The old Masters were never wrong about human suffering and its position in context with the rest of human society. While someone is suffering, others are going about their regular business. The elderly live in desperate hope for a miracle, but children are not particularly concerned. Even a martyr dies on the margins of society.
For example, in the painter Brueghel’s depiction of Icarus falling from the sky, “everything turns away” uncaringly from his disaster. The ploughman might have heard Icarus splash into the water, but it mattered little to him. The sun glimmers on white legs disappearing below the water. On the nearby ship, people must have seen the amazing sight of a boy falling from the sky, but they have somewhere to go, so they sail away.
“Musée des Beaux Arts” was composed in 1938, published under the title “Palais des beaux arts” in a newspaper in 1939, and included in the volume Another Time in 1940. It was written after Auden had spent time in Brussels, Belgium. The title refers to the museum that the poet visited while he was there, and the painting mentioned in the poem was hanging during the time of his visit. It is often considered a transition poem, as it occupies the space between the poet’s early stage of abstruse, complicated poems and his latter, simpler, and more conversational period. The structure of the short poem is relatively simple, and it uses ekphrastic description (verbal description of images).
The museum Auden visited is known for its prominent collection of the Old Masters, particularly painters from the Netherlands. Many critics have discussed the painting mentioned in the poem, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (1558), and others by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, a Renaissance-era painter, that were hanging in the gallery and may have influenced Auden in writing his poem. The identity of painter and painting is in doubt; critic Arthur F. Kinney maintains that while Brueghel painted this very scene, his version included the figure of Daedalus while the painting mentioned by Auden is actually a copy painted by Brueghel’s son Pieter the Younger, which is exactly the same but leaves out Daedalus (father of Icarus). The painting depicts the end of the myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus told by Ovid, in which the two fashion wings for themselves to escape imprisonment, but Icarus flies too close to the sun and the wax on the wings melts, causing him to plunge to his death in the sea. This is the “disaster” mentioned in the poem.
Another Brueghel is The Numbering of Bethlehem, which depicts Joseph and Mary’s arrival in Bethlehem to be counted for taxes, as told in the New Testament. The painting is full of small details, and Auden’s lines about people walking “dully” along and the elderly waiting for the miraculous birth and the children skating happily along likely derive from this scene. There is also The Massacre of the Innocents, which Auden may have alluded to in the lines, “They never forget / That even the dreadful martyrdom must / run its course / Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot / Where the dogs go on with their doggy / life, and the torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind against a tree.” The dogs and horses are present in that painting, and no doubt inspired the lines.
These examples in the poem’s first stanza (with the interlocking rhyme scheme ABCADEDBFCFCE) provide the context for the extended description of the Icarus painting in the second stanza (with a tighter rhyme scheme AABCDDBC). In each case, people go about their business or their play without comprehending, caring much about, or even knowing about another person’s experience of suffering or hope or disaster. Children and animals do not have the elevated sympathy necessary to understand someone else’s plight; they just keep “skating.” Animals are blithely unaware of human suffering and merely attend to their biological needs.
Meanwhile, many adults remain unaware of or unconcerned by others’ suffering. The ploughman “may” have noticed “the splash, the forsaken cry” of Icarus, but it was not “an important failure,” and the plowing must go on. The ship nearby “must” have noticed, but it had “somewhere to get to,” so it sailed “sailed calmly on.” In the painting, another character, a shepherd is looking up, perhaps at Daedalus, but the poem does not explicitly mention this part of the scene; the poem notes only that “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” Brueghel placed the ploughman’s head, looking down at the ground, right by the shepherd’s head, which emphasizes the contrast and the ploughman’s unconcern. (A man on shore, near the legs of Icarus, does seem to be looking at him and even reaching out, but this character also is not mentioned in the poem.)
Auden’s tone in the poem is measured, precise, and matter-of-fact. He does not use superfluous words or stick to traditional rhyme or meter. The poem is not didactic; its moralizing is delicate. The diction is certainly proletarian and accessible: “When someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” The reader senses that this is Auden’s quiet contemplation of a painting; one can almost see him standing before it, thinking about the nature of suffering amidst those who do not care. It is important to remember that the poem derives from the time immediately before the Second World War as nations were shoring up their militaries and preparing for conflict, and in this way its theme of unconcern prefigures those who go about their business in New York City in Auden’s “September 1, 1939.”