In "Musee des Beaux Arts" by W.H. Auden, who are the Old Masters refered to in line 2?

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Michael Otis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The term "Old Masters" (not a technical term in Art History) - which appears in the second line of W.H. Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" - refers to skilled painters of Europe who worked before 1800. The Old Master who was "never wrong" about suffering is Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525 - September 9, 1569), a Flemish painter whose painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus constitutes the allusion of the second stanza of the poem. Interestingly, a recent examination of the painting (1996) indicates that the painting, famously located in the Musee des Beaux Arts in Brussels, is in fact a version of a lost Bruegel original, a fact Auden would not have been aware of. It is through the Icarus allusion that Auden articulates the principal  motif of the poem - how art transforms the response to human suffering. When made the subject of art, suffering loses its insistent existential thrust and takes on an aesthetic meaning - one that can be ignored. Subsumed into art suffering no longer elicits an automatic response of horror or sympathy, but allows detachment. Thus, in the poem "the ploughman" can ignore the "forsaken cry" of the doomed Icarus, and the sailors, tangentially noticing a "boy falling out of the sky" can steer the ship "calmly on". 

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Musée des Beaux Arts

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