Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Mémoires perdues, mémoires vives

André Topia
Carle Bonafous-Murat
Marie-Christine Lemardeley

Partie III. Arts de la mémoire, mémoire des arts

Palaces of Art or Memory Palaces: Museographic Poetry from Tennyson to Auden

Palais de l’art ou palais de la mémoire : la poésie muséographique de Tennyson à Auden

Carle Bonafous-Murat


Le début du XIXe siècle anglais, époque où de nombreux musées et galeries s’ouvrent, voit se multiplier les poèmes consacrés aux musées ou aux galeries. La poésie de l’ère victorienne témoigne ainsi de l’importance croissante du musée comme modèle de la représentation du fonctionnement de la mémoire. Toutefois, ces poèmes (notamment ceux de Tennyson ou de Hardy) n’ont pas encore la complexité que la poésie anglo-irlandaise de la première moitié du XXe siècle leur conférera. Prenant successivement appui sur « The Municipal Gallery Re-visited » de Yeats, et « Musée des Beaux Arts » d’Auden, cet article entend démontrer que la poésie moderniste a réactivé certaines des préoccupations qui furent celles des auteurs de traités sur l’art de la mémoire dans l’Antiquité. En cherchant à modeler les lieux de mémoire, hérités de la période classique, sur la répartition des salles dans un musée ou une galerie d’art, la poésie moderniste muséographique a ainsi donné une nouvelle dimension aux poèmes victoriens inspirés du musée.

Texte intégral

1Hugh Kenner’s critically acclaimed study of modernism, The Pound Era, reminds us almost on every page how inextricably linked with museums was the birth of that movement, and its attendant legend. The British Museum, in particular, seems to have been a favourite haunt of modernist writers, both because of its treasures and its tea room. It was there, among recently discovered fragments of Greek manuscripts or Egyptian strips of used papyrus, that some of them acquired a taste for the poem in tatters (Kenner 50-51), and there also, if we are to believe undocumented sources of the incident, that Hilda Doolittle had her name slashed by Ezra Pound and was established as «H. D. Imagiste» for the rest of her life (Kenner 174).

2Although the Sloan Collection, later renamed the British Museum, opened in the eighteenth century, it would be wrong to regard this modernist trend as a legacy of the Enlightenment. Not until a century later did the British Museum open to the general public, a fact which, as Dillon Johnston remarks, almost coincided with the coinage of the word «museuming» in 1838 (Johnston 215, n20). By then the new scheme for the National Gallery had also been launched, but it was only in the latter half of the nineteenth century that museuming became common practice, with the creation of the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate, the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as other major artistic sites such as the Museum and Art Gallery in Birmingham, which opened in 1886.

3With the opening almost at one go of so many locations, the museum soon provided a new metaphor for the workings of memory in poetry. It became, in the true sense of the word, a site of memory, that is a place where to fix memories in place. Although it first appeared in his 1917 collection, Moments of Vision, Thomas Hardy’s short poem «In a Museum» is a case in point, as it retains some of the characteristics of the Victorian museum poem:

Here’s the mould of a musical bird long passed from light,
Which over the earth before man came was winging;
There’s a contralto voice I heard last night,
That lodges in me still with its sweet singing.

Such a dream is Time that the coo of this ancient bird
Has perished not, but is blent, or will be blending
Mid visionless wilds of space with the voice that I heard,
In the full-fugued song of the universe unending. (Hardy 430)

4Here, the poem does not merely blur the frontier between an actual museum and a museum of the mind, most notably through the use of the indefinite article in the title. It also establishes a hierarchy between the visible and the audible, both being eventually subsumed under the adjective «visionless», which is not quite synonymous with «visionary» in Hardy’s carefully chosen phraseology. The museum fossilizes the memory in the shape of a «mould», one of those countless metaphors for the imprints left by memories of which Hardy’s later poetry is so full, while at the same time suggesting something of the poet’s effort to free himself of such petrifying disembodied images.

5For all that, Hardy’s metaphor does little more than afford the possibility of providing the memories with a locus («lodges in me»), a possibility which the second stanza sharply refutes with its emphasis on the still unchartered territories of the «visionless wilds of space». In its attempt to dis-lodge the visual and auditory memories from their loci, Hardy’s poem thus indirectly reveals something of the impact of museums on the Victorian imagination. Victorian museums, as Asa Briggs has amply demonstrated, were a far cry from the modern specialized museum, which were the result of new curatorial practices:

Such a new approach to the function of the specialized museum, now widely shared by museum directors, is so different from the Victorian approach to the often small general museum, presenting stuffed birds, firearms, fossils, mummies and machines as well as ‘works of art’ — an extension of the schoolboy’s museum — that we are in danger now of losing all our remaining specimens of museum of the Victorian variety. (Briggs 43)

6Hardy’s museum of the mind is one such «small general museum» — although it is not cluttered with objects as Victorian museums often were, it nonetheless juxtaposes the mould of what is in all probability a stuffed bird with a ‘work of art’ of a musical kind (‘a contralto voice’). In spite of that, the objects have none of the distinctness that twentieth-century museums would later confer upon them, with their divisions into rooms allowing the visitor to view them in chronological or thematic order.

7Consequently, what Hardy’s poem is lacking is not so much a spectator who would make the items look more visible (or in this case audible too), as a sense of movement. When modern museums made their way into poetry, they helped complexify the metaphoric connection between memorization, remembrance and museuming. The new model not only imparted greater visibility to the objects, it also established the visitor as someone who could move about the museum, stop in front of some of the works of art while leaving others unnoticed. Accordingly, modern galleries and museums modified the representation of memory as a repository of past images distinct from one another and which could only be retrieved separately.

8I wish to argue in this paper that this new site of memory, the modern museum, reactivated some of the questions that had been tackled by classical orators in their treatises on the art of memory. It is an issue I will address by focusing on poems whose dates of composition range from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century — Tennyson’s «Ode to Memory» (1829) and «The Palace of Art» (1832), Yeats’s «The Municipal Gallery Re-visited» (1937), and Auden’s «Musée des Beaux Arts» (1938). Interestingly enough, all these poems are either about memory or about museums, but not, it seems, about both at once. Hence the choice of «or» instead of «and» in the title of this paper. The one notable exception to this rule, however, is Yeats’s poem, which clearly articulates the two aspects in its title through the use of the verb «re-visit». «Re-visit» conveys a sense of movement, though the passive form of the title, «re-visited», comes as something of a surprise since the poem is about a visit in progress, and not about the completed act itself. But one has to have visited a museum at least once in order to be able to start recollecting what one has seen in it. That is why the passive form comes across as the most obvious sign of the way Yeats has of linking the two processes, museuming and recollecting.

Memory in paintings

9The connection between painting and memory, or rather between paintings and memories, is an age-old one. Simonides of Ceos, who was said by Cicero to have invented the art of memory, was also, according to Plutarch, the man who described «poetry as a speaking picture and a picture as mute poetry». Although the connection is not often stressed, it led Murray Krieger, in his well-known book entitled Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign, to assume that in ancient Greece and Rome «art in general is seen as a mnemonic device meant to reproduce an absent reality» (Krieger 14). This kind of generalisation, however, begs more questions than it answers, as it makes no difference between memorisation and representation, and implies that memory is a mere combination of separate pictures. We are thus led back to the idea that it is not so much memory and painting which are connected as memories and paintings.

10Quintilian, writing shortly after Cicero, was not long in spotting what he considered as the major flaw of all arts of memory. In the third section of his Institutio oratoria, he wrote that he had no difficulties in admitting that paintings could be excellent props to memory, just as rooms in a house or houses in a town were, but for him the ease with which one could move about all the parts of the system remained the main criterion by which to judge of its efficiency:

Places are chosen, and marked with the utmost possible variety, as a spacious house divided into a number of rooms. Everything of note therein is diligently imprinted on the mind, in order that thought may be able to run through all the parts without let or hindrance. The first task is to secure that there shall be no difficulty in running through these, for that memory must be most firmly fixed which helps another memory. (Quoted in Yates 37)

11He then went on:

What I have spoken of as being done in a house can also be done in public buildings, or on a journey, or in going through a city, or with pictures. (Ibid. 38)

12For Quintilian however, the systems of which he knew failed to fulfil that function, and their artificiality lay in their being at once too complicated and too static. Taking up an idea which had already been put forward by Aristotle in his Rhetoric, namely that the parts of a discourse that cannot be committed to memory are those which hold the speech together, such as the punctuation or the conjunctions, Quintilian dismissed all memory models as being too cumbersome and as leaving out the essential aspect of any speech, that is to say its rhythm and movement:

But how can such an art grasp a whole series of connected words? I pass by the fact that there are certain words which it is impossible to represent by any likeness, for example conjunctions. We may, it is true, like shorthand writers, have definite images for everything, and may use an infinite numbers of places to recall all the words contained in the five books of the second pleading against Verres, and we may even remember them as if they were deposits placed in safe keeping. But will not the flow of our speech inevitably be impeded by the double task imposed on our memory? For how can our words be expected to flow in connected speech, if we have to look back at separate forms for each individual word? (Ibid. 39)

13Quintilian’s criticism was the reaction of a man writing at a time when the art of memory had become a system in its own rights, with its own rules, instead of remaining an aide-mémoire meant to facilitate the seemingly natural expression of thought. The almost infinite possibilities it afforded of splitting up the contents of memory into ever smaller items and images threatened to stall the dynamism of speech, thus annihilating the original aim of the art which was to allow orators to give their audience the feeling that they were almost inventing their own discourse as they went along.

14For Quintilian, writing in the 1st century A.D., painting and poetry were no longer interchangeable. They were no longer the two facets of a same mnemonic system, and his concern for «connectedness» and the «flow of speech», that is for everything that cannot be inscribed visually, bears testimony to a growing dissociation between the two. Victorian poetry and modernist poetry, as I now wish to argue, helped revive some of the concerns which had been those of Quintilian. However, it was only when poems about modern museums began to appear that the museum became again a site of memory, a locus in the classical sense of the word.

Memory and melancholy

15In 1832, Tennyson wrote «The Palace of Art». The poem, as is well-known, pre-dates by a few years Tennyson’s discovery of and growing interest in geology, which stemmed from his reading of Lyell’s Elements of Geology, published in 1833. This may be one the reasons why Tennyson’s figuration of memory differs considerably from what it was to become in the following years, with «In Memoriam» as its chief outcome. In «The Palace of Art» (Tennyson 55-61), as in a few poems of the same period, memory for Tennyson is mainly figured in the form of a building rising in tiers, with a gallery at its top:

Four courts I made, East, West and South and North,
In each a square lawn wherefrom
The golden gorge of dragons spouted forth
A flood of fountain-foam.

And round the cool green courts there ran a row
Of cloisters, branch’d like mighty woods,
Echoing all night to that sonorous flow
Of spouted fountain-floods,

And round the roofs a gilded gallery
That lent broad verge to distant lands,
Far as the wild swan wings, to where the sky
Dipt down to sea and sands.

16In this «pleasure-house», as the palace is called in the first line of the whole poem, the soul may wander endlessly while contemplating the various sights that meet its eyes. The first one is a hunting scene:

Full of long-sounding corridors it was,
That over-vaulted grateful gloom,
Through which the livelong day my soul did pass,
Well-pleased from room to room.

Full of great rooms and small the palace stood,
All various, each a perfect whole
From living Nature, fit for every mood
And change of my still soul.

For some were hung with arras green and blue,
Showing a gaudy summer morn,
Where with puff’d cheek the belted hunter blew
His wreathed bugle-horn.

17In an attempt to encompass the whole of the existing creation, the palace has been decorated with statues and paintings representing legendary, religious or mythological figures as well as all kinds of landscape. Stanza follows upon stanza, giving the reader an impression of surfeit which is compounded by the almost mechanical use of conjunctions, such as «or» and «and», at the beginning of each. Each stanza forms a kind of self-contained unit with its alternate rhymes which seem to mirror the disposition of the four courts, extending «East, West and South and North». The opposite cardinal points are paired in this line, just as the opposite poles of the quatrains echo each other, in order to accentuate the feeling of confinement.

18For all that, Tennyson’s palace of art is clearly not a modern museum, and the «gallery» seems to be nothing more than an architectural passage in a building. Nor, for that matter, is it clearly a site of memory. It is only at the end, when the soul’s pleasure has turned into a profound feeling of melancholy, that the real function of the building is revealed and that the horizontal dimension of the soul’s wanderings comes into conflict with the vertical dimension of the elevation:

“What! Is not this my place of strength,” she said,
“My spacious mansion built for me,
Whereof the strong foundation-stones were laid
Since my first memory?”

19From then on, the poem becomes fraught with images of stagnation, immobility and of the impossibility of going down. The most striking one is perhaps the figuration of the speaker’s soul as «a still salt pool, lock’d in with bars of sand» (l. 251), that is a stretch of water into which it is impossible to penetrate because of the density of salt. In Tennyson’s later poetry, most notably in «In Memoriam», it is the geological metaphor which begins to provide access to the deeper strata of memory, but in «The Palace of Memory», such access is still denied. The poem thus bears witness to the fact that galleries and museums had not yet become sites of memory, that what they afforded was at best a new figuration of the intricacies of the mind.

20Even the true sense of «gallery» remains a matter of some doubt in «The Palace of Art», as a passage taken from another of Tennyson’s poems will demonstrate. A few years before «The Palace of Art», Tennyson wrote an «Ode to Memory» (1829), which already contains the seeds of the melancholy that will pervade the later poem. The 1829 poem is an entreaty to memory, calling upon it to return in order to deck the present with the colours of early childhood, instead of «fling[ing] the gloom of yesternight on the white day». Hence the comparison of memory to an artist:

Well has thou done, great artist Memory
In setting round thy first experiment
With royal framework of wrought gold;
Needs must thou dearly love thy first essay,
And foremost in thy various gallery
Place it, where sweetest sunlight falls
Upon the storied walls;
For the discovery
And newness of thine art so pleased thee
That all which thou hast drawn of fairest
Or boldest since but lightly weighs
With thee unto the love thou bearest
The first-born of thy genius. (Tennyson 26)

21Tennyson’s «Ode to Memory» perhaps attests that a change in the significance of the word «gallery» was taking place at the time when the poem was written, a change which may have been determined by the historical context. The National Gallery had opened only a few years before, in 1823, and Tennyson may well have been one of the first to grasp the implications of that change for the understanding and the representations of memory. However, in «Ode to Memory» the gallery is but a vague location, allowing the poet and artist to recall and thus «place» his first experiment, just as Hardy’s museum poem only serves to «lodge» the memories in the mind. It is only with the advent of modern ekphrastic and museographic poetry that poets became aware of the full potentialities of the modern museum.

Revisiting and remembering

22The distance between Victorian museum poetry and modernist museographic poetry can be assessed by comparing Tennyson’s poems about galleries with Yeats’s «The Municipal Gallery Re-visited», a poem which Daniel Albright believed to have been influenced by «The Palace of Art»:

My glory was I had such friends: an expertly turned compliment, but perhaps with a hint of narcissism as well — the pictures on the wall reflect the poet’s own glory. In A Vision Yeats mentioned how «my own form might appear in a room full of mirrors» (p. 214) — and in this poem the Municipal Gallery faintly recalls Tennyson’s «The Palace of Art» (1832), where the soul goes mad from self-reflection. (Yeats 801)

23In «The Municipal Gallery Re-visited» (P 366-368), Yeats made the most of the new model of the specialized museum, and brought substantial modifications to its metaphorical significance. However, it is also a poem which must be apprehended in terms of rhythm and movement, as it seems to reactivate some of Quintilian’s interrogations. Re-visiting his own museum of memory, along lines which are clearly dictated by the principles of A Vision, Yeats, albeit unconsciously, revisits at the same time memory models which had been partly abandoned since classical times. It is a poem about the difficulty of adjusting the disposition of the museum to a memory system, as evinced in the first place by the fact that, contrary to what happens in most of Yeats’s poems, all the stanzas have been numbered, as though each formed a section. It is not unusual to find numbered sections in Yeats’s poems, but in most cases those sections extend over more than one stanza, with a few well-known exceptions such as «In Memory of Major Robert Gregory» or «Among School Children».

24«The Municipal Gallery Re-visited» thus raises the question of knowing whether the rooms are merely those of the municipal gallery or also rooms in the visitor’s memory. All along the poem, the pace of the visit in progress varies a lot, ranging from quite fast in the first stanza to utter stillness at the end of the second one and throughout the third one, and then on to normal speed in the last five ones. Accordingly, the pictures in the first lines are presented fairly allusively, as noun phrases or participial phrases predominate:

Around me the images of thirty years;
An ambush; pilgrims at the water-side;
Casement upon trial, half hidden by the bars,
Guarded; Griffith staring in hysterical pride;
Kevin O’Higgins’ countenance that wears
A gentle questioning look that cannot hide
A soul incapable of remorse or rest;
A revolutionary soldier kneeling to be blessed;

25In the first half of this initial stanza, the visitor casts a circular gaze («around me»). Although he dwells at some length on the picture of O’Higgins, more fully described than the others, with verbs, his perception seems perfectly synchronized with his ambulatory pace. Only at the end of the second stanza does he come to a standstill:

Before a woman’s portrait suddenly I stand;
Beautiful and gentle in her Venetian way.
I met her all but fifty years ago
For twenty minutes in some studio.

26Standing before one of the paintings, in a kind of confrontation with its subject, the visitor experiences a feeling of subjugation similar to that described by Yeats in «Among School Children», when the process of recollection is suddenly arrested because of the illusion that Maud Gonne is standing before him: «And thereupon my heart is driven wild: / She stands before me as a living child» (P 232).

27This almost agonistic meeting with the past is what Yeats terms a «Presence», a word which comes etymologically from praeesse, to be before. A «Presence», however, should be carefully distinguished from a representation, from a mnemonic device representing an absent reality, as it brackets the present and stands in an indeterminate zone which is outside the location of the present. Similarly, in the second stanza of «The Municipal Gallery Re-visited», the visitor is able to dig up from the past another kind of representation, lying underneath the first one. The gallery room opens into «a studio» where the poet once stood, which seems to suggest that the memory network, of the kind evoked in the works of Cicero and Quintilian, has its own arrangement, its own disposition.

28In the terms of A Vision, such images lie in unconscious recesses of the mind and are liable to return with the full vigour of presences when they have not been purged of their corresponding affections. In that case, memory, instead of screening the past and reorganizing it into the story of an individual self, dissolves into a mere series of fragments. This is what happens in «The Municipal Gallery Re-visited», when the speaker’s heart is «smitten with emotion», just as it was «driven wild» in «Among School Children»: «Heart-smitten with emotion I sink down, / My heart recovering with covered eyes» (P 367). The beautiful image of the heart having to cover its eyes in order to regain consciousness, nonetheless points to a deficiency in the memory system, an excess of presence which is potentially as unsettling as an excess of present.

29From then on, the visit is resumed, but at a completely different pace: alternatively moving on and stopping in front of the portraits of his now deceased contemporaries, Augusta Gregory and John Synge, the visitor seems to travel more easily in and out of his network of memories, all the while punctuating his recollections with commentaries or quotations. The text thus proceeds in two different directions at once, or on two distinct planes: a plane of visual representations and a plane of verbal reminiscences. Both processes, however, fail to capture the past in a satisfactory way: the paintings no less than the words fail to give direct and unmediated access to the reality which they are meant to represent. This second type of deficiency, which might be called an excess of representation, is made even more obvious through the shift from sections IV to V, and the disruption which affects the pattern of the ottava rima in the transition from sections V to VI.All three sections focus on «Mancini’s portrait of Augusta Gregory», which attracts the visitor’s gaze at the onset of the fourth stanza, or, should we say, at the entrance of room number IV. Although the painting immediately brings to the visitor’s mind a remark made by John Synge — «Greatest since Rembrandt», the speaker mainly laments the failure of painting to recapture the moral essence of the sitter:

A great ebullient portrait certainly;
But where is the brush that could show anything
Of all that pride and humility?
And I am in despair that time may bring
Approved patterns of women or of men
But not that selfsame excellence again.

30Ut pictura poesis: as with painting, so with words. Painting and words alike are here in excess of the reality they represent. They remain at the surface of things, being merely «patterns», that is structures which can be reproduced indefinitely but without ever reaching into the depths of being, traditionally defined as that which is identical to itself, «selfsame».

31When the poem proceeds to section V, we therefore move on to a different plane. Unlike what happened in the previous stanzas, the visitor remains in the same room, facing the same picture, but his memory seems to move to a different compartment of the mind:

My mediaeval knees lack health until they bend,
But in that woman, in that household where
Honour had lived so long, all lacking found.
Childless I thought, ‘My children may find here
Deep-rooted things,’ but never foresaw its end,
And now that end has come I have not wept;
No fox can foul the lair the badger swept —

(An image out of Spenser and the common tongue).

32The metaphor of the «roots», suggesting a downward movement, is misleading here, since the two networks, that of the gallery and that of the speaker’s memory, actually do not communicate. The gallery fails to give access to the deeper strata of the mind, and the text very carefully delineates the two kinds of space, playing as it does with determinants and deitics: the thought came to mind in this place, «here» (as in Hardy’s poem), but the household is maintained at a distance through the use of «that». It is an isolated site of memory which remains outside of time, that is outside the history re-constructed (and re-visited) by the spectator, who failed to «foresee its end».

33The blank space that breaks in two the traditional couplet ending of the ottava rima is perhaps the most obvious sign of the dissociation between the different parts of the visitor’s memory that is taking place here. As «tongue» does not rhyme with «swept», the eighth line and the period fail to fulfil their traditional unifying function in Yeats’s poetry. On the contrary, «swept» looks back to «wept» in the preceding line, as though the poet had remained fixated on a specific image of memory which he could not integrate into his own evolution. When we move on to the beginning of section VI, we move back up to a surface layer of memory. The visitor is back, or so it seems, in the gallery room, but without having found the opening leading down, by degrees, into the past.

34Not surprisingly therefore, the visit ends in the last section with the dismissal of all the modes of representation, since no art of memory can possibly enable the speaker to retrieve the past. Not only is John Synge a «rooted man», unlike the visitor, not only is he oblivious to human words, but he is above all «here», without, or so it seems, the mediation of a portrait:

And here’s John Synge himself, that rooted man,
‘Forgetting human words’, a grave deep face.
You that would judge me, do not judge alone
This book or that, come to this hallowed place
Where my friends’ portraits hang and look thereon;
Ireland’s history in their lineaments trace;
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.

35Although the illusion is soon dispelled and the sense of place quickly reasserted, the stanza maintains until the end a clear dividing-line between being and representation, between the network of memories and the network of images. It is preserved for instance in the opposition between on the one hand the consciousness that there are depths, exemplified in Synge’s rootedness and «grave deep face», with perhaps a pun on «grave», and on the other hand the realisation that pictorial or verbal representations are bound to remain superficial, can but trace the «lineaments» of the past (that is to say the lines of a poem also). On his way out of the gallery, the visitor extends to future generations an invitation to re-visit again and again the site where their national history has been memorialized. But it also subtly acknowledges the unbridgeable gap between memory as recollection and memory as movement, between memory as a store of collective mnemonic devices and memory as individual history.

The ambulatory pace of museographic poetry

36«The Municipal Gallery Revisited» gives some weight to the contention made by James Heffernan in his study of ekphrastic poetry (Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery) that poems about public museums only appeared in the first half of the twentieth century. Heffernan mentions Auden’s «Musée des Beaux Arts» as the first major example of this new development in the history of ekphrastic poetry. Yet, he dismisses the idea that museographic poems in general, and Auden’s poem in particular, can also be mnemonic poems. His argument, on that score, is twofold. Firstly, he argues that museums only memorialize fragments of the past, by presenting a selection of works of art which is necessarily incomplete:

But as a general rule, the only tale told by the pictures in a modern temple of art is the curatorial story of how an artist developed, how a national culture was formed, or how the style of a «period» evolved. Since museums can seldom display any more than a small fraction of the works required to tell such stories in the full, the stories are typically signified by individual works: by the masterpieces that mark a transition, epitomize a period, or encapsulate a style. While the art historian may elaborately contextualize a work of art, the museum individuates it for the eye, sets it off for contemplation or veneration in its own framed and labeled space, presents it to us as a self-sufficient icon. (Heffernan 138, original emphasis)

37As a consequence, museographic poems for Heffernan are at best splendid aggregates of incoherent images, although the incoherence is attenuated by the exemplary quality of the paintings:

Twentieth-century exphrasis springs from the museum, the shrine where all poets worship in a secular age. […] it is significant that the first major specimen of ekphrastic poetry written in this century should be explicitly titled «Musée des Beaux Arts». Only in a museum would Auden encounter a painting of Icarus incongruously juxtaposed with paintings of martyrdom and Christ’s nativity: paintings put together not because they successively tell anything like a coherent story but because they all come from the same hand. Auden’s own generalization about these paintings — that they all show how well the Old Masters understood suffering — has become so familiar that we generally fail to see how different the paintings are, how strange it is to link a picture of comically splashing legs with pictures of torture and miraculous birth. (Ibid.)

38In those two passages, Heffernan comes close to Quintilian’s criticism of the art of memory, but he conceives too much of paintings as isolated artefacts to take the view that what matters in museographic poetry is the way the visitor takes the paintings in his stride rather than the contemplation of each individual work of art. The kind of past or memory he evokes is always that of the painter, but never that of the viewer himself or herself.

39It is possible to demonstrate that in «Musée des Beaux Arts», the one memory underlying the whole poem is a feeling of loss, a feeling of severance from his father experienced by a boy (Auden 79-80). In the course of the poem, the reference to the Nativity in the first stanza, together with the allusion to Christ’s exclamation on the cross in the second one «the forsaken cry» — serve to work out a kind of continuity which culminates in the last two lines, where another son, Icarus, is no longer «the boy», that is the boy in the picture, but «a boy», a boy standing for all the boys who, like Icarus in the myth, fall out of the sky because they have been cut off from their inheritance.

40In Auden’s early poetry, as is well-known, such tales of disinheritance abound. But in «Musée des Beaux Arts», this memory has been carefully erased from the poem. First, in the description of Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus, there is no mention of the second protagonist of the scene, the shepherd who, in the original picture, looks at a point in the sky as though wonder-stricken. What he is actually wondering at remains unclear unless one knows that in an earlier version of the same picture, that point is the place where stood Dedalus, who had accompanied his son since their escape from the labyrinth. The truly amazing thing is therefore that both shepherd and father should have been blotted out from the poem, which is truly «a maze», «a labyrinth of the soul» as Yeats would have put it.

41The poem seems to have been written in order to screen all those memories, the memory of the link between the father and the son, and the memory of the story of the fall of Icarus as it is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the ploughman and the shepherd where grafted on the original myth. Or rather, one could say that those memories have been deflected onto another story, onto another tale of suffering, the one related in the poem. «Musée des Beaux Arts» reads almost like a fable, with the moral placed at the beginning instead of the end: «About suffering they were never wrong / The Old Masters». The story is therefore told from the perspective of a speaker, a visitor or a guide, who tries to relate what he or she has seen and also tries to relate to what he or she has seen by giving as many examples as possible of the initial statement. All along the poem, the adverb «how», modulated into «anyhow» at the end of the first stanza, is used to introduce each of the pictures referred to, but also to convey a sense of movement, fairly rapid in the first stanza but almost completely stilled in the second one. «How» thus becomes the sign of the attempt made by the speaker to give the suffering a shape, to inscribe it into a network of images where it has «a position» and where it can «take place». In the process, the museum becomes more than a mere locus, it has been fragmented into several loci, each of which serves in turn to try and voice the same story in different ways.

42Ultimately however, that network of paintings does not give access to a new mode of representation: although the Old Masters have consistently taken upon themselves the burden of memory, since «they never forgot», they have also refracted upon their works a history which can be universal or mythological, but which is never quite transmuted into an individual story, the story of a boy cut off from his origins. Each of the works of art tells a different story, but in the last analysis fails to express fully the underlying feeling of melancholy which pervades the poem. As in Hardy’s «In a Museum», Tennyson’s «The Palace of Art» or Yeats’s «The Municipal Gallery Re-visited», «Musée des Beaux Arts» at once evinces the potentialities and the limitations of the museum as a modern representation of the art of memory. All four poems are permeated with a deep nostalgia for the past, itself fraught with an even deeper feeling of melancholy in at least three of them. In the two modernist poems, however, the museum as a network of related images, which it is possible to visit or revisit at will, can never tell the whole story.



Auden, W. H., Selected Poems, ed. E. Mendelson, London, Faber, 1979.

Briggs, Asa, Victorian Things (1988), London, Penguin, 1990.

Hardy, Thomas, The Complete Poems (1976), ed. James Gibson, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2001.

Heaney, Seamus, North, London, Faber, 1975.

Heffernan, James A. W., Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery, The U of Chicago P, 1993.

Johnston, Dillon, The Poetic Economies of England and Ireland: 1912-2000, New York and Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2001.

Kenner, Hugh, The Pound Era: The Age of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis, London, Faber, 1972.

Krieger, Murray, Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign, Baltimore and London, The Johns Hopkins UP, 1992, p. 14.

Tennyson, Alfred, Lord, Tennyson’s Poetry (1971), ed. Robert W. Hill, Jr., New York, Norton, 1999.

Yates, Frances, The Art of Memory (1966), London, Pimlico, 1992.

Yeats, W. B., The Poems, ed. D. Albright, London, Everyman, 1990. (P)


Professeur de littérature anglo-irlandaise à l’Université Paris III – Sorbonne Nouvelle. Il travaille sur les écrivains modernistes d’origine irlandaise (Yeats, Joyce, Beckett) et s’intéresse notamment à la poésie nord-irlandaise contemporaine.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2006

Conditions d’utilisation :