Poets are visual artists with their imagery just as the great masters replicate scenes with paint. W. H. Auden feels admiration for the Old Masters which he expresses in his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts.” The title of the poem refers to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium.
The painting that Auden refers to is “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Brueghel the elder. The painting reflects the myth of Icarus who made wings from wax and went to fly. His father warned him not to go to close to the sun or the wings would melt. Icarus in his enthusiasm goes to close and falls into the water. The picture portrays the scene with everyone ignoring the disastrous fall. The only indication of Icarus’s problem is his legs sticking up out of the water.
Auden’s poem reflects understanding of mankind in the paintings of the great artists of the past. The poet notes that these artists had a special intuitive insight into the reactions of man to disaster. He refers to three different paintings: the painting portraying the birth of Christ; the crucifixion of Christ; and the painting of the death of Icarus.
All of these great paintings have something in common that the Old Masters understood: man’s indifference to man. When there are paintings that portray the suffering of Christ or his birth, there will be children or people in the picture who seem not to care what is happening in the rest of the picture. People eat and drink, dogs continue to act like dogs, and children continue to play unconcerned that in the middle of the scene some great tragedy is occurring.
…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. It turns out that when bad things happen to people, other people are usually looking the other way.
In extending this theme promoted within the poem, the poet's addresses the passivity that some people feel with regard to the suffering of others. Children may be expected not to understand the “human condition” in a tragic situation. On the other hand, adults who bury their heads in the sand so that will not have to address the difficulties of other people shows an unacceptable coldness.
There are other people who handle others’ sorrows by saying that they are minding their own business are displaying a marked indifference to their fellow man. A person does not need to be a hero, but he should at least show some degree of empathy and assistance.
To add to his theme, Auden points out that man’s lack of support for another is not a new issue. Humanity has been indifferent since ancient Greek times to the time of Christ to the world today. Disasters, tragedies and sufferings are a part of life; they happen any time. But life has to go on.