“Musee des Beaux-Arts” by W.H. Auden
martyrdom – (noun) suffering of death for one’s beliefs
untidy – ( adjective ) messy
wood – (noun) forest
forsaken – (adjective) abandoned /deserted/renounced
reverently – (adverb) with deep respect
torturer – (noun) a person who causes repeated pain to another
ploughman – (noun) a farmworker
“run its course” (phrasal verb) – complete its natural development without interference
Musee des Beaux-Arts – French for “Museum of Fine Arts”
“The old Masters” – the skilled painters of pre-1800 Europe
“the miraculous birth” – a reference to the birth of JC
“dreadful martyrdom” – a reference to the death of JC
Note: To fully appreciate the poem, students should be shown a reproduction of “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” by artist Pieter Brueghel. The poem is essential to interpreting the poem’s second stanza.
Summary of Musee des Beaux-Arts
The poem is separated into two stanzas; the first talking about everyday life going on no matter what happens, and the second talking about the painting where Icarus is falling. The word choice is purposely childish in the first stanza, with words like “doggy.”
The author of the poem uses references such as the birth or Crucifixion of Christ and the fall of Icarus and comparing those major events to what happens in other everyday lives at the same time. He is saying that even though these major events are happening in other lives, all the normal people are going on with their normal routine. In the line where he says, “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 torturers horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” I think this part is referring to the Crucifixion of Christ and he is saying that even though this torture is going on, the animals that belong to the people are still going through the routine and even scratching their behinds.
The Old Masters understood human suffering and human position. While other people are eating or opening a window or just walking along, someone else is passionately waiting for the miraculous birth. While some are waiting for this, there are always children who don’t really care. They are skating on a pond on the edge of the woods. No one forgot that even though Christ was being crucified, the dogs still went on with their life and the horse that belonged to the man torturing Christ was scratching his butt on a tree. You can see this in Brueghel’s Icarus how everyone is turning their heads away as Icarus falls in the water. The plowman might have heard the splash or his cry, but it didn’t mean anything to him. The sun shone on him as it had done on Icarus’s leg out of the water. The ship in the water might have seen the boy falling out of the sky, but they had somewhere to go and just kept sailing along.
Imagery: The imagery of this poem is very intense. The first stanza paints a vivid picture of people living their everyday lives while much more important events are happening. The second stanza describes the painting of Icarus. If you look at the picture while reading the poem, it helps the reader visualize the poem.
Tone: The tone of the poem captures the essence of the subject matter of the poem. The tone is laid back, just like the attitudes of the people living their lives.
Theme: The theme of the poem is that while disaster can be happening in one place, there will always be people who are living their own simple lives.
Overall the people in the poem don’t care about the other events occurring around them. Not just that they don’t care, but they are ignorant to them. If they found out about the events, they might feel sympathy, but they have no clue what is going on around them so it doesn’t phase them at all.
Questions of Musee des Beaux-Arts
1. What is the poem suggesting about the nature of cruelty?
The poem suggests that cruelty is a natural part of all our lives and that suffering affects everyone.
2. Who in the poem cares about human suffering?
The speaker of the poem infers that the ones who care about human suffering are the children. The suggestion is that children are too young to have experienced suffering themselves, and so the witness of it affects them more.
3. What is the theme of the poem? Choose one image from the poem and explain how it reinforces this message.
The theme of the poem is about the universality of human suffering. The poem’s images suggest how suffering is constantly taking place, though not to everyone at the same time.
Students’ responses to the second part of the question will vary but should reinforce the above-mentioned theme.
4. Why do you think the poet chose Peter Bruegel’s “Icarus” to illustrate his theme of the world’s indifference to human suffering?
Answers may vary. Example: The village folk in the poem would have been aware of Icarus’ failure, but they continue to move on with their work. The images suggest that suffering does not move people to act any differently than they normally do because it is experienced by all.
5. Some critics have argued that this poem hints at Auden’s decision to turn back to Christianity. What signs do you find in this poem that signal this may be true?
In line seven, Auden mentions the “miraculous birth,” probably a reference to Christ’s birth. The theme of tragedy is also reminiscent of Christ and his tragic end.