Auden's poem, Musee Des Beaux Art, is a subtle comparison between the events in Brueghel's myth based painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, and two religious based paintings also by Brueghel. The first part of the poem, from lines 1 to 14, describes "how [suffering] takes place." The second part singles out the events in Brueghel's Icarus. According to Auden, suffering takes place "While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along." Auden uses two examples to illustrate this point in the reader's mind; "the aged waiting for the miraculous birth" and "the dreadful martyrdom." These, according to Thomas Dilworth, are allusions to Brueghel's The Massacre of the Innocents and The Numbering at Bethlehem. Auden uses this comparison to help the reader understand suffering and the "human position" like the "old masters."
Suffering is the main theme in Auden's poem. Every event he describes alludes to this. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, "suffering" is from the Greek "pathos" meaning "passion, emotion, feelings." The "miraculous birth" of Christ was surrounded by immense suffering. Two years after Christ's birth, King Herod of Jerusalem ordered that all males under the age of two be killed. The families of all those children must have experienced horrible sufferings, emotions, and feelings.
The second example of Christ's "dreadful martyrdom" is an event that included the suffering of many people. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "martyrdom" as "extreme suffering of any kind." This shows how Auden links his examples of suffering in his poem to the example of Christ's martyrdom. Thus, the "dreadful martyrdom" was "extreme suffering" and involved much "emotion, feelings."
In both of these examples, there were people who ignored or weren't aware of the suffering that was happening around them. At the time of Christ's birth, there were millions of people who didn't know that it had even happened. Without this knowledge, they continued to live their lives like the "children skating on a pond." Likewise, at the time of Christ's death, there were people who didn't know of his suffering. They went "on with their doggy life." There were also people who simply didn't care it had happened. They were like the torturer's horse who "scratches its innocent behind on a tree."
According to Arthur F. Kinney, the "children skating on a pond" and the dogs in Auden's poem are references to Brueghel's The Massacre of the Innocents and The Numbering at Bethlehem. It is interesting to note this connection. Auden leaves it up to the reader to be able to figure this out. In the same way, Auden also allows the reader to find out the connection between the first part of his poem and the second part.
The second part of Auden's poem singles out the events in Brueghel's painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. According to legend, Icarus' father made him wings glued together with wax so that Icarus could fly away from their prison. He warned Icarus that if he flew too close to the sun, the wax would melt and he would fall. However, Icarus didn't heed his father's warning. He flew too close to the sun, his wax melted, and he fell into the sea and drowned. In Brueghel's painting, as Icarus is drowning in the sea, the ploughman and the people on the ship seem oblivious to his suffering. They are too caught up in what they are doing to notice what Auden calls "Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky."
In line 18, Auden states that Icarus' fall was not an "important failure" to the ploughman. Similarly, the events in The Massacre of the Innocents and The Numbering at Bethlehem were not important to the children, dogs, or the torture's horse. This reflects Auden's statement that when suffering takes place, it is generally ignored by others who are "eating or opening a window or just walking dully along."
It is easy to read Auden's poem at first and not realize that the first part is about two paintings other than the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. It takes several readings and background knowledge about Brueghel's paintings in order to understand Auden's poem. Auden uses this tactic to teach the reader his point. In order to understand suffering and the "human position" as well as the "old masters", we must not just simply ignore it because we are too busy just walking along. We must take time to really study it in order to understand the suffering.
Dilworth, Thomas. "Auden's Musee Des Beaux Arts" Explicator Spring 1991: 181
Dore, Anita. The Premier Book of Major Poets. New York: Random House, 1970
Holy Bible: King James Version. Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 1979.
Kinney, Arthur F.. "Auden, Bruegel, and "Muse des Beaux Arts" College English 1963
"Martyrdom." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth
Edition. 2000. 27 September, 2007
"Suffering." ." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth
Edition. 2000. 27 September, 2007