Musee des Beaux Arts

by W. H. Auden

The basic premise of the poem is response to tragedy, or as the song goes “Obla Di, Obla Da, Life Goes On.” The title refers to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. Auden visited the museum in 1938 and viewed the painting by Brueghel, which the poem is basically about. Generalizing at first, and then going into specifics the poem theme is the apathy with which humans view individual suffering.

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 dis intoxicate.”

The poem juxtaposes ordinary events and extraordinary ones, although extraordinary events seem to deflate to everyday ones with his descriptions. Life goes on while a “miraculous birth occurs”, but also while “the disaster” of Icarus’s death happens.

For those cultural barbarians who don’t know the story of Icarus, here it is, in condensed form. Icarus was a Greek mythological figure, also known as the son of Daedalus (famous for the Labyrinth of Crete). Now Icarus and his dad were stuck in Crete, because the King of Crete wouldn’t let them leave.

Daedalus made some wings for the both of them and gave his son instruction on how to fly (not too close to the sea, the water will soak the wings, and not too close to the sky, the sun will melt them). Icarus, however, appeared to be obstinate and did fly to close to the sun. This caused the wax that held his wings to his body to melt. Icarus crashed into the sea and died.

Some have even claimed to find hints of Auden’s eventual re-conversion to Christianity in the poem. Richard Johnson, author of “Man’s Place: An Essay on Auden”, believes there is a touch of Christian awareness in the poem, especially the timeline. The reader of the poem is placed in front of the Breughel painting in a museum, and at the same time is expected to project those images and truths to the world outside. There is also a sort of continuity through the poem as you read it and are allowed to see what the poet means. This allows a reader to become aware of his human position.

The poem first discusses a “miraculous birth”, and at the end “the tragedy” of a death. The theme in the poem is human suffering. If you add these things together, and stir really well you might even get some hints at religion, mainly at Christianity.

Also, the poem suggest a religious acceptance of suffering (example: eating your morning breakfast while watching coverage of a serious train-wreck on CNN). Religious acceptance basically means coming to terms with the ways of the world.


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 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.

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