"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Icarus, Who Really Fell

Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, 1588
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1525(?) - 1569

In this book, Gabriel Deblander creates a narrative
to accompany story told by the painting:
Currently out of print, but used copies available.

For today's post, I thought I would continue with the theme of Greek mythology -- last time it was patient Penelope, wife of adventurous Odysseus; this time the impatient Icarus, son of the inventor and designer of the Labyrinth, Daedalus, in which they are subsequently imprisoned. In the ancient myth, Daedalus devises an ingenious plan for himself and his son: they will build wings and fly to freedom. [How do they obtain supplies and materials in prison? You'll just have to suspend your disbelief on that one]. When the wings are ready, Daedalus forewarns Icarus of the need to fly well below the sun. The escape, as the story goes, is successful, but Icarus, exulting in his newly found power of flight, pays no heed to his father's advice. Despite the repeated cries of Daedalus, Icarus flies too near the sun, his wings melt, and he falls to his death in the sea.

Many artists have illustrated the glory and fate of heroic, foolhardy Icarus, but none so memorably as Bruegel the Elder. Particularly in his insignificant placement of the title character, his finely detailed "Landscape" is like no other. A close look at the lower right - hand corner reveals the ill - fated, despairing Icarus, his flailing legs slipping away forever beneath the surface of the sea.

Two modern poets, Williams Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden, have approached the painting very differently in their ekphrastic poems (click for examples, including Bruegel / Auden / Williams). In contrast to the intricate beauty of Bruegel's painting, Williams provides five sparse sentences:

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

by William Carlos Williams

Williams' poems is incredibly straight forward. After showing my students the connections between this poem and the painting, I always thought it was fun to diagram and punctuate the sentences. Auden's poem is dense, requiring perhaps some art history and additional work by Bruegel to truly comprehend.

Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap

Musee 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.

W. H. Auden

It's fairly easy to find essays comparing these well - known poems by Auden and Williams. However, I like to read them along with a couple of other, less well - known Icarus poems by two writers who look at the mythological story from an amazingly unique perspectives: "Where You Go When She Sleeps" by T. R. Hummer; and "Waiting for Icarus" by Muriel Rukeyser.

In "Waiting for Icarus," Muriel Rukeyser embellishes the already existing myth, writing from the perspective of a character of her own invention, the girlfriend of Icarus. Alluding to Daedalus and Icarus, and their attempt to escape the Labyrinth by flying to freedom, Rukeyser alters the circumstances somewhat, and her adjustments serve the poem well. In the original myth, there is no mention of a girlfriend for Icarus; and if there were, her last contact with him would have been before his imprisonment in the Labyrinth, making it impossible for her to know of his attempted escape. But this narrator knows all about the wings and the wax. As she waits, she tells of her past with Icarus and hints at the conflict that must have existed between him and his father. She reminisces of the better days, reluctant to admit that Icarus may really be gone or dead, and not coming back.

She loses track of time, and even as she waits, the doubts planted by others sift through her thoughts. She reveals uncertainty, despair and, near the end, another sentiment as well -- the frustration of waiting impotently at home, maintaining the status quo, like Penelope; while Icarus, like brave Ulysses seeks out action, adventure, experience.

Waiting for Icarus
He said he would be back and we'd drink wine together
He said that everything would be better than before
He said we were on the edge of a new relation
He said he would never again cringe before his father
He said that he was going to invent full-time
He said he loved me that going into me
He said was going into the world and the sky
He said all the buckles were very firm
He said the wax was the best wax
He said Wait for me here on the beach
He said Just don't cry

I remember the gulls and the waves
I remember the islands going dark on the sea
I remember the girls laughing
I remember they said he only wanted to get away from me
I remember mother saying : Inventors are like poets,
a trashy lot
I remember she told me those who try out inventions are worse
I remember she added : Women who love such are the
Worst of all
I have been waiting all day, or perhaps longer.
I would have liked to try those wings myself.
It would have been better than this.

Muriel Rukeyser
from The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser.

In the nearly mystical "Where You Go When She Sleeps," T. R. Hummer starts by comparing a woman's hair to the color of golden grain. Mesmerized by her hair, he next compares himself to the farmer's son who fell to his death when gazing over the edge of a silo mesmerized by the swirls of oats. Then he imagines the thin - armed boy as Icarus with his fabled wings. Both boys forget their fathers' words of caution, both feel the sun hot on their backs as they grow dizzy and fall, one into the ocean, one into the sea of grain.

An agricultural safety brochure depicts the danger

I can't help but notice the similarity between the silo victim and
Matisse's paper cutout of Icarus:

Where You Go When She Sleeps
What is it when a woman sleeps, her head bright
In your lap, in your hands, her breath easy now as though it had never been
Anything else, and you know she is dreaming, her eyelids
Jerk, but she is not troubled, it is a dream
That does not include you, but you are not troubled either,
It is too good to hold her while she sleeps, her hair falling
Richly on your hands, shining like metal, a color
That when you think of it you cannot name, as though it has just
Come into existence, dragging you into the world in the wake
Of its creation, out of whatever vacuum you were in before,
And you are like the boy you heard of once who fell
Into a silo full of oats, the silo emptying from below, oats
At the top swirling in a gold whirlpool, a bright eddy of grain, the boy
You imagine, leaning over the edge to see it, the noon sun breaking
Into the center of the circle he watches, hot on his back, burning
And he forgets his father’s warning, stands on the edge, looks down,
The grain spinning, dizzy, and when he falls his arms go out, too thin
For wings, and he hears his father’s cry somewhere, but is gone
Already, down in a gold sea, spun deep in the heart of the silo,
And when they find him, he lies still, not seeing the world
Through his body but through the deep rush of grain
Where he has gone and can never come back, though they drag him
Out, his father’s tears bright on both their faces, the farmhands
Standing by blank and amazed - you touch that unnamable
Color in her hair and you are gone into what is not fear or joy
But a whirling of sunlight and water and air full of shining dust
That takes you, a dream that is not of you but will let you
Into itself if you love enough, and will not, will never let you go.

~ T. R. Hummer
from The Angelic Orders

Another version of The Fall of Icarus
by Henri Matisse

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Sunday, October 28th

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1 comment:

  1. You are utterly amazing. I loved the Rukeyser poem--I hadn't read it. And the Matisse links--wonderful. Thank you as always for the inspiration and the education.