Musée des Beaux Arts

by W. H. Auden

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Does the painting in "Musée des Beaux Arts" support Auden's point about the 'human position' of suffering?

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A good thesis might be this:

Auden uses Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Bruegel to highlight a truth regarding the human experience: While some people experience profound suffering, others continue on in the mundane rituals of daily life.

You could then build a body paragraph that examines how this is evident in the painting. The man who plows the field continues on with his work. The shepherd stands with his back to Icarus's crash into the sea. A fisherman, mere feet from the splash, doesn't even raise his head to examine the impact. Boats, likely busy with commerce duties of the day, sail forward and away from the scene with nary a human around to investigate the fall of an angel-like being with wings into the sea below. Icarus suffers and is in dire need of humankind's assistance, and mankind continues on with the ordinary, average tasks of the day, oblivious or uncaring of Icarus's needs.

Another body paragraph could then examine the way Auden elaborates on this human reaction to suffering in the first stanza:

how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

These sentiments relate to the painting and also extend into life itself. There is always suffering, and people seem to deflect much of it in daily life by simply moving on in their own journeys. They eat. They open windows. They walk in no particular direction and with no particular purpose. They carry on.

Interestingly, nature doesn't seem to care about the needs of Icarus, either. Examine the position of the sheep, the dog, the turtle, and the horse. They are all turned away from the scene of impact, indicating that nature itself isn't concerned with the trials of mankind. Perhaps mankind, therefore, is simply an extension of nature, and each man is left to suffer completely alone.

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Auden wrote the poem "Musée des Beaux Arts" in 1938, after Hitler's rise to power in Germany and annexation of Austria. Hitler's campaign against Jews, homosexuals, and the Romani people may have been personally worrisome to Auden, who was himself gay.

Although the poem does not overtly talk about Hitler, there is a parallel theme in that, just as in the painting people go about their daily lives ignoring both momentous events and great suffering, so too were people in Europe and Britain ignoring the threat of Hitler. This theme is exemplified by the way the farmer is turned away from Icarus and focused on plowing. Auden describes the scene in Brueghel as follows:

... the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure;

Thus for a thesis, you could state, "Just as the farmer in the painting is so focused on his plowing that he does not pay attention to Icarus, so too were people in Europe so focused on their daily lives that they ignored the rise of Hitler."

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