Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden

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.

Summary and Analysis

The poem is part of the collection of short poems, first brought out under the title ‘Another time’, 1930. According to some critics, the poem marked the beginning of the poet’s maturity. The poem reads like a passage in conversation, simply composed. The title of the poem refers to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels which Auden visited in 1938. He saw and admired greatly Peter Brueghel’s work called the Fall of Icarus, based on a well known Greek legend.

The poem begins abruptly as though it is a continuation of an ongoing conversation. The theme of this assumed conversation, perhaps with the reader is human suffering and its depiction in art. The reference to the Old Masters in the second line contextualizes the depiction. The Renaissance artists excelled in their sensitive representation of human suffering which ‘ironically occurs in the daily rounds of everyday life, but remains unnoticed ignored, or uncomprehended but that does not reduce the experience of suffering. In an illustration of the great artist’s perception and depiction, the poet suggests the abstract experience of contrasted emotions and attitude to birth. For the old birth is a miracle understood only as such, whereas, for the young life in its most casusal moments, remains an unwanted burden, mysterious and dangerous. The miraculous birth is associated also with the birth of Christ who lived in suffering to redeem and in death too suffered.

“They never forgot”, takes the poem back to the Great masters whose works evoke another understanding of imposed violence and self-willed annihilation. Suffering, however, is enacted amidst the most mundane aspects of life, “that even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course / anyhow in a corner…” The last four lines parallel ordinary impulses and sights with heightened and intense impulses and motivations. In the rounds of existence, suffering remains, experienced, and unexpressed.

The last two lines of the section focus on the self-absorbtion of life and lack of identification with individual acts and individual suffering. The imagery of domesticated animals, “dogs” and “horse” re-create, ordinary life, but in this case the “torturer’s horse” re-inforces the different qualities and levels of life and existence. The poet also hints at the animal – like existence of human beings who are insensitive to those elevated moments of martyrdom.

The second section of the poem works out the juxtaposition between individualized personal suffering and the drift of surrounding life by examining Brueghel’s painting, titled ‘Fall of Icarus’. The poet’s own stray thoughts about suffering and his glimpses of life acquire a greater meaning, when he casually in a conversational tone begins a discourse on Icarus: “how everything turns away/ quite leisurely from the disaster”. The whole of this section re-creates a verbal picture of the painting which seems to have fore-grounded the entire surrounding when Icarus fell and though, it was “something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky”, both seen heard and registered, but the “sun shone as it had to; …. And the ship “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on”. Icarus was a lonely sufferer, alone in his “failure” which was not important for the ploughman. The “forsaken cry” was heard but the suffering was a solitary experience. It is this agony which the great artists have captured successfully through another medium.

The conversational, easy style of the poem constructs a treatise on the notion of alienation. At the turn of the twentieth century, writers and artists worked through a variety of forms to understand human behaviour and share the experience of a breakdown in the social fabric. A momenteous event or experience of one individual remained a personal, private state of mind. The silence surrounding the fall of Icarus is given form through the artist’s vision. The poem also explores the possibility of what art can create.

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