Musée des Beaux Arts

by W. H. Auden

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Why does Icarus appear as a tiny pair of legs in a corner of the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus? Does he receive greater prominence in the poem "Musée des Beaux Arts"?

Icarus appears as a tiny pair of legs in the corner of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus to emphasize that the world can be indifferent to the struggles and aspirations of a young person. Icarus receives greater prominence in Auden's poem because it devotes the whole second stanza to discussing him.

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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, attributed to Pieter Breughel, shows Icarus's tiny legs dangling in the corner of the painting to emphasize that his tragedy was only a small part of a broader world of activities that continued to occur without people noticing him. The title of the painting points to that larger reality: the painting is not called, as we might expect if it featured the young man more prominently, "The Fall of Icarus." In fact, it is very easy to miss Icarus's presence on the canvas. A man plowing is in the forefront, and the ship near where Icarus falls , as well as the green water, are bigger and more prominent in the scene.

In addition to the thematic point of the painting, painters in this period were interested in experimenting with perspective, thinking about what to foreground and what to background. Backgrounds are often detailed, with tiny figures lurking, inviting viewers to a closer and more thoughtful examination of the art. Rilke, for example, in his "Notes on the Melody of Things," mediates on the uses of backgrounds in Renaissance art in a short series of aphorisms that is worth looking at in this context.

Icarus receives greater prominence in Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" because the speaker draws attention to the figure of the drowning young man. Auden devotes his second stanza to commenting on the plight of Icarus, his fate made more poignant by the indifference with which his failed attempt to reach the sun is received. Auden makes explicit what Breughel leaves to the viewer to interpret, writing:

Everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure.

We are at the center of our own dramas, but oftentimes, the rest of the world does not even notice our struggles.

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