The speaker makes three allusions over the course of the poem, each of which corresponds with a painting hanging in the Musées des Beaux Arts. After stating that the Old Masters have a keen understanding of humans’ attitude towards the pain of others, the speaker begins to describe details of these paintings, citing them as evidence. The speaker points to various bystanders of well-known episodes of suffering—namely the birth of Christ and the fall of Icarus. Rather than play up these paintings' historical and cultural importance or the violent nature of the suffering that takes place, the speaker adopts a cool tone, surveying the paintings and identifying individual vignettes of everyday life.
The allusions reference paintings attributed (at the time) to Pieter Breughel the Elder, one of the foremost figures of the Northern Renaissance—an artistic movement that took place in the Netherlands during the 16th century. The movement took inspiration from the Italian Renaissance, particularly its interest in antiquity and natural landscapes, as well as its use of perspective and realism, all of which figure into the paintings described.
However, due to the Protestant Reformation, artists of Northern Renaissance were disillusioned with the highly idealized imagery associated with the Catholic Church. Images of the Northern Renaissance are therefore more representative of daily life and resist classical Greek and Roman motifs, in favor of existing gothic styles (which are more bleakly realistic than beautifully idealized). Furthermore, with the explosion of printmaking, images were newly available to the lower classes, and the paintings themselves followed suit—representative of and accessible to the masses.
Thus, it's easy to see how this movement—which champions realistic depictions of everyday life and resists the idealization of antiquity—is consistent with the speaker’s message. Breughel the Elder himself is most known for his banal treatment of mythology, which downplays the heroes of popular narratives, instead focusing on the everyday life unfolding around them. He also pioneered sprawling landscapes that feature masses of people, clustered into smaller vignettes that are set side-by-side. Scanning Breughel’s paintings, the speaker identifies these vignettes, placing them next to one another on the page as a means of comparison. In this way, the speaker draws heavily from Breughel’s work and the themes of the Northern Renaissance more broadly.
More specifically, lines 4-8 describe The Census at Bethlehem, which depicts a scene from the Bible’s New Testament. As the nativity story goes, a virgin named Mary is pregnant with the son of God, conceived through his Holy Spirit. She and her husband, Joseph, travel to his hometown of Bethlehem, as they are required to do because a census has been ordered. The town is therefore very crowded, so the family stays in a humble manger, where Jesus Christ is born. In the center of the painting, Mary rides a donkey and wears a blue veil, with Joseph leading, but the speaker does not focus on this image. Instead, attention is drawn to individual figures, who, if one looks closely, can be spotted opening windows, huddling in a tavern-like structure, skating on a pond, and so on.
The remainder of the stanza alludes to The Massacre of the Innocents, continuing the story—Herod, King of Judea, hears that a savior has been born and feels that his power is under threat. Thus, he orders his soldiers to slaughter all boys under two in Bethlehem’s vicinity. Again, the speaker downplays the significance of this moment, calling attention to the oblivious animals pictured.
Finally, the poem’s second stanza directly refers to Breughel's painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, in turn alluding to the Greek myth of Icarus. The myth tells of a boy named Icarus, trapped in a tower with his father, Daedalus, who fashions two pairs of wings made of feathers, wax, and string so that they can escape. Icarus disregards his father’s warnings and flies too close to the sun, which melts his wings, and Icarus drowns. The speaker refers to this incident as “the disaster” and mentions “the splash, the forsaken cry” that must have resulted from his fall. While the speaker does introduce mild images of Icarus’s suffering—see “white legs disappearing” and “a boy falling out of the sky”—emphasis remains on the townspeople who witness his death and simply go on with their day.
On its most basic level, allusion in the poem functions as a tool for pinpointing specific, concrete images that illustrate the speaker’s point. As such, it also treats art as the stimulus for the speaker’s analysis, which explores the relationship between art and reality. For those familiar with the Musées or the paintings, these allusions build out the poem's museum setting, especially as the three paintings mentioned really did hang together in the same gallery.
In this way, allusion builds a sense of kinship between the speaker and the reader because both are clued-in to these oblique cultural references. Even for those not familiar with the paintings, the first two allusions allow the speaker to discuss the Old Masters more generally. As the speaker moves from the general to the specific, it becomes clear that human indifference to suffering is a universal truth—consistent across time and place.