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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fall of Icarus

The Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.-A.D. 17 or 18) published his great poem Metamorphoses around A.D. 8. It was a 15-volume collection of Greek and Roman myths narrating the history of the world, from its beginnings up to the deification of Julius Caesar and the reign of Augustus.

One of the myths Ovid tells is the story of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, a great Athenian artisan. They were imprisoned on Crete. To escape to Sicily, Daedalus made two pairs of wings from feathers and wax. He cautioned his son not to fly too close over the sea, the feathers would get drenched, and not to fly too close to the sun, the wax would melt. But Icarus climbed too high and the wax melted and he fell to the sea and drowned.

Pieter Bruegel (or Brueghel) the Elder’s painting
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is this Dutch painter's version of the well-known tale. He includes details from the description of the scene in Metamorphoses:

Some angler catching his fish with a quivering rod,
Or a shepherd leaning on his crook,
Or a ploughman resting on the handles of his plough . . .

(Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel
the Elder, 1529?-1569)

W. H. Auden wrote a poem about this picture after a visit to the Museum of Beaux Arts in Brussels in 1938. He begins by alluding to two other paintings by Bruegel:

(The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

(Christ Carrying the Cross by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

In these three paintings, Bruegel shows how life goes on for the crowds — even in the midst of great drama. In Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the ploughman and the others are oblivious to the flailing limbs of the drowning man (at the bottom right corner of the painting). In The Census of Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph arrive to record their names, just before “the miraculous birth” of Jesus. At the center of Christ Carrying the Cross, there is great suffering as “the dreadful martyrdom must run its course.”

Witnesses can be blind to the human suffering around them. But the artist pays attention.


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.

~ W. H. Auden (1907-1973), English-born American poet and essayist

William Carlos Williams also wrote about this painting of Icarus, one of ten poems he composed about the works of Bruegel the Elder. (See the post of September 10, Grain Harvest.)


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

~ William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), American poet and practicing physician

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