Musee des Beaux Arts

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                                                            W.H. Auden

“Musée Des Beaux Arts” has been a popular poem ever since it was published in 1939. To understand it properly, it is necessary, first, to understand the various references within the poem. The title of the poem refers to a Brussels art gallery, whilst the “old masters” are the classical painters of the past of whom Pieter Brueghel (1525-1569) was one. Breughel’s paintings were outstanding in their realism and detail and one such is the painting entitled “Icarus”. Icarus figures in Greek mythology as the first man to attempt to fly, with wings which his father, Daedalus, had obtained for him. Although Icarus flew, the sun melted the wax off his wings and he fell into the sea. The point of the picture, so far as Auden is concerned, is that although the painting the painting is called “Icarus”  the character himself is merely a small detail in one corner – his legs protruding from a green sea – and the foreground is filled with a ploughman engaged in his daily tasks. “The expensive delicate ship” is located, in the painting, near to the place where Icarus falls.

The poem is masterly in its use of contrasts, both concrete and abstract; its argument has a conversational, casual tone and yet is closely thought and expressed. The rhythm is more loose and free than Auden’s usually is and the length of lines and the rhyme scheme are both irregular, though the rhyme is carefully controlled. The poem is made up of two stanzas.

Stanza I begins with Auden’s expression of admiration for the “old masters”, who understood the nature of human suffering, understood that it was always relative and took place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” The deliberate inversion of syntax in the first two lines is meant to oppose the world-view that everything in the world is ordered and inter-related. The poet, thus, seems to take a stand against poets such as Wordsworth and Browning. The old masters know, says the poet, that “when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting/For the miraculous birth,…” real children are more interested in “skating.’ The biblical story tells us that “the aged” are the wise men who went to Bethlehem to pay tributes to the newly-born Jesus. Though the advent of Jesus had tremendous religious significance, still it led to “the massacre of the innocent” ordered by Herod. “The old masters’ who pointed out this had the remarkable and austere recognition of the reality and diversity of human response.

“The miraculous birth” refers to one of the paintings (“The Numbering at Bethlehem”) as does the reference to the “torturer’s horse (“The Massacre of the Innocents”). Auden places and displaces adjectives with meticulous care so that “martyrdom” is “dreadful” and the horses are “innocent”. This transference can sometimes create an ironic effect and at others simply give a clear sense of value to the event (as in “dreadful”). Whilst some miracle is happening, or someone is being subjected to agonizing torture, life will be proceeding in its ordinary, everyday sense. Breughel’s keen perceptive faculty sees the synchronization of “the dreadful martyrdom” of Jesus, the inhuman torturing of the horse and the sexual gratification of the canine couples under the compulsive urge of turgescency. The lines, “That even dreadful martyrdom must run its course/Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot/Where the dogs go on with their doggy life…” can, in a way, be said to be evocative of the passage in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “… lust, though to a radiant angel link’d/Will sate itself in a celestial bed,/And prey on garbage” (I.V. 55-57).

Stanza II turns to Breughel’s “Icarus” here both the rhyme and the rhythm are more disciplined. There is the suggestion of human indifference in “how everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster” and in the suggestion that the ploughman in the poem, though he may have heard “the forsaken cry,” was not concerned with it: “for him it was not an important failure.” Similarly, “the expensive delicate ship” (note here the second deflationary adjective following a first, thus adding to the sense of realism), though it must have seen the remarkable sight – “a boy falling out of the sky” – was concerned with its own activities: “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

The poem presents several ideas, of which the indifference of humans to the suffering of others is only one. Auden merely states this indifference, much as the painter does by making the drowning of Icarus a mere detail. At the centre is the knowledge that human sorrow and misery is only part of the continual river of life and time. The reader is left to consider both the truth of the relativity of suffering and the truth of the horror of man’s indifference to it. At the time this poem was written Auden was beginning to Christianity and we find here a sensitive, yet unflinching, acceptance of truths of human sorrow and response.