English-American poet W. H. Auden wrote “Musée des Beaux Arts” in December 1938, following a visit to the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, or the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. The poem’s speaker walks through a gallery, contemplating various paintings and admiring their ability to convey the “human position” towards suffering—that is, indifference. The poem is an example of ekphrasis, in which the speaker coolly describes the paintings, calling attention to figures carrying on with their lives in the face of extreme violence. Shortly before his 1938 trip to Brussels, Auden spent six months in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War and several weeks at the frontline of the Spanish Civil War. As such, this poem can also be seen as a reaction to the bloodshed that the young poet witnessed during his travels, which he wrote about extensively.
About suffering they ...
... Its human position:
how it takes ...
... walking dully along;
How, when the ...
... of the wood:
They never forgot ...
... on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, ...
... an important failure;
the sun shone ...
... sailed calmly on.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
Brueghel and Auden — A blog post from Harper's Magazine provides a more detailed look at the paintings described, in the context of Auden's poem.
Biography of Auden — A detailed account of Auden's life and work from the Poetry Foundation.
Analysis of "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" — A close, multi-media analysis of Brueghel's famous painting from Google Arts and Culture.
Archival Auden Material — Scans of primary sources related to Auden's work, including letters, photographs, and books that are relevant to the poem.
The Story of Icarus — A retelling of the famous Greek myth from TED-Ed.
Pieter Breughel the Elder — A broad overview of the painter's works, including a discussion of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.
Auden Reads "Musée des Beaux Arts" — Listen to a recording of the author reading the poem.
1About suffering they were never wrong,
2The Old Masters: how well they understood
3Its human position: how it takes place
4While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
5How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
6For the miraculous birth, there always must be
7Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
8On a pond at the edge of the wood:
9They never forgot
10That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
11Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
12Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
13Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
14In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
15Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
16Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
17But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
18As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
19Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
20Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
21Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.