First published in 1940, W.H. Auden’s " Musée Des Beaux Arts " examines the tendency for daily life to continue on its routine course even in the presence of tragedy and sorrow. More specifically, the poem narrows its focus to The Fall of Icarus, a 16th century painting by Pieter Brueghel in which the ill-fated Icarus falls to his death, attracting little notice from those in the immediate vicinity.
Significant as the poem's subject matter may be, Auden complicates its surface meanings by utilizing the nearly unnoticed presence of its speaker as a poetic device. In so doing, he creates a nuanced character, one whose voice is simultaneously disheartened and amazed at ordinary attitudes toward the ubiquitous presence of suffering. Never referring to itself, this voice nevertheless creates a self-referential dimension within the poem, adding shades and textures of meaning beyond the semantic content of the words used within its construct.
The speaker of "Musée Des Beaux Arts" philosophizes about the images viewed in paintings at Brussels’ Museum of Fine Arts. Likely, this is a mirror of the poet himself, who visited the museum in 1938. What deepens the poem’s content, however, is the way in which Auden crafts this voice to complicate a surface message, introducing ironic undertones that transform its meanings into a more complex rendering of human experience. The speaker seems to mourn the ordinary lack of attention paid to suffering, yet his manner is crafted in the voice of a man insulated from the travails of ordinary life – a leisurely art patron, commenting on idealized representations of human life.
Focusing on one word found within the poem, leisurely, it can be demonstrated how the poet builds his speaker’s voice via the sound of word and line structures to develop a subtle critique of the mind-set from which the poem derives its most obvious meaning. In a brief 21 lines, Auden constructs this voice both as a means to relay the poem's content, and as a method to subtly explore the manner in which significant traditions of philosophy and artistic representation frequently derive from, and cater to, the experience and expectations of a privileged class that is relatively isolated from the observations being pondered.
Constructing Tone of Voice
In its first two lines (“About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters”), the poem establishes a musing, conversational tone by inverting the usual English syntax, moving the specific subject of the verb to the end of the clause. We can almost picture the far-away eyes of the poem's speaker as he formulates his thoughts. A vaguely intellectual voice, almost pretentious in tone, that proceeds to share its ruminations. A voice that is full of self-indulgent pauses, incorporating full-stops in word choices such as suffering, wrong, or Masters. A voice that is less an active participant in life than it is a reverent bystander of the Master's depiction.
Auden's speaker effectively mirrors the self-absorbed pace of mundane human activity depicted in the poem by emphasizing nonchalance in regard to momentous events. Throughout, the poet subtly depicts this voice by crafting long, ponderous sentences that juxtapose brief references to dramatic events (birth, martyrdom, torture) with ironic images of children skating (when perhaps one in their midst regrets being born), or domestic animals (including “the torturer’s horse”) preoccupied with their own physical needs and desires. In crafting this voice, Auden chooses words that produce long, drawn-out sounds within the context of their sentences (dreadful, dogs, torturers, falling), effectively fleshing out the speaker's character by creating leisurely pauses within his voice.
Creating Ironic Tension
Without explicitly stating the voice's relevance, Auden creates a portrait of his speaker, one that interacts dynamically with the semantic content of the poem. It is the voice of a man who, while leisurely pondering artwork, reflects on the significance of the artists’ depictions and discovers seemingly universal statements about the human condition. He discerns how these works address ethical problems of indifference and suffering, yet he speaks in the voice of a privileged man, isolated in the walls of an equally privileged institution, well-removed from the suffering of which he speaks.
In a sense, Auden creates a satire of the leisure-class intellectual, philosophizing about the self-absorbed lives of commoners while remaining a bystander himself, well-insulated from the travails of ordinary life. The entire poem builds from the speaker's voice as he derives unhurried sentiments from the profound depictions of idealized paintings. This is a voice that turns away “quite leisurely from the disaster” (line 15) to go about its remote business of philosophizing on the lives of others – those who presumably have no time or inclination (unlike the speaker) for profound observation and insight.
Poetics of the Unspoken Subtext
Crafting his poem in a manner which deepens and shapes the semantic meaning of its subject matter by use of non-verbal signifiers like voice and tone, Auden creates an unspoken subtext to the poem's content. Combined with other elements, such as enjambment and the rich implications of his chosen words, he creates a multi-layered poem that more completely represents its subject matter in its full complexity, moving beyond the specific meaning of words and sentences into a more complicated realm where the poem's elements add up to more than the sum of their constituent parts.
In this fashion, "Musée Des Beaux Arts" presents a mirror of it's own content while simultaneously serving as an ironic critique of its seemingly unspoken of speaker. How far that critique extends into social commentary, however, remains in the hands of the reader.