Musee Des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden
Table of Contents
Musee Des Beaux Arts is a typical poem from Auden’s best volume of verse: Another Time published in 1940. It is the product of his winter stay in Brussels where he visited Musee Des Beaux Arts, a museum of Fine Arts. He was greatly impressed by the paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, e.g. the Numbering at Bethlehem which has the skating children and The fall of Icarus.
About W. H. Auden
W. H. Auden (1907-73), the leader of the poets of the thirties is of considerable importance. He came under the influence of Hopkins and Eliot. Like Eliot he shows the hollowness of the disintegrating post-war civilization. But unlike Eliot he prescribes communism (Marxism) for the solution to the world’s problems. He is a poet of the masses.
In his early poetry he shows clearly a faith in violent social revolution as a means to a better social order. After he had come under the influence of Freud and his psychological approach to the problems of human life, he bade good bye to the Marxian theory of revolution and advocated the change of heart on the part of the bourgeois for the uplift of the proletariat. Auden’s is a class-conscious poetry and Karl Marx was behind it. His poetry is dominated by the conception of man in society.
Musee Des Beaux Arts Summary
The painters of the old knew the true nature of suffering and its (suffering’s) true place in the scheme of things. They understood that the (suffering’s) true place in the scheme of things common people remain indifferent to the sufferings of others. They go on with the daily round even when others suffer terribly. This is reflected in their paintings. They show that while a man is suffering or a great event is taking place others are eating or opening windows or walking dully. They show that the children were playing while the magi were reverently and passionately waiting for the birth of Jesus Christ.
The old painters did not forget that even animals are least affected by the tragically momentous events. Thus the dogs went on with their doggy life and the crucifier’s horse scratched its back against a tree when Jesus Christ was being crucified. Man’s callousness to human suffering is well illustrated by The Fall of Icarus, a painting by the Flemish artist Brueghel.
Many saw Icarus fall into the sea from the sky, but they behaved as if nothing had happened. The ploughman heard the splash and the distressful cry, but he did not think Icarus’s failure to fly up to the sun to be of any significance. The sun shone on his white legs as he fell headlong into the green sea. The crew of the ship were amazed to see him fall from the sky. But they calmly sailed on towards their destination without making any attempt to rescue him.
Musee Des Beaux Arts Analysis
Musee Des Beaux Arts is a representative poem of W. H. Auden, though it has none of the Marxian point of view which characterises his poetry, especially his early poems. It is inspired by the paintings of the “Old Masters”. particularly those of Pieter Brueghel, the Elder in the Musee Royale des Beaux Arts, famous museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. Auden visited this museum while he was passing his winter in Brussels in 1938. He was impressed by the realistic approach of Brueghel. Brueghel and other old masters’ paintings show, as in life, utter indifference of man to human suffering and momentous events such as the birth of Jesus Christ, His Crucifixion and the Fall of Icarus.
A man went on with the daily round while others suffered terribly or the great events involving great suffering happened. Thus children went on skating “On a pond at the edge of the wood” when the aged were reverently and passionately waiting for the birth of Jesus Christ. The ploughman and the crew of the ship went on with their usual occupations when Icarus fell into the green sea from the sky. The unfortunate fall of Icarus and his “forsaken cry” did not affect them in the least. Even animals did not lag behind their human counterparts in callousness to suffering. The dogs went on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse scratched its back against a tree while Jesus Christ was being crucified.
The poem expresses Auden’s moral point of view that suffering, however terrible to a man or the events, however momentous for the society cause no concern to common people. They go on with their daily routine as if nothing has happened. His moral viewpoint in this poem recalls Hardy’s in his poem “In Time of The Breaking of Nations”. Hardy emphasizes that people go on with their primal occupations as usual even when war breaks nations into pieces and brings about revolutionary changes in the social set-up.
Auden revives the old conception of a writer as a professional craftsman who teaches and entertains rather than expresses his personality. In the poem Auden seems to point out that it is inhuman to be callous to the sufferings of others or to a disaster like the fall of Icarus. He teaches that one should help another in distress and not sail calmly on like the ship’s crew. He brackets a callous man with the torturer’s horse. There is an implied satire on the modern man’s indifference to human suffering.
The poem illustrates Auden’s style. Auden tries to write poetry very close to common speech. In such lines as
“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.”
he exploits more fully than any of his predecessors the riches and vigour of everyday idiom and vocabulary. The use of long and short lines adds to the colloquialism of the style. The style is free from complexity and obscurity that characterize his earlier poetry. It is simple and clear. While reading the poem we feel as if the poet is talking about the paintings of the “Old Masters” to a student of Fine Arts.
The poem illustrates Eliot’s theory of “objective correlative”. Here Auden’s anger at the indifference of common people to human suffering and momentous events is expressed not directly but through a set of landscape scenes in the paintings of the old masters, specially those of the Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the scenes of the skating children, Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the fall of Icarus.
Musee Des Beaux Arts Line by Line Analysis
Musee Des Beaux Arts : Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. Auden visited it during his winter stay in Brussels in 1938.
they were never wrong: knew the true nature of suffering and depicted it rightly in their paintings.
The Old Masters: the great painters of old. Auden refers in particular to the paintings of Pieter Brueghel, the elder in the Musee Royale des Beaux Arts in Brussels, e.g. the Numbering at Bethlehem (which has the skating children) and The Fall of Icarus.
its human position: the place of suffering in man’s life. The old painters knew that one does not care for the suffering of others that one is indifferent to others’ sufferings.
how it: how a man suffers. While someone….along the daily routine tasks of men such as eating, opening a window or walking dully remain unaffected by the sufferings of others.
When the aged: when the magi (wise men).
reverently: with feeling of reverence.
passionately : that is, eagerly,
the miraculous birth : the birth of Jesus Christ, son of God, was a miracle. The magi (the three wise men from the east) waited reverently and passionately for the birth of Christ and were directed to Bethlehem by a bright star in the sky.
Children who did not specially want it to happen : children who did not want the birth of Jesus to take place; that is, the children were not interested in the birth of Christ.
skating on a pond: skating on a frozen pond,
at the edge of the wood: The pond is situated by the side of a wood.
They : the painters of old,
dreadful : terrible, martyrdom: the crucifixion of Christ. Jesus Christ sacrificed his life for the redemption of man.
must run its coruse: must take place,
doggy life: life that becomes a dog,
the torturer’s: the horse of the man who crucified Christ.
Scratches its innocent: scratches its back against the tree behind which it was let loose by the torturer).
Brueghel’s Icarus : Brueghel (1535-1569) was a Flemish artist, realist, moralist and allegorist. His painting always tells a story usually with a powerful moral, against a realistic background. The fall of Icarus is one of his most original and famous paintings. It describes the fall of Icarus out of the sky with people showing no concern for the fall and going on with their daily routine of works as if nothing has happened.
Icarus : Icarus in Greek mythology, was son of the inventor (Architect and sculptor) Daedalus. The latter (Daedalus) fashioned wings of wax and feathers for himself and his son. Icarus flew too near the sun and his wings melted. He fell into the sea and was drowned. The island on which his body was washed ashore was later named Icaria.
how everything turns away: Everybody saw Icarus fall from the sky, but showed no concern for this disaster and betook themselves to their usual routine-works.
Quite leisurely from the disaster: The onlookers took Icarus’s fall quite causally as if it was of no importance.
casually: with showing little concern, disaster : sudden and great misfortune.
the splash: the sound produced in the water,
the forsaken cry: the distressful cry/the helpless cry caused by the waxen wings being melted by the heat of the sun.
for him: for the ploughman.
it was not an important failure : the failure of Icarus to fly up to the sun and the consequent fall were of no importance to the ploughman,
the sun shone/As it had to on the white legs : Icarus fell headlong into the sea. It was therefore natural that the sun should shine on his legs
green water: the green water of the sea into which Icarus fell,
the expensive delicate ship: the crew of the ship which was carrying costly goods
that must have seen/Something amazing, a body falling out of the sky: The crew of the expensive ship must have seen Icarus fall from the sky. But they did not take the fall to be a tragic event calling for the help of others, but simply an amazing one. So they made no attempt to rescue him.
Had somewhere to get to : The ship was bound for some other place and sailed calmly on: The ship sailed towards the destination calmly as if nothing had happened.