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Analysis of "Musee des Beaux Arts" by W.H. Auden

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden and "Musee des Beaux Arts"

"Musee des Beaux Arts" focuses on human suffering, tragedy, and pain by contrasting the lives of those who suffer and those who do not. The vehicle by which this is achieved is the world of painting, in particular the work of the old masters.

Auden is philosophical and conversational, combining close observation with nonchalant musings. Written in 1938, just before the start of WW2, it signaled an important change in Auden's way of life and expression. He left behind his political persona and began to develop one that was more spiritual in nature. At the same time, he emigrated to the USA, abandoning England and Europe.

Much of his poetry relates to the state of the human heart, history, social trends, and world affairs. He embraced both traditional and modern forms of verse; Musee des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) incorporates elements of both.

Musee des Beaux Arts

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.


The Fall of Icarus is a painting by Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel (1525-69) and depicts Icarus, the son of Daedalus, falling out of the sky and into the sea after flying too close to the Sun with his home-made wax and feather wings.


Musee des Beaux Arts is an informal commentary on the bizarre human situations that arise in certain older paintings, notably one, The Fall of Icarus, which is now in the Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts in Brussels.

Auden creates a speaker who is, to all intents and purposes, delivering an opinion on various paintings that deal with human suffering. The speaker seems knowledgeable and gradually comes to a series of mini conclusions regarding the plight of those who suffer and those who don't.

Those who don't are often bystanders, ordinary members of the public going about their daily business oblivious to what's going on behind closed doors or just out of earshot. And if they do notice something unusual, they're too busy or distracted to do anything about it.

In the first stanza, the speaker makes observations from other paintings by the same artist, Brueghel, namely Numbering at Bethlehem, Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap, and Massacre of the Innocents.

These references highlight the strange, contrasting human experiences that are part of the fabric of life - one person suffers terribly, and another carries on regardless with some mundane activity.

The philosophical question that surfaces from such an issue: why is it that some can knowingly ignore the cries for help from those experiencing torture and pain?

For example, in the first stanza, there are children who did not want a miraculous birth to happen, despite an older generation passionately waiting for a miracle birth. They continue skating on ice, oblivious to the one-off happening.

The speaker states with a cool detachment how there always must be such a gap between the young and the old.

And a little further on the philosophical, fateful speaker asserts in a quiet fashion how martyrdom must run its course, no matter how dreadful, in some backwater, away from the hubbub of the crowd.

We shouldn't forget that the paintings the speaker is studying are equivalent to today's T.V. reportage. How many times have we watched horrific and disturbing images from some remote place in the world, knowing that, not too far away, people are living normal lives?

The second stanza reinforces the idea of separateness, of people at work, at play, whilst the disaster, the suffering, goes on elsewhere. Is it apathy that takes over? Are people consciously looking the other way to avoid involvement?

There is an irony in this and the speaker captures it in a subtle, matter-of-fact fashion. As Icarus dramatically falls into the sea the event for one man was not an important failure; it made no impression on a passing ship with somewhere to get to; there is no reaction.

Auden's poem, through the eyes of an observer of old paintings, explores the idea that, as humans, we knowingly carry on with our familiar and mundane duties as long as we can, even if we know someone may be suffering.

We need routine, we fear distraction. We don't like being shocked out of our little lives too often. Suffering will always happen and there's not much the average person can do about it.

Lines-By-Line Analysis

A poem of 21 lines in total, split into two stanzas with varying line lengths and rhythm. Note the use of end rhymes throughout the poem, for example:

Line 1/Line 4 - wrong/along

Line 2/Line 8 - understood/wood

Line 5/Line 7 - waiting/skating

Line 6/Line 13 - be/tree

Line 9/Line 11- forgot/spot

Line 10/Line 12- course/horse

Lines 14-21 also are end rhymed.

This rhyming is varied and has no established pattern so the rhyme becomes almost incidental, an echo of what it should be in a tighter rhyme scheme. All of this suggests tradition with a twist, a loosening, and stretching of reality.

Line length plays an important role in this poem. Long clauses, with cleverly placed punctuation, help measure the steady conversational tone of the speaker.

Note that there is only one period (full stop) in the whole body of the poem, at the end of the first stanza. Commas, colons, and semi-colons play a crucial role in the syntax by allowing the sense to build up, as in an argument or debate. Enjambment also lets the flow continue from one line into the next.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

100 essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

© 2016 Andrew Spacey