Poets Love Bruegel (and so do I)

This is written not as an art historian, a poetry professor, or an academic or expert of any kind. This is written as a lover not a scholar. Though I’ve probably said too much, there’s so much more to say.

WH Auden, Seamus Heaney and William Carlos Williams all wrote poems about Breugel’s paintings. In fact William Carlos Williams has a whole collection of poems called Pictures from Brueghel. Why do the poets love him so much? His paintings show so many characters, so much movement and narrative and drama, that their subject matter could fill whole novels. Most poets of the twentieth century weren’t as interested in telling epic, involved stories as in capturing a moment, a feeling, or a nugget of truth and meaning, in as few strokes as possible. Part of Bruegel’s mysterious appeal is that he does this as well, despite the teeming complication of his images. Like all of the best poems, his paintings invite you to pay attention to every detail, to work to discover every layer of meaning in order to arrive at the truth he might be revealing.

These poets were trying to find their own new language, trying to find a way to shed traditions and expectations, and they would have been inspired by someone who did this centuries earlier, and so beautifully. In style and subject matter Bruegel was unusual for an artist of his time. He didn’t paint portraits and though he did paint religious subjects, he somehow humanized them, and shifted the focus to the elements of the story that made the biblical characters more relatably human. The details of his life and of his attitude towards the subjects that he painted are vague and conflicting, and perhaps this is part of his appeal to poets. He spoke in riddles and parables and symbols, all shifting in meaning through time. Poets were drawn to images that couldn’t be clearly-defined, that hadn’t already been definitively described. They would have loved the idea of discovering meaning for themselves, and whether consciously or not, they would have reveled in the chance to assign their own meaning to the images.

Bruegel frequently painted peasants. They called him “the peasant Bruegel,” according to some stories of his life. Not because he was a peasant, but because he painted peasants, although it’s unclear exactly how wealthy or educated he was in his upbringing. Some say he dressed as a peasant so he could mingle with them – unnoticed but noticing everything. This was very rare, at the time, and it is only through his paintings that we understand as much as we do about the lives of poor people in his place and in his time. Bruegel’s paintings don’t strike me as judgmental or superior. His affection and generosity for his subjects feels clear and genuine. Peasants must have served as models for paintings of nobility and even for paintings of Christ and Mary, who, Bruegel reminded us, despite the robes and riches they were sometimes painted with, were poor people. The systems dividing people of varying wealth and class in Bruegel’s day would probably have been shocking to us now, but only because we don’t really understand that things haven’t changed as much as it seems. The poetry about his work, and the way we read that poetry, raises questions about our assumptions about class and poverty over the ages.

Lech Majewski’s film about Bruegel’s painting The Procession to Calvary, called The Mill and the Cross attempts to place some of Bruegel’s ideas and themes in the context of the strange moment of history in which he lived. It was a violent, contentious moment, but also one in which people were risking their lives to question and rebel and rethink the societal and religious order in which we view the world. It’s a gorgeous dream-like film, that fleshes out Bruegel’s characters in a mysteriously effective manner. It shows Bruegel creating the painting, and it connects the story of Christ to the suffering of Bruegel’s contemporaries at the hands of Spanish catholics. In the film, Bruegel explains that most paintings show God in the sky, parting the clouds and looking down with displeasure. But in his painting God is in a mill high on a strange mountain. God is a miller, grinding the bread of life and destiny. The bread that we all eat to nourish ourselves – soldiers and peasants and artists and Christ himself.

The peasants in Bruegel’s paintings are so richly painted–not in dress, but in detail and attention–that it feels to me as if he’s honoring them. (Of course this is open to interpretation as well, which is part of why we love it. Especially in the paintings in which the characters are more symbols or allegories than people.) Bruegel captures some timeless quality that connects us all; the drama of everyday life that we can all relate to. We’re all engaged in the struggle and the joy of living, of staying alive, and working and resting and dancing.

Both William Carlos Williams and Seamus Heaney wrote poetry that elevated labor through the prism of art, but always grounded in an appreciation of the ordinary, the every day.

The Seed Cutters, Seamus Heaney

They seem hundreds of years away. Brueghel,
You’ll know them if I can get them true.
They kneel under the hedge in a half-circle
Behind a windbreak wind is breaking through.
They are the seed cutters. The tuck and frill
Of leaf-sprout is on the seed potatoes
Buried under that straw. With time to kill,
They are taking their time. Each sharp knife goes
Lazily halving each root that falls apart
In the palm of the hand: a milky gleam,
And, at the centre, a dark watermark.
Oh, calendar customs! Under the broom
Yellowing over them, compose the frieze
With all of us there, our anonymities. 

Heaney’s seed cutters might “seem hundreds of years away,” because they’re closely connected to Bruegel’s resting corn harvesters, but they’re connected as well to people everywhere, at any time, taking a break outside of their offices or shops, sitting in the sun, eating a sandwich. Or to Heaney’s own grandfather in his poem Digging, in which he describes bringing his grandfather a bottle of milk corked sloppily with a bit of paper so that he could rest from his labor, and then ties the action of digging with his attempts to write poetry, digging with his pen.

We all know the myth of Icarus – his father, Daedalus, fashioned him a pair of wings made of wax and feathers. He warned him not to fly too close to the sun, but he was so giddy with the joy of flight, that he forgot his father’s words, flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, he continued happily flapping his arms, but without feathers he could no longer fly. He fell into the sea and drowned. In Bruegel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus the focus is far from the fall of Icarus, and instead with people going about their business, unaware of Icarus’ fall, which is small and on the edge of the painting.

This view of humanity and myths of humanity from a new angle, not focused on the obvious and rarely-changing focal point we’ve come to expect, must have appealed to poets who were trying to find a different way to piece together shards of reality in the face of history or of daily never-ending human life.

Auden’s Musée des Beaux-Arts, in which he describes how suffering “takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” is the first reading of the painting. Is Auden suggesting, as the word “dull” implies, that the ploughman and the angler are too coarse to take note of the tragedy of loftier men? Unlike Heaney or Williams, Auden was a Middle Class (in the English sense of the word) public school Oxford man. In my time at Oxford I was, frankly, shocked, that all of the class divisions and prejudices I’d assumed were at least now only quietly hinted at were still so clearly felt and expressed. But Auden was also writing in 1938, just before the outbreak of the second world war, and the idea that people can get blithely on with their lives whilst others are suffering horribly must have been a constant present. It always had been and always will be this way.

Simply, things go unnoticed. We’re so taken with our own lives and concerns that we don’t have the time or energy to commiserate with others. People suffer all the time – ploughmen and anglers and painters and poets and master inventors. I suppose all the suffering is equally important (or unimportant) whether somebody paints a picture of it, or writes a poem or about it, or doesn’t notice it at all. The painting itself is so gorgeous, the people walking along with supposed dullness are so vibrantly portrayed.

And, as the poets say, spring is in full glory, the sea is cool and pretty, the sun is hot and strong, and all of this will be true no matter what the fate of the men passing through the landscape. Some stories of Bruegel’s youth and training mention that when he traveled to Rome he only painted landscapes, whereas most other artists focused on ruins or existing architecture. And one of the things I most love about his paintings is the beauty of the landscape details in the backgrounds, each detailed and lovely enough to stand on their own as a painting.

William Carlos Williams, in his poem Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, makes nature in general and spring, specifically, the main character.

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

The indifference of nature. The workings of the universe and our earth are so much bigger, busier and more important than anything we can comprehend. We are a spanner in the works. We have screwed some stuff up, but eventually we will be shrugged off. I thought about this a lot at the beginning of quarantine, when we couldn’t talk to our neighbors, but the birds were still chatting and quarreling and singing to each other and making nests. As Auden says, “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.”

Bruegel lived during a period of history marked by violence and change. Shifting attitudes to the value of human life, the morality of the way we structure human relations, and the place of humans in relation to our concept of god, the natural world around us, and each other, sparked the usual human reaction: fear, hatred, violence, war. The same could be said of the times our poets lived through. The same could be said of the time we live in now. As it is now, so has it always been. And yet Bruegel’s paintings spark a real glow of affection for people. Is it because he shows humans going on with the small beautiful business of living day-to-day? Is it because he shows us that we’re not the center of everything, we’re not as important as we think we are? Is it because he shows us that it’s also human to question and rearrange and try to look at things from a different angle so that they make sense, as our poets do? Is it because it’s also human to admire the creation of others, as our poets do, and to find strength and solace in them? Or is it because he was human, and his paintings are sustainingly gorgeous.

2 replies »

  1. One of my favorite painters also. When I was in Antwerp I saw MadMeg or duel griet. Quite large and impressive, made a huge impression on me as this particular museum was so understated I could have walked right by it. They also had a fine collection of jr’s.

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