One of the best-known ekphrasis of this century, and one which helped establish the subgenre is W.H. Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts – writes William H. Race in his book, Classical Genres and English Poetry. An ekphrasis is ‘an expository speech which clearly brings the subject before our eyes.’ The poem Musee des Beaux Arts begins with a statement of the poem’s subject – “About suffering” and attributes the correct thesis concerning it to a group of artists, ‘the Old Masters.’ The rest of the poem draws illustrative examples from the paintings of Brueghel in support of the thesis, and the examples are arranged in the form of priamel. Although Musee des Beaux Arts is in tradition of descriptio or ekphrasis it departs in some ways from the classical models of the genre. Its main purpose is to interpret the scene and Auden’s interpretations of the scene are more like the observations of an art historian or an ethical philosopher than personal meditation.
Musee des Beaux Arts is a piece of art-criticiſm. Auden is not simply content with a photographic representation of Bruegheľs paintings. But he adds his own comments over the paintings. The deeper meanings and a moral purpose are teased out of them. The paintings referred to in the poem explicitly and implicitly- The Numbering at Bethlehem, The Massacre of the Innocents and Icarus focus our attention on the theme of individual suffering and the indifferent nonchalance of the community at largë. Auden refrains from pointing out the aesthetic values inherent in the paintings but he ļays emphasis upon the social import of the paintings. The Numbering at Bethlehem highlights the callousness of new generation to religious piety. The aged reverently and patiently wait for the second coming of Christ, while the children indulge in making fun and amusement. The Massacre of the Innocents makes a specific reference to Christ’s crucifixion and a generic reference to instances of superhuman brutality between man and man. The Fall of Icarus focuses on the world’s indifference to the life and death of an individual. The ploughman and the sailor look at the drowning Icarus with a cold passivity and then retire to their work without any least concern for the boy’s debacle.
With a superb artistic detachment and personal emotion under strict control the poet achieves a sort of objective correlative in Musee des Beaux Arts. With a tremendous subjective concern the imagery is objectified. The paintings are delineated in such a way as to evoke a surge of emotions in the readers. The Numbering at Bethlehem – a painting implied in the poem fills the reader with feelings of sympathy for the aged and remorse for the children. And both The Massacre of the Innocents and The Fall of Icarus generate in the reader the deep feelings of resentment and revolt. The poet shares these emotions with the reader but he maintains an aloofness from being charged with emotions beforehand.
Musee des Beaux Arts has a Shakespearian breadth of vision. A peculiar blend of the comic and the tragic can be discerned here. Auden stresses upon the comic at the expense of the tragic; it is not the perpetration of a heinous crime that draws one’s notice but the horse’s concern to get itself free from the irritation caused to it by an insect in The Massacre of the Innocents. The very mention of an ‘innocent behind’ has a discordant note and appears irreverent in the neighbourhood of the dreadful martyrdom. And this seems to topple the poem’s tone into the realm of earthy burlesque. Auden does this deliberately. This blend of the comic and the tragic elements in fact reflects the diversity of life.