English Literature
Musee des Beaux Arts

Musee des Beaux Arts

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A Look into W.H. Auden's 'Musée des Beaux Arts': A Commentary on Suffering and Indifference

In 1938, renowned poet W.H. Auden wrote 'Musée des Beaux Arts', a powerful poem that delves into themes of death, suffering, art, and truth. Inspired by three paintings from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, the poem sheds light on the indifference of the world towards individual suffering, a reflection of the political tensions and rise of fascism in Europe during that time. Auden himself witnessed these tensions firsthand during his travels to Spain and China during the Spanish Civil War and Second Sino-Japanese War.

Initially published in the modernist magazine New Writing in 1939, the poem was later included in Auden's 1940 poetry collection, Another Time. As part of Auden's series of ekphrastic poems, 'Musée des Beaux Arts' serves as a commentary on the power of art to enlighten. Ekphrasis, a type of poetry originating from ancient Greece, can be seen famously in Homer's description of Achilles' shield in the Iliad. Interestingly, Auden himself wrote another ekphrastic poem, 'The Shield of Achilles', in 1952.

The first stanza of the poem, consisting of eight lines, contemplates the Old Masters' understanding of human suffering. It highlights how suffering can occur even as others continue with their daily lives, such as eating or simply opening a window. In contrast, the second stanza, composed of six lines, focuses on Breughel's painting of Icarus and the figures depicted in it, unaware of the tragedy unfolding before them.

The absence of set metre or rhyme scheme in the poem mirrors the chaos and disorder of political violence. However, the poem does follow an ABCADEDBFGFGEAABCDDBC rhyme scheme. Written in free verse, the poem reflects the unpredictability and irregularity of life, similar to the abrupt nature of war.

Art as a Medium to Illuminate the Human Experience

To convey his message, Auden employs various literary devices throughout 'Musée des Beaux Arts'. The use of free verse adds to the conversational tone of the poem, while enjambment creates a continuous flow that mirrors the content of the poem.

The conversational tone is also achieved through caesuras, or pauses within lines of poetry. These breaks not only contribute to the flow of the poem but also reflect the societal divisions arising in Europe at the time. Auden's careful crafting of the poem's structure and flow effectively amplifies the themes of suffering and indifference present in the poem.

Throughout the poem, Auden uses vivid imagery to depict suffering and its impact on people of all ages, including innocent children. In the first stanza, the image of children skating on a pond foreshadows the tragedy and violence that will ensue. By stating that suffering is an inevitable part of life, the speaker acknowledges the harsh reality that even children are not exempt from pain and loss.

Personification is another literary device effectively used in the poem, as seen in the second stanza where the speaker personifies a ship witnessing the fall of Icarus. This serves to distance the audience from the suffering and highlights the bystander effect, where people may turn a blind eye to others' suffering.

Auden also skillfully uses allusion, or indirect references, throughout the poem to add depth and meaning. He alludes to three paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, each depicting a different aspect of suffering. The first allusion is to "The Census at Bethlehem," drawing parallels to the biblical story of Jesus and the suffering He endured for the sins of the world. The second allusion is to "The Massacre of the Innocents," where Auden focuses on the animals in the scene to emphasize the lack of empathy and indifference in the world. Finally, in the last stanza, Auden references "The Fall of Icarus," using the Greek myth to once again convey the message that suffering is an inherent part of life, often overlooked by society.

In Conclusion

In summary, Auden's 'Musée des Beaux Arts' serves as a commentary on the indifference of the wider world towards individual suffering, set against the political tensions of the late 1930s. Through the use of ekphrasis and various literary devices, such as free verse, enjambment, imagery, personification, and allusion, Auden effectively conveys the message that art has the power to shed light on the human experience, even in the darkest of times.

The Impactful Message of Auden's 'Musée des Beaux Arts'

In his poem, 'Musée des Beaux Arts,' W.H. Auden masterfully combines various techniques and literary devices to create a poignant piece that reflects on the universal experience of suffering, apathy, and the human condition. Through the use of ekphrasis, free verse, enjambment, caesuras, imagery, personification, and allusion, Auden effectively conveys a powerful message that resonates with readers. The poem serves as a reminder to acknowledge and pay attention to the suffering of others, instead of turning away "quite leisurely from the disaster."

The Indifference of the World in Auden's 'Musée des Beaux Arts'

'Musée des Beaux Arts' alludes to the idea that the world is indifferent to human suffering, as depicted through the fall of Icarus in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting. The speaker reflects on the power of art to reveal truths about the world, while also commenting on the political turmoil of the time period.

Speaker and Tone

Auden's speaker adopts a conversational tone to discuss their perspective on art and suffering. This tone is achieved through the use of ekphrasis, setting the poem in a gallery, and the use of enjambment and caesuras to mimic natural speech patterns. These pauses also represent the divisions that arise during times of war, highlighting the suffering experienced by individuals.

Main Themes

The poem explores two main themes: death and suffering, and art and truth. The speaker acknowledges the inevitability of death and suffering for all individuals, while also highlighting the indifference of the rest of the world. This is evident in the final stanza, where the fall of Icarus is witnessed by a passerby who does not see it as a significant event. The lack of a rhyme scheme further emphasizes the disunity and lack of collective effort in times of war.

Additionally, 'Musée des Beaux Arts' delves into the power of art to reveal truths about the world. By setting the poem in a gallery and discussing the 'Old Masters,' Auden suggests that art has the ability to enlighten individuals about the truth of the world, as seen in the speaker's realization while viewing the painting.

Historical Context and Literary Devices Used

Auden wrote the poem in 1938, during a time of political tension. It was published in 1939 before being included in his 1940 poetry collection, Another Time. Auden's use of literary devices such as imagery, allusion, repetition, and personification adds depth to the poem and reflects the anxieties of the time period.

Significance of the Second Stanza

While every section of the poem is notable, the second stanza is considered the most significant by many. It specifically discusses the painting and can be interpreted as a metaphor for how individuals cope with political violence and upheavals.


The informal and relaxed tone of 'Musée des Beaux Arts' allows the speaker to engage in a philosophical discussion on art and suffering while commenting on the indifference of the world.


In conclusion, 'Musée des Beaux Arts' by W.H. Auden artfully explores the themes of death and suffering, and art and truth, using an informal tone and various literary devices to comment on the political turmoil of the late 1930s. The poem offers a timely reminder of the world's indifference to human suffering and the power of art in revealing truths about the world.

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