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Musee des Beaux Arts

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W.H.Auden (1907-1973)


During the 1930s Wystan Hugh Auden was already universally recognized as the dominant figure among the poets of his generation. Even those who dubbed him Kipling treated Auden’s technical skill and poetic virtuosity as indisputable.

Auden opposed all notions of artistic decorum and of correct style. His wish “to hang around words” was meanwhile not only a display of artistry. His “play” usually had a moral purpose. The most brilliant poems are patterns of observation and analysis of man’s moral dilemmas. The need for a poet to sit still and absorb, to “bless what there is for being” was a philosophic credo of his work. Auden established his claim to be a serious and major poet, fulfilling that specifically human vocation, the ability “with a rhythm or a rhyme” to “Assume … responsibility for time”.

The most prominent works are collections of poems “Poems”, “Look Stranger”, “Another Time”, “The Shield of Achilles”.



Our Bias


The hour-glass whispers to the lion’s paw,

The clock-towers tell the gardens day and night,

How many errors Time has patience for,

How wrong they are in being always right.


Yet Time, however loud its chimes or deep,

However fast its falling torrent flows,

Has never put the lion off his leap

Nor shaken the assurance of the rose.


For they, it seems, care only for success:

While we choose words according to their sound

And Judge a problem by its awkwardness;


And Time with us was always popular.

When have we not preferred some going round

To going straight to where we are?



Notes and comments


- “One of the constant problems of the poet is how to express abstract ideas in concrete terms” (W.H.Auden).

- “Why do you want to write poetry?” If the young man answers: ”I have important things I want to say”, then he is not a poet. If he answers: “I like hanging around words, listening to what they say”, then maybe he is going to be a poet” (W.H.Auden )

- “Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening” ( W.H.Auden )




1) What does the title mean? What is contrasted in the poem? Prove your opinion. Can you formulate the moral dilemma?

2) What is the Time symbol for? What time theories do you know, which of them are closely connected with morals?

3) What do you think of the general mood of the poem? Is the tone ambiguous? Can you give your reasons for speaker’s attitude and the poem’s idea?

4) The final line of this sonnet has only four feet. Why do you think it is so? Can you find any technical innovations in the sonnet form?

5) Consider the use of imagery in the first quatrain.

6) Paraphrase the poem, paying attention to the precise implications of

- ‘whispers’(1)

- ‘has patience for’ (3)

- ‘assurance’ (7)

- ‘success’(8)

- ‘awkwardness’ (10)

- ‘popular’ (11)

- ‘straight’ (13)


Additional tasks

1) W.H.Auden is also known for “a relaxed low-temperature verse”. This is often what he describes as “unofficial poetry”. He always insists that poetry does not need to be consistently on its high horse. He likes to debunk the “proper”, the decorous and the official. The following poem is interesting to discuss from this point of view.

What are the signs of mockery? Consider the logic of reflection in the poem if you find any. Can you say that there is continuous inner questioning for choosing this or that? Find out these gaps in thinking, which turn out to be embranchments in moving to a certain credo. What is meant by “short views”?


Thou shalt not be on friendly terms

With guys in advertising firms,

Nor speak with such

As read the Bible for its prose,

Nor, above all, make love to those

Who wash too much.


Thou shalt not live within thy means

Nor on plain water and raw greens.

If thou must choose

Between the chances, choose the odd;

Read The New Yorker, trust in God;

And take short views.


2) Read W.H.Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts. Find the role of allusions to Pieter Breughel’s “The Fall of Icarus”.

What is the other famous painting described in the first stanza? What is the mood of the poem? Can you feel ambiguity in the tone? Do you find it makes any sense? Can you give possible variants of the theme in the poem.


Musee des Beaux Arts


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 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 to and sailed calmly on.


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