"we can only do what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective.”

-W.H. Auden

Reading with the Old Masters

I sat in a coffee shop attached to Sears Department Store on the corner of State and Madison in downtown Chicago. It was Valentine’s Day, my freshman year of college, and I was not with a date. Rather I was with Jake, my former high school English teacher who was taking me to my first opera that evening, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. We sat there, on the second story of the coffee shop, overlooking the street below, and Jake read me a poem. I was not expecting much. I did not like poetry, and I was grieving the loss of my father. Sensations were deadened; the subtle beauties of poetry were lost on me. Yet when Jake read the poem, I felt a spark of something small inside. “Who is that?”

“W.H. Auden. The poem is called ‘Musée des Beaux Arts,’” Jake replied. I asked him to read it again. He did. Then I asked to see the book. I read the poem to myself. “He’s right. Nobody cares.” Eager to regain the only companion who could relate to my grief, I bought Auden’s Selected Poems the next week. My first book of lyric poetry.

*

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 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.
-- Musee des Beaux Arts W.H. Auden, 1940

 

As a child, reading always played a visible role in my life. Until I was thirteen years old, my evangelical mother read the Bible to me every night before I went to bed, using an illustrated children’s Bible and then moving on to the actual Bible when I turned eleven. In elementary school when I started to read on my own, a year later than my peers, I gravitated to the Berenstain Bears series. As I entered my teens, I read science fiction, Agatha Christie mysteries, and Michael Crichton thrillers. These works were soon supplanted by those of modern novelists—Camus, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, and Huxley—in addition to what was required of me at school. But despite the considerable amount of reading I did, I have almost no recollection of reading poetry. Only a few incidents stand out.

In second or third grade, I stumbled across my sister’s Shel Silverstein volumes. They amused me, although now I only remember two of the poems—the book-length poem, The Giving Tree, which I found particularly tragic, and his poem “Sick,” from the book Where the Sidewalk Ends. The poem is a monologue by a young hypochondriac, Peggy Ann McKay, in which she tries to convince a parent that she is too sick to go to school. Then she finds out that it is actually Saturday. A resentful student, I thought Silverstein’s poem incredible, if for no other reason than I wanted to miss school myself. This poem, which I can still recite from memory, was the only positive reading experience I had with poetry until I was in college. The only other memory I have of reading poetry prior to college was as a senior in high school. My class read Emily Dickinson’s “I like to see it lap the miles.” I am sure that I read other poetry—certainly Poe and Whitman—but I do not remember. The only reason that I remember Dickinson’s poem is because I thought it was odd that someone would write a poem about trains.

Poetry, for me, was a cryptic language, something that took far too much effort for what it yielded–a sort of Finnegan’s Wake. It probably did not help that my only encounter with poetry was in school, where English teachers force-fed the stuff. Maybe my reaction was as much a reaction against school as it was against poetry. If I was introduced to poetry outside of school as I was with all the authors that I enjoyed, maybe I would have been keen on it. This was impossible, though. No one in my home read poetry. In fact, though I have looked through the thousands and thousands of books that my family owns—most of them volumes on psychology, business, medicine, or Biblical studies—I have come across only two books of poetry, T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems and The Book of Folly by Anne Sexton. When I found the books as a sophomore in college and asked about them, my mother explained that she had been assigned the Eliot poetry for a class in college. She doesn’t remember any of his poems. No one knows where the Ann Sexton came from.

While I have no real memory of reading poetry during this period of my life, I apparently wrote quite a bit in school. I recently stumbled across a folder of my writing from the age of nine or ten to twelve which included several poems among the narratives and short stories. All of the poems exhibit a sense of melancholy and self-aggrandizement. I was in sixth grade when I wrote “Understanding”:

I do not understand
How Jordan dunks a basketball,
Or why people shot Lincoln. 
But the things I do not understand most are
How the body works, 
Why people think I am a genius,
And why teachers say I am disorganized. 
Things I understand the most are,
How I think and sometimes act,
Baseball
And boredom.
-- David Michael

 

I didn’t enjoy writing poetry, though. Many of the poems display a disdain for English class. At the bottom of one poem, I drew a picture of a door with the words “reading class” above it. Then I scrawled the word “yuck.” I suppose I became slightly more interested in poetry during high school, not directly, but through lyrics. I formed a band with some friends of mine (I was the bass player), and they dubbed me the lead singer. The love affair was short-lived, though. I wrote one song; I sat down at my computer and typed it in ten minutes. I distinctly recall writing the words “maybe I’m just menstruating” to convey some adolescent isolation I was then feeling. That didn’t go across so well: “Do you really want to sing the word ‘menstruating’?” asked the drummer, eyebrows furrowed as he glanced over the lyrics. I didn’t write anything after that. When Jake, then a fresh college graduate and the teacher of my sophomore English class, asked his students to write poems, I convinced a friend to write one for me. He played the guitar. He must be able to write poetry, I reasoned. So it was that I came to college knowing almost no poetry. I had given up on it.

*

I showed up at college with the intention of going on to medical school. That fall I slogged through chemistry and calculus. Then, my father died. It was a quick affair. He was diagnosed with cancer in late October. He was dead three and a half weeks later. I buried my head in chemistry problems because I did not want to think about his death. The sterility of chemical laws and the periodic table is a wonderful sedative—temporarily.

After Christmas, I returned to the snow-covered campus and to a desk in a room where I sat alone with my grief. I plummeted into depression. The dorm was alive; the boys in the room next door played video games frantically, yelling loudly when they killed their 128-bit victims. Friends talked about dates and about classes and about plans for the summer. I trudged to class and to counseling and to health centers for psychiatric care and back to my room. I started to withdraw from people. In my “small group”—an odd phenomenon of the Evangelical subculture in which people share far too much of their lives and then talk about Jesus—I would sit silently, declining to pray with the others. I was alone. In an essay I wrote a year later, I returned to “Musée des Beaux Arts” to describe my depression:

  Landscape with the Fall of Icarus  Pieter Bruegel

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Pieter Bruegel

“Like most of my friends, God had turned his back on my suffering, and like the expensive ship in Bruegel’s Icarus, life sailed on, never stopping to help the boy falling out of the sky or to let me wipe the tears from my eyes. He had died so quickly that I never figured out what happened; I was left at the foot of my father’s hospital bed.”

*

Butterfly: “Too much light shines outside / And too much laughing spring. / [pointing to the windows] Close them.” A few minutes later, Butterfly takes a dagger and stabs herself in the heart. In the production that I saw, she pulls out a long red streamer, the blood flowing onto the pagoda floor. The curtain falls. Tears welled up in my eyes. It was that night at the coffee shop and at the opera, almost three months after my father died, that I first fell in love with poetry.

The libretto from Madame Butterfly echoed the sentiments of Auden’s Old Masters from the poem I had just read a few hours earlier. Butterfly is in her own way Bruegel’s Icarus character, whose suffering is a simple fact of the world, only briefly acknowledged. The similarities continue. Just as it was a ship which “must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / [but] Had somewhere to go to and sailed calmly on,” Butterfly’s heart was broken by an admiral who has returned to Japan only to pick up their son and then sail calmly on to America with his new American wife.

The isolation, the solitude of suffering that I witnessed in Madame Butterfly, was the same of which “Musée des Beaux Arts” spoke. As I read the words of the poem in my dorm room, again and again, I was struck by how well Auden understood suffering: “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.” I relished these lines; the isolation in grieving the loss of my father was something I felt deeply on a daily basis. At the meal hall or in classes, I found myself astounded that others could carry on with life, even while smiling. Auden’s poem became a way to read my own experience and to put it into words, words that made the reality of the situation more bearable, if only because of their beauty. My friends and roommates became the “Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating / On a pond at the edge of the wood.” In the rare moments when I would mention the loss of meaning that I felt, they would try to understand for a moment, giving me hope that someone might understand. Then they would move on to something else. My friends “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.”

  Selected Poems  by W.H. Auden

Selected Poems
by W.H. Auden

I felt that just as in the poem, “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster...the forsaken cry,” my friends and the world that I knew turned away a few days after the funeral. So I turned to poetry. I began to read the poem so much that I memorized its number in the Selected Poems (42) and its page number (79). Then I read Auden’s “Ms. Gee,” which though it lacks the subtle beauty that “Musée” has, also reiterates the truth that the cold facts of the world—the law and the economy—cannot assuage or sympathize with suffering. One of Auden’s most brilliant poems, “The Shield of Achilles,” told me of a world that I was not alone in not knowing a “world where promises were kept / Or one could weep because another wept.” I was so thankful for Auden, who said what no one else could, who was a friend and advisor when I needed one. His poetry was a gift to me of language, sympathy, beauty, and truth.

*

“Musée des Beaux Arts” is about suffering. Auden’s commentator, John Fuller, makes that clear when he notes that Auden “deliberately inverted the word order of the opening statement so as to begin with this important word,” the word “about”. For a few years, though, I did not see anything else in the poem besides suffering. The other images in the poem—the children and those who are reverently waiting—existed, but they existed only to lend the suffering weight, which is achieved “from the juxtaposition of momentous suffering with the unconcerned lives of ordinary people”.

  Image copyright Life Magazine

Image copyright Life Magazine

Auden wrote in an essay on Kierkegaard that “the Christian who suffers is tempted to think this a proof that he is nearer to God than those who suffer less.” I think that Auden himself was someone who was in danger of falling into that temptation. As Auden says: “we find Good Friday easy to accept: what scandalizes us is Easter: Modern man finds a happy ending, a final victory of Love over the Prince of this World, very hard to swallow.” This is a temptation that I am guilty of indulging. When I was finally able to return to the faith that I abandoned after my father died, I assumed that my suffering—the grief and subsequent clinical depression—made me closer to God than those around me. Thus, in my reading of the poem, all I saw was Icarus falling into the sea while the world continued as though nothing had happened. But Auden also knew that there is more to life than suffering, as his comments on King Lear show:

“This is a profoundly unsuperstitious play. I do not agree that it is a nihilistic or pessimistic one. Certain states of being—reconciliation, forgiveness, devotion—are states of blessedness, and they exist while other people—conventionally successful people—are in states of misery and chaos”.

In the poem, as in life, I saw ignorance instead of blessedness. Instead of devotion, I saw neglect.

It is only in writing this essay, in going back and rereading the poem that I thought I knew so well, that I am able to see the other aspects of the poem. Unbeknownst to me, Auden references two other Bruegel paintings besides Landscape with the Fall of Icarus: The Numbering at Bethlehem and Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap. Of course, I knew that “Musée des Beaux Arts” made reference to “the miraculous birth,” and “children skating on a pond at the edge of a wood,” but they were incidentals. Every time I read the poem, I would dwell on the second stanza: Icarus drowning. Now, four years after the death of my father I can stop and appreciate the nativity scene and the kids skating. Suffering exists in life, and life goes on, but it is within that space—between suffering and life—that grace exists.

*

After Auden I discovered others: Yeats, Eliot, Donne, Herbert, Milosz, and Stevens. I ended up studying English and philosophy; the sciences could not speak to my questions about humanity, about life. After college, I taught English for a year, trying to convey my love of literature and poetry to students. Once, in my first month of teaching, I read “Musée des Beaux Arts” to my sophomore English class. It was a hot autumn afternoon, the last class on a Friday. I read slowly so as to let the weight of the words sink in. As I looked up at the end of the poem, I think I expected to see bright faces illuminated by the beauty and truth contained within Auden’s lines. Heads rested heavily on desks. A few students looked outside at the trees, then beginning to change to reds and yellows. Only one student looked at me pensively, as if it ask, “How do you want us to react?”

I wanted to tell those fifteen-year-olds that “Musée des Beaux Arts” is inextricably linked in my life with death and grief; that the poem spoke to me when nothing else did. I wanted to tell them what the great 20th century Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz said in an interview that “every [piece of] poetry is directed against death—against death of the individual, against the power of death.” In fighting against death, poetry embraces life. The poet and the poem exist not only to give us comfort in the time of need, but also to confront us with hard truths, truths that are probably best confronted with silence, but if spoken are best done so through poetry. But my students’ minds were swimming with thoughts of plans for the weekend. I chose silence, and dismissed them to enjoy the changing leaves.

Land of the Free

This (Swiss) American Life