Landscape with the Fall of Icarus: A Tale of Two Artists

icarusLandscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel is a painting that portrays the Greek mythological character Icarus during his last moments after flying too close to the sun and having his wax wings melt, consequently causing him to plummet to the sea and drown. In the painting, the viewpoint is from a far, but above so that the viewers eyes are drawn to linger on the farmers or note the weather and landscape long before they notice the pair of flailing legs in the bottom corner. This technique is to highlight humanity’s disinterest in the misfortune of others.

Williams Carlos Williams was the perfect poet to pay homage to this painting.  His poem, also titled “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” dwells in the world of understatement that Williams is so good at depicting. In the beginning of Williams’ poem he tells his readers what he is addressing, “According to Brueghel/ when Icarus fell/ it was spring,” but even in that statement the emphasis is not on Icarus, it’s on the fact that it was spring

Then, WCW goes on to talk about the forefront of the scenery for three stanzas before he returns to Icarus:


a farmer was ploughing

his field

the whole pageantry


of the year was

awake tingling



the edge of the sea


with itself

The reader is sort of pulled through this beautiful sounding scenery that almost makes one forget that they’re reading about a tragedy, which is the same effect that Brueghel’s painting has on his viewers. Still, when WCW does return back to the tragedy at hand he does so in a roundabout way, mentioning wings, wax, and insignificance before the last line where it is finally noted upon that Icarus was drowning to death with “a splash quite unnoticed.”

Both artists have skillfully managed to depict a very horrific moment in Greek mythology as a casual occurrence through understatement. In Brueghel’s case it’s because he’s drawn his viewers’ eyes away from the fall. In Williams’ poem it’s because he spends more time describing the setting than discussing the fall. Both of these works of art are powerfully enlightening about the way the artists saw humanity.

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