We read an old chestnut so often we can no longer read it. Take “Musee des Beaux Arts,” written by Auden in Brussels in 1938. I first encountered it as a teenager in an Oscar Williams anthology. The poem’s conversational plainness, the way Auden illustrates the bland ubiquity of human suffering – “how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” -- make it instantly memorable. But familiarity breeds blindness. I have just noted the date of the poem’s composition: December 1938.
Hitler has Austria and the Sudetenland. A month earlier: Kristallnacht. In the Soviet Union, the Yezhovshchina rages on (and would soon claim Yezhov). As many as 1.75 million people have died in Stalin’s Great Terror (1936-38). Some 5,200 miles to the east of Brussels, a poet is dying. Osip Mandelstam was arrested a second time in May 1938, for “counter-revolutionary activities.” On Aug. 2 he was sentenced to five years in correction camps. Half-mad, starved and sick, he dies in a transit camp near Vladivostok on Dec. 27, 1938.