Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Auden’s poem is an example of ekphrasis, the embedding of one kind of art form inside another—in this case, a famous painting summarized in a poem. If art, as traditionally conceived, is the deliberate, labored product of human attentiveness to detail, “Musée des Beaux Arts” is centrally concerned with the temptations of artlessness. It is itself artful in its own guise of criminal artlessness.

Bruegel’s The Fall of Icarus captures the final moment of an elaborate and portentous Greek myth. Icarus was imprisoned with his father, Daedalus, the master craftsman, in the labyrinth that the latter had constructed on the island of Crete. In order to escape, Dedalus devises wax wings that will enable father and son to fly free of the island. He cautions Icarus not to soar too close to the sun, lest it melt the wings’ wax. With the arrogance of youth, Icarus ignores his father’s warning and, after his wings melt, plummets into the sea and drowns. In Bruegel’s rendition, as though the event were indeed marginal to the course of human affairs, Icarus’s leg is the only part of him still—barely—visible above the water, in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. The disappearance of the imprudent boy is not the center of the viewer’s attention, just as it passes unnoticed by everyone else within the frame. Like Bruegel, Auden would force one to take notice of universal disregard.

James Joyce chose Stephen Dedalus as the...

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