Ekphrasis and the Layers of Auden’s Politics (musée Des Beaux Arts)
‘What kind of guy inhabits this poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? What does he conceal from the reader? What does he conceal even from himself?’; these are the questions W.H. Auden would ask himself when reading poetry. I intend to pursue a similar analytical approach when considering the relationship between Auden’s political commitments and ekphrasis, being the logocentric description of a work of art, in Musée des Beaux Arts. Written in Brussels in 1938, the year before Auden moves from a peripatetic and isolated life to self imposed exile in the United States, the poem explicitly outlines a critique of society’s ineffectual response to human suffering. However, I contend that the inherent dualism of ekphrasis as well as Auden’s obscured disenchantment with the socialist movement, bids that we have ‘second thoughts’.I argue that Auden’s convoluted relationship with the socialist movement as well as his decision to turn towards individualism is reflected through the poet’s juxtaposition of explicit and implicit meaning within the inherent mise en abyme of ekphrasis. Auden strays away from the ‘veil’ of transparent ekphrastic imagery to ultimately reveal his motion towards an individualist philosophy.</p><p>Auden’s transparent use of descriptive iconography in Musée des Beaux-Arts imbues the poem with familiar pastoral symbols to distract from the poet’s implicit political intentions. The poem’s emphasis on the ‘human position’ as well as ‘place’ in this ekphrastic work highlights the speaker’s quest to ground his oeuvre in a secured framework. By placing emphasis on the pervasive gaze, towards the artwork, the landscape, and the poem, the poet mirrors Brueghel’s ‘crystalline’ visual ‘poetry’ by illuminating obscured ideas within a clear form. The eye of the poet directs the narrative as the landscape is delineated through a series of topographical landmarks ‘a pond at the edge of the wood’, ‘a corner’, ‘behind (…) a tree’, the ‘water’. These spatial references frame the mind’s eye into a specific restricted space, relying on the common natural ground between the reader and the poet in order to deflect from Auden’s personal obsession with the journey. It is the solace of these immutable ‘world landscapes’ that stabilise and contain the illusory expansive setting. The speaker is distracted by the iconographic framework of the poem, stressing Horace’s vision that ‘what finds entrance through the ear strikes the mind less vividly than what is brought before the eyes of the spectator himself’. In their immobility and apparent reciprocity between the reader and the author, pastoral images pacify the volatility of politics.<p>This sense of stability, implied in the primordial descriptive nature of ekphrastic poetry, acts as a familiar bedrock to the English reader, casting back to traditions of the English language through its evocative narrative. Auden’s reference to the wholesome quotidian routine of ‘eating’ and ‘walking’ suggests a sense of simplicity by emphasising the homeostatic condition of life and its unifying equilibrium of the. Indeed, by listing actions of the ‘dull’ quotidian Auden outlines ‘someone else”s routine, analogous to the reader’s relationship to the everyday banal. Likewise, the colloquialism ‘doggy life’ grants a sense of camaraderie between the reader and the poet, enticing us to participate in his ‘illusory casualness of argument’. The adverb of frequency ‘never’, used twice in the first stanza, highlights Auden’s emphasis on the entrenched endurance of the ‘Old Masters’ as well as the ‘children”s psyche, thus extending the constance of the landscape to its mnemonic specifications. However, the absence of an explicit rhyme scheme and the disruptive enjambments reveal a more complex interpretation of Auden’s fixation on the contained.</p><p>The tranquility of these rural images is fragmentary as the vignettes of the habitual are interrupted by Auden’s limited direct experience of them. Mendelson’s account of Auden’s inspiration from Anthony Collett’s The Changing Face of England for many of the poet’s topographical references strengthens the distance between Auden and this pastoral landscape. Indeed, he argues that ‘the trouble is that the curiosity, sympathy, and love are not Auden’s at all and have little to do with the ‘deep structure’ of his imagination. He copied it all out of a book.’ In the late 1930s Auden had travelled ‘all around the map’ to ‘Iceland, Spain, Egypt, Hong Kong, Macao, China, Brussels’ in the search for his ‘Good Place’, a space in which he can find peace from the world’s hostility and work towards the creation of the latter. His isolation from a stable familiar land and his peripatetic lifestyle made it near impossible for the poet to relate to stability and immutability. As a result, Bruegel’s art supplemented Auden’s unfamiliarity with the pastoral by framing the poet’s moralistic narrative towards landscape as well as his effort to reconcile the ‘other’, both the art and the citizen, with his dispersed views of the world.
Auden’s distance from the pastoral and his resolution to seek inspiration elsewhere is emphasised in the material ‘position’ of the painting in a cultural institution. The French title Musée des Beaux Arts emphasises the disconnect between Auden’s appropriation of the evocative English rhetoric of landscape and his turn towards Eurocentrism, and later to the United States. The poet grips onto external references to supplement the lacunae of his personal experience with the pastoral. The line ‘While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking/dully along’, while strengthening the communal experience of the banal, simultaneously reveals the poet’s anxiety towards the instability of his world view. The phrase disrupts the decasyllabic rhythm of the three precedent lines. The unusually loquacious line highlights Auden’s distress towards the obscurity of social order as he artificially stretches his wording in order to include an exhaustive, and encumbering, account of the prosaic (though the crescendo pace is abruptly eased by the the enjambment of ‘dully along’).</p><p>Similarly, the poet’s account of the extraordinary pursues this fragmentary vision as Icarus’ ‘white legs’ metonymically embody the myth as a ‘half-told story’. In light of his looming awareness that ‘war is untidy, inefficient, obscure,’ Auden looks to external references to subdue and distract from his suppressed disenchantment with the socialist movement, later invoking an individualist philosophy. The transparency of the pastoral is further obscured by Auden’s incomplete iconographic references.
This obscurity is illustrated in Auden’s implicit ekphrastic reference to at least two more of Brueghel’s paintings: The Census at Bethlehem and the Massacre of the Innocents. In an interview, Auden claims he was inspired by Winter and the Massacre of the Innocents, revealing his circuitous relationship with the ekphrastic form. The poem’s progression, from implicit to explicit, folds the quotidian into the first stanza and distances it from its painterly origins, distracting the reader from Auden’s aesthetic and political intentions. In this same vein, the in medias res beginning of the poem provides the reader with an illusory sense of invitation into the narrative. Yet the use of the pronoun ‘they’ shortly after conveys convolution and ambiguity to the first lines.The phrase ‘about suffering’ defers the real meaning of Auden’s political intentions by embedding it in a universal context of human suffering rather than stressing his personal disenchantment with the socialist movement. The teleological presentation of Auden’s political commitment highlights the author’s hesitation to publicly confront his individualist philosophy. </p><p>Outlining his belief that ‘poets should be outside of society’ Auden relies on references to liminal spaces in order to keep his personal investment at bay: The artwork becomes a surface onto which he is able to project ‘aesthetics beliefs (…) and then critique them’.
The dialectical deliberation in Auden’s engagement with ekphrastic mise en abyme emphasises the poet’s private political disenchantment with the socialist movement in 1939. The contradictory and double-face nature of the poem implies Auden’s desperate attempt to at once conceal and reconcile his internal political division. Having privately addressed his disillusionment with socialism, posited as the initial thesis of his dialectical thought, Auden struggles to overcome the rupture of this intuition, the antithesis. Edward Mendelson comments on a thematic pattern in Auden’s work: his divide between ‘the communistic body with its sensual delights and the aristocratic mind with its conscious authority’. This partition in the poet’s political affiliations is epitomised through his inspiration from material art. Auden’s attempt to reconcile two tangible elements of reality outlined both by communism and aristocracy, implied in the duality of ekphrasis, illustrates his reserve to marking a synthesis in his dialectical logic.
This ekphrastic turn elucidates Auden’s struggle as Horace, a Roman poet, argues that ‘only in an adulterated state do we experience arts as alike (…) it may be the condition of our fallen-ness which causes us to unite the arts’. Auden is placed at the center of political debate: his aesthetic decisions render him a product of his time, a product of fallen society. In spite of his wavering political ideologies and his association with or obstruction from politics, Auden is embedded in the instability of the political climate. This textual weaving of poetic mediums, in addition to his anxious emphasis on transparent images, reveals Auden’s attempt to ‘reveal’ or ‘re-veil’ his ambivalence towards politics. Auden’s inspiration from Icarus’ fall mirrors a reciprocity between Auden’s fallen-ness and Icarus, a ‘boy falling out of the sky’.
Mendelson’s account of Auden’s poetry as a ‘roman à clef sans clef’ informs the immanent obscurity of the poet’s explicit narrative on human suffering. Drawing attention to the place adverbs ‘where’ on the penultimate line of the first stanza and ‘somewhere’ on the final line of the poem, Auden obscures a spatial progression within the pastoral fabric, shifting from present to future spatial occupations. Transgressing the inherently immutable nature of Brueghel’s painting as well as its landscape and inhabitants, Auden uses the prescriptive nature of ekphrasis in order to conceal his evolving political motives and progression towards a new temporal order. This approach to aesthetics and their significance reiterates Francis Scarfe’s acknowledgement of the ‘unique marriage of […] statement and image’ in Auden’s poetry, as well as his hesitation to publicly commit to his individualist philosophy.
Despite Auden’s efforts to conceal his progression towards an individualist philosophy through ekphrasis, this progression does indeed come to light. The personification of the ‘expensive delicate ship’ suggests Auden’s personal investment. Written at a formative period of Auden’s life in which the journey is fundamental, the ship mirrors Auden’s own motion towards acceptance and choice. Transgressing the constraints of the ekphrastic form the heterotopic ship is successful in being a place without a place, content in its enmeshment in the liminal. Its calm demeanor as it ‘had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on’ illustrates Auden’s resolution to focus on his own life’s meaning in spite of his despair towards society’s approach to human suffering. The ‘on’-wards movement of the ship suggests a transgression of Auden’s containment as the water becomes a medium of navigation rather than being the borderline it was for Icarus.
This interpretation is relevant to Auden’s commitment to obeying the laws of nature when creating his ‘private sacred world’, although Icarus’ hubris marks his collapse, the ship’s serenity continues its moral ascension toward ‘somewhere’ Extending beyond Robert Roth’s belief that the voice is tinged with irony so as to be comedic, I argue that the ‘arbitrary and casual […]seems simply to happen, so the poet lets it happen and goes on’ falls in line with Auden’s individualist philosophy and his successful achievement in finding the ‘Good Place’, as he decides to leave behind the ‘sinking ship of Europe’. Despite Auden’s strong opposition to pathetic fallacy, ekphrasis mirrors Auden’s contrived political engagement.
In so doing, Auden succumbs to ‘conventional ekphrasis’ as inevitably ‘the image we look at refuses to open and gives us back our own face.’ Auden is faced with his own individualised interpretation of the work of art in relation to his current mental state. This becomes clear as Auden implies the psyche and sonic experience of the figures in the poem: the children ‘never forgot’ and the ploughman ‘may have heard the splash, the forsaken cry’. Indeed, the ‘danger of ekphrasis here is what man will speak for the whole natural world’. This becomes evident through the proverbial wisdom of the phrase ‘About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters’. In this regard, ekphrasis becomes a way for Auden to pursue stability and assert control over an artistic medium at a time where he is still trying to navigate his own ‘human position’.
Auden’s separation from the ekphrastic constraints of the canvas, steering away from its frame towards the American horizon echoes the poet’s statement that ‘At least I know what I am trying to do, which most American writers don’t, which is to live deliberately without roots’. This individualist approach to life enables Auden to distinguish himself from the rest of human suffering and focus on his own fulfillment. The poet uses ekphrasis to deviate from his political intentions whilst simultaneously confronting his anguish towards material reality. This is a dynamic relevant to both communist and aristocratic thought and epitomises Auden’s internal political mediation in light of his imminent departure towards the United States.
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