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Musee des Beaux Arts

2 February 2016

There’s an often remarked truth that “life goes on”. Typically uttered by way of an inept attempt to cheer you up when things are not going well, it’s a truth that I think bears closer inspection.  It has been beautifully explored by WH Auden, in his poem “Musee des Beax Arts”.  I read this first as a year ten student, when I chose it as the poem I would memorize and recite in front of the class out of a large book of poetry we were invited to search through.  The words speak to me even more loudly today:

Musee des Beaux Arts

By W. H. Auden

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;
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.


Even as a fifteen year old, something about those words spoke to me on a visceral level. The ordinariness of suffering that is not your own. The failure of the world to stop turning, no matter how momentous an experience might be for the one living it.  Whether it’s something wonderful (miraculous birth) or something too terrible to contemplate (dreadful martyrdom) – the ploughman will keep ploughing, people will eat and plod along, children will keep skating, horses will scratch their rumps against trees, and sailing ships will continue on their way.  On first reading, I found this poem deeply depressing – perhaps that’s why it appealed to my angst-filled, teenage self!?  - but over time I have come to find it more uplifting each time I read through those beautiful words.

Years ago, at a time when my MS was quite unstable and I was needing IV steroids ridiculously frequently for flares, a colleague said quietly to me at work “I think you’re amazing the way you just keep on going”.   I was genuinely surprised.  Did he think I had a choice?  ”What should I be doing?  The world keeps turning – you either stay on or get off!” After a second’s thought, he responded “You’re right!”

I have never looked into WH Auden’s life, so I don’t know the nature of any suffering he may have endured.  But I thank him for his wisdom in recognising the ordinariness of each of our lives – however remarkable our experiences can (and should) feel from our own perspective.  On a good day I celebrate ordinariness.  How wonderful it is to experience!  And on a day I’m not enjoying, it can be helpful to remember the continuing, dependable movement of the planet around its axis, and the bigger path it takes around the sun.   Every good day will be followed by the possibility of another.  The sun will set on every challenge.  The only part of the picture that I am in control of is how I respond to my experiences – as highlighted in one of Samuel’s posts. I choose to celebrate the ongoing turning of planet.  We live in an amazing, awe-inspiring universe: there’s a lot to enjoy, whatever our limitations.


The Unaffected One



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