This poem is pretty much like all of those thoughtful thoughts that you have when you come up with the perfect way to describe a really intense experience you've just had. You know that great song that you can't get out of your head? Or maybe that beautiful sunset you watched on one of the last days of summer. It catches you. Maybe you can't quite come up with the language to express its sticking power – and that's where poets like Auden come in.
His poem is not full of fluffy language or alliteration or any other of those nice tricks that poets like to pull out of their bags. In fact, it's not full of tricks at all. The only time that our speaker gets fancy with adjectives is when he's describing a baby's birth and a ship – and even then, he only uses two words to convey his excitement. As far as poets go, that's as laid-back as it gets.
Somehow, though, this poem never manages to sound like it's an internal monologue. Our speaker never second-guesses himself or pauses to readjust his thinking. There's something neatly (and maybe even eerily) fluid in his movement from philosophy to description. He's trying to explain what he's just seen – maybe to a close friend, or maybe just to a sympathetic ear. He's not out to score any points by talking big. He's just sharing some thoughts that an awfully beautiful painting inspired.
Then again, there's a sort of deliberate tongue-in-cheekness to all of the adjectives that our speaker is tossing around, especially in the last section. He sounds so…happy. Does that mean that Icarus's flight is a silly one? Perhaps. But does that also mean that his fall is not at all troubling? Well, that's where we begin to suspect that our speaker's choice of adjectives might be just a bit diabolical. On second thought, too many happy adjectives make him sound a bit sly – almost as if he's slightly more conscious of his audience than we might otherwise have thought.
"Musée des Beaux Arts" is sort of like an occasion piece – that is, Auden could have called it something like "I happened to be at this art museum and saw this one picture and this is what I thought…"
Why didn't he call the poem that? Well, for starters, it's a lot harder to type. Try it sometime. For another, naming the poem after a particular museum (it happens to be in Brussels, Belgium) makes it a bit like inviting us into the speaker's world. Believe us, it's the only invitation we'll get. After this, he's all philosophy and free-thinking. He's not so interested in helping us figure out things about him – but we'll talk more about that in our "Speaker" section. You could think of this as the breadcrumbs that Hansel and Gretel use to get themselves back home (OK, we know that the breadcrumbs didn't work so well. But run with us for just a second.) Auden wants to spend a few minutes at the beginning of the poem thinking big – so the title helps to ground us while he thinks about life, the universe, and everything.
Then again, this title hearkens back to all the poems that poets wrote immediately after seeing/doing something – like "Upon Reading Chapman's Homer" or "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798." It's like Twitter for the early twentieth century. Want to know what I've just been up to? Read the title of my poem!
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:
What's interesting about our speaker is that he's pretty absent from the poem as a whole. No references to what he thinks or believes or ate for breakfast last Tuesday. No mention of his cats or his mother. In fact, the only way that we're able to learn anything at all about him is the fact that the poem's title tips us off to where he is: in the Musée de Beaux Arts. And that's not necessarily the speaker's doing. Come to think of it, the word "I" never once enters this poem. Which should tell you something. Whoever this speaker is, he's keeping a very low profile.
So why have a hidden speaker? Well, that's a good question. You could think of this guy as the voice in your ear when you rent an audio tour to the museum. He sounds authoritative precisely because he doesn't let on that he's a real person with petty thoughts and a sincere desire to get out of the art gallery and into the museum coffee shop as fast as he possibly can. In other words, he's the closest thing to a Voice from On High as you might get.
In a novel, he'd be a third-person narrative voice. In a Disney movie, he might just be a Conscience. In this poem, however, he's a speaker who doesn't ever move outside of a tight frame of reference. He's sitting before a single painting, and his mind is completely absorbed in what's before him.
This little poem is a walk in the park, folks. It's got simple language, it tells a nice story, and, perhaps most importantly, it's actually pretty interesting. It sounds like a normal person speaking his relatively normal thoughts. Luckily for Auden, of course, he happens to tell one heck of a story. In fact, he tells a story without telling a story, if you know what we mean.
W.H. Auden is a master of form. You could think of him as a chameleon: just when you're ready to pin him as a formal poet, one who's careful to respect traditional rhyme and meter, he breaks out something like "Musée des Beaux Arts," which has no rhyme or metrical pattern to speak of. What it does have, though, is simple, precise language. Nothing to get too upset about. Nothing to twist the tongue or boggle the mind. Nice, neat, simple language. What makes it so amazing is that he's able to craft a masterpiece with the mildest of tools.
It's almost as if Auden is toying with us at the start of this poem. See, the first couple of lines all have ten syllables in them. (Don't believe us? Count the syllables of lines 1-3. Don't worry. We'll be here when you get back.) That might lead some of you to think that he's about to set out writing in pentameter, which is comprised of five two-beat feet (or ten total beats).
Don't get too excited, though. Just when you think that Auden's settling into that oh-so-traditional of meters, line four derails everything completely. Line four goes on waaaaay longer than ten syllables. And after that, it's all up for grabs. It's almost as if "real life" – all that eating and opening windows and walking which the speaker describes – refuses to be contained by anything as stodgy or constraining as a formalized metrical pattern. That's what we mean when we day that the form is pretty free and easy. Life just seems to take over, and Auden's totally content to just let things roll.
The way that lines break throughout the poem helps to facilitate this sense of ease. (Believe us, it's a lot more carefully crafted than it might seem. Remember how hard it was to be effortlessly cool in middle school? Exactly.) Notice how most of the punctuation in the first few lines actually occurs in the middle of the lines? That means that lines tend to be enjambed – that is, they run on into each other, almost as if a speaker can't quite shut up at the proper time. Auden might just be thumbing his nose at the sorts of conventions which "old masters" of poetry would have recognized: rhyme, meter, and end-stopped lines. Why? Well, we're not totally sure. But chances are that he's trying to formally duplicate the sorts of entanglements and messiness which his poem tries to tackle.
We've said it before, but we'll say it again here: the deliberate references to "Old Masters" and museums and old paintings creates an interesting tension with the simple language and prosaic qualities of Auden's form. We've got two basic thoughts about this:
1. The disparity between the two is an intentional move, one intended to demonstrate how even simple subjects and language can be part of a great tradition.
2. The tension could be a way for Auden to demonstrate that there is no tension between great art and commonplace emotions. Even mythical characters get scared when they're falling. Especially when they're falling out of the sky. It's not necessary to come up with a spiffy new form to explain that!
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
No need for fancy language here. No, sir. Doesn't even matter that we're talking about the snootiest of all snooty subjects, art. In fact, kind of like us here at Shmoop, Auden seems to think that you don't need to break out every SAT word you ever knew in order to talk about the Big Stuff like art, culture, and human nature.
Even though Auden keeps his language pretty simple and straightforward, he does build up a fairly elaborate network of references and allusions – to places, people, and things happening behind the scenes. Put all of these references together, and you'll start to get a sneaking suspicion that the real story is happening elsewhere, outside of the poem's framework…which is exactly what this poem is trying to get you to see!
There's a heap of references in "Musée des Beaux Arts" to folks who think big…and end badly. Like Icarus. And the martyrs. Here's what we mean:
Icarus is referenced throughout this poem, and since he does have a pretty amazing backstory, we thought we'd tell you a bit more about him. This guy goes all the way back to Greek myths…and believe us, those Greeks went through some pretty wild stuff.
Icarus was a big dreamer. He wasn't satisfied with just escaping from a horrible labyrinth in which he and his father were being held captive. Oh, no. He wanted to escape in style. Icarus actually had some help, though – his father, Daedalus, was a pretty talented craftsman. He fashioned two pairs of wax wings so that he and his son could fly away from their place of captivity.
They take off. Everything's going fine. In fact, Icarus is enjoying flying so much that he decides he's going to get higher and higher and closer and closer to the sun. After all, that's what flying is all about, right?
Well, not really. Especially not when you happen to be wearing wings of wax. The closer Icarus gets to the sun, the melt-ier his wax wings become. Pretty soon, they aren't even wax wings anymore. They're just big, melty blobs attached to Icarus's back. And without wings, Icarus starts to fall.
….and that's where our poem picks up. Icarus is plunging towards the water. And by the end of the poem, he's in the water. Not exactly a happy ending, huh?
Bucolic landscapes and dying young men? That's about as unsexy as a poem can get, folks. Hey, it's hard to get excited about sex when you're so busy ignoring everything around you! And as our speaker points out, everyone is far, far too busy working or sailing or torturing to think about too much else.