One can only ever learn from myth by living it, which means that the myth of Icarus presents a double mystery: the first is that Icarus, unlike Lucifer, does not survive his fall, and second is that poetic treatments of the subject are already hopelessly distanced from it—so much the worse for any poetic ekphrastic treatment of the myth. Yet we should not forget that myth and metaphor—poetic craft—are of a piece. The ‘flying’ that birds do, once thought to be not extendable to people and planes, proved otherwise by a certain poetic license taken, with much trial and error, by the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk.
Although his wings are wax, Icarus also flies in some important sense. We might, then, be able to glean something about the Icarus myth through an examination of some of its poetic treatments. This essay will focus on three versions of Icarus, by W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, and Angelos Sikelianos.
In case we need a little refresher on the myth itself, the basic story is that Daedalus, the genius Athenian inventor who constructed the Labyrinth for the Minotaur, is imprisoned by King Minos of Crete. His crime: assisting Ariadne, and in turn Theseus, to defeat the Minotaur through clever use of a spool. Captive in a tower near Knossos, Daedalus fashions two pairs of wings out of wax and feathers, one for him and one for his son, Icarus. Just before their ill-fated voyage, he warns Icarus neither to fly too close to the sea, nor too close to the sun. We know the rest, although it is the aftermath and its depictions which concern us.
We can begin with the painting historically attributed to Pieter Brueghel, and to which Auden’s and Williams’ poems are a response, as it provides an innovative perspective on the myth:
Fig. 1. Pieter Brueghel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Oil-tempera, 29’’x44’’. Museum of Fine Arts, Brussels.
The first thing to notice about this painting is the conspicuous absence of the mythical. Without the title, one would be hard-pressed to identify this as a depiction of the Icarus myth at all. Try, as an experiment, to imagine the subject matter without the title—is it simply a drowning? It’s noticeable how preoccupied all of the figures are—the plowman, the fisherman, even the wildlife, each goes about his business seemingly without noticing the ‘tragic’ event that has occurred. In this way we can describe the painting as having an overall effect of de-elevating the myth, diminishing its status.
Of course, the attempt is futile. No matter how apparently trivializing, we cannot help but reassert the presence of the myth upon each viewing. Our eyes glance over the canvas, we follow the movement of the plowman from right to left across the furrows of his field, then we move down the hillside, spend a little time with the shepherd and his sheep (note how they face the same general direction, as if to shun the presence of the real event). But when we catch the legs flailing in the water we remember the line from Ovid, ‘And he saw the wings on the waves…’ and are reminded by the sky and sun of Daedalus looking down upon the scene.
To turn to the poetic responses. First Auden:
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 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.
In my view what is brilliant in Auden’s version is his careful wedding of mundane and necessary, of suffering as a fact of life, accepted even to the point of tedium. For instance, ‘…the dogs go on with their doggy life…’ surely influenced Michael Hamburger’s later emphasis in his own poem, when he writes ‘The ploughman ploughs, the fisherman dreams of fish…Sheep crop the grass…and gaze/into a sheepish present…’. Both poets are sensitive in these lines both to the opacity of subjective experience, but also the way in which ordinary life, habit, can harden a person, at one extreme lending the qualities of the ‘ordinary’ occupation to the experiencer.
But the necessary is represented as well, in the ‘martyrdom’ and ‘forsaken cry’, and in the modalities of ‘had to’ and ‘must’ in the final stanza; the way the sun had to continue shining and the ship had to sail on mean no more, and no less, than to follow the respective dictates of natural and conventional law. The Old Masters who understood the inevitability of suffering understood it thoroughly, as the title of the poem suggests, for this is just one of the many paintings in Musée des Beaux Arts; in Brueghel’s ‘Wedding Dance’ we see peasants enraptured in dance, equally oblivious to the sort of calm contemplation which begins to suggest gradations, differences of scale with respect to the significance of events, good or bad.
Brueghel enacts with his paintings the Flemish proverb he would have been familiar with, ‘And the farmer continued to plow…’ referring to indifference toward human suffering as a default mode. Auden’s ekphrastic poem picks up on this theme, though for Auden’s plowman it is indifference that is born of wisdom, or at least life experience, as opposed to dullish ignorance. William Carlos Williams’ ekphrastic poem imports less of the poet’s own ideas than Auden’s, and apparently adheres more closely to Brueghel’s thematic of obliviousness:
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
William Carlos Williams
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
Far from Alan Devenish’s ad hominem rib in his poem ‘Icarus Again’ where ‘Williams treats a distant casualty in his clinical/little sketch…’ the passive repetitions of ‘of the year was’, ‘there was’, ‘this was’ sound rather bovine and to lack the usual imagistic precision of Williams. What we find instead, I think, is less an objective description of the painting, and more of a description of Williams’ view of Brueghel’s intention behind the painting, beginning with the first line, ‘According to Brueghel…’.
In contrast to Auden’s poem, the lack of punctuation and enjambment throughout helps to create an overall effect of downward movement from the origin of painterly intention to its final execution; it just so happens that this downward movement coincides perfectly with the subject matter of the poem, the fall of Icarus. Williams also effects this partly by allowing descriptions to build up which modify ‘the whole pageantry’ in line 6, all the way until the ‘there was’ of the penultimate stanza, so that the final stanza drops like a plumb line into the sea beneath the previous stanzas’ weight.
Much as in Brueghel’s painting by the relatively high placement of the horizon line, Williams’ poem manages to drag our eyes back upward, not by means of its formal features, but semantically, as we cannot help but notice that both the penultimate and ultimate stanzas make perfect sense if read in order and can be shorn from the rest of the poem. The same is true of the final three stanzas. Since these three stanzas are about the supposedly insignificant detail of the painting, the effect is a little like the old joke about asking someone to not picture a pink elephant in the room; of course when asked not to do it, they will, and similarly we can read this backward momentum of Williams’ poem as his subtle way of questioning whether Brueghel’s painting has succeeded in its intent.
Philosophically, the contrast between Williams’ and Auden’s version of the myth is reminiscent of the contrast between a theodicy (which, if it attaches an indifference to suffering, does so for some hidden reason, and runs the risk of undermining itself to the extent that that reason forces a separation between the enlightened/elite/priestly class and the sufferer) and the secularized crisis of meaning represented by philosophers like Camus, Richard Taylor, and Thomas Nagel. In the latter case, it is this ineffable ability we have to look over our lives as a whole, indeed life as such, to zoom so far outward that there is no longer substantial perspective—one enriched by lived experience—from which to view one’s life (let alone pretend to make an ‘objective’ assessment of it) that is definitional of the tragic. Yet in neither case is it something we can continually preoccupy ourselves with; day to day, we are pretty much like the ploughman. Rarely, and perhaps most prominently in ‘academic’ contexts and settings do such questions rear their heads; even then, it takes little strength to dismiss them. When real tragedy strikes—an actual instance—we are often flummoxed and fall back on platitudes and habits.
What both poets so far, and by extension Brueghel, seem to leave out of their representations of the Icarus myth, is an attitude towards tragedy that allows for the possibility of dignity in death, a justification for Icarus’ fall. To depict Icarus’ fall as merely a passing event, or as an inevitability yet continuous with other inevitabilities in the natural world, seems to be a way of dodging this possibility, or perhaps seeking to supplant it with something even more tantalizing: the idea of a complete latitude of value, that all suffering everywhere is the same, that the blade of grass that dies in the poet’s hand is no different than Christ crucified, that the rapturous joy in Beethoven’s late quartets is the same as a child’s glee plucking an off-key ukulele, that if all death/life is equally meaningless, then so too is my own death/life; hence fear eroded.
Our third poet shows it isn’t that easy.
The fate of Icarus could have been no other
than to fly and to perish…Because when he put on
freedom’s awe-inspiring wings, their equipoise the art
of his great father, it was youth alone
that flung his body into danger, even if
he also failed, perhaps, to find their secret balance.
And men untried by suffering were shaken,
women were shaken, when over the huge sea
they saw an adolescent body upright
thresh the winds like a gull, and suddenly
plunge from sight.
And then it was as if
they saw the whole sea like an endless teardrop,
a deep lament which, telling and retelling
the young boy’s name, took from that name
soul and meaning and its own true sound.
But if a man who from his earliest years
has said that the heavens and the earth are one,
that his own thought is the world’s hearth and center,
and that the earth may mingle with the stars
as a field’s subsoil with its topsoil, so that the heavens too
may bring forth wheat;
if a man who has seen
that all human beings, their souls and their works,
lie in the grave’s shadow, and has resolved
to set them free as already he has set free
the arms and legs of statues, so that they might walk
with their own motion along the paths of light;
who, just as he has ribbed the celestial ship
with the strong trunks of trees, has loaded it
not with ivory or amber or with gold
but with all the Heroes, chosen one by one
for the deathless voyages of myth;
if a man
shut up in a prison built with his own hands—
as the caterpillar on its own will weave the tomb
in which it shuts itself, seeking through death
wholly to change its nature—if such a man
deep in the Labyrinth has dreamed that wings
have sprouted on his shoulders, and step by step
his waking mind has wrestled with the dream
until he has mastered it;
and though his body
is spent from all that strain, when he has seen
the dull crowd around him suddenly try to treat
his awe-inspiring Art, whose end was fixed in God,
as the mere bauble of an idle mind,
has girded those wings like armor, and slowly
has raised himself, has climbed among the winds,
reaping them peacefully as with his scythe
the reaper cuts in front of him great swaths of wheat
over the earth—has climbed above the crowd,
above the waves that swallowed up his child,
above even the frontiers of lament, to save
with his own soul the soul of the world:
men untried by suffering, then women,
feeble and embittered women, who speak only
when laying out the dead or at the death-feast,
may both cry out:
“Harsh father, though his sun
was near its setting, still he kept his fearful course,
hoping to save his own pathetic life.”
And others may exclaim:
“He leaves the world,
leaves the settled ways of men, and goes
in search of the impossible.”
So they may talk.
But you, great father, father of all of us
who from our earliest years have seen that everything
lies in the grave’s shadow and who, with words
or chisel, have struggled with all our spirit
to rise above this flesh-consuming rhythm:
since for us too the earth and the heavens are one
and our thought is the world’s hearth and center,
since we also say that earth may mingle with the stars
as a field’s subsoil with its topsoil, so that the heavens too
may bring forth wheat:
father, at those times
when life’s bitterness weighs with its full burden
on our hearts, and our strength can be roused no more by youth
but only by the Will that stands watchful
even over the grave, because to It the sea
which hugs the drowned remorselessly is itself shallow,
and shallow too the earth where the dead sleep;
in the dawn hours, as still we struggle on,
while the living and the dead both lie in the same
dreamless or dream-laden slumber, do not stop
ascending in front of us, but climb always
with slow even wings the heavens of our Thought,
eternal Daedalus, Dawnstar of the Beyond.
Notice first that while this is not an ekphrastic poem, Sikelianos’ version of the myth shares a commonality with Auden’s poem in that they each have a theodicy motif. The difference is that while for Auden the theodicy is merely alluded to as a product of the Old Masters’ work (but how they understood it is not really dealt with), much of the force of Sikelianos’ poem derives from the way he grounds the particular tragedy of Icarus both in the epic details of Daedalus’ character and exploits, as well as in the presentation of Daedalus as a Christ-figure who has climbed ‘to save/with his own soul the soul of the world’.
By the repetitions of address of ‘father’ the final four stanzas take on a hymn-like quality which contrasts the divine ‘father’ with the ‘man’ (Christ in human form) in the preceding ‘if a man…’ stanzas. The capaciousness of feeling Sikelianos lends to the initial lament over the fall of Icarus in stanza three, where the bystanders saw ‘the whole sea like an endless teardrop’, is put into perspective in the penultimate stanza, in terms of the attributes of the divine father, ‘the Will that stands watchful/even over the grave, because to It the sea/which hugs the drowned remorselessly is itself shallow’. The continual emphasis that humanity ‘lies in the grave’s shadow’ serves to reinforce an attitude of serene detachment quite unlike the habit-based indifference of Auden’s poem or the teasing inevitability in Williams’ version of the myth.
What should we say of the obvious tonal differences between the three poems? The quiet contemplation of Auden, versus the sinewy plumb line of Williams, versus the Sikelianos’ thoughtful grandeur? I noted before that Sikelianos’ poem alone allows for the possibility of a dignified death for Icarus. How is this? One thought is that despite the grandeur of language in the poem, Daedalus can be seen more as an Abrahamic, as opposed to tragic, figure. The Daedalus who cannot ‘stop ascending’ if he is to serve the ‘heavens of our thought’ also cannot be, to invoke Derrida’s sense of ‘Abrahamic’, subject to mourning. For being subject to mourning and other rituals that belong, properly speaking, to the sphere of the ethical, would imply that Daedalus has shirked his highest level of responsibility, that towards art as salvation.
So leveled, Daedalus would not be Daedalus, would not exist at what Derrida considers in Abrahamic figures to be an instantaneous, eternal moment which is an expression of the divine will. Because talk of ‘instants’ that exist outside time can be slightly opaque, I think we would do well to remember the quote from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling that Derrida ends his paper with:
But there was no one who could understand Abraham. And yet what did he achieve? He remained true to his love. But anyone who loves God needs no tears, no admiration; he forgets the suffering in the love. Indeed, so completely has he forgotten it that there would not be the slightest trace of his suffering left if God himself did not remember it, for he sees in secret and recognizes distress and counts the tears and forgets nothing (Derrida, 81).
Far from going ‘in search of the impossible’ or ‘hoping to save his own life’ which, for Sikelianos, are so much ‘talk’, Daedalus in his flight remains privy to a secret. It is his own injunction, his will, given at the behest of art and invention. If shared and given over to the universal that is ethical responsibility—if Daedalus were to act like a normal human being and mourn—that would betray a further responsibility, the higher aesthetic ideal which transcends death, the ‘flesh-consuming rhythm’, the ‘dreamless or dream-laden slumber’ in which ‘both living and dead lie’. As Derrida writes of Abraham:
The contradiction and the paradox must be endured in the instant itself….Abraham must assume absolute responsibility for sacrificing his son by sacrificing ethics, but in order for there to be a sacrifice, the ethical must retain all its value; the love for his son must remain intact, and the order of human duty must continue to insist on its rights (Derrida, 66-67).
Whereas for Abraham, the absolute responsibility in question must remain a secret kept to a God that is wholly other—even if Abraham tries to explain and humanize his reasons he would be bound to fail—for Daedalus, the absolute responsibility accords to an impersonal ‘Will’ that retains its human importance, ‘when life’s bitterness weighs with its full burden/on our hearts, and our strength can be roused no more by youth’. In this sense, the Abrahamic gift of death Sikelianos’ Daedalus bestows is none other than the ability, and indispensability, of will to overcome the tides of youth, so that Icarus in the myth should not be conceived as symbolic of pure inexperience, and his an avoidable death, but as representing that point in one’s life where one can no longer strive and attain successes by relying on the occasional buoys of youthful exuberance.
In this way, Sikelianos’ ‘Daedalus’ acts as a psalm of maturity. When this point is reached, and it is inevitable, one must recognize why Daedalus continues to fly.
Auden, W.H. “Musée des Beaux Arts” appeared as “Palais des Beaux Arts” in New Writing, Spring 1939.
Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, trans. David Wills (University of Chicago Press: 2008), p.54-81.
Devenish, Alan. “Icarus Again”. Stealing Rimbaud. tumblr.com. Accessed 1.10.21, https://stealingrimbaud.tumblr.com/post/61289214465/alan-devenishs-icarus- again-have-become-one-of
Hamburger, Michael. “Lines on Brueghel’s ‘Icarus’”. Time’s Flow Stemmed. WordPress.com, 6.22.2014. https://timesflowstemmed.com/2014/06/22/lines-on-brueghels-icarus/
Sikelianos, Angelos. “Daedalus” in Selected Poems, trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Denise Harvey: 1996, Limni, Evia, Greece), p.89-95.
Williams, William Carlos. “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in Collected Poems, Volume II (New Directions Publishing: 1962).