Brueghel – Auden – Icarus – Williams


Pieter Brueghel (?), The Fall of Icarus (c.1565)

In class tomorrow we’ll be looking at W.H. Auden’s poem, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’. Here is the poem, for anyone who didn’t get the handout:

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.

The opening of the second stanza alludes to a painting by the sixteenth-century Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel, ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus‘. (In fact, the painting is now thought to be a  copy of an original by Brueghel, who was one of the ‘old Masters’ of the Renaissance that Auden refers to, in line 2.) The poem takes its name from the museum in Brussels in which Auden saw this painting. We will discuss the relationship between poem and painting in our seminar, but please come along with some thoughts of your own on both text and image. As you read ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, it may also help to keep in mind the historical context we discussed on Tuesday: this poem was written as the Spanish Civil War was coming to an end and World War Two was about to begin. Real suffering was very much a daily reality for many.

Another modernist poet, an American, William Carlos Williams, also wrote a poem on this painting, a few years after Auden. It is interesting to compare the two:

William Carlos Williams

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

You can read a brief summary of the myth of Icarus and how it relates to Williams’s poem, and a brief critical comparison of the two poems’ treatment of the myth, here. (I think it is quite possible to disagree with the second of these readings, in particular, but it provides a good starting point for thought and discussion.)

Please post your thoughts about the relationship between either one of the poems and the painting, or between the two poems, or simply on any one of these three works, in the comments below, either before or after Friday’s seminar.  You may even want to attempt your own poetic response to Brueghel’s work, or to Auden’s or Williams’s poem.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Brueghel – Auden – Icarus – Williams

  1. bmk20800440 says:

    Landscape with the Enlisting of Icarus

    The pains of April he could not bear
    As blind men, who, plowing the strand,
    Or tending too closely to their likeness,
    Needed a shepherd to keep the peaceful air.

    Heeding no captain, he sailed through the mist.
    Sunward he flew, up in the ocean above,
    But his fate lay below him – his beloveds, his kinsmen!
    Face turned away from the Sun, one day he too had to enlist.
    A fall? Nay, the rise of a hero!
    The earth shook with his coming,
    Time turned to the point of zero –
    The impact was that numbing.

    Olives fell on the dusty ground,
    Olives fell all around.
    Olives fell on stains of dread,
    Olives fell like dead.

    Wings in exchange for epaulettes
    Dream in exchange for prose
    Honey in exchange for the sting
    The lads are ready to fall
    Nay, he did not fall; as a hero he rose –
    A scar he left on the surface of the sea,
    As blind men, clapping their hands,
    Called for more sheep to depose.

    He sailed unknown lands,
    strange men he pried.
    The phosphorous sea melted his wings;
    the winged lad died.

  2. nimetpoyraz20900260 says:

    When we look at both Auden’s and Williams’ poems, we can see that both of them reflect how life is different for everybody in the same moment. While some people are suffering in their worlds, at that moment others are enjoying their lives without realizing other people’s pains. If we were forced to make a choice among these two poems, I would prefer Auden’s poem. I think his poem is more influential and powerful than that of Williams, because Auden gives the theme in a more complex way and this complexity makes his poem more striking. Williams tells the story in a simple way without using punctuation marks and I think, this simplicity makes his statement insignificant. For example, while describing the death of Icarus, Auden states, “the sun shone / As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green / Water” Instead of saying “drowning”, Auden affirms “the white legs disappearing into the green” and his complex statements reflect Icarus’ suffering better than Williams’ poem, because in his description, Williams affirms, “a splash quite unnoticed / this was / Icarus drowning”. Unlike Auden, Williams tells the story in a simple way and like a normal event. I think he cannot reflect Icarus’ suffering as effectively as Auden. Therefore, I prefer Auden’s poem to that of Williams.

  3. unalemre29 says:

    I would more like to dwell on Auden’s poem. Icarus fell down because as Hamlet would say he was “too much in the sun”. He wished far beyond imagination (though modernists would hate that word) and he was trying to taste the forbidden object. This fact can be embellished (or interpreted) in the sense of the standpoint of the modernists. In the modern life, there is no room for imagination or miracles as one might hope. Therefore, my interpretation would be that in modern life, people are so busy and immersed in their routines that they do not imagine or do not care about the ones who imagine. Such ignorance is the core idea of the poem. Ikarus falls down with a splash, which is quite possible impossible not to hear. However people just do not care. Everyone minds their own business. The romantic period has withered, people are celebrating or embracing the real life, Ikarus symbolizes the fall of romanticism which was long overdue.

  4. b20902819 says:

    Here is my favourite Icarus inspired poem:,%20Alden%20–I,%20Icarus.pdf

    And here is the least serious reference to the myth, where Cartman tries and ofc fails to fly with cardboard wings……..and Butters warns them not to fly too close to the Sun:


  5. 20801343l says:

    When we compare Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” and Pieter Brueghel‘s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”, we see that the poem is the interpretation of the painting. The painting inspired the poem that gives further explanation on Icarus’s death. Both in the painting and in the poem the reflection of life and death is detected. The union of “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus”and “Musee des Beaux Arts” shows that death is an inevitable fact of life. Throughout the poem, Auden depicts Icarus’s death with insensitive and flat words. For example Icarus’s fall is described as “not an important failure” (18). In order to demonstrate the importance of life and death both Auden and Brueghel encircle the death with life. In Brueghel’s “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” the dying Icarus is consumed by life. A ploughman, a fisherman and a shepherd disregard the dying Icarus. This same situation can be seen in Auden’s poem because he begins his poem with the image of suffering saying: “About suffering they were never wrong” (1). Brueghel manages to give the message that the nature of life and death cannot be separable with the help of his colour choice and the combination of vivid and tragic images in his painting. On the other hand, Auden gives the same message by emphasizing Brueghel’s clear thinking.

  6. Consider Icarus, pasting those sticky wings on,
    testing this strange little tug at his shoulder blade,
    and think of that first flawless moment over the lawn
    of the labyrinth. Think of the difference it made!
    There below are the trees, as awkward as camels;
    and here are the shocked starlings pumping past
    and think of innocent Icarus who is doing quite well:
    larger than a sail, over the fog and the blast
    of the plushy ocean, he goes. Admire his wings!
    Feel the fire at his neck and see how casually
    he glances up and is caught, wondrously tunneling
    into that hot eye. Who cares that he fell back to the sea?
    See him acclaiming the sun and come plunging down
    while his sensible daddy goes straight into town.

    – Anne Sexton

  7. ceren20601875 says:

    In their works, Bruegel and Auden allude to the famous story of Icarus and his fall to reflect on suffering, which was the dominant subject of the time with the end of the Spanish Civil War and the beginning of World War II. As Auden says, suffering has a “human position”. We generally say it is only human, meaning it is ordinary and expected, when we make a mistake and try to make up for it. Like we do after we make mistakes, we try to, and in a way have to, leave it behind and move on with our daily lives after something or someone makes us suffer. Maybe it’s because suffering affects all and is an inevitable part of life, we’ve learned to accept it and continue to do our jobs not only when we suffer ourselves but also when we witness someone else’s suffering. Icarus’ fall “was not an important failure” for the ploughman perhaps because he had failed even more miserably before; “the sun shone/ As it had to” even when it was mainly the sun itself that caused Icarus’ suffering and “the delicate ship…/ Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on” ignoring Icarus to perform its own duty. Auden refers to an ancient story and a 16th century work of art possibly to show us that we cannot put all the blame on modernity for making us alienated and indifferent to other people’s feelings and suffering.

  8. ie20902343 says:

    I think, in a sense both poems reflect how ‘nature is evil’. When Icarus falls down in the latter poem, life around him does not seem to have any reaction to this fall. Life goes on, even Icarus cannot escape from this fact. The farmer is ploughing the field, and minding his own work. Similarly in Auden’s poem, we see how ‘dogs go on with their doggy life’. Nature does not seem to be caring for individual acts. In parallel with the second poem, the farmer might have heard the ‘splash’ , the only proof of Icarus’ fall. In the second poem, this ‘splash’ is ‘unnoticed’. This makes life look more iisolated in the poem. However, the use of probability, ‘may’ shows how Nature does not care for individuals. Interestingly, both poems are like a painting, describing the moment of the fall, with other little details around it. Interestingly every act seems to be independent and isolated from each other.

  9. 20801870ss says:

    I want to talk about Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” and the painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” of Pieter Brueghel. As it is known, Auden is inspired by the painting and creates his poem. In the poem, the Icarus’ fall is handled in a way that Auden satirizes that people do not care much for the death or fall of him because the modern world does not include such emotions or feelings in itself. Also, in the painting no one is interested in the drowning boy whose legs are splashing. Auden says “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”. The death of Icarus is seen as if it is a normal thing because birth and death is usual things that every day they happen. I think what lead this kind of ignorance is war and its consequences. Moreover, the indifference or ignorance is mentioned in these two works. People are no more gives importance to the others’ sufferings or sorrows. They become self- interested and selfish without thinking any person’s life or sorrow. According to both artists, people become modern with the modern world and its necessities. They lose their interest on humanity.

  10. artun352 says:

    Treatment of the fall of Icarus in the modernized version of the mythical story into the poem reflects Auden’s perception of universality and timelessness of the human suffering. Through establishing the painting The Fall of Icarus created by a16th century Renaissance painter as the basis of his poem, I think Auden emphasizes the fact that the ignorant and indifferent attitude of people towards other people’s suffering is not shaped by the age, society or geography but by the selfishness of human nature. He draws a parallel between the modern times that Auden was living in and the world we only learn through myths and stories in an attempt to show the reader that suffering and death are natural part of life, it is not a fact of war-torn or fractured societies like Europe at the time of the creation of poem but universal and timeless “About suffering they were never wrong,/The old Masters: how well they understood/Its human position[…]”. Even such a notable tragedy as a boy falling from the sky with half melted wings is turned into a “forsaken cry,” and “not an important failure” for the rest of the world because as “the expensive delicate ship” , the world also needs to move calmly on. I personally think the poem bears similarities with The Waste Land in terms of reflecting the perceived damaged psychology of the modern times and society. Auden as Eliot sheds light upon the lack of communication and interaction between individuals, criticizing the mentality of “every man for himself”. The tragedy, suffering is personalized. We can observe in the painting that every person looks into another direction and seems to take no notice of each other mirroring the modern times in which people are isolated from each other and the world around them. Communication and sincerity is lost so nobody cares about “the white legs disappearing into the green/ Water[…]”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s