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“Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden Essay


The poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ presents to the reader a powerful challenge regarding every day life. It reminds the reader of the occasional religious moral guide intended sermons from a reverend. Further the poem could be likened to a moral story or fairy tale that serves to guide or advise the listener or reader.

Bearing these images in mind this paper seeks to proof that humans have conditioned themselves to disregard the suffering that seems always to surround them as the surface meaning of the poem in relation to the deep insights on the attitude of complacency and failure to take any responsibility as deftly insinuated by the poet.

By combining different painting works as presented in the poem, Auden lets the reader travel through history to the present condition of suffering. In line fourteen and fifteen, it is disillusioning how ‘everything turns away’ from a ‘disaster’ without showing any interests.

The aloofness of the very immediate people who should help in the disaster is clear by the words ‘important failure.’ Tragically, they ignore it since to them it does not affect what they are doing therefore it warrants no attention.

The ploughman, the herdsman, the fisherman and the crew in the ship seem conditioned to ignore their immediate surroundings. The ‘amazing fall’ and ‘forsaken cry’ in the midst of the quiet green surroundings reflected on the water reveal an irresponsible attitude.

This attitude is reinforced by lines one to four through Auden’s casual description of abnormal behaviors. The sun is shining as it should be, the city far off does not even know what happens and the surrounding islands environment is tranquil as ever as it could.

By using lines that overlie onto each other, the speaker clearly portrays how suffering occurs in the midst of other good things. This illustrates however that its occurrence changes no course of the others neither does it bother their businesses hence the speaker uses it as an attack against the order of situations.

In lines one to four, wisdom is clearly praised in the painting. The Old Masters symbolically refer to older persons with the capacity to guide, foresee and accurately state issues regarding human nature. It’s clear that human nature does not care about suffering as the ploughman at best ignores the shepherd who also plays indifference to the fishermen.

The shepherd’s posture is rather comical in his aloofness towards the noisy drowning boy and the ‘expensive’ ship on the waters. The message hits home that humans are interested in only that serves their own personal gain and interests.

Effectively the speaker uses the normal eating, opening a window or idle walk scenarios to signify ‘casual indifference’ at the expense of suffering others. As some suffer others prosper in their own thoughts and emotions. A careful observation by Auden thus reveals that good times against bad times or big versus small are never arranged but rather occur spontaneously near each other with no apparent author.

As such when some are eating others have nothing to eat as line four alludes and while the aged wait for a miraculous birth, the children get unhappy and leave to fulfill their own pleasures of play oblivious of the dangers of skating. Further, as someone gets drowned or tortured the dogs continue to be doggy while the horse completely ignores this by indulging in its own rubbing pleasures.

The Old Masters’ images depict that the sun shines brightly while the ploughman, the shepherd, the fisherman, the ship and the immediate environment casually are unchanged by the action of drowning. The speaker of the poem effectively captures the Old Master’s view in line ten ‘……the dreadful martyrdom must run its own course.”

Eagleton’s view that the poem can be read as an allegory of ‘contingent nature of modern existence’ is traceable in Auden’s words (Eagleton 3). In lines nine and ten, the speaker’s words that ‘martyrdom must run its own course’ have the meaning that those who suffer understand the impacts alone. For the rest it makes little or no sense since they are satisfied with what they have or do.

These persons are represented by dogs and horses as animals in contact with humans on a daily basis. Indeed modern lives are busily packed by bills to pay, work to do, errands to make as well as parcels to deliver. It is thus likely that humans in the modern existence have conditioned themselves against instances of suffering in their immediate surroundings.

By employing a conversational tone in the poem, the speaker protests against the attitude of complacency and irresponsibility towards human suffering.

His is a conscious attempt that uses the ordinary language and situations to vilify selfishness, personal interests and ego-centric actions. It is an attack to self importance when the speaker uses the word ‘amazing’ to refer to an occurrence that leads to death in the presence of an ‘expensive delicate ship’ that has to go ‘somewhere.’

The speaker’s case therefore argues against personal interests and ego centrism. Auden through the speaker detests complacency and irresponsibility in human behaviors thus his ultimate goal is to present them negatively to invoke change. The responsibility for suffering can only be achieved through this change.

Works Cited

Eagleton, Terry. How to Read a Poem. London: Blackwell, 2007. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2019, April 15). “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/musee-des-beaux-arts-by-w-h-auden/

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"“Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden." IvyPanda, 15 Apr. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/musee-des-beaux-arts-by-w-h-auden/.

1. IvyPanda. "“Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden." April 15, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/musee-des-beaux-arts-by-w-h-auden/.


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IvyPanda. "“Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden." April 15, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/musee-des-beaux-arts-by-w-h-auden/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "“Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden." April 15, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/musee-des-beaux-arts-by-w-h-auden/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) '“Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden'. 15 April.

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