'Musee des Beaux Arts'

W H Auden was in Brussels in 1938. As he explains in a letter of 31 August to his friend Mrs Dodds – wife of Professor E R Dodds – ‘I have been doing the art gallery and trying to appreciate Rubens. The daring and vitality take one’s breath away, but what is it all ABOUT?’ The critic John Fuller argues that this was in Auden’s mind when he took the first line of ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ away from the syntax of ordinary speech: ‘About suffering they were never wrong…’ rather than, say, ‘The Old Masters were never wrong’.[1]

This also has the effect of focusing the reader on what is happening around the margins of the artwork: the people who are ‘eating or opening a window or just wandering dully along’ while someone else suffers; or, in the background of ‘the miraculous birth’ – presumably that of Jesus – the children who don’t know or care about it. The language Auden uses to describe the dogs going on with their ‘doggy life’ in the background even of the crucifixion of Christ seems affectionate, rather than as apportioning blame; although it could equally be read as drawing attention to the equally animal, flesh-and-blood nature of the depicted humans.

Auden’s biographer Richard Davenport-Hines suggests that these sentiments link the poem to ‘Memorial for the City’ (1949): ‘That is the way things happen; for ever and ever / Plum-blossom falls on the dead’, and his response to the wave of bad poetry following the Lidice massacre carried out in Czechoslovakia by the Nazis in 1942. ‘What was really bothering the versifiers’, he argued, ‘was a feeling of guilt at not feeling horror-struck enough’.

Importantly, though, like Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’ (1952), ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ is a poem, rather than a painting, and cannot present a variety of scenes together at the same time, backgrounded or foregrounded: it unfolds rhythmically in time, with long lines that hide tight argumentation behind its deceptively conversational tone.

[1] John Fuller, W. H. Auden: A Commentary (London: Faber, 1998), p. 266.

W H Auden

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