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We've all done it before: as we walk down a busy street, we are looking at our phones, distracted, not paying attention to the world around us. 'Musee des Beaux Arts,' published in 1939 by W.H. Auden, is a poem about that same idea—except there are no smartphones. Instead, the poem depicts themes of people turning away from—or simply not noticing—the lives and suffering of those around them.
|Poem||'Musee des Beaux Arts'|
|First Published||1939, under the title 'Palais des beaux arts' in New Writing|
|Rhyme Scheme||Free verse with occasional rhyming|
|Themes||Human's inattention to the suffering of others; disasters are commonplace|
|Allusions||Pieter Breughel and the Greek myth The Fall of Icarus|
|Poetic Devices||Enjambment, juxtaposition, diction|
|Meaning||The suffering of others is often ignored.|
W.H. Auden wrote ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ after visiting the Royal Museums of Fine Arts (French translation: Musee des Beaux Arts) in Brussels, Belgium. The poem focuses on one painting in particular: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1555 by Pieter Breughel), which captures the scene of the Greek myth the Fall of Icarus, as told by Ovid in his epic poem Metamorphoses (8 A.D.).
In Greek mythology, Daedalus and his son Icarus attempt to escape captivity by using wings secured by wax. Daedalus warned his son that he must not fly too close to the sun. If he does, his wings will melt. Icarus ignored his father’s advice, however. He flew too close to the sun, his wings melted, and he drowned in the sea below.
The poem opens with an arresting statement by the speaker: “About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters” (lines 1-2). Given the title’s context, the speaker is referencing the European painters whose works are featured in the art museum he is visiting. This line abruptly states the subject of the poem: suffering.
As the speaker walks through the museum, he looks at various paintings. The first two alluded to in the first stanza are, as scholars presume, Census at Bethlehem (1566) and Massacre of Innocence (1565), both painted by Breughel (though they are not named in the poem). The speaker remarks about the place human suffering has in society. Depicted in the paintings before him, suffering is treated as commonplace. Amidst the mundane, suffering “takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” (lines 3-5).
The second and final stanza focuses on Breughel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The speaker describes what he sees in the painting: the plowman, the sun shining, the white legs in the green water, the delicate ship. Yet what the speaker notices is how “everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster” (lines 16 - 17).
The disaster here is Icarus’s drowning, and the "human position" (line 3) is with its back to it. The plowman simply presses on because to him the fall and drowning aren’t that important. The delicate ship, the speaker says, “must have seen something amazing,” (lines 21-22) but instead of noticing it, “sails calmly on” (line 23).
W.H. Auden was not the only poet to write about Breughel's painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. William Carlos Williams wrote his poem titled 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' in 1960. His poem, although much different in form, tone, and style, treats the subject of human suffering—and our indifference to it—similarly to Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts'.
|1||About suffering they were never wrong,|
|2||The old Masters: how well they understood|
|3||Its human position: how it takes place|
|4||While someone else is eating or opening a window or just|
|5||walking dully along;|
|6||How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting|
|7||For the miraculous birth, there always must be|
|8||Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating|
|9||On a pond at the edge of the wood:|
|10||They never forgot|
|11||That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course|
|12||Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot|
|13||Where the dogs go on with their doggy|
|14||life and the torturer's horse|
|15||Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.|
|16||In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away|
|17||Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may|
|18||Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,|
|19||But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone|
|20||As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green|
|21||Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen|
|22||Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,|
|23||Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.|
Let us take a look at the structure and literary device of this poem.
Ekphrasis: A Greek word meaning "description," an ekphrastic poem is a poem that responds to or is about a work of art.
‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ was inspired by the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and also features it in its text. Writing about the painting allows Auden to bring the reader into the landscape and see how the people react (or don’t react) to the disaster happening around them.
Even if we didn’t have the painting to look at, readers could identify how the plowman and the ship carry on, as if nothing terrible is happening. The sun, which “shone as it had to on the white legs,” is depicted as indifferent to the young boy. It’s simply doing its job, nothing more.
Another famous ekphrastic poem is "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats. Can you think of any other examples of poems that respond to art?
Upon first reading it, ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ employs free verse, which is a lack of regular rhyme scheme or metered lines of poetry. However, when reading it more closely, you’ll find subtle rhyming at the end of some lines. For example, “wrong” (line 1) and “along” (line 5); “understood” (line 2) and “wood” (line 9), and so on. Auden masks the rhyming with the use of enjambment.
Enjambment: when a sentence or phrase runs over from one line to the next. The opposite of an end-stopped line, an enjambed line stops at the sentence's terminal punctuation.
For example, Auden relies on enjambment for the waving of long and short lines when describing suffering in the first stanza:
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along;
The enjambment also depicts the seamlessness between profound suffering and mundane things, as the words flow from one line to the next. Line 11 begins:
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy
Auden uses juxtaposition — placing two contrasting ideas side by side — for thematic effect. For example, the speaker implicitly references the painting Census at Bethlehem (Breughel, 1566), which depicts the birth of Jesus Christ reimagined as a contemporary event in a Flemish village. In the scene, there are “children…skating on a pond at the edge of the wood” (lines 8 - 9). Juxtaposing the children in Census at Bethlehem as unaware of what is to come mirrors the plowman in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus who is blissfully unaware of the drowning Icarus. Putting these two scenes side by side emphasizes how disconnected they both are from each other.
Syntax: the order of words in a sentence.
The opening line is startling primarily because of its syntax: “About suffering they were wrong, The Old Masters.” If written in typical English language word order, the sentence would read: “The Old Masters were never wrong about suffering.” It’s the same sentence, but written this way takes away its punch.
Auden flips it, putting the subject (The Old Masters) at the end of the sentence to force the phrase "about suffering" to the beginning. The speaker shines a spotlight on suffering, which is exactly what doesn’t happen in any of the paintings the speaker sees. Right off the bat, we know this is a poem about suffering.
In poetry, it's helpful to look at how the elements of a poem mirror its themes and messages. Notice how 'Musee des Beaux Arts' is about suffering—in fact, it announces it in the first line—yet we, just like the people in these paintings, don't really see suffering in the poem described anywhere.
Diction: a writer or speaker's choice of words.
The speaker’s word choice highlights the nonchalance toward disaster and suffering. The speaker remarks, “That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/Anyhow in a corner…where the dogs go on with their doggy life” (lines 12 - 13). “Dreadful martyrdom” are heavy words, loaded with darkness and suffering. Yet in a corner, dogs are just doing their business—and Auden chooses causal, conversational words like “doggy life” to suggest the complete opposite of “dreadful martyrdom.”
Let us take a look at the themes in this poem and their meaning.
Earlier we discussed how ‘Musee de Beaux Arts’ is a poem about suffering. But what does the poem say about suffering? That’s where we get to the poem’s theme, or the statement the poem makes about its subject.
Every detail in the poem culminates in the final image, which reads:
“[T]he expensive ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
A boy has not only fallen out of the sky, but is now drowning. The expensive ship had “somewhere to get to” and didn’t notice the tragedy happening off to the side. This arresting image highlights the indifference that many have toward the suffering of others. Often, we may be too distracted or too busy to notice what’s going on, and we may miss something truly terrible.
On the other hand, perhaps the poem is saying something else about suffering. ‘Musee de Beaux Arts’ may also suggest that suffering isn’t universal; instead, it may be something that is defined by a person. For example, in the final stanza (and in the painting), the plowman pushes his cart along, as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.
Lines 18-19 read that he may “Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, but for him it was not an important failure.” The moral of the Greek myth of Icarus focuses on his error of flying too close to the sun, which leads to his death. The plowman, though, doesn’t see it that way—or at all. To him, Icarus's failure is nothing significant.
A really good poem offers multiple interpretations of its theme. Challenge yourself to look for the different (and maybe conflicting) messages in 'Musee des Beaux Arts'.
One meaning of the poem 'Musee des Beaux Arts' is that people do not pay attention to the suffering around them.
'Musee des Beaux Arts' is about how disaster is so commonplace that people no longer notice it.
'Musee des Beaux Arts' is an ekphrastic poem, meaning it's a poem about a work of art.
Juxtaposition, enjambment, and inverted syntax are literary devices used in 'Musee des Beaux Arts.'
The message of 'Musee des Beaux Arts' is that suffering is in the eye of the beholder.
Who wrote 'Musee des Beaux Arts'?
W.H. Auden wrote 'Musee des Beaux Arts.'
What is the painting that 'Musee des Beaux Arts' is about?
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Breughel (c. 1560).
What is ekphrasis?
Ekphrasis (or ekphrastic poem) is a poem that is about or responds to a work of art.
What is syntax?
The order of words in a sentence
What is enjambment?
Enjmabment is when a line of poetry runs over to the next without stopping. (The line instead stops at its terminal punctuation mark).
What is one message of 'Musee des Beaux Arts'?
Suffering is in the eye of the beholder.
Who is "They never forgot" (line 10) referring to?
The Old Masters (European painters featured in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts).
What is "it takes place while someone is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along" (lines 3-5) referring to?
Who wrote a poem titled 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' in 1960?
William Carlos Williams
What is the myth of Icarus?
The myth of Icarus says that Icarus, using wings secured by wax, flew too close to the sun. The wax melted, and as a result, Icarus drowned.
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