Allusion, Artistry, and the Fall of Icarus

Writing About Allusions and Icarus


Now that you have read and reflected on some of the allusions in Auden's poem, you can watch for allusions in your daily life as well as allusions in imaginative literature. For example, "the milk of human kindness" may be an allusion to a speech by Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare's play Macbeth. Any reference in the media or elsewhere to "the cruelest month" probably alludes to "April" in T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, where the reference is itself an allusion to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in which the prologue says that the sweet showers of April lead people to go on pilgrimages. One of my favorites from recent popular culture is the "wart hog from hell" in the movie Raising Arizona--a clear allusion to Flannery O'Connor's short story "Revelation."

If you are assigned a formal paper about poetry or about allusions or about Icarus in myth, here are some ideas suggested by Allusion, Artistry, and the Fall of Icarus. The notes you saved from your Reflections on Musee des Beaux Arts and Impressions of the Legend of Icarus may give you other ideas for writing more formal papers.


  1. Write a comparison-contrast of Auden's Musee des Beaux Arts and Williams's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus or another poem about the legend of Icarus. Either write an interpretive essay based on your own careful reading with a college dictionary and a mythology reference as your only resources or do some research on critical articles about the two poems.
  2. Find another painting-poetry pairing to discuss. Ferlinghetti, e.e. cummings, and Anne Sexton all wrote paintings about poems.
  3. Find reproductions of all three of the paintings alluded to in Musee des Beaux Arts and read what art scholars have said about them. Then write about what these allusions to paintings contribute to your understanding of the poem.
  4. Read about W. H. Auden's life and work and write about Musee des Beaux Arts with a biographical approach in which you discuss the connection of the poem to Auden's life and thought.


  1. Read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and some of the scholarship that discusses the allusion to Icarus and Daedalus in the name and character of the book's protagonist, Stephen Daedalus.
  2. Read Anne Sexton's poem To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph and W. B. Yeats's poem To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing. Discuss Sexton's poem as a response to Yeats's poem.
  3. Contrast Sexton's view of Icarus with with Auden's or Williams's or Pastula's.
  4. Select an image that you like from any of the poems in this Web site and explicate it in detail.
  5. Write your own poem inspired by the legend of Icarus.

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