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This item is taken from PN Review 117, Volume 24 Number 1, September - October 1997.

Letters from Clive Watkins and Doreen Davie
Old Masters


In PNR 115, Iain Bamforth reflects interestingly on Auden's 'Musée des Beaux Arts'. Auden's 'voice in this poem,' writes Bamforth, 'is seductively reasonable and commonsensical: that is precisely why I distrust it, since my experience tells me: common sense can also be an open trap.'

An alternative reading might regard the poem as representing one side of a conversation in which the speaker (whom Bamforth equates with Auden) turns back an earlier remark by an unheard interlocutor. Perhaps this interlocutor has suggested something about which, in his view, the Old Masters were wrong, so that the reply has the implied form of 'That may well be so, but about suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.' Read in this way, the voice, rather than being 'seductively reasonable and commonsensical', is self-opinionated. The inversion warns us that this is not necessarily a voice to be trusted: to allow oneself to be seduced by it would be an error.

To read the poem in this way is to take it as an instance of that rhetorical or quasidramatic impersonation which is a feature of Auden's poetry throughout his career. The rhetorical management of this onesided conversation can be seen again in line 4 where the activities listed decline in human importance as the line progresses: eating is more necessary to life than opening a window, opening a window a more purposeful act than just walking dully along. The bathos is ironically underlined by the steady lengthening of the phrases as the actions they describe decline in significance (two words, three words, four words).

By the end of the stanza, the tone has turned self-righteous. By offering to represent the 'message' of the Old Masters, the speaker positions himself, as enlightened interpreter, above the undiscriminating crowd whose members will either turn away from the martyrdom, callously or selfdefensively, or miss its 'true' significance - as his sly play on the possible registers of 'dreadful' indicates.

To read the poem as a commentary only on Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is to underestimate allusions to other paintings by Brueghel - The Numbering at Bethlehem and The Massacre of the Innocents. The story of Icarus, like other pagan stories, was naturalised within a Christian setting and taught the dangers of arrogance and of disobedience to the instructions of a parent. Arguably, for Brueghel its status as fact differed from that of the New Testament events alluded to in the first stanza. The sufferings of Mary and of the murdered Innocents are morally of a different kind from those from Icarus and form part of a larger providential story, in which the experiences of the actors are, by the paradox inherent in Christianity, simultaneously the result of free will and preordained. Nonetheless, as sequences of 'events', both pagan and Christian stories were, by cultural or divine precedent, 'given'.

The position of the Old Masters is thus - at a remove - analogous to the position of those participating in or present at these 'events', a position of witting or unwitting but essentially impotent distance. For, while the Old Masters were at liberty to place the traditional episodes in a new context, they were not free to change their defining plots. Indeed, this kind of distance might be regarded as intrinsic to the whole project of art, including theatre - of which our impotent desire as members of a pantomime audience to warn the principal boy that the villain is standing behind him and about to swing his club might be taken as exemplary.

As readers of the poem, we are at yet another remove from the 'events' depicted by Brueghel. It is one of the poem's ironies that, even as it alerts us to the twin paradoxes of noticing but not noticing the suffering of others and of feeling we should do something while being powerless to help, we are placed in the shoes, as it were, of the silent auditor and drawn into the speaker's confident argument about the 'position' of suffering in human (and divine) affairs. Invited to view the pictures to which the poem refers, we stand in imagination before them in the 'musée' of its title, while in real terms devoting several minutes and some intellectual energy to the aesthetic and moral propositions the text affords. Perhaps what Auden in the end encourages us to do is to reflect on the degree to which reading and discussing (or writing) a poem and viewing and discussing (or painting) a picture differ from other, less 'intellectual' activities - such as 'skating On a pond at the edge of the wood' - which equally fill our time and divert our attention from the real suffering of real people.


Recaptured Logic


I read with interest Chris Miller's article, 'Eliot, Johnson, Davie and the Movement' (PNR 116). It is rewarding to know that Donald Davie's early criticism, written over forty years ago, continues to provoke and stimulate readers. I should like to point out, however, that the logic which escapes Miller in the passage he quotes on p. 48 from Purity of Diction becomes clear when quoted correctly:

And yet it is impossible not to trace a connection between the laws of syntax and the laws of society... One could almost say, on this showing, that to dislocate syntax in poetry is to threaten the rule of law in the civilized community.


This item is taken from PN Review 117, Volume 24 Number 1, September - October 1997.

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