I do remember what attracted me to it: the words, needless to say, but, more particularly, the combination of thought and feeling articulated in that fashion. I know that this reaction is blindingly obvious, but the experience was new to me at the time. I soon realized (I hereby profusely apologize to those who swear by fiction) that, in the long run, poems had novels and short stories beat hands down.
I hadn't read the poem for years, so I recently revisited it. And, although our youthful passions can never by viscerally reproduced, I did feel a stir -- I still know (and feel) why it moved me.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder
"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" (c. 1558)
Musee des Beaux Arts
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
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.
W. H. Auden, Another Time (1940).
"Musee des Beaux Arts" refers to the Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels. Auden wrote the poem in Brussels in December of 1938. Auden uses the spelling "Breughel" (line 14), but "Brueghel" or "Bruegel" are the more commonly-used spellings.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder (copy by Pieter Brueghel the Younger)
"Massacre of the Innocents" (c. 1605-1610)
Commentators have suggested that the images contained in the first stanza of the poem may have their source in other paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger that are part of the collection of the Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts, or that are located in other museums. Max Bluestone, "The Iconographic Sources of Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts'," Modern Language Notes, Volume LXXVI (1961); Arthur Kinney, "Auden, Bruegel, and 'Musee des Beaux Arts'," College English, Volume 24, Number 7 (1963). This may be so, but the quality Auden describes is typical of many other paintings by Brueghel the Elder, Brueghel the Younger, and other artists of the time.
Consider the following passage about life in the late Middle Ages :
"Just as the contrast between summer and winter was stronger then than in our present lives, so was the difference between light and dark, quiet and noise. The modern city hardly knows pure darkness or true silence anymore, nor does it know the effect of a single small light or that of a lonely distant shout.
From the continuing contrast, from the colorful forms with which every phenomenon forced itself on the mind, daily life received the kind of impulses and passionate suggestions that is revealed in the vacillating moods of unrefined exuberance, sudden cruelty, and tender emotions between which the life of the medieval city was suspended."
Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (translated by Rodney Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch) (University of Chicago Press 1996).
Although Huizinga's observations may seem to contradict what Auden is getting at, I think they are in fact complementary to (and implied in) Auden's thoughts: what stands out in the paintings (for me, at least) is a sense of vivid and vigorous life. Yes, people may be going about their business as momentous events occur around the corner or behind their backs, but everything in the paintings seems to be charged with energy -- not electronic, once- or twice-removed modern energy (ironic and jaded), but the sort of "passionate" and "exuberant" energy described by Huizinga. I'm not suggesting that it was a lost Paradise. But it was different.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder, "The Numbering at Bethlehem" (c. 1566)