Musée des Beaux Arts

by W. H. Auden

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The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 365

“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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

The first noun in “Musée des Beaux Arts” is “suffering,” yet the poem is constructed to demonstrate that it is only in its own first line and nowhere else in the world that human agony receives any emphasis. Elsewhere in his writing, Auden often employs recondite and archaic words, but in this poem he deliberately restricts himself to a very plain vocabulary. The effect of commonplace phrases is to emphasize the banality of suffering. The poet’s tone is nonchalant, as if to echo the carefree way in which most people ignore the tribulations of others. Passion and reverence are out of place in the kingdom of the blasé.

The reader is told that, at the time of “the miraculous birth” (an allusion to the momentous arrival of Jesus), children were most concerned with ice skating and “did not specially want it to happen.” The use of “specially” rather than “especially” suggests a child’s vocabulary; it projects an air of innocence ominously at odds with the horror the poet feels. Even the reference to ice skating in ancient Palestine is an obvious anachronism, and its flippancy, too, is a deliberate incongruity, designed to call attention to something very wrong: the fact that indeed no one pays attention.

At the end of the first section, the “dreadful martyrdom” of the Crucifixion is undercut by the neighborhood dogs’ “doggy life.” The adjective “doggy” again suggests a childlike vocabulary,...

(This entire section contains 588 words.)

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and the deliberately sloppy use of “life” rather than the more grammatically appropriate “lives” embodies the offhanded attitude that repulses the poet. While Jesus is being tortured to death, the executioner’s horse calmly scratches his rump; the childish euphemism “behind” reinforces the air of innocence at the same time that it taints it with the reader’s knowledge of the utter incongruity of such terminology in the face of blatant evil.

The second stanza reduces the entire catastrophe of Icarus’s descent to the ingenuous phrase “a boy falling out of the sky,” thereby dismissing it as effectively as the ploughman, the sun, and the ship do. Mockingly, Auden end rhymes “green” and “seen,” though those words are less important than others around them and they are not the ends of syntactical units of thought.

“Musée des Beaux Arts” is written as free verse, in lines so irregular and discursive that the poem might seem indistinguishable from prose. It is an appropriate form for a work that deals with the prosaic, with a breezy refusal to recognize drama, so preoccupied are people with unexceptional happenings. The wandering line “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” is a perfect marriage of form and content; a litany of trite activities, the line itself walks dully along the page and seems to end as arbitrarily as a shorter line such as “They never forgot,” which appears to break at random. The poem is art disguised as artlessness, depicting a world in which artlessness is a failure of attention and hence of ethics.

The poem is an elaborate exercise in anticlimax, in the effort to undercut any serious, sustained attention to what is significant. Although formal sentences are not supposed to conclude with a preposition, “Musée des Beaux Arts” trails off more than concludes, with the preposition “on.” One is left with the specious tranquillity of the foolish half-rhyme “calmly on”—the verbal equivalent of exactly the kind of amoral insouciance that the poem, camouflaging itself as part of the problem, depicts and condemns.

Musée des Beaux Arts

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 221

The first section develops a general observation: that the Renaissance master painters understood the modest place of agony in the scale of experience. In deceptively casual lines, Auden suggests the utter apathy of most people toward the dramatic events of history. Significant happenings tend to occur in obscurity, while most humans are preoccupied with their own petty affairs.

The second section applies this general thesis to the specific case of Brueghel’s ICARUS. That painting depicts the moment in Greek myth when Icarus, the son of Daedalus, plunges into the sea after having flown too close to the sun with the wax wings fashioned for him by his father. The poet notes that, though the fall of Icarus is something very special, Brueghel, like the characters in his painting, treats it as a minor background detail.

The poem consists of two unequal stanzas, the first of 13 lines and the second of 8. The meter is irregular, the lines are of varying length, rarely end-stopped, and the style is conversational—consistent with the poem’s theme of nonchalance toward the spectacular.

Written during the early stages of a devastating world war, the poem uses colloquialisms such as “anyhow” and “behind” (as an anatomical noun) to reinforce the sense of universal ingenuousness, of widespread ignorance of and indifference to the cunning forces of history.