Study Guide

Musée des Beaux Arts Themes

  • Suffering

    Anytime that a poem announce that it's about suffering, chances are…it's about suffering. But Auden makes sure that we know just how embedded suffering is in the other activities that occupy our daily lives. Sure, we read about it on the web – but do we know when it's happening to our next-door neighbors? Painting society with a wide brush allows Auden to draw back and emphasize the ways that pain is everywhere.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What exactly is the "human position" of suffering? How would you describe it?
    2. Is Auden's argument essentially that human nature doesn't ever change?
    3. Who is actually suffering in this poem? How can you tell?
    4. Is indifference treated as its own form of affliction in this poem? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In claiming that the nature of suffering hasn't changed in over 500 years, Auden seems to suggest that there's no room for humanity to improve itself.

    By pointing out that human responses to suffering are as important as the initial event, Auden makes space for people to change.

  • Passivity

    There's a thin, thin line between innocence and indifference. Sure, kids can get away with not caring about what happens in the world around them. Heck, animals couldn't care whether or not a revolution's in the air. But what about those folks who just work too hard or have too much on their minds to know or care when something's going wrong? What about those people who just quietly mind their own business all of their lives? As far as this poem is concerned, the world might not need heroes – but it sure is just a little bit short on honest-to-goodness helpfulness and sympathy.

    Questions About Passivity

    1. Is remaining unaware of things going on around you always a bad thing in this poem? How can you tell?
    2. Does this poem perform what it attempts to describe? What sorts of benefits might come from passive activities like reflection?
    3. Is using art to describe human nature just another way to passively avoid engaging with actual problems? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    "Musée de Beaux Arts" offers a pragmatic vision of the ways innocence and passivity (or ignorance) are one and the same.

    "Musée de Beaux Arts" offers an understated but persistent critique of the ways that the "natural" order of things leads people to be callous and indifferent to others' suffering.

  • Art and Culture

    Ah, highbrow poetry. How much snootier can you get than naming a poem after an art museum? Couple that with references to paintings and Greek myths, and you might think that this poem is aimed at an "in" crowd of cultural elites. But dig a little deeper, and you'll find that this here poem is about as plain-spoken and understated as you're likely to find. Why the deliberate invocation of high culture? Well, maybe Auden's got a point to make about the role of art. Didn't someone once say that art was for everyone? We're betting that Auden is soundly in that guy's camp.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Does it matter that the speaker uses a visit to the museum as an occasion to meditate on human interactions? Why?
    2. Does viewing Breughel's painting in conjunction with reading the poem change how you interpret Auden's poem? How?
    3. Why do you think the poem is entitled "Musée de Beaux Arts" instead of "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"? How does this change the way you approach the beginning of the poem?
    4. Do you think that this poem is actually about the myth of Icarus? Or about Brueghel's painting? Is there a difference between the two?

    Chew on This

    Auden's "Musée de Beaux Arts" sets itself up as a perfect example of the types of moral reflection which art can inspire.

    The double-remove at which the reader witnesses Icarus's drowning (mediated by both the painting and the poem) makes it difficult to feel the sort of compassion the poem attempts to inspire.

  • Choices

    In Brueghel's painting that Auden references, Icarus chooses to fly too high. Men choose to keep their eyes down while he drowns. Brueghel chooses to depict all of this in a painting. Auden chooses to put a pen to paper while sitting in front of that painting. See how many choices it takes to get one little poem? You might even say that everything is connected. In fact, we will. You never know which choices will be the important ones, after all – so paying attention to everything is probably never a bad option. No pressure, guys. No pressure.

    Questions About Choices

    1. So much of the indifference the speaker points out in the poem seems to be natural – dogs ignoring torture, etc. How does this compare to the folks ignoring Icarus's falling? Why compare the two?
    2. Is it Icarus's fault that he drowned? Why or why not?
    3. Speaking of choices, why does this painting seem like a good example for Auden's subject matter?
    4. Do you think that being unaware of one's surroundings is a choice? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Auden compares versions of indifference by portraying youth and age, animals and humans, and mythic and historical figures. In so doing, he naturalizes some forms of indifference as innocence – if only to better critique the other forms.

    Auden compares versions of indifference by portraying youth and age, animals, and humans, and mythic and historical figures. In so doing, he suggests that all forms of indifference are equal.