his wings melted, and he plunged into the sea. A dramatic story, but where in this painting is Icarus? What we see first and most clearly are the two rear ends of an earthy peasant plowman and his horse; Icarus appears as just a pair of tiny legs at the point of disappearing into the sea. The world is not stopping to notice Icarus’s tragedy and suffering.
The speaker of Auden’s poem is pondering the insights he gleaned from the paintings he is observing, and offers these ideas to us to ponder. He is also showing us that great paintings are not just pictures of how something looked. Great art conveys interesting, deep, and startling ideas about their subjects to viewers. This is an idea we can take from the poem and apply the next time we see a painting or a sculpture. What do the artist’s choices tell us, not just about how something looked, but about how things are?
If we begin any poem without knowing what the title means, it will be much more difficult to make sense of what the speaker is talking about. How much of Auden’s poem comes clear right from the beginning if we simply know what the title means.
Photo of “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Peter Breughel the Elder (c. 1525 – 9 September 1569) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
W. H. Auden by Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.