Analyzing W. H. Auden’s Poem Musee Des Beaux

November 24, 2020 by Essay Writer

Although suffering is not very severe in modern America, it is an eminent presence in most other places. W.H. Auden’s poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” acknowledges the suffering in the world and demonstrates what people do in order to avoid the suffering. The speaker makes several references to both modern life and historical examples. Although the esoteric meaning of the poem is difficult to decipher, the poem’s underlying message is that it is human nature to avoid things that are unpleasant, and humans find various ways to avoid and diminish suffering instead of facing it directly.

The speaker sufficiently proves that humans try to avoid suffering. In the first two lines of the poem, he immediately references the “Old Masters,” or the Renaissance painters, and how they fully understood suffering and portrayed suffering in their artworks: “The Old Masters: how well, they understood/ Its human position; how it takes place” (2). When the speaker says, “Its human position,” he means that the Renaissance painters knew how suffering impacted people; when the speaker says, “how it takes place,” he expresses that the Renaissance painters also knew the reasons for why suffering occurred. The speaker also alludes to Pieter Breughel’s painting, The Fall of Icarus. Breughel was a Renaissance painter, and The Fall of Icarus is one of Breughel’s paintings that depicts the suffering of humans: “In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster…” (16). In The Fall of Icarus, Breughel depicts the scene referencing the Greek myth of Daedalus’s escape from the island of Crete with his son, Icarus, on wings made of wax and bird feathers. In the myth, Icarus foolishly flies too close to the sun, and the wax melts. In the painting, Icarus falls from the sky and into the water below; however the surrounding people choose to ignore his suffering and instead continue with their routines. The nearby ploughman definitely heard the splash or cry of Icarus as he plunged into the water, “But for him it was not an important failure” (18). The ploughman ignores Icarus because the ploughman wants to distance himself from the suffering rather than face it, even if that suffering is someone else’s. Breughel’s painting also shows a ship that is close to Icarus, but the crew members of the ship choose to ignore Icarus because they “Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on” (22). Like the ploughman, the crew members of the ship choose to ignore Icarus because they too want to evade the suffering. In The Fall of Icarus, the main focus of the artwork is Icarus, but he is not even fully shown: Breughel only painted Icarus’s legs disappearing into the water. He only paints Icarus’s legs to portray a message similar to the poem’s message: people try to diminish suffering. By painting Icarus as small, Breughel shows that humans would rather downsize suffering than face it.

The speaker not only references a historical example, but also uses modern examples, metaphors, and other poetic devices to portray the human race as intent on ignoring suffering. For example, the speaker says, “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just/walking dully along” (4). The speaker means that suffering takes place all the time, but humans who are not directly affected by the suffering stay ignorant although suffering takes place around them. The speaker also gives the example of a child who does not want a sibling: “…there always must be/ Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating/ On a pond at the edge of the wood” (7). When the speaker says “On a pond at the edge of the wood,” he expresses that the child wants to stay as far away as possible from the suffering, or the birth of the sibling. The speaker also compares humans to dogs and a torturer’s horse: “Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s/ horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree” (13). This metaphor compares humans to dogs, and dogs do not bother with pain and suffering. Instead, humans, just like dogs, go about playing and do not acknowledge the suffering of people around them. When the speaker compares humans to a torturer’s horse, he means that humans ignore suffering, and because they choose to let it happen instead of preventing it, they are partially responsible for the suffering. Although the horse takes the torturer to his victim and is not directly responsible for the suffering, the horse still enables the suffering to occur by not acting, just as humans allow suffering to take place and not do anything about it. The speaker also compares humans to a torturer’s horse when he says, “Scratches its innocent behind on a tree,” because humans, just like the torturer’s horse, think that they are innocent because they are not the direct cause of the suffering. The speaker also uses rhyme as a poetic device in order to make suffering appear lighter and less bleak. By diminishing suffering, the speaker demonstrates that even when speaking about suffering, humans avoid acknowledging the harsh reality of suffering, choosing to remain ignorant.

Auden wrote this poem in 1938, a period when he observed the Sino-Japanese War. He most likely bases his poem on the suffering of soldiers in the war while other people choose to ignore the suffering of the soldiers (“While someone else is eating or opening a window or just/ Walking dully along”). However, he then extends this attitude of people towards suffering and applies it to everyday life and how people ignore the suffering that is not only in war but also in their everyday lives. Through his poem, Auden indirectly urges humans to become more caring towards the suffering of others. He advocates that humans should choose to act upon suffering that they see instead of ignoring it because performing such beneficial actions make the world better for everyone. When Auden compares humans to the torturer’s horse, he implies that instead of continuing to ignore the suffering of others and absolving themselves of guilt because they are not the direct cause of the suffering, humans should take action and be the change. Auden addresses the selfish quality of humans, but he does not criticize humans just for the sake of it; instead, while criticizing them, he implies that they should become unselfish and, in the words of Mahatma Ghandi, be the change they wish to see in the world.

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