On going about your own life when a loved one is suffering: W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”

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A confession: I love memorising poetry. Not only do these remembered snippets of wisdom help me fall asleep, but I also just love knowing that I have them stored away, ready for whatever life brings.

After I spent some time learning Tennyson’s “Ulysses” by heart, I chose another favourite poem to learn: W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”.

This is probably my favourite poem by Auden. I first encountered it during my second year of university, and the poem and my lecturer’s explanation of the consoling nature of some of Auden’s poetry after 9/11 stuck with me.

The poem was written in December 1938, after Kristallnacht on 9-10 November had shattered shop and synagogue windows, hopes, and lives in Germany.

The poem describes Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a painting by Pieter Brueghel. It also echoes how the old master depicts Icarus falling from the sky while everyone else, involved in other things or just simply not wanting to know, “[turn] away / quite leisurely from the disaster” and go about their day.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, now seen as
a good early copy of Pieter Bruegel’s original.

When we are suffering, I think it might feel a bit like this: that others are now turning away from us, even if that isn’t entirely the case.

When others are suffering, perhaps we sometimes feel ourselves turn away slightly too.

The poem begins, “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.”

I think Auden encapsulates something timeless here: that common human fear that something bad will suddenly happen at some meaningless time of day, when everything else is progressing as normal. And the concern is entirely grounded.

Perhaps the answer here is nurturing a greater sense of mindfulness, both in paying attention to the good stuff when life is going well, and noticing those that are suffering around us. It could also help us to approach harder times in a way that doesn’t necessarily make it easier for us, but rather helps us to take in all aspects in a more present way.

Will Schwalbe mentions the poem in The End of Your Life Book Club, his wonderfully penned memoir about grief and the healing power of books.

When Will’s mother was facing cancer, he described how he felt like the “someone else” who was “eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” in Auden’s poem. As he writes, “Mom was suffering; I was going on with my life”.

Yet “Musée des Beaux Arts” somehow helped him to acknowledge this feeling – that it’s the normal response to feel like this. This, in turn, may have allowed him to be more present with his mother.

I love how this shows how helpful finding own feelings and fears in fiction can be. When grief hits, often we really do need time and patience to overcome it. But books can provide at least some comfort – as well as a reminder that we’re not as alone as we might think.

For more healing poetry, soak in the wisdom of Mary Oliver’s gracefully honest poem for letting go, Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love” for accepting ourselves, and Nick Cave’s chosen “sad poem of loss” by Les Murray.

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