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Analysis of Poem 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' by William Carlos Williams

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1560?) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1560?) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels

William Carlos Williams and a Summary of 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' is a short, free verse poem by William Carlos Williams. It is an example of ecphrasis, a Greek word meaning a literary description of a work of art, in this case Bruegel's painting of the same title.

The painting, based on the Greek myth of Daedalus and his son Icarus (see below), shows a ploughman, shepherd, fisherman and sailors all at their everyday work, oblivious to the drowning of Icarus who has fallen from the sky having got too near the sun on his wax and feather wings.

In seven slim stanzas, with those short, clipped lines, Williams gives us his idea of the painting and story and the message contained within. His poem is in stark contrast to other poets influenced by this classic scene.

W.H. Auden, for example, gave us 'Musee des Beaux Arts', Michael Hamburger has 'Lines on Brueghel's Icarus', whilst Jack Gilbert took a more personal view with 'Failing and Flying'.

They're all worth reading and studying because they throw light on Williams's poem, which is succinct, matter-of-fact and challenging in its form and syntax. Williams, the doctor-poet of Rutherford, New Jersey, preferred to compose poetry in his own local way.

He wrote to fellow poet Richard Eberhart 5/14/53:

'I am as you know, a stickler for the normal contour of phrase which is characteristic of the language as we speak it. It gives to a poem a distinction which it can get in no other way.'

From the first stanza to the last, there is a detachment in the conversational tone—it's as if the speaker, having viewed the painting, is now relaying information to a third party.

In some respects, this poem lacking in detailed description is a poor representation of a rich and unusual scene. There's no mention of the shepherd, the fisherman or the sailors on their sleek passing ship. The seascape with coastal town and cliffs is ignored.

But Williams produces a bare-boned plain sketch of a poem that is a basic, no-nonsense interpretation of Bruegel's painting. The short lines it could be said increase the reader's focus. Line breaks become punctuation, the reader having to negotiate pauses and pace. This makes for an intriguing experience.

Icarus suffered because he ignored Daedalus's (his father's) pre-flight advice. The son fell and drowned because his wax wings melted when he flew too high. This event passed by unnoticed by the farmer, by everyone. In contrast, the reader has to slow down to fully appreciate the subtleties of each stanza.

Williams first published this poem in The Hudson Review, Spring 1960, in Pictures of Breughel, one of ten short poems based on the artist's classic paintings.

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' by William Carlos Williams

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

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of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'

A seven-stanza poem, each with three lines, that sits on the page short and slim. From first glance, there is no punctuation or regular rhyme or formal shape, so we can say it is free verse.

Line breaks are all important—they act as punctuation—and might challenge the reader when it comes to pauses, measure and overall flow.

First Stanza

From the title the reader can work out that there is a basic image in front of them, depicting land and some kind of fall. They would need previous knowledge of both Brueghel and Icarus to fully grasp what the stanza is saying.

The first and second lines, in mentioning both Brueghel (the Flemish painter) and Icarus (the son of Daedalus, from Greek mythology) introduce the reader into a specific domain of art history, that of story inspiring an image.

Brueghel's classic painting is the source of the speaker's sketchy voice. The lack of punctuation encourages flow, on into the next line with minimum fuss and hesitation.

Six syllables in the first line, followed by five, then three . . . a falling of sorts. An accidental rhyme too - Brueghel/fell—surely unintended, but binding nevertheless. The third line leaves the reader suspended in the season of spring.

Second Stanza

Another random rhyme—spring/ploughing—sees the all-important farmer busy with his plough (note the British English spelling). One of the fundamental actions, refreshing the soil, preparing it for seed. Contrast this, one of the oldest traditions of the farming life, with the fall of Icarus, a one-off, bizarre event, an exotic flight gone wrong.

And that word pageantry in the third line—meaning either mere show or elaborate display—leads directly on into the third stanza, with only a slight pause.

Third Stanza

There's a noticeable suspension for the reader in this stanza. Note the line ending was which some would argue necessitates further pause as awake follows and tingling holds on until near appears, the only line of a single word.

The movement and rhythm alters—the reader tends to quicken with of the year which is anapaestic (dadaDUM), so rising. In the second line the iamb awake is juxtaposed with the trochee tingling, producing what is known as a consonantal stop - the sounds k meeting t.

Perhaps, with that third line of the lonely near, the moment of truth arises for Icarus. The melting of the wax begins?

Fourth Stanza

So the bright pageantry goes on at the sea's edge, in its own bubble we might say (concerned/with itself)—the ploughman-farmer concentrating on the earth, the shepherd looking up into the sky, at what exactly is unclear, and the seated fisherman down below is casting with a rod as sailors go about their maritime jobs on the passing ship, sails full, ready for a voyage or about to enter the nearby harbour.

Other boats and ships are in the vicinity; one or two birds fly past, another plumper bird sits in a small tree. A hawk, a partridge?

Fifth Stanza

Again, enjambment rules—no punctuation between stanzas or lines means that the reader has to carefully judge the length of pause as they progress down the poem.

It must be the pageantry, the whole of the goings-on, that is sweating in the sun on what looks like a hot day. So hot in fact that the wax on the wings of Icarus melted as he got closer to the sun. This is a direct reference to the mythology—Daedulus, the father and inventor, had warned his son not to fly too low or too high, but to stay at a moderate height. Unfortunately, Icarus was headstrong and disobeyed the wise words, with catastrophic results.

Sixth Stanza

Arguably the most important word in the whole poem . . . unsignificantly . . . fills the line with six syllables. The wax may have melted and sent Icarus to his death but in the context of the painting this was a non-event. No-one saw him fall, or were too pre-occupied with daily business to notice the tragedy.

Is this a complete failure? Or had Icarus achieved something wonderful by soaring so high in the first place? He just went a bit too far, got carried away on a thermal.

Or perhaps his actions were meant to spite his father, who gave him explicit instructions and prior warning. Icarus was too brazen and proud. He bit off more than he could chew and was then spat out himself.

And that last line of the stanza . . . there was is so plain and hopeful of a noun.

Seventh Stanza

And the noun is splash—simple. Icarus fell into the sea, there was a splash, big deal. He drowned. So what? Nobody saw it, heard it, knew of it. Even the fisherman close by didn't seem to note the drowning at all. He simply holds his rod, waiting for a fish to bite. This is more important.

The final stanza wraps up the story of the painting, bringing closure from the first stanza when Icarus fell.

The Greek Myth of Daedalus and Icarus

Daedalus, the Athenian, well known as inventor and architect, was exiled on the island of Crete under King Minos. It was here that Daedalus was ordered to design a labyrinth for the king's beast-son, the Minotaur.

After many years, during which he had a son Icarus, he became restless and longed to escape from his depressive surroundings. But Minos controlled both land and sea.

Daedalus decided to make wings for himself and his son from feathers, thread and bee's wax. They fitted onto the shoulders and were like the wings of big birds.

Before the maiden flight Daedalus warned his son not to go too low for fear of moisture, or to go too high in case the sun scorched the wings. He was to follow his father and not deviate.

Daedalus launched himself into the air and looked back to see if Icarus was obeying his command. Perhaps as they flew, a fisherman or ploughman or shepherd might see them and think of them as gods.

But after a while Icarus, loving his newly found skill of flying, was drawn to the higher sky and flew ever nearer the sun. Disaster followed as the wax melted on the wings and the feathers came loose.

Icarus called out for his father as he plummeted into the sea and was drowned. Daedalus, distraught, saw the feathers on the surface where his son had perished. He retrieved the body and buried it on an island tomb. The island they called Icaria, the sea the Icarian.

From Metamorphoses Book VIII 183-235 by Ovid (8AD).

Sources

  • 'Ekphrastic reimaginings of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' | The DS Project
  • David Cole, University of Wisconsin, 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus', article, 2010
  • (PDF) 'On Reading Poems: Visual & Verbal Icons in William Carlos Williams' «Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus»' (researchgate.net) Irene R. Fairley, Sept 1981
  • Verse: An Introduction to Prosody. Charles O. Hartman. Google Books.
  • Internet Archive Search: creator:"Williams, William Carlos, 1883-1963"

© 2021 Andrew Spacey

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