Williams and Auden on Brueghel's Painting "Icarus"

Updated on June 9, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Carlos Williams


Williams' "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"

William Carlos Williams' poem, "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," offers a simple brief sketch describing the subject of Pieter Brueghel's painting with the same title, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

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

Reading of Williams' "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" - first poem

Commentary on "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"

Williams' poem consists of seven three-line free-verse word groupings; the three lines cannot qualify as either stanzas orversagraphs. Williams' used this form quite often; it is most notable in his "The Red Wheelbarrow."

The Silly Icarus

One might paraphrase the poem this way: In Brueghel's painting the season is spring when Icarus fell into sea. There is a farmer working in his field. Everything was coming alive because it was spring. The sea shore is teeming with activity. The hot sunshine begins to melt the wax wings that the silly Icarus had fashioned to give himself the ability to fly.

After the silly Icarus falls into sea after flying too high and having his wax wings melt, nary a soul takes notice of the event. He must have landed with a splash and that surely meant he would drown, but still no one bothered to concern themselves with his difficulty.

Not Drowning, Not Caring

The poem shines it laser on the historically and universally established fact that more often than not if it ain't happening to me, I don't care. Even if the event turns out to be significant in the eyes of future generations, if it has no immediate impact, it likely goes unnoticed.

This human tendency to fail to focus on other people's tragedies and suffering prompts much literary activity, so it is hardly a surprise that two poets would address this issue, but they do take slightly different approaches in their respective portrayals of this drama.

W. H. Auden


Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts"

Likewise, W. H. Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" takes as its focus the insignificance of events that do not directly affect those in the vicinity. However, unlike Williams' speaker, Auden's speaker has more to report so he elaborates his thoughts in two full versagraphs.

Likewise, W. H. Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" takes as its focus the insignificance of events that do not directly affect those in the vicinity. However, unlike Williams' speaker, Auden's speaker has more to report so he elaborates his thoughts in two full versagraphs.

Musée des Beaux Arts

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.

Auden reading "Musée des Beaux Arts"

Commentary on "Musée des Beaux Arts”

The speaker is asserting that the “Old Masters” comprehended the fact that suffering affects deeply only the sufferer.

First Versagraph: What the Old Masters Understood

The first versagraph offers many details about how "the Old Masters" understood the nature of human suffering; they were aware that suffering occurred randomly and to others. It happened while the majority of society is engaged with daily, ordinary affairs.

Auden had visited the art museum in Brussels that houses Pieter Brueghel's painting, and his observations found a place in this poem. As the first versagraph continues, the speaker points out other situations that human beings consider major events such as older people who eagerly anticipate the birth of a child while children nonchalantly go about "skating / On a pond at the edge of the wood," not caring particularly about the event. And also the Old Masters never forgot about "martyrdom" and torturers whose horses scratched their "innocent" rumps on a tree, while "dogs go on with their doggy life."

While the ordinary individual has the luxury of dismissing these events, the Old Masters actually focused on them in their art; therefore, they never forgot, and through their art, they secure the fact that others will be reminded.

Second Versagraph: For Example, There's Icarus Drowning

In the second versagraph of "Musée des Beaux Arts," the speaker points out Brueghel's Icarus as the example of his claims made in the first versagraph: "In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster." The farmer plowing his field might have heard the splash, but it was not important enough for him to stop plowing. For the plowman "it was not an important failure." And the people in "the expensive delicate ship" must have seen and heard the boy falling out of the sky and splashing into the water, but they apparently did nothing about it, because they "had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on." But the Old Masters remind the poets, and the poets remind others, who have the presence of mind to pay attention.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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