W.H. Auden knew how to write a poem. In fact, he wrote several thousand of them. You might remember his name from all of those poetry anthologies that you've been reading in school for the last few years. He's one of the Big Names of the twentieth century. And that's saying something. Believe us, there's a lot of twentieth-century poetry out there.
So why is Auden such hot stuff? Well, for one thing, he's a jack-of-all-trades. The man turned out poems of all shapes, sizes, and styles – and they were pretty much all readable. "Musée des Beaux Arts" is an especially great example of his work, though, which is why we're sharing it with you today. For one thing, it's about as simple as a poem can get. Except it's also complex. And emotionally nuanced. Oh, and free-spirited. And politically hard-hitting. In other words, it covers a lot of ground.
Auden wrote this poem right as World War II was about to take off. It hadn't exactly broken out yet, but there were all sorts of rumblings in the background. And for a man who was pretty well attuned to world politics, we're guessing that signs of impending disaster might have been pretty easy to spot.
After all, Auden dropped everything to rush to the aid of the Spanish revolutionaries in 1937, at the start of the Spanish Civil War. (Don't worry. He was in good company. Pretty much everybody who was anybody in British literary circles tried to drive ambulances or shoot bullets or wrap bandages on behalf of the Spanish.) Two years later, when Auden sat down to write out the poem we're reading today, we're guessing that past war and suffering (as well as pretty obvious future war and suffering) might just have been on his mind.
But why approach war through art? Isn't an inanimate thing that you hang up on a wall just about the furthest thing away from people living and breathing and dying? Well, yes. And also no. (Don't you love it when we try to have things both ways?) See, for Auden, art becomes a way to express political and social viewpoints that folks might not be willing to listen to otherwise.
Don't believe us? We've got a little test for you. Head to the busiest place you can find. Stand right in the middle and scream, "Hey! You! Stop ignoring all the suffering around you, you big jerk!" Chances are you'll just get ignored. If you don't get punched in the face, that is.
That seems to be Auden's opinion, at least. And as he points out, he's in good company. Artists have been thinking about humanity's indifference to suffering for centuries (and centuries and centuries). There's something almost farcical about it – you'd think that we'd change over time, right? As far as our poet is concerned, the "human position" of suffering has been pretty constant since, oh, the time of Greek myths. In other words, pretty much forever. Does this mean that Auden has given up hope? Is this poem just a testament to the way that things sort of suck every now and then? Or is it an subtle call to arms? Well, that's an open question. Tell us what you think!
Well, maybe you're just fine living life all by yourself. That's what you said when you packed your bags and ran away from home back in kindergarten, right? Of course, you probably made it to the end of the block (or maybe just the end of the driveway) and suddenly realized that you actually did really need your mom's mac-n-cheese in your life. That dawning awareness of your dependence on other people was a pretty big moment. Whether it came about as you were finally figuring out how to depend on your big brother or whether it was just a stranger helping you to pick up all the coins that spilled out of your pocket, those moments of interconnection have probably cropped up every now and again. They're what your camp counselor called "warm fuzzies." You know, those little reminders that people aren't always jerks all the time.
It's that sort of awareness that Auden tries to cultivate in this poem. As he sees it, there are some things that art can do – and one of them is to remind us of the things that we've forgotten over time. Like how it's good to feel like people are watching out for you. And it's usually nice to return the favor.
Auden illustrates his point in "Musée des Beaux Arts" by bringing up Breughel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," a painting which depicts a world that's shiny and golden and springy and new…if you can ignore the tiny legs of a drowning boy off to the side. There are all sorts of times when it's OK to ignore all the noise and chatter and background in your life. And then there are some times when you can't. Bad things do happen. Figuring out how to do something about them is a choice that only you can make. As Auden reminds us, though, sometimes it's as easy as looking up and seeing what's actually going on.