“Musée des Beaux Arts,” which is French for “museum of fine arts,” is a poem about the universal indifference to human misfortune. Following a series of reflections on how inattentive most people are to the sufferings of others, the poet focuses on a particular rendition of his theme: a sixteenth century painting by the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, called The Fall of Icarus.
W. H. Auden spent the winter of 1938 in Brussels, where he visited the Bruegel alcove of the city’s Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. “Musée des Beaux Arts” was inspired by the poet’s fascination with the Icarus painting, as well as by two other canvases by Bruegel: The Numbering at Bethlehem and The Massacre of the Innocents. It was written in 1939, when Auden was distressed over the defeat of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and the acquiescence of Europeans to the ascendancy of Fascism.
The poem consists of two sections, the first a series of general statements and the second a specific application of those generalizations. Like the great Flemish Renaissance artists, the poet observes how very marginal is individual calamity to the rest of the world. Most others continue with their mundane activities without paying any attention to the kinds of extraordinary events that poets and painters usually dramatize. In particular, instead of highlighting the magnitude of that mythical catastrophe, Bruegel depicts the bizarre disaster of Icarus falling from the sky as if it were peripheral and utterly inconsequential to anything else. Oblivious to what is happening to hapless Icarus, no one and nothing—neither a farmer nor the sun nor a ship—are distracted from proceeding with business as usual.
The second section of “Musée des Beaux Arts” is an abbreviated analysis of the Bruegel work, in which the poet emphasizes how the painter composes his pastoral scene in such a way as to minimalize the significance of a boy’s suddenly plopping into the sea. Except for the obscure background detail of individual death, the landscape might seem idyllic. Auden’s point is a simple one, and, by expressing it simply, succinctly, and nonchalantly, he intensifies the horror of universal apathy.