Musée des Beaux Arts

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Musée des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden 1940

Author Biography

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

First published in 1940 in a collected volume of verse entitled, Another Time, “Musée des Beaux Arts” explores the enduring human response to tragedy and challenges the accepted categorization of “ordinary” life experiences. The poem’s title refers to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, an institution Auden visited in 1938. While there he viewed the Brueghel alcove which contains a number of works including Icarus, the canvas the poem refers to in detail. Drawing on this and other paintings, Auden articulates a notion of human nature which the poem indicates transcends time and space. Opening with generalizations and moving to specifics, the poem argues that the image presented by the “Old Masters” of the Renaissance period, that individual human suffering is viewed with apathy by others, is an accurate one. Juxtaposing images of suffering and tragedy with the banal actions of everyday life suggests that individual tragedies are individual burdens as humankind responds with indifference. Auden wrote that “In so far as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.” Auden’s poem seeks to disenchant or deromanticize death, martyrdom and suffering and achieves this through the juxtaposition of “ordinary” events with universally recognized “extraordinary” ones. This comparison, however, forces a reconsideration of these accepted categories, and the poem appears to suggest that those events worthy of celebration are the ordinary, everyday occurrences.

Author Biography

Auden was born in 1907 and was raised in northern England, the son of a doctor and a nurse. He received his primary education at St. Edmund’s School in Surrey and Gresham’s School in Kent. Auden’s early interest in science and engineering earned him a scholarship to Oxford University; however, his interest in poetry led him to switch his field of study to English. While at Oxford, Auden became familiar with modernist poetry, particularly that of T. S. Eliot, and he became a central member of a group of writers that included Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice, a collective variously labeled the “Oxford Group” or the “Auden Generation.” In 1928 Auden’s first book, Poems, was privately printed by Spender. During the same year, Eliot accepted Auden’s verse play Paid on Both Sides: A Charade for publication in his magazine Criterion. After graduating from Oxford Auden lived for over a year in Berlin before returning to England to become a teacher.

During the 1930s Auden traveled to Spain and China, became involved in political causes, and wrote prolifically. In this period he composed The Orators: An English Study (1932), an experimental satire that mixes poetry and prose; three plays in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood; two travel books—one of which was written with Louis MacNeice; and the poetry collection Look, Stranger! (1936; published in the United States as On This Island). Auden left England in 1939 and became a citizen of the United States. His first book as an emigrant, Another Time (1940), contains some of his best-known poems, among them “September 1, 1939,” and “Musée des Beaux Arts .” His 1945 volume The Collected Poetry, in which he revised, retitled, or excluded many of his earlier poems, helped solidify his reputation as a major poet. Throughout his career Auden won numerous honors and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1947) and the National Book Award for The Shield of Achilles (1955). In his later years, Auden continued to teach, to deliver lectures, and to edit and review books. He wrote several more volumes of poetry, including City without Walls and Many Other Poems (1969), Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (1972), and the posthumously published Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974). He died while on a trip to Vienna in 1973. He is buried in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

Poem Summary

Lines 1-2

The poem opens with a very general statement which establishes the distinguishing quality of the first section of the poem (that is, generalization). Auden does this by categorizing all artists of the Renaissance period into one group, “Old Masters.” By disregarding their country of origin, Flemish artist versus Italian painters for instance, and their pictorial depiction, the “common” or “everyday” scenes of many Flemish artists as opposed to the human suffering (or, the suffering of Christ) popular with Italian painters, the poet establishes a broad historical perspective. In doing so, the poem implies a universal truth—that all artists agree upon the significance and understanding of suffering, and as the opening line states, that their perspective is “never wrong.”

Lines 3-4

Here the poet elaborates on the Old Masters’ perspective regarding suffering. The details outlined in these two lines indicate that human suffering is understood chiefly as an individual burden, a burden the rest of the world is oblivious or indifferent to. The actions noted in line 3, of an individual opening a window, or “just walking dully along,” are deliberately banal, trivial, and commonplace. They underscore the indifference society exhibits toward human suffering. The daily side-by-side existence of both extraordinary events of suffering and common experiences is the universal truth the Old Masters recognize and capture in their work.

Lines 5-8

Elaborating on the previous two lines, the poet notes how an extraordinary event, such as the “miraculous birth” of Christ is visually displaced by the seemingly less significant image of children skating on a pond. This perspective is ironic and implies that the poet, like the painters, recognizes that great historic or prophetic events which are often the focus of humanity are less important than those which mark the recurring rhythms of life.

Lines 9-13

These five lines like the previous four, treat an extraordinary event contextually. That is, the “dreadful martyrdom” is placed within the human context of ordinariness. Thus, as a martyrdom occurs, dogs live our their “doggy life.” This juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary suggests

Media Adaptations

  • “The Caedman Treasury of Modern Poets Reading Their Own Poetry.” Audio cassette. Audiobooks, order #4322.
  • “Tell Me The Truth About Love.” Audio cassette. Audiobooks, order #4430.

a condemnation of humankind’s indifference to human suffering. However, it also forces the viewer/reader to question the accepted distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary. The poet, like the “Old Master” Brueghel, engages us to recognize the details of daily life, for it is here that extraordinary events of suffering and miracles occur. The extraordinary events, then, are the children skating, or the animal stirring.

The flat, colloquial language the poet employs, for instance such phrase as “anyhow in a corner,” and “dogs go on with their doggy life,” is deliberately unpoetic and suggests that the speaker is discussing a well-known notion. Recalling a familiar idea links back to the opening lines of the poem and the poet’s assertion that a universally recognized and accepted “truth” regarding human suffering exists.

Lines 14-15

At this point in the poem, Auden moves from the general to the specific. In the second section, the poet dwells upon a particular canvas, Brueghel’s Icarus, a work which hangs in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels. This painting, as suggested in these two lines, contains a visual representation of the blasé or detached attitude of humankind discussed in the previous lines. Note how the indifference of humankind is expressed by their actions as “everything turns away” in a “leisurely” fashion from the disaster. Thus, in this section the implied indifference noted in the first section of the poem is made explicit.

Despite their seeming differences, the extraordinary events alluded to in each section are linked. In the first section, the poet alludes to Christian

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a poem in free verse about the little details that might be in the corners of your painting of a visual event: the animals, the people looking in another direction, the people too preoccupied to notice what is happening close to them. Try to place minor actions at the ends of lines, the way Auden does, to give them more importance than they actually deserve.
  • In what ways are the decisions a poet makes the same as those made by a painter? In what ways are they different?

events, the Nativity and the Crucifixion. In the second section, the Greek myth of Icarus, a boy whose overwhelming aspirations proved to be his downfall, is depicted. While the events spring from disparate cultures and times, humankind’s response to the events is the same for in all instances the fated implications are ignored.

Lines 16-19

In these four lines, the poem mirrors the painting. Both depict the ploughman and his work in the foreground while the human tragedy of Icarus plunging to his death in regulated to the background. The painting is literally composed in this manner, and the poetic composition is equally as clearly as Icarus is depicted as simply a splash, a cry, a pair of “white legs.” Despite being regulated to the background of the text, the disaster, the martyrdom, the death and suffering are part of the landscape even if those occupying the landscape are oblivious to it. Life fails to romanticize and celebrate such events, and this awareness further suggests that the extraordinary exists within the daily activities of one’s life.

Lines 20-21

The closing lines of the poem continue to meticulously describe Brueghel’s painting. The attention to detail, for instance the ship is defined as both “expensive” and “delicate,” underscores the insignificance of personal tragedy within the scheme of life, and thus implies that the extraordinary exists within ordinary experience. This is the image the poem concludes with for despite the death of Icarus, the sun continues to shine and the ship sails “calmly on” to its preordained destination.


Art and Experience

One of the most interesting things about “Musee des Beaux Arts” is that it gives credit to artists, or at least to a particular school of artists, for understanding the experience of suffering better than people ordinarily do. Art is often accused of being out of touch with the realities of the world, of portraying life in a way that is either simplified or idealized. Transforming reality is the nature of art. Some artists feel that it is also the job of the artist to make the world appear better than it actually is or to show how it could be better. Here, Auden is standing beside the Renaissance painters who believed in showing one of the worst, most unpleasant aspects of the human condition: the fact that the problems of one person do not actually affect anyone else in a significant way. The poem tells us by implication that the artist who tries to depict humans as understanding the importance of another’s failures is cheating.

Near the end of the poem, the style changes slightly, using more adjectives, becoming more specific about what is contained in “The Fall of Icarus”: “white legs,” “green water, and “delicate ship” do not give readers the actual vivid experience of viewing Brueghel’s painting, but they are more specific about the details than the earlier part of the poem had been. The poem moves from general concepts (such as “suffering”) to examples (the skating children, the dog and horse) to details. In doing this, Auden is covering all of the artist’s concerns, from social philosophy down to particular shades and hues. He is also following the movement of a museum tour, from general categories down to focal points on specific works.

Morals and Morality

The question that this poem implies is at the very core of any moral system: Why should any being care about what happens to another? At first, the issue seems innocent enough, since it makes sense that somebody must be walking, eating or opening windows while suffering occurs. The world does not stop. As the poem goes on, though, Auden gives us more serious examples of events which should affect people, and the lack of effect that these events have. If “the miraculous birth” or “the dreadful martyrdom” (references to the birth and death of Christ, a common theme in Renaissance paintings) could be so easily ignored, then it would follow that there would be no reward or punishment for good or evil. The lack of morality in the human condition is most clearly implied in lines 12 and 13, where the impassive observers are a dog and a horse but their disinterest is no different than the humans’. The specific example of Icarus allows Auden the opportunity to go further with this relationship between humanity and inhumanity. He personifies the sun, saying that it “shone / As it had to,” and also the ship that “must have seen” what happened but “sailed calmly on.” We are accustomed to thinking of these items as performing their duties mechanically, without the capacity for thinking about what is right or wrong. By discussing them in the same tone that is used for the ploughman, the poem removes the whole aspect of morality from the range of human ability.

Public vs. Private

The noteworthy events discussed in the poem are public events that people could observe and react to, but the people in the poem do not react. We know from popular culture, however, that people are very interested in finding out what other, more famous people are doing: whole newspapers, magazines and television shows are devoted to reporting what celebrities are up to. The difference between celebrity worship today and scenes painted by the Old Masters is that the poem specifies the painters’ area of expertise to be “suffering.” We cannot say whether the witnesses in the paintings would be any more involved in the events around them if those events were pleasant, because all of the events Auden describes are about suffering. Even though the “miraculous birth” should be an occasion for joy, the focus of the pictures, as Auden tells it, is “the aged ... reverently, passionately waiting,” so it may be that the skating children are avoiding the seriousness, not the situation. The use of the word “important” tells us that some things that are available for public interaction will make an impression, but that suffering does not make the leap from one person’s life to another’s. According to the poem, suffering will even make us turn in toward our own private thoughts when “something amazing” happens, overpowering natural curiosity.


“Musée des Beaux Arts” is written in free verse, meaning that the poem is essentially “free” of meter, regular rhythm, or a rhyme scheme. Unlike, a Petrarchan sonnet, for instance, which is written in iambic pentameter (each line contains five divisions or feet, and each foot consists of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable), and is divided into two parts, an octave and a sestet, the octave rhyming abbaabba and the sestet usually rhyming cdecde, free verse employs varying line lengths and an irregular rhyme pattern, often shunning a rhyme scheme altogether.

Like the specific structural considerations of the sonnet form, the seeming lack of structure which free verse offers is purposely employed and works to illuminate the poem’s meaning. In Auden’s lyric, the long irregular lines, subtly enforced by the irregular end rhyme pattern, create a casual, conversational air more prosaic than poetic, and a somewhat blase tone which is reflective of the benign world illustrated in Brueghel’s art. The casual, easygoing argument the tone suggests is ironic for the topic of discussion, the human position and its seeming indifference to suffering, is anything but light and easygoing.

Appearing to be the antithesis of the sonnet, the poem does reflect the Petrarchan sonnet form in one way: Auden’s poem is distinguished by two parts which relate to one another much like the octave and sestet of a sonnet. Thus, like a sonnet, the poem is marked by a definite break or turn in thought. The first thirteen lines of the poem introduce the poem’s theme and discuss it in general term, while the second half of the poem develops and illustrates the general idea with a specific example.

Historical Context

In 1940, two years after this poem was written, Auden wrote that he had actually been hoping when he wrote it that the war we have come to know as World War II would begin: first, because Germany was threatening neighboring countries and needed to be stopped, but also because of the “personal problem which in 1938 was still unsolved and which in 1938 I was looking for some world event to solve for me.” His biographer tells us that the personal problem was romantic, but the important thing to see is how the attitude in his personal life,

Compare & Contrast

  • 1940: Germany took control of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway and Romania. The United States provided England with weapons, but was not yet officially in the war against Germany. Italy and Japan were united with Germany in the “Axis”.

    1945: After being defeated in World War II, Germany was divided into four sections by the conquering powers—England, Russia and America.

    1949: Two separate countries were formed out of Germany: one Communist and the other democratic.

    1989: So many people were leaving Communist East Germany that the government tore down the stone wall which split the city of Berlin into east and west parts.

    Today: Germany is reunited and is a strong force in the European Economic Community.

  • 1940: The Olympics scheduled for Tokyo and Helsinki were canceled because of the war.

    1944: The Olympics scheduled for London were canceled because of the war.

    1980: The United States did not participate in the Olympic games held in Moscow because of political differences with the Soviet Union.

  • 1940: The Jeep was designed by Karl K. Pabst to be a lightweight, 4-wheel drive general purpose vehicle. During the next five years the U.S. Army purchased 649,000 Jeeps for rugged travel during military operations.

    Today: The name “Jeep” is owned by American Motors and is used on an all-terrain vehicle that is a status symbol for urban and suburban drivers.

of looking to a large-scale event for distraction, was the opposite of the attitude of the poem. In 1938 there were certainly enough political events around the world to keep Auden’s mind occupied, and his frequent travelling brought him into contact with many of them. That year, Adolph Hitler, having rebuilt the German Army that had been dismantled after the First World War, aggressively showed his might by engineering a union between Austria and Germany and then claiming rights to the German speaking area of Czechoslovakia, the Sudentenland. Britain and France watched, aware that his actions violated the boundaries set up by the Treaty of Versailles when the first war ended, but nothing was done to stop him. England put up no resistance until the next year, 1939, when Germany’s invasion of Poland proved that Hitler could not be trusted. The political pressure on Czechoslovakia to give up the Sudentenland was news when Auden was in Brussels, which was where the Musee des Beaux Arts was located. Brussels is the capital of Belgium, the country situated between France and Germany, and was overrun by the Germans two years later.

Before he ended up in Brussels, Auden had been travelling with a friend, fellow poet Christopher Isherwood, as war correspondents in China. The country was suffering from internal turmoil, as Communist and nationalist forces struggled for control, while at the same time both sides were working together without much success to hold off invasions from Japan. This struggle also had its roots in the international arrangement that came out of the settlement of World War I. The Treaty of Versailles gave Japan the right to parts of China that had been held by the German empire. As Chinese anger over this plan rose, two distinct factions came to power: the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, and the Kuomintang (KMT) led by Chaing Kai-Shek. From 1927 to 1929 KMT forces marched across the country, enlisting warlords of the provinces as their allies; in 1936, Chaing was kidnapped by the Communists and forced at gunpoint to sign an agreement to fight with the Communists against Japan. Japan invaded in 1937, and by the time Auden and Isherwood arrived in China the major cities were under Japanese control. As foreign correspondents, they were treated like royalty, being driven to parties in the American ambassador’s car and meeting with the people in power, such as the Governor, the British ambassador, Chaing Kai-Shek, and Chou En-lai. The Japanese policy of expansion that led to invading China eventually ed to the invasion of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December of 1941, which brought America into both the Pacific and the European arenas of war.

After China and Brussels, Auden moved to America in late 1938, changing to American citizenship after having been raised in England. One of the reasons was, of course, the growing war in Europe: by 1940 German planes bombed England almost every day. Another reason was that he was paid incredible sums as a lecturer here, amounts that he had never dreamed of where he came from. One of the strongest reasons, though, was that he was just tired of being part of the British literary establishment, which was very tight, like a family. He felt comfortable, but he felt that such social closeness stifled his creativity: “If (the artist) is not content with his knowledge,” he had written in a letter in 1937, “he can only change his life, so as to give him the knowledge he would like to have.” After the time he had spent involved in world events, he found the problem to be with his private life.

Critical Overview

Another Time is the first book Auden published as an emigrant to the United States, and the collection is viewed by critics as a pivotal one that marks Auden’s turn from secular political concerns toward ethical concerns, concerns often addressed by Christianity. “Musée des Beaux Arts” is one poem which captures Auden’s increased awareness of Christianity. The poem hints at Auden’s involvement in the conflict between meaningful events and an oblivious world. In W. H. Auden Dennis Davidson argues that this involvement is suggested by the use of adjectives that indicate certain values, for instance, a “miraculous birth,” or an “important failure.” These words hint at an emotional sensitivity which recognizes and feels human suffering within a cold and indifferent world. Davidson calls such a response, as captured in the closing lines of the poem, a “sensitive acceptance.” “Sensitive acceptance” means taking a stance midpoint between hardened stoicism and ardent sensibility. While such a response recalls the individual who reads of human tragedy in the newspaper as he/she engages in a mundane activity such as consuming breakfast, this approach, according to Davidson, “points also in the direction of a religious acceptance of suffering.” Religious acceptance means coming to terms with the ways of the world. Thus, the poem hints at Auden’s increased interest in ethical concerns and his eventual reconversion to Christianity.

Richard Johnson, in Man’s Place: An Essay on Auden, also states that the poem insinuates a Christian awareness, particularly in its construction of time. Johnson notes that the poem shifts one’s perspective of reality. It does this by layering time and events. For instance, the poem places the reader in front of a painting in a museum, challenging the reader to develop the analogy between the world within the painting and the world outside the museum. By leading the reader through various periods of time (through the images in the poem), a continuity of events is implied. Thus, events such as the birth and death of Christ become relevant to the time and place of the reader. Johnson states, “the perspective shifts constantly to put the reader into the position of being able to see,” to see things in a way one normally would not see. Such shifts make the reader “aware of his ‘human position.’” Addressing one’s “human position” means determining one’s response to and place in the world, and this is achieved through the individual consideration of issues such as those presented in the poem.


Jhan Hochman

Jhan Hochman is a freelance writer and currently teaches at Portland Community College, Portland, OR. In the following essay, Hochman categorizes “Musée des Beaux Arts” as a reflection on suffering and suggests that the poem challenges our ability to halt suffering as a question of ignorance versus will.

It is a cliche that we are born and die alone. Others have noticed we suffer alone. While strictly true—no one lives, dies, or feels our pain along with us—this is not, in precise terms, tragic. Tragedy is more about the painful event that need not have happened but did just the same: the earthquake and volcanic eruption as not so much themselves a tragedy as the feeling their destructive impact might have been avoided. This brings up the subjects of comedy and tragedy, less in their usual senses of humorous or serious, but more about

What Do I Read Next?

  • Though best known as one of this century’s finest poets, the young Auden had a keen eye for the world in general, as is obvious in The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose and Travel Books in Prose and Verse, Volume I, 1926-1938. Edited by Edward Mendelson.
  • John Fuller’s 1970 book A Reader’s Guide to W.H. Auden gives a brief critical look at just about every poem Auden published. Not very deep, but a good starting point for any researcher.
  • The last section of Justin Replogle’s book Auden’s Poetry, regarding “Comedy,” makes the whole book worth reading. This is a close and personal look at the poet by Replogle, and it seems to take him some time to establish his critical bearings before making his strong, original points.
  • Pieter Bruegel’s 1558 painting The Fall of Icarus can be found in many anthologies of Renaissance painting. One good source is Robert Donlevoy’s Bruegel, which provides an abundance of commentary about the artist’s life and clear reproductions of his work. Published in France in 1959, translated by Stuart Gilbert for the 1990 U.S. edition.

comedy as acceptance—even of suffering—with the potential for humor, and, on the other hand, tragedy as intolerance of suffering and misfortune, with little or no potential for humor. Keeping these specific senses of comedy and tragedy in mind, we might ask the question, Is Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” comic or tragic? Or better, is this poem about accepting (comedy) or denouncing (tragedy) the privacy of suffering?

The poem has two parts or stanzas, each ending with a period, the first after the word tree. The first stanza, having 13 lines, makes a generalization about the normalcy and privacy of suffering: “it takes place / while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” or it takes place “Anyhow in some corner,” “Anyhow” probably meaning “no matter what” or “in whatever fashion.” It is usually reported by critics that in the first stanza Auden was concerned with two other canvasses by Pieter Bruegel (1528?-1629) besides the Icarus interpreted in stanza two: The Slaughter of the Innocents (1564?) and The Census at Bethlehem (1566) from which the imagery of the “aged” “reverently, passionately waiting,” the skating children, the dogs and torturer’s horse was taken. Much of this information, however, seems mistaken: while dogs and horses, and skating children are present in these canvasses, no one waits for the “miraculous birth” of Christ nor does Christ suffer his “dreadful martyrdom.” And though The Census at Bethlehem— like The Fall of Icarus—does underplay its main event—the entrance of the pregnant Virgin and Joseph into Bethlehem where Jesus will be born—The Slaughter of the Innocents depicts Herod’s massacre of children not off to the side but over most of the canvas. A better candidate for a painting fitting Auden’s description of suffering “off to the side” is Breugel’s The Procession to Calvary (1564), where though Jesus drags his cross at the center of the canvas, he is hard to find amongst the overwhelming abundance of detail and larger foreground events.

Following the discussion of private suffering in the first stanza, Auden’s second stanza of eight lines appears to furnish an example: the “Old Master’s” (Breugel’s) painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558?). This painting depicts the end of the story of Daedulus and Icarus probably as told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Daedulus, in order to escape the anger of the Cretan king, Minos, fashions for himself and his son, Icarus, feathered wings held together with wax. While the wings allow Daedulus a successful flight, his young son, despite Daedulus’s warning, flies too close to the sun. When the wax melts, Icarus falls and drowns in the Aegean Sea. The myth is often interpreted as a warning against human arrogance, against believing oneself divine and invulnerable especially when it comes to human creation or invention. Ovid says that “Some fisher, perhaps, plying his quivering rod, some shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant bent over his plough handle caught sight of them as they flew past and stood stock still in astonishment, believing that these creatures who could fly through the air must be gods.” Breugel, however, paints the story quite differently. First, the fisherman, shepherd, and farmer are on the scene at the time of Icarus’s fall, not as he and Daedulus simply soar overhead like gods. Second, the shepherd is the only one of the three laborers who notices Daedulus. The third important aspect of Breugel’s painting is that Icarus is shown as only a pair of tiny struggling legs sticking out of the water in the far lower right corner of the canvas next to the “expensive delicate ship” as it “sailed calmly on.” Bruegel’s point, says Auden, is that the “failure” of Icarus is of little importance to those living and laboring, that, as a German proverb states, “No plough is stopped for the sake of a dying man.” In other words, the oft-heard words, “life goes on.” Whether or not this interpretation is on target, it is enough that Auden seems to have found the theme of unshared suffering in this and other paintings by the “Old Masters.”

Critics, and apparently Auden himself, understand the first stanza as a statement of generality and the second as an example of that generality Auden writes, “for instance.” But Auden’s interpretation of The Fall of Icarus illustrates a different sort of unshared suffering than the kind discussed in the first stanza. In the first stanza, the suffering at issue is either unknown or unseen by people opening a window, walking dully along or skating, or by dogs and horses presumably ignorant of human suffering. The privacy of suffering in the first stanza is, therefore, a matter of ignorance, complete or partial. But in the second stanza concerning Breugel’s Icarus, consistency runs aground: Auden interprets the farmer, fisherman, shepherd, and ship as turned away, as forsaking Icarus. Looking at the painting, it is just as plausible to conclude that none of these aforementioned laborers, or those on the ship, even see Icarus. This then would have been completely consistent with Auden’s point in the first stanza: that suffering must take place alone while others ignorantly go on with their lives. This situation, again, would be less a tragedy than just “a fact of life,” something one must simply accept, in other words, a comedy. But Auden is after something more moralistic than that. Placid acceptance is not what Auden seems to be after. No, there is something wrong with having to suffer alone, something tragic, and that something is not being ignorant of another’s pain but having knowledge of it. The tragedy in the final stanza that Auden teases from Breugel’s Icarus is that people knew, that the ploughman might have heard, the ship must have seen and that the fisherman, whom Auden doesn’t mention, was close enough to Icarus to perhaps even save him and still none of them did anything to try and save Icarus, nor did they even acknowledge his fall.

To return to the question asked at the beginning of this commentary: Is this poem about acceptance (comedy) or rejection (tragedy) of the privacy of suffering? Now it can be said that the poem is about both. The first stanza is about accepting an unavoidable ignorance of others’ suffering that comes from not being God, from not being able to see, understand, or save everything that suffers: “... the dreadful martyrdom must run its course.” But the second stanza appears unsatisfied with the acceptance, or comedy, of the first, seems compelled to “make a statement,” to do more than just counsel acceptance and passivity which is, after all, already part of what it means to be a dog, human, or horse. Thus Auden must shift the ground of private suffering from that which is unwitnessed to that which is. In this way a stand can be taken.

If Auden had written only the first stanza, “Musée des Beaux Arts” would say little more than “Accept that you can do nothing about the unseen, unheard suffering of others because we are no different than the ‘innocent’ (ignorant) horse and the dogs going about their doggy life.” Critics, however, have remarked that “Musée” was written on the occasion of the fascist takeover of the Spanish Republic by Francisco Franco in 1939. Auden drove an ambulance for three months as part of the International Brigades which tried to save Spain from the fascism which had already taken over Germany (Hitler) and Italy (Mussolini). In this context, the poem would refer to the way so-called “free” European nations stood by and watched Spain (Icarus) fall, watched as the fascist Franco, funded and supplied by Hitler and Mussolini, took over Spain. Whether or not the paintings Auden saw can be said to illustrate his message, they came close enough; in the paintings by the Old Masters Auden saw what he wanted or needed to see: that one could not turn away from suffering off in the corner of the canvas or the world.

The story of Icarus’s fall, as of Adam and Eve’s, is about how humanity suffers from knowing divine things, pays a price for knowledge of good and evil. Auden’s poem takes a different tack: it shows how others suffer from our refusal to know or acknowledge their suffering. Suffering one sees and knows about must not, says Auden, be tolerated, must in some way be eased or stopped. We cannot, as that expensive ship did, ignore or deny Icarus and go sailing “calmly on.”

Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.

James Scully

In the following essay, Scully compares the message implied in Brueghel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with that of Auden’s poem.

Though the homely goings-on may beguile us, this homily on a 16th-century painting is framed as effectively as a slide of skin tissue in a lab. Auden’s report on the significance of a 400 year-old painting is not a report, really, but the reappropriation of a dehistoricized structural configuration. The poem’s ‘painting’ is Auden’s, not Brueghel’s. Even when painting and poem details seem the same, they are not. They are coded differently. They depend on different exclusions. What in the painting bespeaks a positive relationship to daily life, in the poem promotes disengagement. Brueghel’s painting may be a document of intellectual history, or the symptom of a phase in that history. But in the poem any and all history, including the poem’s own contemporaneity, is blotted out. Or almost blotted out. To enter the Musée one must undergo a desperately selective amnesia....

In the logic of the Musée, the marginal that is central should be central, and the momentous that is pushed into the background should be put there. Everything gets the significance it deserves. Children skating on a pond “at the edge of the wood” have true human perspective. Their indifference occupies the foreground of the poem and substantiates the understanding of the Old Masters. The Old Masters, who make nothing happen, report what does, and what does is a lot of coming and going, mostly going. The Musie is not unlike a railway station or an apartment building fallen into anomie. It is a site of leaving, of turning away and getting away.

The emblem of this ‘vision of reality’ is Brueghel’s “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus” (1558). In it the legendary Icarus plunging into the sea becomes an anonymous boy, or less—a pair of splayed, discombobulated legs about to follow their body crashing into the water. (The poem, less light-hearted, transforms these into aestheticized “white legs” disappearing into “green / Water.”) The centerpiece of the painting, its declaration of perspective and value, is the ploughman doing contour ploughing. He, the ship and the rest confirm that life goes on. Missing from the poem are the fisherman sitting on the bank, evidently not noticing, and the shepherd with his dog and sheep. The shepherd is as much the butt of Brueghel’s humor as Icarus is. He’s standing, peering up into the sky—but in the wrong direction. What he may be looking for, what has already dropped out of the sky, is splashing into the harbor behind him. Brueghel’s benignly critical realism cuts both ways: in its wry, cracker-barrel perspective, the legendary and the mundane are equally amusing. Yet that evenhandedness may not be the only reason why the shepherd and the fisherman were banished from the Musée. It’s not simply that the painting is less than reverent toward the mundane, which in the poem is fetishized as the measure of human truth and value, but that the very categories “shepherd” and “fisherman” raise social implications that the poem must put out of mind. It’s one thing to raise the spectre of “miraculous birth” or “dreadful martyrdom,” but quite another to evoke the shepherd, whose job is to care for his flock—or even, though this is more tenuous, the fisher of men. Why this is so should become clear as we spend time in and around the Musée. Suffice it to say that Brueghel’s painting is affirmative as the poem is not. The ploughman may be ploughing up ground, but the brightly colored painting, with its yellow sun on the horizon of its bay, shrugs off myth as if it were old dead skin. In the painting it’s Spring! with a vengeance. The awkward legs of Icarus might be those of a kid hurling himself, with spring-time abandon, headfirst into the water. The painting is a tad whacky.

But that’s Brueghel’s painting. In the Musée the turning away is deliberate, a denial rather than an affirmation. Brueghel’s painting is a landscape with figures, whereas Auden’s work disposes figures in a social void. There is no ground, no ‘glue.’ The absence of connections corresponds to the denial of interaction, a denial that anything effectively happens. Significantly, the Musée’s children do not specially want ‘it’ or anything to happen. The superiority of the Old Masters is their understanding that nothing does happen—nothing alters, in any way whatever, the given order. What does not happen, which is to say what is not unnatural, prevails. At the same time this ahistorical tableau features a compensatory array of empirical, pseudo-concrete movements. Everyday is preoccupied with the hum and humdrum of life—eating, opening a window, walking, skating, going on, scratching, turning away, sailing on. With so much referenced activity we may not notice that nothing happens in the Musée....

The Old Masters, who see and know, are set over against Icarus, who is seen and known. Perspective is not centered in the ploughman or in someone just eating, or in any one or thing whose indifference or ignorance constitute the Old Masters’ understanding, but in the Old Masters themselves, who preside over these simple incorporators of wisdom, the plain folk, the way an eagle sits at the top of a food chain. It is one of the many curious dislocations of the Musée that in it the bearers and producers of understanding do not have that understanding. The ploughman, the skating children and the rest only produce the understanding that gives substance to the Old Masters, who appropriate and realize that understanding—who make it their own, as Auden makes the ‘understanding’ of the Old Masters his own....

The subject position of the Musée has apparently been framed by the Old Masters, who (like Auden) see but are not seen. But the Old Masters, whoever they may be, have framed nothing. Brueghel notwithstanding, they remain anonymous and invisible. They are functionaries. Having no identity, and therefore no opportunity for expression or initiative, they must be what Auden/Musée makes them be. The strategy of the poem demands it. That established, the Musée invests the Old Masters with all authority, including the tone of authority. To have named them, or to have said outright that the Old Masters understood the human position of suffering and never made a mistake about it, might have invited demurral. But to intone almost with resignation, as if passing on a truism, that “About suffering they were never wrong...” is something else again. Who were never wrong? O, the Old Masters. The point is not whether they understood—a disallowed question—but how well they did. The Musée is a kind of box. Its terms define the available space, and then proceed to fill it in. What they fill it with is us.

We need not, in a fit of anti-intellectualism, abandon hope and submit to the subject position that has been constructed for us. We may introduce critical difference into this site, this Musée. But to do that we have to ask what is not the subject position. Not generally, but specifically what is not the subject position. It is not that of suffering, nor of martyrdom, nor of the aged who hope for a future, an intervention, for something to happen (which is what the “miraculous birth” signifies, as opposed to the changeless present of the Old Masters “[who] were never wrong”). The subject position is not that of the tortured, who do not exist even as a noun. And it is not that of Icarus, who is no longer Icarus but white legs disappearing into green water.

If the subject position of the Old Masters is not that of suffering, what is the “human position of

“The Musée is not unlike a railway station or an apartment building fallen into anomie. It is a site of leaving, of turning away and getting away.”

suffering” that they understand so well? The human position of suffering—the position of suffering they know to be humanly appropriate—is that it is remote. Even when near it is remote, distanced by sensory immediacy and self-absorption, which is the self-absorption of those who are not suffering. The Old Masters understand that the human position of suffering is that it does not touch the human; it is the suffering of the other. Not that the Musée’s Old Masters understand that suffering, they don’t, but they do understand it is human to be preoccupied with the immediate and the mundane. What is not the human position, in the view of the Musée, is concern for the suffering....

Icarus falling, and the ship sailing on, are images of flight and destination. But one fails, one goes on. The crisis flight comes to disaster, the jaunty business-as-usual leaves all that behind. Turning away and getting away become the human thing to do. The poem masks this equation, however, presenting the getting away as a ‘getting on’ with it (life). What had seemed to be the horns of a dilemma—the demands of ordinary life versus the passing attraction of the critical or the spectacular—turns out to be no dilemma at all. The problematic has been dissolved....

Auden’s poem condenses, incorporates, a decision. This is not obvious, however. The structure puts us in the position not only of not choosing but of not having to choose, as though there were no decision to be made anyway. We are funneled into the perspective of everyday, self-absorbed, ignorant (ignoring) life. At the same time we must be persuaded to accept, as though it were our very ordinary own, the position we have been structured into. Auden wastes no time in trotting out the village elders, the Old Masters. Through them the poem imposes another distinction—not between the ordinary and the extraordinary but between the intensities of life, including moral intensities, and an imperturbable art. Having begun with the Old Masters, who know what they know, we are brought to a conclusion with the expensive delicate ship—a vehicle that, unlike the wings of Icarus, promises safe conduct. Yet this conclusion too rests on a false bottom. It is less a conclusion than a dissolution, or short-circuiting, of the social/aesthetic problematic.

The Musée is performative. It confers humanly superior status on the refusal of grand, social, ‘other’ concern. And it naturalizes that refusal. What had seemed an appeal to the perspective of ordinary life turns out to be an argument for the transcendent perspective, the ultimate human value, of art. ‘Ordinary life’ sanctions qualm-free self-absorption, which is hypostatized in the art of the Old Masters. What’s puzzling, at first, is that although ‘ordinary life’ is the court and standard appealed to, there is little respect for ordinary life as such, which is presented in a perfunctory, at times deprecatory, manner. Like most demagogic appeals this bears little affection for the demos. There’s a trace of contempt for the life that is the ostensible basis of the Old Masters’ authority and the source of their ‘understanding’ of the “human position.”...

The Musée is supported, even as it is undermined by logical impasses. As has been noted, the ordinary is privileged over the extraordinary, self-absorption over ‘other’ consciousness, indifference over concern. The authority of the work depends upon that privileging. Yet the privileged ‘ordinary’ is also ordinary in a negative sense. It is mundane, banal, hovering at the level of bodily functions, of scratching or eating. The norm is conceived indifferently in human and non-human terms. Or the positive value of the ordinary is intoned with a negative, world-weary accent. “Dully” or “doggy” are less descriptions than valuations. “Doggy” is not redundant, because it is not an epithet for dogs. It is metaphorical, not literal. Structural logic determines that the dogs who “go on with their doggy life” are ordinary life, but ordinary life viewed from a superior vantage point. In the structuration of the poem, and the values generated through it, doggy life is life on the plane of the skating children. On a par, willy nilly, with the horse’s behind and the ploughman. The only prized or enhanced life, that of the ship, transcends the ordinary by virtue of being “expensive” and “delicate.” The ship goes about its business just as the dogs go on with their doggy life. In this there is equivalence. There is no equivalence, however, in their respective significances.

The opposition between ordinary and extraordinary, an opposition at first privileging the former, should lead to a subject position sited with the ordinary. Structural and narrative logic demand that we identify with the ploughman as surely as the logic of Rambo and Rocky demand that we see and value as they see and value. But the Musée presumes to transcend itself, to stand outside the structuration of its own values. It justifies the privileging of ignorance over knowledge, of indifference over concern, only to claim that the ignorance and indifference constitute a metahistorical knowledge—that of the Old Masters who were never wrong. The Old Masters understand this world because they are not of it. Those who live that understanding, doing what comes ‘naturally’ in a time warp where nothing happens, live in ignorance of it. Knowledge is reserved for their superiors, the Old Masters in their timeless warp....

There is another twist to this. Although the Old Masters are equated with authority, they are not identified with it. That status is reserved for indifferent people. Strictly speaking, the poem’s conclusion does not follow from the Old Masters’ authority (which has been produced by, and incorporated in the behavior of, ordinary people, dogs, a horse, etc.). Rather, the Musée envelops them with authority. The determined conclusion of the work presumes the authority it needs to realize its project, which is correlative to Auden’s own historical project—to justify the decision to turn away from “the disaster”) and move on.

The Musée is sustained by ideological inertia. Because it begins in medias res, the tone may be low-keyed, the syntax laid back. “About suffering they were never wrong...” The measure of understanding becomes the ability to perceive that in “human” terms suffering is peripheral. The Musée fetishizes that ‘understanding,’ appropriating it for the Old Masters and making it substantiate the superiority of art to ‘life,’ or of the aesthetic to the social and the ethical. The Musée constructs a high-ground for itself. But though the raw materials of that highground are uniformly commonplace—the self-preoccupation and inattention of the populace, which is indistinguishable from that of its domestic animals—the highground exists only as a superior vantage point identified with art and the masters of art. Artistic wisdom is acceptance of the ‘fact’ that indifference and ignorance are quintes sentially human. The Musée assumes, then, that there is a human nature. Consequently the human may be presented as interchangeable with the animal. Human life comes to the same thing as “doggy life.” Nature is their common denominator. The Musée posits a transcendental subject, the “human,” which is as irreducibly itself as the torturer’s horse’s behind is irreducibly itself. The ultimate transcendental subject is not then the human, but so-called nature itself. If indifference to suffering is the indiference of people as people, rather than the indifference of certain people under certain conditions, then such indifference must be characteristically human. It may be noted, but not questioned. So the human, interpreted as the ‘naturally’ human, is treated as a given rather than as a problematic (as an answer rather than as a complex of historically conditioned questions)....

So much for “the human position of suffering.” What began as a demagogic appeal to people (meaning ordinary people) in terms of what they do (meaning what they ordinarily do) gives the last word, actually a dehistoricized image, to the “expensive delicate” subject position leaving the scene of the disaster. But the “human” has already been defined as uncaring. According to the Musée, to turn away is the “human” thing to do. Art is making this natural, casting suffering and catastrophe in Arcadian tones. Had this work occupied the subject position of the suffering, or had the suffering been obviously political, we might have called it propaganda. But as it does not, we need not. We may take the Musée for what it is: a real belles lettres poem, a work that masters history and logic, including its own.

Source: James Scully, “Demagogy in the Musée,” in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer, 1987 pp. 198-220.

Robert F. Willson, Jr.

A thorough discussion of the use of irony in “Musée des Beaux Arts” is presented.

“To pass over the horror of the moment and focus instead on a horse, which can in fact nowhere be seen scratching its “innocent behind,” characterizes the persona as a man unable to experience the pain of others. Where is the sensibility, the empathetic response, which we might naturally expect?”

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Source: Robert F. Willson, Jr., “The Person and the Poem: Irony in Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts” in Studies in Contemporary Satire, Vol. 3, 1976 pp. 1–7.


Auden, W.H., The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden, Random House (New York), 1945.

Davidson, Dennis, W. H. Auden, Evans Brothers Limited, 1970, 174 pp.

Hecht, Anthony, The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W. H. Auden, Harvard University Press (Cambridge), 1993.

Johnson, Richard, Man’s Place: An Essay on Auden, Cornell University Press, 1973, 251 pp.

Mendelson, Edward, Early Auden, Viking (New York), 1981.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Penguin (New York), 1955.

Stechow, Wolfgang, Breugel, Harry Abrams (New York), 1990.

For Further Study

Buell, Frederick. W.H. Auden as a Social Poet. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973.

This book offers a critical overview of all of Auden’s works, with sound insight, even though the prose is sometimes a little dense.

Callan, Edward. Auden: A Carnival of Intellect. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

A good source for very thorough information on the China trip that took place immediately before Auden wrote this poem. The fact that Auden worked as a war correspondent helps us get a good reading on how the times affected him.

Carpenter, Humphrey. W.H. Auden: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981.

The background given about Auden’s life here puts this poem into perspective of world events: much, though, is Freudian analysis, because of the poet’s own interest on Freud.

Hoggert, Richard. Auden: An Introductory Essay. London: Chatto & Windus, 1951.

This book was written during Auden’s lifetime, and the author is clearly caught up with enthusiasm about the then-contemporary poetry. Lively literary criticism, but lacking the historical depth of later analyses.