Musee des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden is a representative modern poem that focuses on the significance and condition of human suffering. While visiting a museum of fine arts, Auden reflects on the content of some of the Renaissance paintings and tries to relate the underlying philosophy to the condition of modern existence. In the course of his reflections, he finds a deep connection between the art-pieces and the tumultuous age in which he was struggling. Auden’s experience of life was shaped by the two world wars that threatened to disturb the stability of the whole planet. He was also actively involved during the Spanish war as an ambulance driver, witnessing the massacre of war, the mutilated bodies of wounded soldiers and the extreme moments of pain that they endured. This poem becomes a revelation in context of suffering as an inglorious private experience.
In the first few lines, Auden makes a generalized statement about ancient artists, more particularly the Dutch painters. He calls them “old masters” and appreciates their insight into the nature of human suffering:
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;
He goes on to reflect upon a particular painting, “The Census at Bethlehem” by Pieter Bruegel, where the canvas is full of human beings going about their usual activities, children playing on snow, oblivious to a pregnant woman, painted at a corner. This woman, Mary, carrying the “Saviour” Jesus in her womb, rides on a donkey, awaiting a “miraculous” birth that the wise men waited for:
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:
The title of the art-work does not focus on Jesus, or Mary but the “census”. Before the birth of Christ, King Herod initiated a census, documenting the citizens, to execute murder of all the infants in Bethlehem to get rid of the baby Jesus. The painting, showing an apparently normal town, brimming with life and activity, carries within it the omens of future disaster.
It is this disaster that is painted on the second art-work that Auden reflects on: “The Massacre of the Innocents” by the same painter Bruegel:
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.
When it comes to the question of martyrdom, usually people think of Messiahs and saints. However, the first martyrs of Christianity were the innocent children who were murdered by Herod’s men even before Christ was born. Interestingly, the painting is not just about the heinous murder and destruction. There are images of normalcy, set in sharp contrast. A scene is set where the dogs and horses go about their business oblivious to the disaster, not even realizing the implication of the disaster they are witnessing. Nature and life appears to go on, no matter how terribly some people suffer and endure pain; mundanity and tragedy coexist.
Suffering, therefore, is seen as a private experience. It is not a communal experience that is heroic and glorious. Auden turns his attention to the third and final art-piece, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Breughel, to establish this point:
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.
According to Greek legends, Icarus and his father were trapped in a maze and his father made wax-wings to escape. However, despite his father’s warning, Icarus flew higher and higher till his wax wings got melted by the heat of the sun. Breughel captures the moment when Icarus fell into the green sea. However, the focus of the painting is neither the suffering of Icarus, nor the moment of wings melting down. The painting is all about the landscape, the peaceful ploughman, the calm seaside with fishermen and anglers and a trade-ship going on a profitable voyage abroad. These men represent human self-interest. Even the sun is not shown to be vengeful or even interested in the body that fell because of the heat of the sun itself. The words “as it had to” demonstrate an almost tired sense of obligation on the part of the natural world. The sun shines on Icarus’s legs and the ocean not out of interest or sympathy, but out of duty. This painting shows that, while Icarus felt boundless agony and horror, the rest of the world moved on as usual, without participating in the suffering of the individual.
During the world wars, ideas of national heroism and community were fed into individuals to motivate them, ensuring that the soldiers were always ready to fight. Auden, the ambulance driver, was also a poet who understood these strategies well enough. Through these lines, focusing on the normalcy of the world in the face of an individual’s disaster, Auden brings out the alienation, the isolated private existence of modern humans. Auden is known for his experimentations with images and symbols. The poem Musee des Beaux Arts is full of such instances. The sun, the ship, the torturer’s horse, the miraculous birth are all set against each other as Auden paints a master-artwork himself with these scattered images.