W. H. Auden’s poem “Muse des Beaux Arts”, which is “Museum of Beautiful Arts” when translated into English, is more about death and it’s normal, spontaneous occurrence than it is about a museum. The poem speaks of “old Masters” and refers to artists: writers, poets, and painters who understood the act of death as a necessary process instead of making excuses for it, using personification to cope with it, or sugar-coating it. These “old Masters” did not see the need to justify death or find a way to make it easier through embellishment.
Although the poet uses a sort of free verse with unstructured rhyme and varying line length he still captures the meaning and conveys his point while keeping the poem unified. The scattered rhymes and the lack of specific meter keep the poem from getting to sing-song which is very fitting considering the subject matter. The poem starts out “About suffering they were never wrong, the old Masters: how well they understood” and we see that there is a group of people from the past that were wise, but we are not specifically told what it was that they understood.
In fact, we are never explicitly told to what the “it” in the next line; “Its human position: how it takes place” actually refers. This we must figure out for our own, and based on the poem as a whole we can ascertain that the speaker is referring to the act of dying, death, and loss. We now know that those masters that came before us understood and revered death. The speaker refers to the “human position” of death and in the next five lines he illustrates the randomness of death; that even while there are many elderly people eagerly awaiting the next life, sometimes children are robbed of the present one.
The poem at this point is not cruel or blaming but merely explains the fact that death does not intelligently pick and choose; nature has a role in it. “Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating/ On a pond at the edge of the wood”, here children take the rightful spot that the “aged” were “reverently, passionately” waiting for because nature had a hand in the ice breaking and the child’s death. Nature and death sometimes combine to produce tragic results, but just because death is not intelligent does not mean that nature is and the speaker does not want us to blame nature either.
The speaker and the “old Masters” seem to understand that death and nature go hand in hand. Then in the next five lines, which begin again with reference to the old Masters. With the line; “They never forgot”, the speaker shows how the world keeps on turning and daily life continues as before even at the exact moment that a person’s spirit leaves this world. That is what the old Masters realized and “never forgot”. Life is continuing just as always in the line “… the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/ scratches it’s innocent behind on a tree.
But in this line we find a very interesting match between a torturer and a horse. Notice how the evilness attributed to a man whose occupation is torturing people does not get passed down to his possession: the horse. Even though his master is bad the animal remains innocent and carries on naturally scratching itself on a tree. This is another statement about the innocence of nature; that even when it ends up taking life the act is neither deliberate nor evil. The last stanza of the poem is about a work of art and here we understand the museum reference in the title.
This stanza is speaking about the unnoticed “disaster” of one man’s death. The disaster of death is only important, or obvious to, the man experiencing it: Icarus. In mythology Icarus famously attempts to fly towards the sun, with a pair of wings made from wax, despite his father’s warnings not to. This is where the message of the old Masters is captured perfectly, because even with a feat as miraculous as a man flying, no one can stop to take notice of his defeat.
Life is moving on, the speaker says, in the first line “In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster… , the speaker understands the tragedy but understands that life must go on for the living. In fact, the act of living continues all around the scene of death with the ploughman and the sailors not being able to pause, to save, or to remember Icarus. For them it was “not an important failure”, as mentioned in line 17, when Icarus fell from the sky because death was a regular occurrence in their lives and they had other work to do. “The sun shone/ as it had to” in lines 17 and 18 and here again we see that nature can neither pause to notice nor can it do anything to stop the act of death.
Death is a process of nature and nature must be respectful. The poet admits in line 20 that the act of the boy’s death was “amazing” for the exact reason that, indeed, this boy fell out of the sky, and still no one would pause their lives to notice death. The speaker of Auden’s poem can see the beauty in death and the average day to day occurrence of it, as could the masters. Yet, death is not always noticed because the living do not have time to pause for it, but the “old Masters” did. They commemorated it with their art: with poems and paintings, such as Breughel did.
The speaker illustrates how death is a natural occurrence and yet we must not hold nature responsible and he shows that nature is innocent. Death and nature are not structured or premeditated and the design of this work mirrors that fact. The speaker has made a perfect point without getting muddled up in rhyme, reason, or rhythm. Evil has been placed next to nature and nature has proved innocent and prevailed through tragedy. This poem about “beautiful arts” is a work of beautiful art on its own and a tribute to something that can be sad and ugly, but is a natural process must be dealt with.