Relationship between "Musee des Beaux Arts", a poem by WH Auden, and "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus", a painting by Pieter Brueghel

Essay by kamndavUniversity, Bachelor'sA+, June 2004

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The first time I read the poem "Musee des Beaux Arts", by W.H. Auden, I was under the impression that the poem was a simple interpretation of a painting. In order to fully grasp the significance of the poem, I suggest that one become familiar with the history behind not only the myth of Icarus, but also Pieter Brueghel the Elder's painting, "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus". A thorough background allowed me to make a more skilled analysis of the painting-poem relationship and how it affected me.

In the beginning, I found it beneficial to analyze each piece individually. Brueghel seems to depict typical peasant scenery in sixteenth century Belgium. The farmer in the forefront who is plowing his field on the rocky hillside appears to be the obvious subject. Meanwhile, a shepherd and a fisherman farther away also tend to their daily chores. It takes careful observation to even notice Icarus; eventually, I noticed a tiny pair of white legs thrashing around in the turquoise water.

If not for the straightforward title, many would likely overlook the most important aspect of the painting! The obscurity of the main character, who is obviously struggling just to stay alive, makes a forceful impact on an unsuspecting viewer.

Using the painting as a guide, I was able to re-read the poem with more careful consideration of Auden's intended meaning. The more times I compared the painting to the poem, the more I extended my interpretations. Using free verse and a conversational tone, the author applies a psychological approach to Brueghel's painting.

Opening with generalizations and moving to specifics, the poem focuses on Icarus' fate in "Landscape" to verbally illustrate that individual human suffering is often viewed with apathy by others. Combining images of suffering and tragedy with the...