It's All About Who You Know
Even though Auden keeps his language pretty simple and straightforward, he does build up a fairly elaborate network of references and allusions – to places, people, and things happening behind the scenes. Put all of these references together, and you'll start to get a sneaking suspicion that the real story is happening elsewhere, outside of the poem's framework…which is exactly what this poem is trying to get you to see!
- Title: Auden's title, "Musée des Beaux Arts," probably has you scrambling for a computer to figure out just what he's talking about. (Don't worry. We've got you covered. Check out what we have to say in "Setting" for more details.) Here's a quick and easy tip, though: anytime an author references something or someone that you might have to look up, chances are he's building a set of references to objects outside the realm of the poem's world. It's like having your cake and eating it, too – he gets us to think about the museum without actually saying anything about it.
- Line 2: Back to the computer! Auden alludes to the "Old Masters" without saying exactly who they are. Way to drum up (ambiguous) authority, Auden! We bet you can probably figure out who he's talking about, though…there are a few Ninja Turtles names after some great ol' painters. Folks in the art world tend to refer to pre-1800 all-stars as the Old Masters. At least, that's what we hear.
- Line 13: Now we've got something to put directly into our search engine! Auden references Pieter Brueghel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," the painting which will occupy his speaker's mind for the rest of the poem. In a weird way, this allusion is actually comforting: it gives us a specific image on which to concentrate our speaker's rambling and ever-expanding set of references.