Lesson of the Day: ‘A Poem (and a Painting) About the Suffering That Hides in Plain Sight’

Featured Article: “A Poem (and a Painting) About the Suffering That Hides in Plain Sight”by Elisa Gabbert

With war looming, WH Auden stood in a museum and was inspired to write. The resulting poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” is one of the most famous ever written about a work of art. More than 80 years later, with war raging in Europe once again, human suffering is forcing us to confront many of the same issues.

In this lesson, you will experience a passionate and poetic close reading of “Musée des Beaux Arts” by the poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert, embedded in an interactive that can help you “zoom in” on specific details of both the poem and the painting that inspired it.

Then, via a menu of Going Further activities, we invite you to write your own analysis and interpretation of a poem or painting using the featured article as a mentor text; write your own ekphrastic poetry; or learn more about WH Auden.

Part 1: Look closely at the painting “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, circa 1560.

Before reading the poem that is at the center of today’s lesson, take several minutes to look closely at the painting that inspired it.

Then, respond in writing or through a class discussion, or conversation with a partner or small group, to the following prompts. The first three are borrowed from our weekly What’s Going On in This Picture? feature:

Share your thoughts with a group or the whole class: What ideas do you have in common with others? Where do you differ in your analysis or interpretations? What questions do you have?

Finally, discuss the title of the painting, “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus.” Icarus was the character in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun on wax wings and fell into the sea and drowned. Why do you think Icarus — the drowning man in the lower right corner of the painting — is not the center of the painting?

Part 2: Read and respond to the poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” by WH Auden, 1938.

Now you’ll repeat the same set of activities with the poem. First, read it at least three times, both aloud and to yourself. Mark up a copy of it (PDF) with observations as you go. You can listen to WH Auden, the poet, read the poem here.

Return to the same partner, group or full class you joined to discuss the painting, and respond to the prompts again:

  • What’s going on in this poem?

  • What do you see, read or hear that makes you say that?

  • What more can you find?

Share your thoughts with a group or the whole class: What ideas do you have in common with others? Where do you differ in your analysis or interpretations? What questions do you have?

Finally, discuss the point of view of the poem’s speaker. What is this speaker saying about the Bruegel painting? About human suffering in general? How does this perspective resonate with your own understanding of suffering?

Note to teachers: The interactive article is longer than our typical featured pieces. If your time is limited, you might ask your students to read up to the lines “Ignoring them is the most natural thing in the world. It is also a moral error.,” which is about a third of the way through the piece. They can still address the questions below.

Read the featured articlethen answer the following questions:

1. Which images, themes, details, words or lines did Ms. Gabbert identify? Which aspects of the Bruegel painting and the Auden poem stood out for her? What personal connections did she make?

two. How did your observations from the warm-up activity compare with those of Ms. Gabbert? Does her analysis of her make you see the painting or the poem differently?

3. Ms. Gabbert says of the painting, “As you can see, it’s not about the fall of Icarus, exactly.” What does she mean by that statement? What, in her eyes of her, is the painting about?

Four. Ms. Gabbert writes of the poem:

Something’s only a disaster if we notice it.

The message seems simple enough, but the poem is full of riches, hidden details that you might miss if, like a farmer with his head down — or a distracted museumgoer — you weren’t looking at the edges.

The edges, as Auden keeps reminding us, are part of the picture.

Ignoring them is the most natural thing in the world. It is also a moral error.

What do you think of this interpretation? Is ignoring disaster both the “most natural thing” and a “moral error”? Explain your thinking.

5. Of the poem’s final lines, Ms. Gabbert writes:

There’s a feeling of reluctant acceptance in the poem’s final lines, a surrender to forces beyond one’s control, which may be the engines of commerce, or something like God, a God who either punishes us for our failings or has simply set the clockwork world into motion, and let it go.

On some reads Auden may seem to be offering a pass—this is the way of the world, after all.

At other times it strikes me as implicating Icarus, Daedalus, the ploughman and shepherd, and God or the gods all equally … as well as us — you, me and Auden — strolling the museum or reading the poem in comfort.

Do we spare a thought for the suffering, or sail calmly on?

How does Ms. Gabbert’s interpretation of the poem and its final lines compare with yours? What does it mean for a poem to “implicate” the author and the reader? What do you think is Auden’s moral stance on the seeming indifference of humans to the suffering of others? Do you think the poem “excuses” humanity for its indifference to suffering? Or “implicates” us? Provide evidence to justify your claim.

6. Why do you think Auden titled the poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”? If you had to give the poem or the painting an alternative title, what would it be and why?

7. What big “takeaways” are you left with after this experience of both closely observing yourself and following someone else’s close observation. What qualities of the poem do you find most meaningful, moving or memorable in the end? Would you recommend it to others? Why or why not?

1. Create your own “zoomed in” analysis of a poem or a painting.

Ms. Gabbert’s interactive essay is a kind of instructive how-to for learning to read a poem, or a painting, closely. What lessons did you learn, if any, about appreciating poetry from her commentary on her?

Now it’s your turn: Write your own analysis using the featured article as a mentor text. Consider how you can draw on Ms. Gabberts’s vivid, sensory language and ability to zoom in on many aspects of a single poem or artwork in order to draw conclusions about context and meaning for your own piece.

You can choose a poem or a painting, and for inspiration you might view the other works that are part of this New York Times series, Close Read. For example, you might look at Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” discussed in the interactive “19 Lines That Turn Anguish Into Art.”

You can write your analysis and interpretation as an essay, or consider a creative presentation application like Google Slides or Prezi to help you focus your audience on the details of the artwork you find most significant.

Use the questions from the warm-up activity to begin:

You might also think about questions like these:

  • What do you notice about the various elements of this work? (If it is a poem, think about aspects like the imagery, structure, punctuation and word choice. If it is a painting, think about things like the use of space, line, color and texture.)

  • Why does this work stand out for you? What do you find interesting or moving about it?

  • What connections can you make between the work and your own life or experience? Does it remind you of anything else you’ve read or seen?

  • What do you think is the purpose of this artwork? What do you think the artist wanted to communicate?

  • What questions would you ask the artist about this work?

2. Learn more about Auden’s life and his poetry.

Some of Ms. Gabbert’s analysis of the poem focuses on WH Auden the poet and the times he lived in. For example, she writes that “the concerns of his work during this period were social and political — the rising threat of totalitarianism, the evils of capitalism.” How does having this historical context help to illuminate the themes and meaning of the poem?

You can learn more about Auden’s life and work by visiting some of these free online resources below, including poems, recordings, criticism, timelines and photos. You can also read his Times obituary from 1973 here.

After exploring one or more of these resources, discuss: What are two new things you learned about Auden—his life and work? How does it affect the way you understand his poetry by him? What new question do you have about him or poetry in general?

3. Write your own poem based on a work of art.

Ms. Gabbert notes that “Musée des Beaux Arts” is one of the most famous examples of ekphrasis, a poem based on another artwork. Have you ever been inspired by a painting or work of art? What emotions and thoughts did it evoke? What about it made the experience memorable?

Now it’s your turn: Write a poem about a visual work of art, whether a painting, sculpture, photograph or drawing. Your poem can be long or short, rhymed or unrhymed, in prose or in verse — as long as it is related to your chosen work of art.

Want more Lessons of the Day? You can find them all here.

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