Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ekphrasis: The Fall of Icarus as springboard

Here is the painting 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus', attributed to Pieter Brueghel, which inspired both W. H. Auden to write his 'Musée des Beaux Arts' and William Carlos Williams to pen 'Landscape and the Fall of Icarus'. It is enjoyable to contemplate how the imaginations of two poets took flight in different directions (pardon the pun) in response to this art work. Both are free verse poems, but that is where the similarity ends; the mood and tone of each is quite distinct with Williams's short lines and stanzas creating a vital sense of immediacy as Icarus drops, while Auden's longer lines scaffold a broader meditation on the arbitrariness of human suffering and how the Old Masters captured this so skilfully. The fact that both writers refer to Brueghel in the body of their poems serves as a reminder that ekphrasis is concerned with the act of representation itself.

Landscape with the Fall of IcarusRoyal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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


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 

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.

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