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Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts' (1938) uses three paintings in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium to touch upon themes of death, suffering, art, and truth. 

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Musee des Beaux Arts

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W. H. Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts' (1938) uses three paintings in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium to touch upon themes of death, suffering, art, and truth.

Written In

1938

Written By

W. H. Auden

Form

Free verse

Metre

No set metre

Rhyme Scheme

ABCADEDBFGFGE

AABCDDBC

Poetic Devices

Caesura

Enjambment

Personification

Allusions

Frequently noted imagery

Animals

Children

Frequently noted allusions

The Census at Bethlehem

The Massacre of Innocents

The Fall of Icarus

Tone

Informal, relaxed

Key themes

Art and Truth

Death and Suffering

Meaning

The wider world is indifferent to individual suffering.

Art has the power to enlighten.

'Musée des Beaux Arts': context

What is the context of the Musée des Beaux Arts?

Biographical context

W. H. Auden was born in 1872 in Birmingham, England. He composed this poem in 1938, weeks before he moved from England to America and just one year before the outbreak of World War II. The poem was first created while Auden was on a trip to Belgium in 1938, where he visited the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. He was inspired by the painting, The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, depicting the story of Icarus from Greek mythology. The story climaxes with Icarus flying too close to the sun, causing his wings to melt. He falls into the ocean and drowns.

Historical context

Auden wrote 'Musée des Beaux Arts' in 1938, a time of political tensions in which fascism was becoming increasingly influential across Europe. Auden himself witnessed these tensions first-hand when he visited Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Both of these trips deeply affected Auden and how he viewed violence and war: he saw how the wider world did not care about individual suffering.

Literary context

This poem was first published in 1939 in the modernist magazine, New Writing. Auden would later go on to include the poem in his 1940 poetry collection, Another Time. 'Musée des Beaux Arts' is one of a selection of ekphrastic poems that Auden wrote in his lifetime.

Ekphrasis - a poem where the speaker comments on art. This type of poetry was first used in ancient Greece when Homer described Achilles' shield in the Iliad. This was in fact the basis for another Auden poem, 'The Shield of Achilles' (1952).

'Musée des Beaux Arts': poem

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just

walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy

life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

'Musée des Beaux Arts': meaning and summary

The meaning of the poem is that while individuals may suffer, the world around them can be indifferent. This is especially notable when seen in the poem's historical context. The late 1930s was a time of great political violence. The idea of this poem can therefore be applied to the wider politics of the time.

Stanza one

The first stanza is eight lines long. The speaker is viewing art by the 'Old Masters' and reflects on how these pieces portray suffering, and how some people are oblivious to it.

Old Masters - Skilled and distinguished painters who worked in Europe before 1800. Examples include Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

Stanza two

The second stanza is six lines long and there is also no set metre. This stanza focuses on the painting The Fall of Icarus, and how the figures in the painting were unaware of Icarus drowning.

'Musée des Beaux Arts': structure

It is important to consider the form of this poem.

Rhyme and Metre

The poem is written in free verse; therefore, there is no rhythm or metre to the poem. Auden uses the absence of any distinct metre to reflect the lack of order that exists during a war. This poem does have an ABCADEDBFGFGE AABCDDBC rhyme scheme, though.

Form

This poem is written in free verse, which is used here to reflect the irregularity of life. Neither the poem nor the wider world will follow a perfect distinct pattern like one found in a sonnet. Free verse is a limitless form that allows the poet to work unbounded, which contrasts with the restrictions of wartime.

Auden has also chosen to make this an ekphrastic poem, which allows the speaker to think philosophically about the art they are observing and the world they live in.

Free verse - when a poem does not rhyme or have a regular rhythm.

Enjambment

Auden uses enjambment to achieve a conversational flow in the poem. The speaker is talking about how uncaring the world can be while others suffer. By taking on a causal tone when talking about the tragedy of Icarus, the structure matches the content.

Enjambmentwhen a sentence of poetry continues into the next line, without a break or pause.

Caesura

Caesuras are also used throughout the poem in order to craft a conversational tone and replicate the flow of a conversation. The breaks in the lines are also reflective of the divisions that were emerging throughout Europe at this time.

Caesurapauses in lines of poetry.

'Musée des Beaux Arts': literary devices

What are some of the literary devices used in the poem? Let's take a look.

Imagery

Auden uses imagery throughout the poem in order to discuss suffering and art. The poet uses the imagery of children in the poem to show that no one is exempt from suffering; not even the youth. We can see an example of this in the first stanza of the poem:

... there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:"

The final line of this extract is used to foreshadow an accident occurring. Auden creates an emotive scene of a child skating on a pond while he talks about suffering happening. The image of childlike innocence is described in stark juxtaposition to the violence. By stating that 'there must always be', the speaker is claiming that children will always be affected by violence in the world.

Personification

Auden uses personification in this poem. In the final section of the second stanza:

... expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

The ship does not literally see Icarus fall out of the sky (ships don’t have eyes!). It is the people on the ship who witness this event happening. Auden personifies the ship to distance the people witnessing the event from the suffering: they did not see it, the ship did.

Personification - a literary device where inanimate objects are given human characteristics.

Allusion

Auden uses allusion (an indirect reference will be made in a piece of work) throughout the poem. Auden alludes to three works during this poem, all attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This first is the painting The Census at Bethlehem (1566).

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just

walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth..."

This allusion is used to talk about the nativity story from the New Testament of the Bible. In this story, Mary gives birth to Jesus in a stable in the town of Bethlehem. When the baby is born he cries, as he is said to be suffering all the sin in the world. In the painting, Mary and Joseph travel on horseback to the town of Bethlehem. This section of the poem does not focus on these characters, but instead focuses on the figures in the background, who go about their day-to-day lives unaware.

The second painting that Auden alludes to is The Massacre of Innocents (1565 - 1566).

Where the dogs go on with their doggy

life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree."

This painting is a continuation of the nativity story. In the story, King Herod calls for soldiers to round up and kill the first-born sons of all the families in the country (in the hopes of killing the baby Jesus). The painting depicts just that, but Auden chooses to focus on the animals in the scene instead. He again chooses to highlight the bystanders in the scene.

The final allusion that is present in the poem is seen in the final stanza of the poem when Auden alludes to The Fall of Icarus.

"In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster;"

This painting is based on the Greek myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and fell to earth, drowning in the sea. Both the painting and Auden use the myth to illustrate a point on suffering. In the painting, Icarus is drowning in the bottom right corner, almost out of sight, with the rest of the landscape continuing around him as normal. This is alluded to in the poem: 'everything turns away'. Auden uses this allusion to show that the world is indifferent to human suffering, something he himself witnessed when he visited Spain and China.

Speaker and tone

The speaker in this poem delivers his views on art and suffering in a conversational and informal tone. This is achieved by making the poem ekphrastic and setting it in a gallery. This is helped by his use of enjambment and caesuras, which are used to replicate the natural patterns of speech. The caesuras are also used to reflect divisions that emerge during a war. This is perhaps a comment on how people suffer during a time of political turmoil.

'Musée des Beaux Arts': themes

What are the main themes in the poem?

Death and suffering

A major theme of the poem is that of death and human suffering. The speaker recognises that both death and human suffering are unavoidable. Although all humans will suffer trauma in their lives, the rest of the world will remain uncaring. This is shown in the final stanza of the poem that depicts the fall of Icarus from the perspective of a passerby.

... the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure;"

Although someone may be suffering or dying, that does not guarantee that the rest of the world will care. The lack of rhyme scheme emulates the disunion between both people and countries in times of war. This reinforces the idea of survival of the fittest, rather than a collective effort to care for each other.

Art and truth

Another key theme in the poem is art and truth. Auden sets the poem in a gallery and uses this as a vehicle for philosophical discussion. The art featured in the poem has the power to give the speaker a moment of realisation about the truth of the world. The speaker feels that the “Old Masters” were enlightening the world through their art. By viewing the art, he too is enlightened.

Musee des Beaux Arts (1939) - Key takeaways

  • This poem was first composed in 1938, published in 1939, and then included in Auden's 1940 poetry collection, Another Time.

  • The poem is ekphrastic and was inspired by the painting The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

  • It was written during a time of heightened political tension, reflecting the anxieties of the time period.

  • Auden used literary devices such as imagery, allusion, repetition, and personification in the poem.

  • The poem discusses themes of death and suffering, and art and truth.

Frequently Asked Questions about Musee des Beaux Arts

This poem is about the painting The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brugel the Elder. The speaker is reflecting on the art and using it as a metaphor for the political turmoil in his own world. 

The main idea of the poem is that while individuals may suffer, the world around them can be indifferent. This is especially notable when the thought of in its historical context - the late 1930s was a time of great political violence. The idea of this poem can therefore be applied to the wider politics of the time.   

It is an ekphrastic poem. This means that it is a poem where the speaker is commenting on a piece of art. 

While all of the poem is notable, many see the most significant section of this piece to be the second stanza. This is because this portion of the poem discusses the painting itself, and can be seen as a metaphor for how people dealt with the political violence and upheavals of the late 1930s. 

The poem uses an informal, relaxed tone throughout. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

 What two 'at war' countries did Auden visit?

What painter does Auden reference in the poem?

True or False - this is an elegiac poem

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