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Musée des Beaux Arts

Musée des Beaux Arts

by W.H. Auden

Analysis: Setting

Where It All Goes Down

OK, folks. Buckle your seat belts. This'll be a bit of a bumpy ride. Here are some of the settings that this poem brings into play:

  1. The Musée des Beaux Arts, a fine arts museum in Brussels, Belgium. We can tell that from the title. Funnily enough, though, Auden never mentions it again. It just sort of hangs in our minds through the rest of the poem. It's a setting that's only a setting, nothing more. Don't worry – it only gets more complicated from here.

  2. Sixteenth-century Belgium. That's where the plowmen come in. And maybe even the little kids skating on the pond. Definitely the ship.

  3. Ancient Greece. Maybe even mythic Greece. That's where Icarus, the boy flying to the sun with wings of wax, hails from. You just don't run into that every day.

  4. But here's the important one: the speaker's mind. See, that's where all of these wonderful worlds collide. Only a painter could pair myth with absolutely, totally ordinary. And only Auden's speaker can filter the experience of that poem through an individual's consciousness.

Ironically, all of these jumbled settings only reinforce the speaker's earliest point: that suffering occurs anywhere, anytime – and while all sorts of other things are going on. Have you noticed the one setting that we didn't describe? It's the sky – which is where Icarus falls. Even as Auden is describing the ways that we never pay attention to the suffering around us, his poem manages to avoid describing that suffering outright. Pretty great trick, huh? It's almost like Auden tricks us into participating in exactly the sort of dynamic that his poem describes – which is only proper. After all, if we take Auden's word for it, everyone ignores something sometime. And right now, it's us.

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