Study Guide

Musée des Beaux Arts Stanza 1

By W.H. Auden

Stanza 1

Lines 1-2

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters;

  • Check out the strange syntax of this first phrase. It's everything that your high school English teacher told you not to do. The subject? Right at the end of the second line. The phrasing? Repetitive. And even after the speaker's done speaking, we still don't really know what he's talking about.
  • Aw, Auden. You're such a rebel! Don't despair, folks. Your friendly Shmoop team is here to sort all of this mess out.
  • For example, who are the "Old Masters?" Well, the title of the poem tips us off here: since the speaker is hanging out in an art museum ("beaux arts" are, well, artworks), we're guessing that he's referring to the Grand Ol' Masters of the art world – you know, the folks that you had to study in your intro to Art History course.
  • In fact, the speaker will single out a single Master later on – but we're getting ahead of ourselves. For now, it's enough to know that he's referencing the ways that the past always gets things right. You know, that sounds a whole lot like what our grandmothers have been telling us all our lives, huh?
  • There's just one other little bit of information that's missing here: what sort of suffering is going on? Well, that's a good question. And our speaker doesn't seem to be offering many answers.
  • Not yet, at any rate. That's how he hooks us. It's just like listening to a commercial for the nightly news. You know, the ones where the announcers start off by saying things like, "Natural Disasters! Tragedy at Home! The One Health Care Tip You Can't Afford to Miss! ...all that and more when we get back from commercial break." With a lead like that, you've just got to keep watching. Or reading.

Lines 2-3

how well, they understood
Its human position;

  • So we're not really much clearer about what's going on now than we were two lines ago. Sure, people are suffering. And the painters seem to have that covered. But what exactly is this suffering? And who's doing it?
  • Well, for now we'll just have to be content with the fact that our speaker's something of a tease. See, he knows that his subject matter is sensational enough that he can string us along for a few more lines at least – and that's just what he's planning to do.
  • Right now, in fact, he sounds a little bit like a philosopher.
  • Isn't that sort of what happens when you go to an art museum? You sit down in front of a painting that catches your eye, and all of a sudden you're thinking Big Thoughts. You know, the kind that could change the world if you could just remember them long enough to write them down. But by the time you actually do get to a pen and paper, well…it's hard to remember just what that epiphany actually was.
  • You might think that the messiness of these lines mimics that sense of epiphany. Notice how we seem to be building a pattern here?
  • Lines spill over into other lines, and phrases stop right smack in the middle of new lines. Sloppy? Well, yes. Yes it is. But we're guessing that that's sort of what Auden's intending to do. After all, he's emphasizing the human (read: "imperfect") nature of most things in life. Especially the bad stuff.
  • Notice how bad things never come in nice little packages? You stub your toe, you lose your bus pass, and your cat eats your biology homework. Don't laugh. It's happened to us. And all of that – ALL of it – happens at the same time. There's no organizing life.
  • And that's what Auden's form is here to remind us. It's insistently unorganized. Or perfectly imperfect. Either way, it's human. Just like his subject matter.

Lines 3-4

how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

  • Ah, now we're getting somewhere. Imagine this as a painting. (Hey, since our speaker's supposedly in a museum, it isn't that crazy. Just run with it.)
  • We may not know who's taking center stage in this little tableaux, but some of the background is beginning to fill in. It's a crowd scene – or at the very least, an afternoon in the park. The point is, no matter what it is that you (or, um, our absent star) is doing, there are lots of other people living lives that are just as busy and important as yours. Or, er, his.
  • Could Auden have picked images that are any more prosaic? Eating? We do that every day. Opening a window? That doesn't exactly stop traffic.
  • But that's precisely the point. When you're doing the most ordinary things in the world, the people who live across the street from you might just be winning the lottery. Or mourning the loss of a loved one. You just never know.

Lines 5-8

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:

  • All of a sudden, our poem's full of people. You can just imagine the crowds of people in a neighbor's house, waiting to hear that a new baby has arrived.
  • More importantly, you can probably remember just how unexcited you were when your little brother or sister was born. Sure, it seemed cool when your parents told you that you'd get to be a big sister. But now Aunt Ida's in your kitchen, and she's planning to stay there for weeks. And all the presents in the living room? They're not for you. Unexcited? That doesn't even begin to cover what you're feeling right now!
  • Auden's a master at evoking a scene. All of a sudden, we can see (and feel) both what the old and the young are doing and thinking.
  • These lines may seem pretty unimportant, but they're actually a microcosm of the poem as a whole: our speaker draws us into the emotional world of the poem before he locates us in its physical world. We know just what the children are feeling before we can place them "on a pond on the edge of the wood."
  • Hey, after all, it's like you mom always told you: it's what's inside that counts.

Lines 8-10

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner,

  • We're guessing that our speaker's back to talking about the Old Masters by now. (After all, children don't tend to do much philosophizing. Not when there's good ice to be skated upon.)
  • If our speaker's right, however, it means that he (and the Old Masters) think about martyrdom just a little bit differently than most of our Lifetime evening specials do. After all, aren't martyrs the folks that get loads and loads of attention? Doesn't their suffering get remembered and written about forever and ever? Does the name Joan of Arc ring any bells?
  • Apparently not. See, as our speaker sees it, most suffering just gets swallowed up into the everyday hustle and bustle of life. Even martyrs aren't really thought of as martyrs until after they're dead. When Joan of Arc was alive, she was just a girl who happened to catch a few bad breaks. (OK, we're exaggerating. But you see what we're saying.)
  • Our speaker emphasizes the tangential nature of most suffering – we see that it's happening, but it's happening somewhere else. At the very least, it's not happening to us.
  • Looking at paintings of suffering only emphasizes how detached the speaker is from what's actually going on. After all, he can see it. But he sure isn't feeling it.
  • And if he's at a huge remove from the action, where does that put us?

Lines 10-12

some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

  • OK, we've got to admit: we love this bit of the poem. Just like those earlier lines about the little kids on the pond, these images are all about the details.
  • Sure, someone's getting tortured. Sure, bad things are happening. But there are also animals (and, we're guessing, people) that are completely oblivious to what's going on. There's something so reassuring about dogs and horses doing the things that dogs and horses do – no matter what's going on behind the scenes.
  • Notice how, once again, the images that Auden uses are deliberately prosaic. No fancy-schmancy images or unnecessary adjectives to clutter up the scene. What kind of life does a dog have? A doggy one. Obviously.
  • Then again, there's also something deliberately ominous growing in the background. No matter how happy these dogs and horses seem to be, we know that something bad is happening just outside of our vision. And our speaker's making us cringe with all the anticipation of just what that "something" might be.