Themes in Musee de Beaux Arts by Auden

Instructor: Kimberly Myers

Kimberly has taught college writing and rhetoric and has a master's degree in Comparative Literature.

This lesson discusses the themes in this 1939 poem by W.H. Auden and how he uses famous artwork to make an important point about the nature of human suffering. Updated: 05/13/2022

Poem Overview

This poem by W.H. Auden was first published in 1939. The title, translated from French, means ''Museum of Fine Arts'' and is based on the poet's visits to the Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, the art museum in Brussels, Belgium, where Auden was temporarily living at the time.

The speaker in the poem reflects on the work of the ''Old Masters,'' referring to European painters who were working from around 1200 to 1830. He marvels at how well these painters portrayed the nature of human suffering, understanding that while something painful or dramatic was happening to one person, the rest of the world was experiencing life as usual. In the second stanza, Auden points to Peter Breughel's painting depicting the mythological story of Icarus as an example; while the young boy falls from the sky into the sea, the other figures in the painting — a ploughman and a ship — seem to move on with their lives unperturbed.

This painting by Pieter Brueghel shows the fall of Icarus in a way that looks insignificant to the world around him.
Breughel painting of Icarus


The major theme, or general message, of this poem is about the nature of human suffering. Auden recognizes that all humans have painful and traumatic experiences that can change the course of their lives, but meanwhile the rest of the world continues on in a mundane way. He is particularly impressed by how artists from past centuries capture this idea in their paintings by showing the activities of people and animals around the margins of the main subject of the paintings. Auden points out that suffering takes place ''while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.'' While a painter might portray a martyr being killed, he also does not forget to show an oblivious dog or horse going on with its life.

Another theme of the poem is the importance of art and how it can reflect life. Auden praises not only the fact that the Old Masters could create paintings that look realistic, but also that they were able to make an important statement about life. The poem shows how valuable fine arts are for a culture.

The painting features the young boy Icarus. In mythology, he and his father made a pair of wings out of feathers and wax to be able to fly. Icarus, ignoring warnings from his father, flew too close to the sun and fell from the sky when the wax melted. Though this incident would have been traumatic and fatal for Icarus, it barely registers to the other people in the painting. Even to a viewer looking at the painting, it is hard to find the splash in the sea where the boy falls because there are other things going on around it; Breughel's message seems to be that even the worst suffering may seem small in the larger context of the world, and it is mostly felt by the one person experiencing it. Furthermore, without the help of insightful artists, we might not recognize these realities of life.

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