What is the meaning behind Auden’s classic poem?
W. H. Auden wrote ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ in December 1938, while he was staying in Brussels with his friend Christopher Isherwood. The museum and art gallery mentioned in the poem’s title, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, is the Brussels art gallery, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, which Auden visited. ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ alludes to a number of paintings by old Dutch painters – the ‘Old Masters’ – which hang in the Belgian gallery. You can read ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ here before proceeding to our analysis below.
The easiest way to approach Auden’s poem is to break it up into two stanzas, the first of which establishes the theme of the poem (that old painters understood the nature of human suffering) and the second of which provides a specific example, which Auden describes and analyses in more detail.
In summary, Auden observes that the ‘Old Masters’ – painters working in Europe during the Renaissance and Early Modern period – understood the nature of suffering and its ‘human position’: namely, that, no matter the intensity or momentousness of the experience to the person undergoing it, there were people in the surrounding vicinity who were indifferent to, or even ignorant of, what was taking place. During the nativity or birth of Christ, there were children ‘who did not specially want it to happen’, who went on skating on a nearby pond (well, according to tradition, it was December, after all); while some ‘dreadful martyrdom’ was taking place, some future saint was being tortured in a wood, the horse belonging to the torturer stood idly by and scratched its ‘innocent behind’ on a tree. (Note how the adverb ‘passionately’, used of the people eagerly awaiting the birth of Christ, contains a subtle suggestion of the suffering or martyrdom to come, namely the ‘Passion’ of the Crucifixion.)
In the second stanza, Auden moves to a specific example: considering Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (pictured right), which depicts the tiny ‘white legs’ of the youth (who flew too close to the sun) as they disappear, almost insignificantly, into the water, Auden argues that such a painting bears out his statement about the Old Masters understanding the ‘human position’ of suffering. As Icarus plunges to his death in the sea, the ploughman overlooking the bay pays the sight no heed, while the nearby ship carries on (having ‘somewhere to get to’). Icarus’ demise, so celebrated as a mythical embodiment of hubris and human tragedy, goes unobserved.
It’s worth analysing the individual details Auden mentions, many of which can be found in specific paintings by Brueghel or by other artists of the period. In the first stanza, the onlookers and bystanders given the most attention are the children and the dogs and horses. Children and animals are often oblivious to human suffering because they do not understand it, and so we understand why they may be ignorant of the ‘dreadful’ or ‘miraculous’ events occurring within earshot (or eyeshot). But in the second stanza, we move away from this world of innocence: we leave, if you will, the ‘innocent behind’ (sorry, there had to be a pun to be got out of that phrase, and at least we didn’t hit rock bottom).
Instead, in the second stanza, Auden brings in the adult world while focusing on the fall of Icarus. Indeed, we might go further than this: the tables are turned. Icarus is the child here, ‘a boy falling out of the sky’, whereas the people inhabiting the surroundings are no longer children or animals but adults: a ploughman, an ‘expensive delicate ship’ (full of merchants or even important personages) that, we must assume, is full of people, sentient adult people, who ‘must have seen’ what has taken place. The one non-human observer mentioned in this second stanza (if we read the ship metonymically as a reference to the people on board) is the sun, and the sun, it’s worth recalling, was the very thing that caused Icarus’ fall: after he flew too close to it, the heat of the sun melted the wax holding his wings together, and he fell into the Aegean.
What is the meaning of this subtle shift? It signals a move from ignorance to indifference, but the move is gradual. The ‘ploughman may’ have heard Icarus falling into the sea, but he may have been entirely ignorant of what was taking place. But the people on the ship ‘must have seen’ what happened. We knew the children and animals were not to blame for their innocence in the first stanza. We cannot say the same about the ship’s crew.
We now know what Auden could not: that the painting he discusses in ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, almost certainly isn’t by Brueghel at all. Recent detective work reveals that it was probably a copy of a lost original, and was painted by some other (unknown) artist. Whoever painted it, it nevertheless chimes with Auden’s statement about the ‘Old Masters’. For Philip Larkin, suffering may have been exact; but those who are nearby when it happens have their own lives to lead.
If you’d get hold of all of Auden’s major poetry, we recommend the wonderful Collected Auden. To learn more about his work, see our discussion of one of his finest short political poems, our thoughts on his ‘Funeral Blues’, and our analysis of his powerful poem about refugees living in New York.