Landscape With The Fall of Icarus

I came across this poem and it struck a chord.  I did not know that it is a well-known piece.  Still, it struck me and I was amused.  Perhaps not the proper reaction, if there be such a thing – I laughed.  Then felt bad about it.  A bit.

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

– William Carlos Williams



by David W. Cole  Modern American Poetry

William Carlos Williams ends his poem with these lines:

a splash quite unnoticed this was Icarus drowning

He had begun it with an appeal to his authority, Brueghel, before going on to describe The Fall of Icarus in detail: the farmer doing his plowing, the awakening of spring, the self absorption of life at the edge of the sea, and the small detail of Icarus’s fast disappearing legs. A crucial aspect of Brueghel’s painting is its perspective.  The landscape and the action are seen from above– from the viewpoint, in other words, of Daedalus. The force of the picture is thus, I think, to move the viewer not only to recognize the unconcern for catastrophe inherent in the preoccupation of ongoing life, but also to register a horrified protest that it should be so. Perspective allows the painter to make this protest.  How is the poet to do it?


Williams does not dwell on the images of the poem… The matter-of-fact language, the absence of any punctuation (which I take to indicate an absence of expressive inflection), and of course the explicit assertion of the event’s insignificance, all work to understate, if not undercut, the pathos of Icarus’s headlong plunge to death. And yet the last words of the poem are “Icarus drowning.” The words resonate, and the splash is not quite unnoticed. The reader is forced to take notice, forced paradoxically not only to see but to feel the painful irony of death in the midst of life. Williams’s remarkable, forceful understatement brilliantly captures the protest expressed through the perspective of Brueghel’s painting.

from The Explicator 58.3 (Spring 2000)

Note about the painting:
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, now seen as a good early copy of Bruegel’s original

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