Why isn’t Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts a great poem? Well, the poem is wrong about how suffering was depicted in art before the French Revolution and the poem presents humanity in a much darker light than it should be presented. If Auden’s poem is true, we are doomed. If ploughmen just watch as kids fall from the sky and cargo vessels let kids drown, well, there’s not much to say for us.

Auden said the great masters of the visual arts knew a lot about suffering. Well, if they did, they certainly did not put it into their paintings. Numerous art historians have expounded on the fact that we do not have much “real” suffering depicted in Western art until after the French Revolution. Mary Anne Staniszewski, for example, explains in Believing Is Seeing that after 1789, a market developed for art among middle-class buyers which opened up whole new possibilities for depictions of events wealthy patrons would never have requested. More importantly, the rise of periodicals funded by middle-class entrepreneurs allowed artists the opportunity to finally visually depict the reality of human suffering due to social and economic factors.

Before the French Revolution suffering in art is the suffering of Jesus, or some martyrs or maybe some Greek mythological characters, not real people. The folks who were suffering due to slavery or serfdom, military invasion or religious intolerance were completely and totally ignored in the visual arts. In his famous poem, Auden references paintings of the birth of Jesus, the apocryphal massacre of the innocents and a mythological figure.

Auden did not choose a painting of a serf who was starving to death because such paintings do not exist. Patrons of the great masters did not pay them to paint such stuff. If patrons paid for suffering, it was the exulted suffering of the Messiah or his followers, to remind us that we needed to look up to these sufferers who were worthy of our worship. So the great masters were paid to show little knowledge of human suffering. So I decided to do Auden a favor and rewrite his poem so that 1) it made sense and 2) it showed greater humanity. I wanted, as an aspiring “good” man, to help the “great” man, because he was so terribly wrong about both art and humanity’s alleged indifference to suffering.

His first line about his wanderings through the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels and the works of the great masters was: “About human suffering they were never wrong…” For the reasons mentioned above, I changed that line to: “About suffering they were often wrong.” Yet, the three paintings Auden references were by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (one was authentic, one a copy of a painting by Bruegel done by his son, another a copy by an unknown artist based on a Bruegel design). Pieter Bruegel was one of the few pre-French Revolution artists to actually address issues concerning the hardships of “peasants”, but often in a subtle way.

Neither the Census at Bethlehem nor the Massacre of the Innocents shows indifference to suffering. In the Census, Flemish folks are being compelled to pay onerous taxes to the Spanish (there is a Hapsburg coat of arms at the tax office), and we see examples of destitution and even leprosy. Everyone is suffering and into this contemporary scene wanders Mary on her mule. Jesus is going to be born into this type of world. In the Massacre of the Innocents, we see Spanish troops and German mercenaries attacking a Flemish village. There are no detached or indifferent bystanders here.

Given the fact that Bruegel had to cloak the visual reality of suffering under traditional religious titles, I changed Auden’s lines to this: “The Old Masters really understood their positions vis a vis their throng of patrons and the tastes of this brood.” Everybody is suffering in these two works. If they are unable to help or care about others, it is because they are barely getting by themselves.

Auden writes of the miraculous birth of Jesus (referencing the Census) and how some kids preferred to go ice skating instead of venerating the new God-man. Sorry, even Tanya Harding would have skated over to the cradle to see the son of God. I changed that part to this: “When the aged are reverently, passionately waiting / For the miraculous birth, children will stop skating / And hasten to see and hold the new baby from the edge of the wood.” Trust me, I’m a teacher. Kids love babies and would want to see the son of God.

Then Auden talks about some torture and killing in a dirty corner, where dogs are being dogs and a horse has an itch on its butt. This is a reference to the Massacre. I suppose it is true that neither dogs nor horses have protested the various genocides of the last 150 years very aggressively. What did Auden want the dogs and horses to do? If folks find out about something wrong, they are usually mighty peeved and call the police and the newspapers. Nobody ignores it. When we learn about this kind of stuff, heads roll.

Auden has the audacity to say that a ploughman would ignore a kid screaming through the sky and that guys on a ship would just keep sailing and ignore the drowning kid. That ploughman would drop his plough, those sailors would avert their course and people would move heaven and hell to save that kid. What happens when a kitten gets stuck up a tree? Firemen will literally crawl up that tree to get that kitten. That stuff which makes us crawl up a tree to save a kitten is what redeems humanity and every lousy, crappy thing we have ever done. Do not tell me people are going to stand around with their heads up their butts while a kid falls from the sky.

Furthermore, it is Bruegel, not Brueghel. Auden attributes the Icarus painting to the wrong guy. Bruegel’s kid used Brueghel, not the Elder guy. Also, since the 1990s nobody even believes Pieter Bruegel the Elder even painted that Icarus piece. It is now believed that Bruegel designed part of it, but what is hanging in that museum is a copy based on a Bruegel design by a less talented artist. You cannot fault Auden for not knowing that, but I am just pointing out that a “great master” did not even paint that piece.

So one of the “greatest” poems in the English language, found in virtually every poetry anthology, is based on shoddy interpretations, a mis-attribution of a painting to the wrong guy and a pessimistic, cynical and unrealistic attitude about the human response to suffering. Here is Auden’s “great” poem and here is my “good” rewrite.

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