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.
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.
Analysis of Musée des Beaux Arts
“Musée des Beaux Arts” was composed in 1938, published under the title “Palais des beaux arts” in a newspaper in 1939, and included in the volume Another Time in 1940. It was written after Auden had spent time in Brussels, Belgium. The title refers to the museum that the poet visited while he was there, and the painting mentioned in the poem was hanging during the time of his visit. It is often considered a transition poem, as it occupies the space between the poet’s early stage of abstruse, complicated poems and his latter, simpler, and more conversational period. The structure of the short poem is relatively simple, and it uses ekphrastic description (verbal description of images).
The museum Auden visited is known for its prominent collection of the Old Masters, particularly painters from the Netherlands. Many critics have discussed the painting mentioned in the poem, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (1558), and others by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, a Renaissance-era painter, that were hanging in the gallery and may have influenced Auden in writing his poem. The identity of painter and painting is in doubt; critic Arthur F. Kinney maintains that while Brueghel painted this very scene, his version included the figure of Daedalus while the painting mentioned by Auden is actually a copy painted by Brueghel’s son Pieter the Younger, which is exactly the same but leaves out Daedalus (father of Icarus). The painting depicts the end of the myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus told by Ovid, in which the two fashion wings for themselves to escape imprisonment, but Icarus flies too close to the sun and the wax on the wings melts, causing him to plunge to his death in the sea. This is the “disaster” mentioned in the poem.
Another Brueghel is The Numbering of Bethlehem, which depicts Joseph and Mary’s arrival in Bethlehem to be counted for taxes, as told in the New Testament. The painting is full of small details, and Auden’s lines about people walking “dully” along and the elderly waiting for the miraculous birth and the children skating happily along likely derive from this scene. There is also The Massacre of the Innocents, which Auden may have alluded to in the lines, “They never forget / 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 against a tree.” The dogs and horses are present in that painting, and no doubt inspired the lines.
These examples in the poem’s first stanza (with the interlocking rhyme scheme ABCADEDBFCFCE) provide the context for the extended description of the Icarus painting in the second stanza (with a tighter rhyme scheme AABCDDBC). In each case, people go about their business or their play without comprehending, caring much about, or even knowing about another person’s experience of suffering or hope or disaster. Children and animals do not have the elevated sympathy necessary to understand someone else’s plight; they just keep “skating.” Animals are blithely unaware of human suffering and merely attend to their biological needs.
Meanwhile, many adults remain unaware of or unconcerned by others’ suffering. The ploughman “may” have noticed “the splash, the forsaken cry” of Icarus, but it was not “an important failure,” and the plowing must go on. The ship nearby “must” have noticed, but it had “somewhere to get to,” so it sailed “sailed calmly on.” In the painting, another character, a shepherd is looking up, perhaps at Daedalus, but the poem does not explicitly mention this part of the scene; the poem notes only that “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” Brueghel placed the ploughman’s head, looking down at the ground, right by the shepherd’s head, which emphasizes the contrast and the ploughman’s unconcern. (A man on shore, near the legs of Icarus, does seem to be looking at him and even reaching out, but this character also is not mentioned in the poem.)
Auden’s tone in the poem is measured, precise, and matter-of-fact. He does not use superfluous words or stick to traditional rhyme or meter. The poem is not didactic; its moralizing is delicate. The diction is certainly proletarian and accessible: “When someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” The reader senses that this is Auden’s quiet contemplation of a painting; one can almost see him standing before it, thinking about the nature of suffering amidst those who do not care. It is important to remember that the poem derives from the time immediately before the Second World War as nations were shoring up their militaries and preparing for conflict, and in this way its theme of unconcern prefigures those who go about their business in New York City in Auden’s
“September 1, 1939.”
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.