Study Guide

Musée des Beaux Arts Quotes

By W.H. Auden

  • Suffering

    About suffering they were never wrong,
    The Old Masters; (1-2)

    Auden's being pretty clever here. By delaying our sense of who the subject of this phrase is, he allows the first line to ring out as a universal truth – which is, in fact, what the Old Masters are trying to do. And by crowning the world's favorite artists as Old Masters, Auden only underscores his point. These people, after all, became famous for a reason. Maybe they had something worth saying, after all.

    even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
    Anyhow in a corner, (9-10)

    What exactly is so dreadful about this martyrdom, anyway? As far as we can tell, the only thing that makes it so awful is that it seems to be ignored by everyone. In fact, maybe the ignoring is what makes this a martyrdom. Hmm…

    everything turns away
    Quite leisurely from the disaster; (13-14)

    Why bother with disaster? It's just so fatiguing. Auden's speaker drips with sarcasm here…because who would turn "leisurely" away from a drowning person? Unless, of course, they don't recognize the disaster as such. Perception's such a tricky thing, isn't it?

    the ploughman may
    Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
    But for him it was not an important failure; (14-16)

    The "forsaken" nature of this fall is really what changes an unfortunate accident into outright suffering. Too often, it seems, other peoples' attention can turn a nasty accident into a lucky break – or not.

    the white legs disappearing into the green
    Water; (17-18)

    There's a certain casualness to this description – even though we'll eventually get the whole story, Auden's speaker treats it with the same nonchalance that he imagines for the other figures in the painting.

    Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, (19)

    Yup. That's bad, all right. But notice how Auden always tempers his descriptions of awful things with strange adjectives? They make disaster seem spectacular – if not outright exciting. Which is why we say that there's a healthy dose of irony in his perspective, come to think of it.

  • Passivity

    the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
    For the miraculous birth, (5-6)

    Notice how even the action in this poem is actually just…waiting for action? Everything happens offscreen. And we do mean everything.

    While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; (4)

    There's all sorts of things that you can do while ignoring everything else around you. Just in case you missed that point the first time around, Auden offers a list of all of the other things that can dull your brain and bore you into sleepwalking. Heck, just reading about it kills a few of our brain cells. We're guessing that's why it's in the poem!

    even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
    Anyhow in a corner, (9-10)

    OK, no one's actually being passive here – or are they? After all, martyrs are usually persecuted. Which means that someone out there is not standing up to support her. Or him. And corners don't tend to hold too many people. Being alone isn't usually a choice, is it?

    how everything turns away
    Quite leisurely from the disaster; (13-14)

    The total lack of surprise or despair or any of those other emotions that require exclamation marks is pretty striking here. Notice how the speaker doesn't outline precisely who or what it is that's turning away? That leaves just enough space for "everything" to include the poem itself – and, by extension, us as readers.

    the ploughman may
    Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
    But for him it was not an important failure; (14-16)

    Deciding what to care about is such a simple process that sometimes we don't even realize that we're doing it. That's probably why Auden chooses a simple farmer (that's the sixteenth-century version of Nascar dads and soccer moms) to be the barometer of ethical responsibility. If he can't figure out when to care, chances are that most other people won't, either.

    and the expensive delicate ship […]
    had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. (18-20)

    Is the entire world morally bankrupt? That's sort of what we're left with after reading the second of these excuses about having other stuff to do. Notice how beautiful and pleasant all of the language describing the ship and its actions is? It almost makes the disaster seem surreal…or even mythic. Ironically enough, it was.

  • Art and Culture

    Musée des Beaux Arts (title)

    This isn't exactly a quote. But it's the title that sets the stage for a poem that might otherwise pass for a meditation on anything but art. Which is why it has to emphasize that the poem's occasioned by a visit to a museum. Of fine art.

    The Old Masters; (2)

    Although we might not know it the first time we read it, the Old Masters referred to here are the great painters whose paintings grace the museum we talked about above. We know, we know – it's not a huge and deliberate reference. It's just a backdrop – a prompting for the thoughts that emerge when you see an awesome piece of art. Hey, you catch more flies with honey, right?

    In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: (13)

    The reference to Brueghel here does two things: it grounds the poem in a concrete example (yay!), and it transfers our attention from a group of people to a single painting. Remember what life was like before the internet? (OK, we're just teasing. We don't, either.) But Auden's first readers might not have been able to see Breughel's painting right away…they just had to take his description on its own terms.

  • Choices

    But for him it was not an important failure; (16)

    Whether or not our speaker admits it, the introduction of an evaluative term like "important" suggests that our friendly farmer might not have been oblivious to Icarus's fall. He's not like the oblivious dogs or horses. He's a human – which means he had a choice. And apparently he made a bad one.

    the sun shone
    As it had to (17-18)

    Here's the thing about nature: it doesn't have much of a choice. The natural world goes on. Auden emphasizes this in order to underscore that some folks (that would be us, guys) have a bit more choice than, say, the sun.

    the expensive delicate ship […]
    had somewhere to get to (18-20)

    See? Here's a clear choice. Sure, it's a bad one. But it's definitely decisive. Money and profits over life? Why not? Of course, it doesn't sound quite that nasty the way that Auden describes it…but that's the basic point.