What’s happening during “dreadful martyrdom”?W. H. Auden's "Musee de Beaux Arts"

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In W. H. Auden's poem, "Musee des Beaux Arts," the speaker points  out how irrelevant individual momentous events are to many but those involved in them.  And, it is Auden's allusion to "dreadful martyrdom," the Crucifixion of Christ, that pointedly underscores the insignificance given to even such occurrences as Christ's dying for mankind.

Prior to this line, the reader is told that the "miraculous birth" was as casually ignored by children 

...who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood

Cleverly, Auden employs the word specially rather than especially, suggesting the innocent vocabulary of the children which is in conflict with the disturbing emotions that are felt by the poet. The reference to ice skating in Palestine is an incongruity with reality,too, which further calls attention to something that is wrong.  For, the people act much like the dogs who simply go on "with their doggy life." 

Certainly, there is a blurring of the lines between life and art as Auden employs ekphrasis.  While art mitigates the horror of some occurrences in life, such as the Spanish Civil War and the ascendancy of Fascism in Germany about which Auden was dismayed, it is this "amoral insouciance" that also much disturbs Auden both in life and in art such as the painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus."

  

 

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