Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

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.

This is obviously a lovely poem. The small instances of wording – “an important failure”, “the sun shone / as it had to” – and the unobtrusive but rigorous rhyme structure keep the technicalities of Auden’s craft bubbling just below the surface. I mean, check out the rhyme structure in the last verse: aabceebc.

The enduring value, though, is in the content of the poem. It’s almost an anti-narrative poem, a poem which refuses to assign events into a story and impose order on them. Alternatively, it’s a hyper-narrative poem, a poem that recognizes the plurality and overlap of stories, how even the fall of Icarus is a minor event in most of the stories that feature it.  Like Vonnegut, who thought that the proliferation of simple stories was a major cause of war and conflict in the world – the reason we kill people so often, he wrote, is that death is a convenient way to end a story – I want to propose Auden’s poem as fundamentally ethical. We must constantly refuse to fit everything into a simple pattern or system; we must not treat people as supporting characters in the saga of our lives.

In this respect, Musée des Beaux Arts is almost anarchist.

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