“Musée des Beaux Arts” (French for “Museum of Fine Arts”) is a poem by W. H. Auden from 1938. The poem’s title derives from the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels which contains the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, thought until recently to be by Pieter Brueghel the Elder,though still believed to be based on a lost original of his.
The painting portrays several men and a ship peacefully performing daily activities in a charming landscape. While this occurs, Icarus is visible in the bottom right hand corner of the picture, his legs splayed at absurd angles, drowning in the water.
The allusions in the first part of the poem to a “miraculous birth” and a “dreadful martyrdom” refer obliquely to Christianity, the subject of other paintings by Breughel in the museum that the poem evokes, “The Census at Bethlehem” and “The Massacre of the Innocents”. The “forsaken cry” of Icarus alludes to Christ crying out on the cross, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.