"MusÃ©e des Beaux Arts" (French for "Museum of Fine Arts") is a poem written by W. H. Auden in December 1938 while he was staying in Brussels, Belgium with Christopher Isherwood. It was first published under the title "Palais des beaux arts" (Palace of Fine Arts) in the Spring 1939 issue of New Writing, a modernist magazine edited by John Lehmann. It next appeared in the collected volume of verse Another Time (New York: Random House, 1940), which was followed four months later by the English edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1940). The poem's title derives from the MusÃ©es Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, famous for its collection of Early Netherlandish painting. Auden visited the MusÃ©e and would have seen a number of works by the "Old Masters" of his second line, including Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525â"1569).
Auden's free verse poem is divided into two parts, the first of which describes scenes of "suffering" and "dreadful martyrdom" which rarely break into our quotidian routines: "While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully / along." The second half of the poem refers, through the poetic device of ekphrasis, to the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (ca. 1560s), at the time thought to be by Bruegel, but now usually regarded as an early copy of a lost work. Auden's description allows us to visualise this specific moment and instance of the indifference of the world to suffering, "how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster ... the white legs disappearing into the green." The disaster in question is the fall of Icarus, caused by his flying too close to the sun and melting his waxen wings.
Auden achieves much in the poem, not only with his long and irregular lines, rhythms, and vernacular phrasing ("dogs go on with their doggy life"), but also with this balance between what appear to be general examples "About suffering" and a specific example of a mythical boy's fall into the sea. Auden scholars and art historians have suggested that the first part of the poem also relies on at least two additional paintings by Bruegel which Auden would have seen in the same second-floor gallery of the museum. These identifications are based on a not quite exact, but nonetheless evocative, series of correspondences between details in the paintings and Auden's language. However, none show a "martyrdom" in the usual sense, suggesting that other works are also evoked. The Bruegels are presented below in the order in which they appear to relate Auden's lines.
Bruegel's The Census at Bethlehem (catalogued at the MusÃ©e as "Le dÃ©nombrement de BethlÃ©em") of 1566 was acquired by the MusÃ©e in 1902. Scott Horton noted that it would be a mistake to only look to the Icarus painting when explaining Auden's poem, for "The bulk of the poem is clearly about a different painting, in fact it's the museum's prize possession: The Census at Bethlehem." The painting depicts Mary and Joseph center right, she on a donkey bundled up for the snow of Bruegel's Flanders, and he leading with a red hat and long carpenter's saw over his shoulder. They are surrounded by many other people: "someone else ... eating or opening a window or just walking dully / along." And there are children "On a pond at the edge of the wood" spinning tops and lacing on their skates.
The Massacre of the Innocents (catalogued at the MusÃ©e as "Le Massacre des Innocents") is a copy by Pieter Bruegel the Younger (1565â"1636) of his father's original dated to 1565â"7 (illustrated). The MusÃ©e acquired it in 1830. The scene depicted, again in a wintry Flanders landscape, is recounted in Matthew 2:16â"18: Herod the Great, when told that a king would be born to the Jews, ordered the Magi to alert him when the king was found. The Magi, warned by an angel, did not and so, "When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under." In relation to the Census painting then we can see why the children of Auden's poem "did not specially want it [the miraculous birth] to happen."
Both this scene and the earlier are used by Bruegel to make a political comment on the Spanish Habsburg rulers of Flanders at the time (note the Habsburg coat of arms on the right front of the main building in the Census and the Spanish troops in red in The Massacre arresting peasants and knocking down doors). With respect to Auden's language we can see here "the dreadful martyrdom must run its course" (the innocent boys of Herod's wrath are traditionally considered the first of the Christian martyrs). We can see five of those dogs of Auden's poem going about their business and an approximation of "the torturer's horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree." Kinney claims âOnly one torturer's horse stands near a tree, however, and he is unable to rub against it because another soldier, with a battering ram, is standing between the horse and the tree ... Yet this must be the horse Auden has in mind, since it is the only torturer's horse in Bruegel's work, and the only painting with horses near trees.â
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (catalogued at the MusÃ©e as âLa Chute dâIcareâ) was acquired in 1912. This is the only known example of Bruegel's use of a scene from mythology, and he bases his figures and landscape quite closely on the myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus as told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses 8, 183â"235. The painting which Auden saw was thought until recently to be by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, though it is still believed to be based on a lost original of his. The painting portrays several men and a ship peacefully performing daily activities in a charming landscape. While this occurs, Icarus is visible in the bottom right hand corner of the picture, his legs splayed at absurd angles, drowning in the water. There is also a Flemish proverb (of the sort imaged in other works by Bruegel): "And the farmer continued to plough..." (En de boer ... hij ploegde voort") pointing out the ignorance of people to fellow men's suffering.
Some years after Auden wrote this poem, William Carlos Williams wrote a poem titled "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" about the same painting.
This poem and the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus appear side-by-side 22 minutes into the 1976 film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, starring David Bowie.
- Authorized text of poem at Emory.edu
- Analysis of poem at PoetryPages