Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden

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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The much-anthologized “Musée des Beaux Arts,” whose main subject is a painting by Bruegel, is itself a small “portrait,” a tightly bound image of how people react to the suffering of others. The dramatic situation in the poem is easily imaginable: The poet is visiting an art gallery, the “musée” of the title, and has drawn to a halt in front of Icarus by the early Renaissance Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel (the Elder). The speaker has very likely just viewed a series of other paintings by old masters, in which traditional subjects, such as the Crucifixion or a saint’s martyrdom, are prominent. Icarus, however, gives him pause: After he has studied it for a while, one may imagine, he reveals his thoughts.

Although the painting’s theme is drawn from Greek mythology—the flight of Icarus too near the sun and his subsequent fall—the treatment is typical of Bruegel. This early modern painter delighted in the depiction of rural people in real-life settings; many of his works show peasants farming, going to market, or celebrating the harvest. Bruegel’s people are hardworking, not too pretty, and full of life. Renaissance painters, of course, devoted thousands of canvases to imagined scenes from Greek myths, like the one the Flemish artist has chosen for this picture. Ordinarily, however, a painter of this period would have placed Icarus in a restrained, “classical” setting, showing the noble tragedy implicit in the story. The myth relates how the inventor, Daedalus, and his son, Icarus, are imprisoned and escape using two sets of wings constructed by Daedalus of wax and feathers. Icarus, in his joy and pride, flies too near the sun, the wax melts, and he plunges into the sea. Thus, there is an irony implicit in Bruegel’s painting; this grand, classical theme is placed in a humble, contemporary setting. Moreover, as Icarus falls into the sea in the background, everyone else continues going about his or her business.

The speaker finds great truth in this contrast between high tragedy and everyday life. As he contemplates the painting, he concludes that the old masters, Renaissance painters such as Bruegel, had a profound knowledge of human experience. The central fact of that experience, the masters show, is life’s enormous variety: There are so many people in the world, feeling so many emotions and doing so many things, that moments of great significance pass by unnoticed. In another painting the speaker has seen, for example, the “aged” Magi...

(The entire section is 643 words.)