Musee des Beaux Arts Poem by W. H. Auden Poem Summary line by line

Musee des Beaux Arts Poem by W. H. Auden Poem Summary line by line

Musee des Beaux Arts Poem by W. H. Auden Poem Summary line by line-In W.H. Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts," the exploration centers on the concept of human suffering and the accompanying indifference often observed. The title, translated as "Museum of Fine Arts," hints at Auden's potential inspiration drawn from observations at the museum in Brussels, Belgium.

Musee des Beaux Arts Poem by W. H. Auden Poem Summary line by line

Musee des Beaux Arts Poem by W. H. Auden Poem Summary line by line-Employing vivid imagery and references to historical events and artworks, the poem probes into the theme of suffering and society's tendency to overlook or minimize its significance. Auden's composition encourages readers to reflect on the intricacies of empathy, the inevitability of tragedy, and the role art plays in capturing and preserving the human experience.

Musee des Beaux Arts Poem Summary

About suffering they were never wrong,"

The speaker acknowledges that throughout history, people have been aware of the existence of suffering.

"The Old Masters: how well they understood"

The Old Masters, referring to painters of the past, had a deep understanding of human suffering.

"Its human position; how it takes place"

The Old Masters depicted suffering in a way that accurately portrays its role in human life.

"While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;"

The poem observes how, amidst the suffering of others, people often carry on with mundane activities without noticing or caring.

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"How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting"

Despite the reverence and passion of the elderly, who wait for something significant, life goes on indifferently around them.

"For the miraculous birth, there always must be"

Despite the anticipation of significant events, life continues with its everyday occurrences.

"Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating"

Children, oblivious to the significance of events like the miraculous birth, engage in activities like skating.

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"On a pond at the edge of the wood:"

The setting shifts to a tranquil scene, where children skate on a pond near the woods, unaware of the momentous events happening elsewhere.

"They never forgot"

Despite their enjoyment, the children never forget about the suffering in the world.

"That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course"

The inevitability of suffering, even in the face of significant events like martyrdom, is acknowledged.

"Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot"

Tragic events often occur in inconspicuous places, away from the attention of others.

"Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse"

Life continues unaffected by suffering, with dogs living their daily lives and the horse of the torturer remaining indifferent.

"Scratches its innocent behind on a tree."

The horse, symbolizing the indifference of nature, scratches itself on a tree, oblivious to the suffering around it.

"In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away"

The speaker references Breughel's painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," where everything in the scene ignores or turns away from Icarus as he falls from the sky.

"Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may"

Despite Icarus's tragic fall, depicted in the painting, life continues calmly and leisurely for the ploughman nearby.

"Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,"

The ploughman may have heard the sound of Icarus falling into the sea and his cry for help, but it does not significantly affect him.

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"But for him it was not an important failure;"

Icarus's fall was inconsequential to the ploughman, considered merely a minor event.

"The sun shone"

Despite the tragedy, life continues as usual, with the sun shining brightly.

"As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green"

The sun continues to shine on Icarus's legs as they disappear into the sea, indifferent to his plight.

"Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen"

The poem imagines the perspective of the ship nearby, which must have observed Icarus's fall.

"Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,"

The ship likely witnessed something remarkable: a boy falling from the sky.

"Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

Despite witnessing the extraordinary sight of Icarus falling, the ship continues on its course calmly, indifferent to the event.

Musee des Beaux Arts Poem Themes

Indifference and Apathy: The poem portrays how individuals often exhibit indifference or apathy towards the suffering of others, even amidst significant events. It reflects a world where tragedies occur, yet many remain preoccupied with their own lives and concerns.

Human Suffering: Acknowledging the ubiquity of human suffering, the poem suggests that it is an intrinsic aspect of existence. This suffering is recognized by historical figures and ordinary people alike, yet it is frequently overlooked or disregarded in everyday life.

Inevitability of Tragedy: Through references to historical artworks and events, the poem underscores the inevitability of tragedy. It implies that despite efforts to prevent or anticipate calamities, suffering and misfortune will persist, following their natural course.

The Mundane vs. the Extraordinary: By contrasting mundane activities with significant events, such as martyrdom or miraculous occurrences, the poem highlights the disparity between everyday life and moments of profound importance. It suggests that people often fail to grasp the significance of extraordinary events amidst the routine of daily existence.

The Role of Art: Through allusions to paintings like Breughel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," the poem explores the function of art in depicting and interpreting human experience. Art serves as a medium through which suffering and tragedy are immortalized, inviting contemplation and reflection on the human condition.

The Limits of Human Understanding: Despite attempts to comprehend or rationalize suffering, the poem suggests that there are inherent limitations to human understanding. Witnessing or hearing about tragic events may not always translate into genuine empathy or effective action, constrained by individual priorities, concerns, and perspectives.


W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" offers a profound exploration of human suffering and the societal response to it. Through rich imagery and allusions, the poem prompts reflection on the indifference and apathy often displayed towards the pain of others.

It underscores the complexity of empathy and the role of art in depicting and preserving the human condition. As readers engage with Auden's work, they are compelled to confront the realities of tragedy and consider their own responses to the suffering of those around them.


1. What is the significance of the title "Musee des Beaux Arts"?

A: The title refers to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, Belgium, where Auden likely drew inspiration for the poem. It sets the tone for the exploration of art's role in representing human suffering.

2. How does Auden use imagery in the poem?

A: Auden employs vivid imagery to depict scenes of human suffering and everyday life, juxtaposing them with references to classical art and mythology. This juxtaposition highlights the contrast between the monumental tragedies of history and the mundane indifference of daily existence.

3. What themes does Auden explore in "Musee des Beaux Arts"?

A: Some of the central themes in the poem include human suffering, empathy, indifference, the inevitability of tragedy, and the power of art to capture the human experience.



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