|Allusion, Artistry, and the
Fall of Icarus
Glossary: Allusion and Some
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.
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
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?
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
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."
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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Litonline | modified 03/10/99 by D. Reiss