The Use of Allusions by W. H. Auden in Musee des Beaux Arts
Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts exemplifies the human nature of indifference towards various events that the writer has evidenced in the publication. The most significant and notable aspect of this poem is the application of allusions to develop both the direct and indirect connotations within the poem. Allusions in poems are described as concise and indirect phrases acquired from another individual’s work or a citation of historical accounts or renowned icons in a bid to draw parallelism between the current situation and the referenced information or individual (Wilfred 689). Auden applies both Christian and Greek allusions in Musee des Beaux Arts for both plot progression and the formation of irony in the poem.
The initial use of allusion in the poem is the phrase “The Old Masters” (Auden 943) a term used to refer broadly to European painters and artists prior to the nineteenth century. Auden reminisces on the fact that the early painters “about suffering they were never wrong” (Auden 943) giving the inference that their art acted as a succinct reflection of the misery facing humanity. To amplify this position, Auden cites Breughel famously known for his Icarus painting in the last stanza to ensure that the reader grasps a concise message within the poem. A majority of Breughel’s art work concerned peasantry images that accorded him the epithet ‘Peasant Breughel’. The painting allusion therefore is used to accord a contrast between the current nature of humans and that which the painters had in that the latter chose to address the problem of suffering in timeless canvases persisting over the generations as opposed to the present indifference attributed to egocentricity.
The second allusion is the “miraculous birth” (Auden 943) used to draw a parallelism in the poem with the Christian account of Christ’s birth. The writer notes that the birth had been eagerly waited upon as imagery to humanity’s consistent yearning for a miracle that would offer permanent redemption from the bondage of torment. Additionally, Auden offers hints that only a miracle could offer an inducement from the egotistical lifestyle to an altruistic one. The revised style would borrow from the painters a concern for the alleviation of suffering rather than support the ill as “it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” (Auden 943). Other Biblical allusions used are the “dreadful martyrdom” (Wilfred 10) that submit to the persecutions that Christians faced upon the demise of Christ. Interestingly, Breughel has two paintings referred to as the Numbering at Bethlehem and the Massacre of Innocents to reflect the martyrdom.
Auden’s imagery of martyrdom is used to evidence the fact that major cases of human affliction have been overcome by events that have marked loss. For instance, the abolition period was marked with various uprisings where a significant number of individuals died for the collective success from the servitude (suffering) noted within the slavery era. The last allusion concerns the failure of Icarus due to his ignorance to contempt of sound advice. The allusion of Icarus is used to amplify the ignorance that slowly kills the human community in its endeavors and the indifference that is accorded to such practices. Although the merchants and the sower witness the fall of Icarus, none accords attention his way. In a similar manner, many individuals have identified suffering yet they have ultimately walked away unconcerned to the situations. The application of allusions aids the writer in dealing with grave issues within the society in a manner that does not create abhorrence to the readers (Auden 943). Additionally, the device is used to amplify the irony that exists between the current situation and what ought to be of the same.
Auden W.H. “Musee des Beaux Arts.” Perrine‘s Literature: Structure, Sound and Sense. 10th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2009. 943. Print.