Auden’s poem is an example of ekphrasis, the embedding of one kind of art form inside another—in this case, a famous painting summarized in a poem. If art, as traditionally conceived, is the deliberate, labored product of human attentiveness to detail, “Musée des Beaux Arts” is centrally concerned with the temptations of artlessness. It is itself artful in its own guise of criminal artlessness.
Bruegel’s The Fall of Icarus captures the final moment of an elaborate and portentous Greek myth. Icarus was imprisoned with his father, Daedalus, the master craftsman, in the labyrinth that the latter had constructed on the island of Crete. In order to escape, Dedalus devises wax wings that will enable father and son to fly free of the island. He cautions Icarus not to soar too close to the sun, lest it melt the wings’ wax. With the arrogance of youth, Icarus ignores his father’s warning and, after his wings melt, plummets into the sea and drowns. In Bruegel’s rendition, as though the event were indeed marginal to the course of human affairs, Icarus’s leg is the only part of him still—barely—visible above the water, in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. The disappearance of the imprudent boy is not the center of the viewer’s attention, just as it passes unnoticed by everyone else within the frame. Like Bruegel, Auden would force one to take notice of universal disregard.
James Joyce chose Stephen Dedalus as the name of his aspiring novelist in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and Dedalus, an ingenious architect and inventor, is often appropriated from Greek mythology as a prototype of the artist. Beginning with its title, an elegant French phrase that seems blatantly out of place with the poem’s homely style and its rustic landscape, “Musée des Beaux Arts” questions the ability of art to matter in a world of intractable apathy. Not only is Dedalus rendered powerless, but the horrendous death of his son, Icarus, passes unheeded and unmourned. Even the sun, which, by melting the wax wings, is most directly responsible for the catastrophe, shines without pause or compunction.
Written in a conversational, vernacular style, Auden’s poem is much more accessible than many of the other major poems of the modern period. Disarmingly direct, it is all the more stunning in its indictment of evasiveness. The “expensive delicate ship” that sails blithely away from an amazing event seems more intent on commercial operations than on concern for an individual human being, as if money mattered more than life. Despite and because of its apparent disingenuousness, “Musée des Beaux Arts” is one of the most haunting English poems to have emerged from the middle of the twentieth century, when millions of human beings were being uprooted, imprisoned, or slaughtered while the rest of the world went calmly about its business. Sociologists have documented the increasing desensitization and alienation of the modern, industrial, urban citizen, but it is probably the museum of fine arts and the anthology of poetry that provide the clearest diagnosis of twentieth century anomie. Readers of poetry are, by definition, attentive. For any reader appalled by widespread failure of attention, “Musée des Beaux Arts” is, like the plop of young Icarus into the green water, indelibly etched in the mind.