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Musée des Beaux Arts is a poem that was written by Wystan Hugh Auden in 1938 following his reflections after visiting a museum. A practical criticism of the poem will analyse the influences and poetic devices of the poem in order to elaborate on the text’s messages and themes.
The poem is based on a painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which was hung in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Muséedes Beaux Arts, in Brussels, Belgium. It is a landscape oil on canvas painting of a dock containing the mythological Icarus falling into the sea after flying too close to the sun. The painting’s core influences were ancient Greek mythology and possibly Roman poet Ovid’s narrating of the story in 5AD. The power within the scene derives from the character, of which the painting is titled, being small in comparison with the busy surrounding scene. This creates a sense of feeble anti-climax that is exacerbated by having numerous characters seemingly unaware of the momentous fall; and despite the subject leaving lasting historical legacies and having significant impact on allegoric mythology, the moment being experienced by individuals portrayed in the canvasare relative and, therefore, unaffected by Icarus. This intellectually challenges perceptions of significance of individual tragedy within a broader context, despite the strong importance felt by others. Auden had a keen historical interest and when he visited the Museum in December of 1938 this painting inspired his production of Musée des Beaux Arts.
The text draws from three distinct perspectives: the poet’s mind, the painting and the mythology of Icarus. The painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, acts as a visual accompaniment and a direct influence on the poem; the reader is then invited to consider the painting as a central reference point. The tale of Icarus is directly recited to only once through the poem andis the phase depicted in the painting. However, the popularmyth isa poignant device because of an understanding of the tale with a global audience. It means the poet can draw from the story that is broadly understood by the reader; therefore, challenging perceptions of ancient mythology and adapting the finale without changing core narratives within the popular tale. By doing this, it shows one’s broader insignificance as being an omnipresent element in society throughout cultural history. Auden speaks from his thoughts when considering these messages; he then completes a historical line created by aligning the Greek Mythology, a painting from the 16th century and his museum visit in 1938. This gives the piece’s ideas a lasting and reinforced integrity.
The text doesn’t antagonise whilst describing those involved in the portrayal of his scene; he instead takes a more mellow and considered approach that demonstrates a musing and admiring of others’ ideas. He constructs the poem in a way, to the reader, that reads as if coming through spoken word. This allows the sense of speculation to be discovered through the writing, rather than being provoked by a more formal poetic structure. A heavy irony runs throughout and is noticeable in numerous bold juxtapositions of the extraordinary and the mundane. The tone created is one of a curious examination epitomised by the off beat and, sometimes, humorous scenario. However, the intellectual introspection and explorations remain uncompromised and pertinent.
Auden’s structure of the poem is made up of two verses, one of 13 lines and one of eight. It has a semblance of a Petrarchan sonnet because of a characteristic turn of thought between the two verses, like that of an octave and sestet. In the first verse he generalises the basic premise of his thoughts and conveys them with a balancing of ideas. In the second, the actual painting is referred to by name and acts as a confirming continuation of his notion; the turn in thought is evident when the reader is asked to take “Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance”.
An effect of being conversational is imposed on the text and gives an impression that the poem’s ideas are being told to the reader anecdotally. The use of a free rhythm helps to create this effect and regular use of enjambment gives the writing a unique speech like fluency. Examples of this are evident when the lines formed by the verses break into each other on lines 2 to 3, 5 to 6 and 7to 8 and are evident regularly in more instances. Despite the unmetered rhythm, a rhyming scheme can be noticed throughout Musée des Beaux Arts. Auden uses semantically conflicting terms and words in alternating rhymes such as “never wrong” and “walking dully along”, furthermore, “passionately waiting” with children “skating” and “never forgot” with “untidy spot” build up the ironical, mismatching imagery. As well as creating juxtapositions, the rhyming scheme keeps the verse mellifluous and asserts the writing’s structural integrity as a poem, not as a piece of prose.