Musee de Beaux Arts by Auden: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will provide a summary and analysis of W.H. Auden's poem, ''Musee de Beaux Arts.'' It will focus on the way Auden comments on human suffering via the speaker's observations about the painting.

A Thousand Words?

You have probably heard the expression ''a picture is worth a thousand words,'' but have you thought about what happens when you use words to describe a picture? In literary terms, this is called ekphrasis, the verbal description of a visual work of art. In the poem ''Musee de Beaux Arts,'' W.H. Auden uses ekphrasis to make us think about the nature of human suffering. Let's take a closer look at this brief but complex poem.


The speaker of this poem begins by talking about the insight of great painters. Specifically, how they understood suffering as a condition as ongoing and natural as other everyday activities. Also, how it occurs unacknowledged by others and is important only to those who suffer.

He then refers to a ''miraculous birth'' that the ''aged'' are looking forward to, but that children may dread. These children are playing but aware that ''even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course.'' Meanwhile, dogs go on with their lives and a ''torturer's horse'' scratches itself on a nearby tree.

The second stanza addresses a specific work by one of the ''Old Masters,'' Pieter Bruegel, in which the mythical Icarus has fallen from the sky but goes unnoticed by a ploughman who continues his work and a ship that continues to sail by.


Auden's poem creates a significant interplay between some observations about human suffering, some mythical allusions, and a specific event that inspired the speaker's thoughts. This event, as the title suggests, is a visit to the Musee de Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) in Brussels. This museum displays some of the work of the ''Great Masters'' that the speaker refers to.

The speaker ruminates on the ordinary nature of the suffering that eventually befalls everyone at some point, but is often ignored until it does. The ''miraculous birth'' and ''dreadful martyrdom'' are allusions, or references, to the birth of Jesus and the biblical account of King Herod, who knew that this sacred birth would occur but did not know where. Fearing a challenge to his power, he ordered all infants killed. These children are often considered the first Christian martyrs. Many critics have noted that the children at the edge of the pond appear in another work at the Musee.

The Fall of Icarus

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