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A Short Analysis of W. H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’

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. Read the rest of this entry


A Short Analysis of W. H. Auden’s ‘Refugee Blues’

A summary of a powerful poem

‘Refugee Blues’ is the title commonly given to the first song in W. H. Auden’s ‘Ten Songs’. The poem was completed in March 1939, while Auden was living in New York. The fact that ‘Refugee Blues’ was part of a cycle titled ‘Ten Songs’ prepares us for the rhythm of the stanzas, each ending with a refrain-like line featuring the expression ‘my dear’. The poem is spoken by a Jewish refugee living in New York, who is addressing his lover and reflecting on the fact that he – and many other refugees in a similar position – are not made welcome in the city. You can read ‘Refugee Blues’ here.

The best way to summarise the content of the poem might be to paraphrase it (even though something is inevitably lost in paraphrase, it can help to clarify the meaning of a poem before proceeding to an analysis of it). ‘Let’s assume there are ten million people living here in New York City. Some of them are rich, and some are dirt-poor. Yet apparently there’s no room for us, refugees fleeing persecution and death in Europe. We used to have a country where we belonged: it was ours. And although it still exists, we cannot return there. Yew trees growing in graveyards can bloom again every spring, but once we relinquished our passports and fled our homeland, we did so for good. Read the rest of this entry

A Short Analysis of W. H. Auden’s ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’

A reading of a short political poem

‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ is one of Auden’s short masterpieces. In just six lines, W. H. Auden (1907-63) manages to say so much about the nature of tyranny. You can read ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ here and watch Auden reciting the poem here, before proceeding to our short analysis of this powerful poem that remains all too relevant today. We’re going to go through the poem line by line and combine our summary of ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ with a close textual analysis of it, since every line yields new observations and questions.

W. H. Auden spent some time in Berlin during the 1930s, and it was here that he probably wrote ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’, which was published in 1939, the year that the Second World War broke out. The specific tyrant Auden had in mind, then, was probably Adolf Hitler, though the poem can be analysed as a study in tyranny more generally, too. Read the rest of this entry