Allusion, Artistry, and the Fall of Icarus

Glossary: Allusion and Some Allusions


Icarus Rubens

Fall of Icarus painted by Peter Paul Reubens

Here are a definition of allusion and brief explanations of some of the allusions in "Musee des Beaux Arts" by W. H. Auden. Use the navigation bar to move between this page and Auden's poem, or open two browser windows as in the Double Windows described on the Help page.

allusion | Musee des Beaux Arts | Old Masters | miraculous birth | dreadful martyrdom | Brueghel | torturer's horse



An allusion is a brief, usually indirect reference to another work or to a real or historical event or person, traditionally as a way of drawing connections between those elements as well as enriching the meaning of the current work through associations with the other. Allusions imply a shared cultural experience or at least understanding. When you think and write about allusions, you should identify which elements of the second work, the work being alluded to, relate to the first work, the work you are reading. You should also think about how the characteristics of the second work enrich your understanding of the work you are reading. 

For example, having read or heard the story of Hansel and Gretel helps readers understand Louise Gluck's poem "Gretel in Darkness." Having read Hamlet helps readers understand "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Having read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" helps readers understand the Crash Test Dummies song "Afternoons and Coffeespoons." 

When you read Auden's Musee des Beaux Arts, the allusions to the Old Masters, to the legend of Icarus and Daedalus, and to Christian martyrdom guide you to expand your understanding of individual images as well as the poem's theme. Although you can understand most of Anne Sexton's poem To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph without knowing the Icarus legend or being familiar with Yeats's poem To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing, her poem is enriched by your making the connections with the allusions. William Carlos Williams's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is so closely tied to Brueghel's painting and the Icarus legend that knowledge of the allusions is essential to readers' understanding.


Musee des Beaux Arts

At Musee Royale des Beaux Arts, a fine arts museum in Brussels, Belgium, hangs Brueghel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.


Old Masters

The Old Masters were artists of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries whose works, masterpieces of the Renaissance, also are called old masters. Classical scenes of pagan Greece and Rome as well as religious scenes from Christ's life and early Christendom were frequently the subjects of their works. In Auden's Musee des Beaux Arts, what concepts are connected through classical and Christian allusions? How does the visual communication of the painters relate to the verbal communication of the poem? Note the pronoun "they" in "They never forgot"--a reference again to the Old Masters.


miraculous birth

What is the literal meaning of "miraculous birth" here? Look up the word miraculous in a good college dictionary or unabridged dictionary to give you a fuller understanding of the term. Consider this phrase in relation to the "dreadful martyrdom." Why would children not want the birth of Christ to happen? Why would old people be waiting for this same event? 


dreadful martyrdom

What is the literal meaning of "dreadful martyrdom" here? Look up the word "martyrdom" in a good college dictionary or an unabridged dictionary to give you a fuller understanding of the term. How does the idea that "even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course" relate to the story of Icarus? What do these two events--one from Greek mythology and one from Christianity--have in common as they are presented in this poem?


Pieter Brueghel [Bruegel] the Elder (c. 1525-1569)

Brueghel was a Dutch artist noted for landscapes and scenes of the lives of ordinary people. Both The Fall of Icarus and The Dance inspired poems by William Carlos Williams. Two other Brueghel paintings also are alluded to in Auden's poem: The Numbering at Bethlehem and The Massacre of the Innocents.


the torturer's horse

What is the impact of the word "innocent" in relation to a horse belonging to a torturer? What else in the poem has a connection with the concept of innocence?


To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph by Anne Sexton

Consider the contrast between "success" and "failure."

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by William Carlos Williams

The title of this poem is a direct allusion to Brueghel's painting. Like Auden's poem, this one is inspired by the painting and by the legend of Icarus to reflect on suffering and the way people react to the suffering of others--an almost literal retelling of the "event" in the painting. But look again at the arrangement of the words on the page, on the few carefully selected words.



Allusions to Icarus appear in many works of art, including music, dance, painting, and sculpture as well as poetry and prose. A few samples are presented on the next few Web pages. After viewing (and listening to) these other works of art, read the Writing Ideas.



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