Myths explain our circumstances in the world and the universe. A prime example of this is the myth of Icarus and Daedalus. Pieter Brueghel painted a picture decrypting the moment of Icarus fall from the heavens. And the two poets William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden each wrote a poem based on Brueghel's painting, both of which developed a deep meaningful message to the reader. Diction, connotation, and denotation are all used to help describe the emotions and tragedies that Brueghel's painting portrays. These poems are written based on the myth of Icarus.
Pieter Brueghel's painting tricks the observer. The viewer is first drawn left, where a red-shirted farmer and his horse, plowing a hill, descend into shadows. The eyes then wander center, toward the yellow sun melting above a darkening harbor, beyond a shepherd tending his flock by the beach. Everything is turned away from the boy, Icarus, whose flailing legs appear, upon closer examination, among waves and falling feathers, in the darkness on the lower right. Icarus, the young boy who ignored his father's warnings, soared too near the hot sun, melted his waxen wings, and perished. But the world of the painting coldly progresses, a cynical commentary on a cold world that turns its back on this quiet display of human suffering. The loss of an arrogant little boy who caused his own demise means little to poor laborers preoccupied with their own respective struggles for survival.
William Carlos Williams' poem titled "Landscape with the fall of Icarus" is in the tercets style of writing which consist of three-line groups and each line has no more than four words. Williams' poem reads like a short story as it is quick to point out the images a person would get in their head looking at Brueghel's painting. It captures the moments that are forever painted in time on the canvas from the mundane life of a farmer going about his business to the small right corner of the painting where you can see the legs of Icarus as they fall in the sea symbolizing Icarus drowning. Williams describes everything from the painting so literally from the season to the splash of Icarus falling. Williams's reason for his organization of the poems mirrors the way a person would view Brueghel's painting. For instance, Williams's last line of his poem is "Icarus Drowning" and that is most likely the last image your eyes focus on when looking at Brueghel's picture.
W. H. Auden's poem however is quite different. "Musee des Beaux Arts" is written in free verse, meaning that the poem is essentially "free" of meter, regular rhythm, or a rhyme scheme. Like the specific structural considerations of the sonnet form, the seeming lack of structure which free verse offers is purposely employed and works to illuminate the poem's meaning. In Auden's poem, the long irregular lines, subtly enforced by the irregular end rhyme pattern, create a casual, conversational air more prosaic than poetic, and a somewhat nonchalant tone which is reflective of the compassionate world illustrated in Brueghel's art. For example, in Auden's poem there is a subtle rhyme scheme that is throughout the poem. The poem's first line rhymes with the fourth but the fifth rhymes with
The story of Icarus and Daedalus, a Greek myth:
Icarus’ father, Daedalus, gives him wings. The feathers of the wings were made out of wax. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun. Disobeying his father, Icarus flew towards the sun, melted his wings, and fell into the sea below and drowned.
I’ve been studying the life and works of the Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder for a few months now. He is often remembered as the greatest painter to emerge from the 16th century. Bruegel’s genre and landscape scenes are what inspired him the most and earned him the name “Peasant Bruegel”. His works displayed honest depictions of the peasant life and the rural country sides. Towards the end of his career, Bruegel became increasingly interested with the human figure and its relationship with the natural world. In all his paintings, human activity is the dominant theme. In the 1560’s, Bruegel painted “Landscape With The Fall of Icarus”.
Analysis of the painting:
- Narrative- tells a story
- Demonstrates Bruegel’s awareness of folklore stories, as well as the classical stories.
- Perspective- seen from above, Daedalus’ viewpoint
- Icarus is not the focus of the painting. His legs are dangling in the air as he drowns in the lower right hand corner. None of the onlookers stop and try to save him. Although it would seem that the painting’s subject is Icarus, this is not the case. Bruegel was more interested on depicting the average worker, the lower class in the correct light. There is a larger focus on the shepherd tending to his animals than there is on Icarus’ drowning scene. One can even interpret the placement of Icarus as a last-minute addition to the composition of the painting.
- Sense of scale- Small figures in the distance vs. larger figures in the foreground.
- Beautiful use of light and color- the sun in the background illuminates the painting and gives a sense of new life and warmness.
Last week, I was talking to my art history teacher about the artist and his influence on today’s modern art and literature. The American poet William Carlos Williams wrote “The Landscape With The Fall of Icarus” upon seeing the painting by Bruegel. This is the poem with a brief analysis:
“According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
Alliteration- “wings wax”, “sweating in the sun”
Image- Williams creates a vivid image of the surrounding landscape. This takes away from the seemingly tragic death of Icarus, and overrides it with something as average as landscape.
Irony- Williams describes the landscape and surrounding community as “awake tingling” which is ironic the poem is supposed to be about death. Throughout the entire poem, Williams is “painting a picture” for the reader and illuminates the natural world. Strangely enough, the last line is “this was Icarus drowning”. The reader would think the last line would continue to be about the landscape. In my opinion these words about Icarus are the most powerful.
Narrative poem- The poem tells a story. Williams tells us of Icarus’ fall and includes many contextual details. “sweating in the sun that melted the wings’ wax” From the beginning of the poem, the reader is involved with Icarus’ flight through the sky. As the reader gets further and further into the story, he or she is falling from the sky and getting closer to the death of Icarus.
Rhyme/Rhyme scheme- Free verse, no specific rhyme scheme
Symbol- “a splash quite unnoticed”- translated into- a death goes unnoticed
Title- The death of Icarus goes almost unnoticed and doesn’t get as much attention as the surrounding landscape and activity. Williams writes that the world which Icarus falls to is “concerned with itself”. The figures on land feel indifferent about this tragedy.
Tone- The tone- joyous, merry- seems to be ironic considering the turn of events towards the end of the poem. The poem is in reality about death. However, the tone is not depressing or gloomy.
Theme- Every single human being lives for them self. Sometimes, the pain and tragedy one person is facing goes unnoticed to the rest of the world.
Stanza- Williams steers away from the traditional poem meter and format. Instead he creates short, 3 line stanzas, each including enjambments. The poem seems to be a long run-on sentence and doesn’t use punctuation or capital letters.
I read this poem several times and it definitely made me think. Having a visual as I read made it easy for me to make connections between the two. I really enjoyed being able to connect the poem with something I love and study often- art. Art is timeless. It is constantly evolving, and will always have a strong influence.
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