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Human Suffering and Carrying on in Musee Des Beaux Arts

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Generally considered to be one of the greatest English poets of the twentieth century, W. H. Auden was also a noted playwright, librettist, editor, and essayist. Known for his versatile and inventive style of writing along with his vast range of scientific knowledge, Auden applied science concepts to traditional verse forms, using many intricate and difficult metrical patterns. Despite [all this], Musee des Beaux Arts is a relatively [simple/structured loosely] poem. Published in 1940, it was written after Auden spent time in Brussels, Belgium visiting the real Musee des Beaux Arts [inspired by the paintings in it].

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The poem is a commentary on the bizarre human situations that are seen in certain older paintings, notably The Fall of Icarus, the focus of the poem. It [focuses] on themes of human suffering, tragedy, and pain by contrasting the lives of those who suffer and those who don’t.

In the first stanza, the speaker makes observations from several other paintings by the same artist, Brueghel, delivering their opinion in a measured, precise, and matter-of-fact manner. In each case, people go about their business or their play without paying much attention to the more pressing situations taking place on the side. Adults simply turn away; children, who don’t have the sympathy to understand the depth of the situation “keep skating”, and animals, unaware of human suffering, merely attend to their biological needs. The paintings highlight the strange, contrasting experiences that are part of everyday life – while one suffers terribly, another carries on regardless with some mundane activity. Casual words convey the casual indifference of humanity to those suffering. Since their personal interests are involved, their commitment to the most mundane of activities takes priority over even the deaths and struggles of strangers. Through descriptive imagery, Auden conveys the fact that life goes on much the same regardless of personal tragedy; we need routine, and we fear distraction. Suffering will always happen and there isn’t much the average person can do about it.

Still relevant today, “Musee des Beaux Arts” can be related to six o’clock TV news culture, where we are all aware of the suffering taking place, yet we can turn it off at any time – we always have someplace to get to. From a real-world perspective, the poem leaves us thinking of the number of times we have seen horrific, disturbing images from remote places in the world and turned a blind eye toward it, knowing that not too far away, normal lives are being lived.

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