W.H.Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts Poetically Explains Why Life Must Go On

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Recently I had the pleasure of reading W.H. Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts. It is a poem which clears the clutter in our minds and expose the truth about our lives; because there are many people out there who have already analyzed this poem but not in its entirety, I will focus on: Tone, who is speaking, imagery, and theme.

Here is the poem:

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 Brueghel’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.

Copyright © 1976 by Edward Mendelson, William Meredith and Monroe K. Spears,
Executors of the Estate of W. H. Auden.

If you check out the tone of the poem, it appears to be almost nonchalant while explaining the unimaginable.  “Its human position; how it takes place/ While someone is eating or opening a window…”(Lines 3-4). Then when you skip down, it gets strange: “Anyhow, in a corner, some untidy spot/Where the dogs go on their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/Scratches its innocent behind…”Lines  12-13). The tone is still calm, report-like. What is happening?

The speaker gives a voice here. We can assume it is W.H.Auden since he did visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1938 to view the painting by Brueghel “The Fall of Icarus”(but we’ll get to that later).  The speaker could be Auden or anyone who could be speculating on what they are seeing, someone who is intelligent and well read could make such connections of the poem to a painting and thus explain how the human condition works.

What spoke louder  to me was the imagery. Once when I was in high school, we went on a field trip to a Fine Arts Museum in Virginia and were told to “get inspired from an art piece” so that we may write a poem about it and its easy to get inspired, Auden must have felt the same way. Key things stand out in this poem:  “Pond at the edge of the wood,  heard a splash, forsaken, cry, the sun shone,  white legs disappearing into the green…” all of these words brought together what the speaker says in Line 14-16 “In Brueghel’s Icarus for instance: How everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster; and the ploughman may/Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry…”

All things are taking place as normal while Icarus careens into the ocean to drown and die. The speaker goes on to say “the sun shone as it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green.” Spooky.

Some words and rhyme scheme was present, specifically words like: eating, opening, reverently, dully, skating, disappearing, falling, and sailed. These are action words about life and movement. As Icarus fell from the sky and landed into the ocean, life carried on.

And this brings us to the possible theme: Death occurs all around us, movement ceases for some but life must go on.

Personally, I saw this poem as respecting an art while appreciating religion as well. “How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting/For the miraculous birth.”(Lines 5-6), I think of when the baby Jesus was born and the Magi was there paying respects- life I am sure went on as usual in other parts of the world that day but here, something miraculous was taking place, something incredible and awesome.

*There is so much power in words taking place here in W.H. Auden’s poem, you can almost see it. Take a look at the accompanying picture- see the “white legs disappearing into the green?” This certainly, literally painted a clear picture of how others act at times in large cities and “project” areas. I grew up in a part of town where people didn’t care what happened to to you and if it did, they were spectators who went back on their way or shut their doors.

Life goes on…For the Write Web


5 thoughts on “W.H.Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts Poetically Explains Why Life Must Go On

  1. still wondering, why is the horse the “torturer’s” horse? because it is ploughing the earth? my original thought was the hangman’s horse, but that doesn’t seem to stand up to the rest of the imagery of the poem. thoughts?

  2. Katherine,
    I see what you mean about it being the “torturer’s horse”- I had to read this poem a couple more times and really look at the scenery. The thought of plowing the earth is not necessarily torturous- per se. The imagery seems so peaceful in an old snapshot kind of way, but there are odd things going on and having the horse belong to a hangman may not be in the picture but that does not mean it couldn’t be there(or at least the understanding of it) . A Hangman’s horse seems quite appropriate in my opinion.

    Great observation! Thanks for your feedback too 🙂

    • Naureen,

      A matter of fact kind of way…seems possible given the entirety of the poem. I would like to absorb this piece of the poem for a new meaning. Thank you!

  3. What wonderful commentary! I brings back memories of the many books of commentary I have in our library. You really have quite a good way of looking at the individual aspects, which, as it seems are so often missed! Well done!

    It also reminded me of when I was part of a poetry group many years ago, having some ‘prompts’ in picture form, and where my mind took me in that moment.

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