What’s Robert Johnson got to do with Breughel and W.H. Auden? Good Question.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

I don’t usually give much, if any, of an explanation of my poems before I read them, but I think this one is the exception.  I read it to a group without explanation once, and got a lot of blank looks.

I wrote it specifically for the Adelaide Plains Poetry Competition, run by the lovely Carolyn Cordon. The theme for entries was “Crossroads”.  Crossroads to me brings up images of Robert Johnson, the blues great, singing “I went down to the crossroads”, later covered by bands I used to watch in my teens, like Led Zeppelin and Cream.  Bob Dylan also famously said that he went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for being able to become a great guitar fingerpicker.

I’d also been toying with the idea of playing with W.H (Wystan Hugh) Auden’s great poem “The Musee de Beaux Arts”, which was apparently written about the famous Breughel painting.  The painting, which hangs in the Musee de Beaux Arts in Brussels,  shows Icarus, in the background, falling into the sea, whilst in the foreground, rural life goes on regardless.   It’s all about how tragedy can befall one person, whilst others carry on their normal routine completely unaware.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

So combining the two ideas, I wondered what might have happened if W.H. Auden, instead of popping into the Musee de Beaux Arts, had carried on walking and dropped into a blues club, to hear the likes of Robert Johnson and other blues greats singing.  The idea of Auden being into blues music is not so fanciful. Another of his famous poems is “Funeral Blues”, which became popular after being misused in the box office hit “Four Weddings and a Funeral” – misused because it was taken literally, rather than with its original ironic intention.

My poem, by the way, was “Commended”, by the judge, John Malone (read his blog, it’s very good), who said:

The most curious poem, also commended, was ‘Wystan Hughes walks past the Musee de Beaux Arts and drops into a nearby blues club’ [after W H Auden] (by Mike Hopkins SA), an accomplished, witty and entertaining piece which Auden would have appreciated.

If you’re still with me, and haven’t read the Auden poem, here it is, followed by my fantasy of Auden getting into the blues.

Musee de Beaux Arts by Wystan Hugh 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.

Wystan Hugh walks past the Musee de Beaux Arts and drops into a nearby blues club (after W.H. Auden)

About wooing, they were never wrong

those Old Blues Greats; how well they understood

that if you are going to invite a woman

to go with you up the country

then you make damn sure you have a fallback plan:

her younger, desperate sibling, Lucille

who is only too willing to accept your proposition

in the event of big sister’s refusal

About marriage, they were never wrong

those Old Blues Greats; how well they understood

that the years take their toll; before you know it

the thrill is gone away. You’re free from her spell

and her from yours, but your only friend

is the bartender, scratching his innocent behind

as you drown your sorrows with rounds

of one bourbon, one scotch and one beer

About infidelity, they were never wrong

those Old Blues Greats; how well they understood

what it is to come home after a long day’s work

to find the insurance man rollin’ and tumblin’ with your woman

to realise that yesterday it was the milkman

and before that the postman, knocking more than once

whilst you went blithely about

your working day

About the crossroads they were never wrong

those Old Blues Greats; how well they understood

that sulphur scented crucial point where

at midnight you make your infernal trade with the devil

your soul; to become that demon fingerpicker or

to have all the women and whiskey one man can stand

to be that something amazing which separates you at last

from the humdrum human position

those Old Blues Greats; how well they understood

copyright Mike Hopkins 2012

11 thoughts on “What’s Robert Johnson got to do with Breughel and W.H. Auden? Good Question.

  1. jeez louise, but you make me wanna step away from the keyboard, step away from the paper, put down the pen, and just bow in your direction, namaste and thank you and all those good vibes, while at the very same time making me wanna keep on letting the words out. as if i could stop them. i am glad to find you.

  2. I enjoyed the explanation, Mike. Actually there’s a whole exciting category of poems, of which yours is one, written in imitation of or in response to a famous poem or work of art. I can’t think of any at the moment but the topic would be worthy of a blog

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