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;
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:
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.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
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.
“Musée de Beaus Arts” by W.H. Auden is a poem delivered in straightforward yet insightful verse. The thesis of the work seems to be, simply put, about how artists of yesteryear could capture real life on their canvases. “…They were never wrong, The Old Masters: how well they understood Its human position, how it takes place,” (lines 1b-3). W.H. Auden describes how the aforementioned “Old Masters” or artistic ‘greats’ accurately portrayed life’s aspects, from the tangible to the intangible. Also, the poem begins by describing broad and relatively general aspects of his opinions and progresses to a case-specific by the poem’s end.
In the case of ‘intangible’ versus ‘tangible’ characteristics of paintings, Auden apparently thinks that both were accurately captured by the Old Masters. This is apparent, as in lines 1 and 6, he describes emotions, which are intangible, as being transferred by the painters to accurate visuals; these well-painted intangibles include “suffering,” “reverence,” and “passion.” At the opposite end of the spectrum, W.H. Auden also feels that the painters could paint tangibles and immortalize them in their paintings, such as “eating” and “opening a window” found in line 4, and “children skating on a pond” found in line 7. After relatively vague intangibles and slightly more telling visuals, W.H. Auden describes a more focused scenario that one can more vividly picture in the mind, involving a dog and a horse, or rather, “going on with their doggy (and horse-y) life,” (line 13). Finally in the last stanza Auden describes a specific work of art, Pieter Brueghel the Elder's “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus.” In this ending section of the poem, the author recounts minute details found in the painting, implying that the painter painted the events portrayed in the work so well that little can be left to the imagination. It almost seems to say, “A well-done piece of art executes thinking for its viewer.” As I am partial to poetry that is not shackled to its rhythm or rhyme schemes, and because of my aforementioned opinions of W.H. Auden’s writing, I found “Musée de Beaux Arts” to be a thoroughly enjoyable poem.