Two glimpses of Icarus


This painting is Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. You will probably need to click on the picture to enlarge it in order to see Icarus clearly. If you were visiting the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels in a bit of a hurry and didn’t know the painting’s title, you might even walk by without even noticing that Icarus is in the painting at all. This, according to two very great poets who wrote about this painting, is the whole point.

The human mind has a few very unuseful questions it seems to be tugged back to by some kind of primeval mental gravity whenever it can’t think of anything better. One of them is Whose is it? – which has probably caused more trouble than any other question we are capable of framing. Not  far behind is Which do you prefer? We love splitting into teams, especially if we can reduce ourselves to just two of them which are bitterly opposed over something totally unsubstantial, as in the case of the Blues and Greens in Byzantium,  Catholics and Protestants or the Big Enders and Little Enders who Gulliver ran into.

So while I will try very briefly to  make a comparison between the approaches taken by W.H. Auden and William Carlos Williams to this painting, I want to stress out of hand that, although they get there by different routes, they are in my opinion both as good as one can get.

Let’s start with Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking 
dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how 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; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Listen to the poem


Auden’s poem has an introduction which runs like a drop of water down a pane of glass, making detours as it moves down steadily to the bottom. Or else you could visualize it as a walk down a corridor which is full of half-opened doors through which you catch glimpses of life – eating, windows opening, skating, dogness, the wonderful scratching horse. In someone else’s discussion of this poem Robert Frost is quoted as saying, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned in life: It goes on.” And in the second part of the poem, this all comes together forcefully: no one really notices Icarus falling and if we do, we are on that ship of life which goes calmly sailing on.

William Carlos Williams’s poem is entitled Landscape with Icarus

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Listen to the poem


At first sight, Williams’s poem might seem to be only half of Auden’s one. It is shorter and doesn’t stray down country lanes or peer into backyards. It stays completely within Brueghel’s canvas. But when you read it you realise that Williams manages to make the poem take on the actual shape of what it is saying. The “splash quite unnoticed” comes as a thrown-away surprise which almost slips past our attention too. We don’t even see Icarus. Stated so laconically his fall is just a peripheral sound. Williams makes no mention of the ship on which we can sail on. The poem ends abruptly after the splash with just enough words for the water to circle around Icarus’s point of impact.

For those who would like to explore further, someone has compiled a list of poems about this painting which you can consult.

1 Comment

  1. I absolutely Love your blog!

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