Pictures and Poetry: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel the Elder circa 1558

In Greek mythology, Icarus tries to escape from Crete by wearing wings made of feather and wax. Forgetting his father's warning to not fly too close to the sun, the wax melts and Icarus plunges into the sea. Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569) has relegated the death of Icarus to the background of this busy scene, perfectly illustrating the popular proverb "No plow stops for the dying man".

Here is a detail of poor Icarus plunging, unnoticed, into the sea.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus detail

The English poet W.H. Auden visited the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts while staying in Belgium, and wrote the poem Musée des Beaux Arts after viewing Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and other Bruegel paintings in the collection. His focus is on the story in the painting rather than the visual elements of color and composition, an approach I believe would have pleased Bruegel:

Musée des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

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 Breughel'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.

Twenty four years later the American poet William Carlos Williams wrote about this same painting, his attention drawn to the intoxicating spring, "awake tingling with itself". Here the warmth of the sun gives life by means of a new growing season, yet causes the death of Icarus:

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

William Carlos Williams

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see The Art Room is back - thanks for posting this Taryn.


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