(Poem #68) Musee des Beaux Arts
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 Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman 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.
I like this poem for the exquisite simplicity of its language; there's something almost Wordsworthian in its phrases and images, straightforward in their construction, yet subtle in their connotations... Sometime free verse rubs me the wrong way because it's *too* free - poets use the lack of constraint as an excuse to turn out shoddy work (I have the opposite complaint about 'structured' (for want of a better word) verse - all too often, the *meaning* of the poem is lost behind the details of its surface construction). But Auden's 'Musee des Beaux Art' is not a victim of either shortcoming - the poem is no less elegant or carefully crafted for its not being a part of any particular metre/rhyme scheme. Indeed, I think that there's a definite (and very well-thought-out) correspondence betweem form and meaning here - see the comments under 'Construction' below. Apart from that... well, Auden is not necessarily a poet with whom I agree (on most matters, at least), but that doesn't in any way detract from the quality of his work. Admitted, his output was uneven at best; nevertheless, there are times (and today's poem is one of them) when he wrote truly magnificent poetry. thomas. [Biography] Auden was born in 1907 and was raised in northern England, the son of a doctor and a nurse. He received his primary education at St. Edmund's School in Surrey and Gresham's School in Kent. Auden's early interest in science and engineering earned him a scholarship to Oxford University; however, his interest in poetry led him to switch his field of study to English. While at Oxford, Auden became familiar with modernist poetry, particularly that of T. S. Eliot, and he became a central member of a group of writers that included Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice, a collective variously labeled the "Oxford Group" or the "Auden Generation." In 1928 Auden's first book, Poems, was privately printed by Spender. During the same year, Eliot accepted Auden's verse play Paid on Both Sides: A Charade for publication in his magazine Criterion. After graduating from Oxford Auden lived for over a year in Berlin before returning to England to become a teacher. During the 1930s Auden traveled to Spain and China, became involved in political causes, and wrote prolifically. In this period he composed The Orators: An English Study (1932), an experimental satire that mixes poetry and prose; three plays in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood; two travel books one of which was written with Louis MacNeice; and the poetry collection Look, Stranger! (1936; published in the United States as On This Island). Auden left England in 1939 and became a citizen of the United States. His first book as an emigrant, Another Time (1940), contains some of his best-known poems, among them "September 1, 1939," and "Musee des Beaux Arts." His 1945 volume The Collected Poetry, in which he revised, retitled, or excluded many of his earlier poems, helped solidify his reputation as a major poet. Throughout his career Auden won numerous honors and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize forThe Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1947) and the National Book Award for The Shield of Achilles (1955). In his later years, Auden continued to teach, to deliver lectures, and to edit and review books. He wrote several more volumes of poetry, including City without Walls and Many Other Poems (1969), Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (1972), and the posthumously published Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974). He died while on a trip to Vienna in 1973. He is buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. [Overview] First published in 1940 in a collected volume of verse entitled, Another Time, "Musee des Beaux Arts" explores the enduring human response to tragedy and challenges the accepted categorization of "ordinary" life experiences. The poem's title refers to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, an institution Auden visited in 1938. While there he viewed the Brueghel alcove which contains a number of works including Icarus, the canvas the poem refers to in detail. Drawing on this and other paintings, Auden articulates a notion of human nature which the poem indicates transcends time and space. Opening with generalizations and moving to specifics, the poem argues that the image presented by the "Old Masters" of the Renaissance period, that individual human suffering is viewed with apathy by others, is an accurate one. Juxtaposing images of suffering and tragedy with the banal actions of everyday life suggests that individual tragedies are individual burdens as humankind responds with indifference. Auden wrote that "In so far as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate." Auden's poem seeks to disenchant or deromanticize death, martyrdom and suffering and achieves this through the juxtaposition of "ordinary" events with universally recognized "extraordinary" ones. This comparison, however, forces a reconsideration of these accepted categories, and the poem appears to suggest that those events worthy of celebration are the ordinary, everyday occurrences. [Construction] "Musee des Beaux Arts" is written in free verse, meaning that the poem is essentially "free" of meter, regular rhythm, or a rhyme scheme. Unlike a Petrarchan sonnet, for instance, which is written in iambic pentameter (each line contains five divisions or feet, and each foot consists of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable), and is divided into two parts, an octave and a sestet, the octave rhyming abbaabba and the sestet usually rhyming cdecde, free verse employs varying line lengths and an irregular rhyme pattern, often shunning a rhyme scheme altogether.Like the specific structural considerations of the sonnet form, the seeming lack of structure which free verse offers is purposely employed and works to illuminate the poem's meaning. In Auden's lyric, the long irregular lines, subtly enforced by the irregular end rhyme pattern, create a casual, conversational air more prosaic than poetic, and a somewhat blase tone which is reflective of the benign world illustrated in Brueghel's art. The casual, easy-going argument the tone suggests is ironic for the topic of discussion, the human position and its seeming indifference to suffering, is anything but light and easygoing. Appearing to be the antithesis of the sonnet, the poem does reflect the Petrarchan sonnet form in one way: Auden's poem is distinguished by two parts which relate to one another much like the octave and sestet of a sonnet. Thus, like a sonnet, the poem is marked by a definite break or turn in thought. The first thirteen lines of the poem introduce the poem's theme and discuss it in general term, while the second half of the poem develops and illustrates the general idea with a specific example. [Criticism] Another Time is the first book Auden published as an emigrant to the United States, and the collection is viewed by critics as a pivotal one that marks Auden's turn from secular political concerns towards ethical concerns, concerns often addressed by Christianity. "Musée des Beaux Arts" is one poem which captures Auden's increased awareness of Christianity. The poem hints at Auden's involvement in the conflict between meaningful events and an oblivious world. In W. H. Auden Dennis Davidson argues that this involvement is suggested by the use of adjectives that indicate certain values, for instance, a "miraculous birth," or an "important failure." These words hint at an emotional sensitivity which recognizes and feels human suffering within a cold and indifferent world. Davidson calls such a response, as captured in the closing lines of the poem, a "sensitive acceptance." "Sensitive acceptance" means taking a stance midpoint between hardened stoicism and ardent sensibility. While such a response recalls the individual who reads of human tragedy in the newspaper as he/she engages in a mundane activity such as consuming breakfast, this approach, according to Davidson, "points also in the direction of a religious acceptance of suffering." Religious acceptance means coming to terms with the ways of the world. Thus, the poem hints at Auden's increased interest in ethical concerns and his eventual reconversion to Christianity. Richard Johnson, in Man's Place: An Essay on Auden, also states that the poem insinuates a Christian awareness, particularly in its construction of time. Johnson notes that the poem shifts one's perspective of reality. It does this by layering time and events. For instance, the poem places the reader in front of a painting in a museum, challenging the reader to develop the analogy between the world within the painting and the world outside the museum. By leading the reader through various periods of time (through the images in the poem), a continuity of events is implied. Thus, events such as the birth and death of Christ become relevant to the time and place of the reader. Johnson states, "the perspective shifts constantly to put the reader into the position of being able to see," to see things in a way one normally would not see. Such shifts make the reader "aware of his 'human position.'" Addressing one's "human position" means determining one's response to and place in the world, and this is achieved through the individual consideration of issues such as those presented in the poem. For a line-by-line analysis, see http://www.gale.com/gale/poetry/musee.html