Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Musee des Beaux Arts Revisited


(See also Musee des Beaux Arts)

As far as mental anguish goes,
the old painters were no fools.
They understood how the mind,
the freakiest dungeon in the castle,
can effortlessly imagine a crab with the face of a priest
or an end table complete with genitals.

And they knew that the truly monstrous
lies not so much in the wildly shocking,
a skeleton spinning a wheels of fire, say,
but in the small prosaic touch
added to a tableau of the hellish,
the detail at the heart of the horrid.

In Bosch's The Temptation of St. Anthony,
for instance, how it is not so much
the boar-faced man in the pea-green dress
that frightens, but the white mandolin he carries,
not the hooded corpse in a basket,
but the way the basket is rigged to hang from a bare branch;

how, what must have driven St. Anthony
to the mossy brink of despair
was not the big, angry-looking fish
in the central panel,
the one with the two mouselike creatures
conferring on its tail,
but rather what the fish is wearing;

a kind of pale orange officer's cape
and, over that,
a metal body-helmet secured by silvery wires,
a sensible buckled chin strap,
and, yes, the ultimate test of faith-the tiny sword that hangs from the thing,
that nightmare carp,
secure in its brown leather scabbard.

--Billy Collins. Picnic, Lightning

3 comments:

Cement said...

What does it mean?! I've been trying to find information on this poem everywhere because I have an oral commentary this tuesday but I don't understand!

Cement said...

What does it mean?! I've been trying to find information on this poem everywhere because I have an oral commentary this tuesday but I don't understand!

k.d. jospe said...

Collins is making fun of Auden's poem entitled "Musée des Beaux Arts" which refers to the painting by Breughel of Icarus falling, when he flies too close to the sun and the wax melts on his wings -- the classic Greek myth to address hubris. In American Poetry Review, Apr/May 2015, Collins has a new poem called "Hendrik Goltzius's "Icarus" and parodies all this further saying "The Icarus Auden favored was two tiny legs/about to disappear with a splash into a green bay/while everyone else went on with their business...." Compare Auden's opening lines with Collins': About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood..."
and goes on to point out that what undoes us really lies in the details... I know this is 10 years after you needed this info -- but hope maybe you found something like that when you needed it! With all good wishes...