English Literature
Musee des Beaux Arts (1939)

Musee des Beaux Arts (1939)

Shiken premium Upgrade Banner

Exploring Indifference in W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts"

Have you ever found yourself so consumed by your phone that you completely tune out the world around you while walking down a busy street? In W.H. Auden's 1939 poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," the concept of indifference towards suffering is explored, but in a time before smartphones. The poem delves into the human tendency to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others.

The Inspiration Behind "Musee des Beaux Arts"

Auden wrote this poem after visiting the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium. The piece centers around one particular painting: Pieter Breughel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" (c. 1555). This painting depicts the Greek myth of Icarus's tragic descent, as told by Ovid in his epic poem "Metamorphoses" (8 A.D.).

The Myth of Icarus

In the Greek myth, Daedalus and his son Icarus attempt to escape imprisonment using wings made of wax. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, as the heat will melt his wings. Despite the warning, Icarus ignores his father's advice and meets his demise by drowning in the sea below.

A Summary of "Musee des Beaux Arts"

The poem begins with a powerful statement from the speaker: "About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters" (lines 1-2). The speaker refers to the European painters whose works are displayed in the art museum he is visiting. This line immediately sets the tone of the poem: suffering.

As the speaker wanders through the museum, he contemplates various paintings. The first two mentioned in the opening stanza are believed to be Breughel's "Census at Bethlehem" (1566) and "Massacre of Innocence" (1565), although they are not explicitly named in the poem. The speaker reflects on the role of suffering in society. In these paintings, suffering is depicted as something commonplace. It occurs while "someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along" (lines 3-5).

The second and final stanza focuses on Breughel's painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus." The speaker describes the scene within the painting: the plowman, the shining sun, the white legs in the green water, and the delicate ship. However, what stands out to the speaker is how "everyone turns away quite leisurely from the disaster" (lines 16-17). The disaster, in this case, being Icarus's drowning, and yet the "human position" (line 3) is with its back turned to it. The plowman continues his work, seemingly indifferent to the tragedy. The delicate ship, the speaker notes, "must have seen something amazing" (lines 21-22), but rather than acknowledging it, it "sails calmly on" (line 23).

Other Poems Inspired by Breughel's Painting

Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" is not the only poem written about Breughel's painting. In 1960, William Carlos Williams wrote a piece titled "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," which also explores the theme of human suffering and our apathy towards it, though in a distinct form, tone, and style.

An Analysis of "Musee des Beaux Arts": Structure and Literary Devices

Let's take a closer look at the structure and literary devices used in this poem.

Structure of "Musee des Beaux Arts"

Ekphrasis: A term derived from Greek meaning "description," an ekphrastic poem is a response to, or inspired by, a work of art.

"Musee des Beaux Arts" was inspired by Breughel's painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," and the painting is also referenced in the poem. Incorporating the painting into his writing allows Auden to transport the reader into the same scene and observe how the people in the painting react (or fail to react) to the disaster happening around them.

Even without the painting, readers can sense the nonchalance of the plowman and the ship, as though nothing tragic is unfolding. The sun, which "shone as it had to on the white legs," is portrayed as indifferent to the boy's fate. It simply continues on its path, seemingly unconcerned with the tragedy below it.

Another renowned poem that responds to a work of art is John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Can you think of any other examples?

Upon initial reading, "Musee des Beaux Arts" appears to be written in free verse, lacking a specific rhyme or meter.

However, upon closer examination, subtle rhyming can be found at the end of certain lines. For example, "wrong" (line 1) and "along" (line 5), or "understood" (line 2) and "wood" (line 9) have a slight rhyme.

The Ingenious Use of Enjambment and Juxtaposition in "Musee des Beaux Arts"

W.H. Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" is a masterful work that delves into the theme of human indifference towards suffering. Through the skilled use of literary devices, structure, and diction, Auden effectively conveys this message in an impactful manner.

The first device employed by Auden is enjambment, where the sentence or phrase flows from one line to the next instead of ending at the end of a line. This technique is used to create seamless transitions between lines, as seen in the first stanza where Auden describes suffering:

"Its human position; how it takes place While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;"

This use of enjambment alludes to the effortless connection between profound suffering and daily occurrences. This is further emphasized in line 11, which states:

"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"

Auden effectively employs this literary device to illustrate the nonchalant attitude towards suffering in the poem.

Another device utilized by Auden is juxtaposition, where two contrasting ideas are placed side by side for thematic effect. In this poem, the speaker references the painting "Census at Bethlehem" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which depicts the birth of Jesus Christ in a contemporary Flemish village. The scene of "children skating on a pond at the edge of the wood" (lines 8-9) is contrasted with the oblivious plowman in "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus". This juxtaposition highlights the disconnect between the two scenes and emphasizes the theme of indifference towards suffering.

The structure of "Musee des Beaux Arts" also plays a significant role in conveying the theme of the poem. The opening line, "About suffering they were wrong, The Old Masters," is particularly striking due to its unusual syntax. By placing the subject (The Old Masters) at the end of the sentence, Auden draws attention to the phrase "about suffering" at the beginning. This highlights the focus on suffering, which is absent in the paintings described by the speaker. This opening line effectively sets the tone for the rest of the poem and foreshadows the theme of indifference towards suffering.

The diction, or word choice, used by the speaker also adds to the nonchalant attitude towards suffering. With lines like "That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course/Anyhow in a corner...where the dogs go on with their doggy life" (lines 12-13), the speaker conveys a casual and conversational tone in contrast to the heaviness and darkness of the words used. This contrast effectively highlights the theme of indifference towards suffering.

When analyzing the themes of "Musee des Beaux Arts", one can infer that the poem conveys a message of indifference towards suffering. The final image of a boy falling from the sky and drowning while an expensive ship sails on is a powerful reminder of how we often overlook and are indifferent to the suffering of others due to our own distractions and priorities.

On the other hand, one could also interpret the poem as suggesting that suffering is subjective and defined by the individual. The title itself ("Musee des Beaux Arts" or "Museum of Fine Arts") alludes to the subjectivity of art and beauty, and in this case, suffering as well. The poem could be seen as a commentary on how people perceive and interpret suffering differently.

In conclusion, through the clever use of literary devices, structure, and diction, W.H. Auden effectively conveys the theme of indifference towards suffering in his poem "Musee des Beaux Arts". The poem also leaves room for interpretation, delving into themes of subjectivity and the human tendency to overlook suffering. "Musee des Beaux Arts" serves as a cautionary reminder to pay attention to the sufferings of others and to not be indifferent towards them.

Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts': A Reflection on Human Indifference to Suffering

Inspired by Pieter Breughel's painting 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus', Auden's masterpiece 'Musee des Beaux Arts' uses the image of a plowman to symbolize the all-too-common human response to suffering: indifference.

In the final stanza, we see the plowman casually pushing his cart along, seemingly oblivious to the tragedy occurring around him. Despite possibly hearing the cries of Icarus as he falls from the sky, the plowman carries on with his work, unaffected. This echoes the Greek myth of Icarus, who met his demise after flying too close to the sun. However, the plowman does not see this as a significant event. To him, it's just another ordinary day.

The poem, 'Musee des Beaux Arts,' presents a theme that allows for multiple interpretations. It challenges readers to look beyond the surface and uncover the various, and sometimes conflicting, messages it conveys.

Auden wrote this poem in 1939 after a visit to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium. As an ekphrastic poem, it responds to and is inspired by a work of art - in this case, Breughel's painting depicting a scene of suffering and disaster.

The use of literary devices such as juxtaposition and enjambment serves to emphasize the idea that suffering and tragedy often go unnoticed, seen as commonplace, and even ignored. It highlights the human tendency to turn a blind eye to suffering, whether out of distraction or indifference.

The central theme of 'Musee des Beaux Arts' focuses on the human disposition towards suffering. It delves into the idea that people are too consumed with their own lives to pay attention to the pain and suffering of those around them. The poem also suggests that suffering can be subjective, as it depends on the perception of the observer.

Key Takeaways from 'Musee des Beaux Arts'

  • Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts' was inspired by Pieter Breughel's painting 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.'
  • The poem explores the theme of human indifference to suffering.
  • It is an ekphrastic poem, responding to a work of art.
  • Through literary devices, the poem conveys the idea that suffering can be overlooked and seen as commonplace.
  • Suffering is depicted as subjective, depending on the perception of the observer.

Interpreting 'Musee des Beaux Arts'

'Musee des Beaux Arts' can be interpreted as a commentary on how people are too preoccupied with their own lives to notice the suffering of others. It also suggests that suffering can be viewed as insignificant by some, making it easy to ignore.

This thought-provoking poem serves as a reminder to be more mindful and empathetic towards the suffering of others. It prompts us to acknowledge and address suffering with compassion instead of dismissing it.

In Conclusion

Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Arts' carries a timeless and relevant message. It reminds us to open our eyes and be more aware of the suffering happening around us. With its powerful portrayal of human indifference, this poem serves as a call to action - to be more compassionate towards others, even when we are caught up in our own daily lives.

Join Shiken For FREE

Gumbo Study Buddy

Explore More Subject Explanations

Try Shiken Premium
for Free

14-day free trial. Cancel anytime.
Get Started
Join 20,000+ learners worldwide.
The first 14 days are on us
96% of learners report x2 faster learning
Free hands-on onboarding & support
Cancel Anytime