Musée des Beaux Arts is a poem written by W.H. Auden in response to visiting the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, famous for its collection of Early Netherlandish painting, including ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ (pictured left) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Below, 12NOW writer Paula Matthews gives an emotional response to both the poem and painting, relating the pieces to her own experience, personally professionally, of mental health.
“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”
For a long time now, it has been my practice to delve into poetry when my mental health needs restored. When I say that, I don’t mean that I read pretty poems in hipster coffee shops with pretty cupcakes in them when I feel a bit down, I am referring to something much more serious than that. Something that should not be trivialised. Something which, sadly, I do not suffer alone.
I have to make a big effort, day to day, and sometimes hour to hour, to support the parts of my mind which are not depressed so that they can win over the thoughts that bring me down. If I fail to to this, I may be troubled again by thoughts that life is not worth living, or some other such thing which really pushes me towards self-destruction. Poets work really hard to find exactly the right words and forms to express things that lie below the surface flow of what we say. That is why poetry emerges on visceral occasions such as weddings or funerals, because someone has literally spent years and years developing the craft of finding the precious words aptly spoken. I believe this is why poetry takes away the dreadful loneliness of my depressed mind and reminds me that no matter how lowly I may be, I am somehow connected to our shared humanity.
Auden looked at the Brueghel painting, which I believe was intended for humour in it’s day, and makes something so much more beautiful out of it. The image of the ship sailing calmly on while the boy Icarus drowns has become powerful for me. As you can see in the picture, the drowning Icarus appears just as a pair of legs in the margins of the landscape (bottom right quarter, below the ship).
I know this boy, I have met him many times. He puts his hood up and speaks as few words as possible. He has cuts on his arms and balls his hands up inside his sleeves. He might take drugs or disappear into his room for long hours, doing something on the internet. The reality is, we don’t notice his suffering until he comes crashing down, just like Icarus falling out of the sky.
Last year Northern Ireland saw a disastrous 19% rise in our suicide rate, something which particularly effects young men under 25, but I was so busy working on my own career that I didn’t think to check up on that. I was that delicate ship, sailing calmly on. Auden’s work has caused me to look at what I want to do with my life. Do I want to underpin my work with expediency, or do I want to genuinely follow my vision of sounding marginalised voices? It is time for me to move forwards with a resolve not to turn away quite leisurely from the disaster. I am now concentrating on work which develops this theme, the person drowning in the margins ought to become the centre of what I do and hopefully, in time, I will be able to leave my ego at the door and begin to make a difference.
Paula Matthews, Poet, Practitioner, Survivor