On Bruegel’s “Icarus,” W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, And “Painting” Poetry

Pieter Bruegel's Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus (1560s)

Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus (1560s)

As I’ve written elsewhere, Bruegel the Elder was, at his best, a great painter. No, he was not a technical master, like Caravaggio, nor diverse as some later artists, but he still had one disadvantage that later painters did not: he started at the bottom. And I don’t mean this in the typical socioeconomic sense, just that, excepting Hieronymous Bosch, who died a few years before the artist’s birth, and served as a kind of model, there was remarkably little depth in the art world, as a whole. Yes, the Renaissance Masters have some argument for greatness, in their very best work, but conceptually, the Renaissance was exactly what the term means: a “re-birth,” but of older ideas, decidedly un-modern except in a few details (Christianity, for instance, replaced Roman religion), and were, therefore, stuck in the past, even as one part attuned itself to the future. So, Bruegel had to depend upon himself – at least ideationally – in the same way that later artists would grow to depend upon Bruegel, showing, as he did, new ways to interpret ancient myths, and a subtler, less didactic means of treating religion.

One of Bruegel’s most famous paintings, Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus, illustrates the above quite well. No, it is not, on a purely technical level, on par with later, better paintings by others — just consider its flat, almost medieval-like quality — but on the plus side, while it could have been handicapped by its almost clichéd mythological subject, it subverts not only its own topic, but the very genre of landscape painting as a whole. Note, for instance, the simple pastoral scene, a shepherd casually looking up (a forgettable gesture, that), a fisherman, a ship, the indifferent backdrop, by the mountains… Yet the painting purports to be of Icarus, a subject that, in virtually every interpretation of the myth, from writing to visual art, would put HIS misfortune to the front. In fact, it takes a long time to even notice the boy’s legs (the only part of him that’s visible), which, once seen, really change’s the nature of the painting. The indifference of the farmer with his horse, or the fisherman’s complete lack of notice reveals how utterly small this event must be to everyone else involved — for even the shepherd, the lone person to even glance up, will, most likely, second-guess himself in the end, turn his face back to his sheep, and move along. The subject, then, is not REALLY Icarus (although the viewer expects him to be), but patterns of human interaction, and the loneliness such events usually engender. One can’t say too much for the technical depths, within, yet the medieval style works MUCH better for the subject, anyway, and the ideational depths — really, Bosch’s and Bruegel’s primary strength — would come to define artistic modernism at a time when few seemed to really care for such.

And this is how art works, folks. You take older ideas, and – assuming you’ve got the talent and the wherewithal – you rehabilitate them into something better, or at least new. You do NOT merely regurge the same content (a problem with lots of Greek and Roman classics), but offer some kind of spin, thus refracting the original work — assuming that it’s still recognizable. If that’s not done, this is no longer art but a kind of paraphrase of what’s already there; a parasitism, to be blunt. And no where is this mistreatment of art more apparent than the endless number of “painting poems” wherein poets look at a painting, and merely describe what they see. Yet these sorts of poems can be done well – as in, they offer something new through and in addition to the paintings, by virtue of being art-works in and of themselves – or poorly, the latter of which use the painting as an excuse for the poem to exist, as opposed to finding the poem’s justifications, within.

First, let’s look at an example of an art-poem done in mediocre fashion. It was written by William Carlos Williams, and lazily titled thus:

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
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Sure, William Carlos Williams has worse poems, but he has better ones, as well. It’s still classically Carlos — the bad enjambment (arbitrarily ending lines before an image has had time to foment, or weak verbs that by their nature give the reader something incomplete), the prosaic lines, the meh rhythms, and a lack of some totalizing end-point.

Note, for instance, how cheap the first stanza is: a mere recap of the painting’s inner season, via shallow language, followed by yet more set-up for even more recapitulation. It is only with the word ‘pageantry’ that Carlos attempts something deeper, and unwisely keeps this word a couple of lines before the word ‘awake’. The problem, here, is that ‘awake’ and ‘spring’ are cliches if mutually used, but after the bad enjambment of that first “was,” the word “awake,” used as a good, original modifier of “pageantry,” has already been distracted by the enjambment, with the word “pageantry” now forgotten, and the previous associations with spring are forced to come back at the other words’ expense.

In short, not good, as what could have been an inverted cliche veers awfully close to cliche simply due to the poet’s laze. The next few lines are better: “tingling/ with itself,” “sweating in the sun” (this time, the fact that ‘pageantry’ is forgotten works, since the reader must make new words and associations — the proper way to gain a reader’s input and imbuement), while the last 3 lines are merely a prosaic recap of the painting, with more dull enjambment.

Thus, despite the poem’s technical flaws, the bigger problem is that it’s not much more than a summary. Sure, a summary could work, provided it’s done well enough, but William Carlos Williams is so prosaic from beginning to end that it doesn’t matter, with the poem’s final two words visible pretty from the beginning, what with the all-alighting title, the slow zeroing-in on Icarus (first via the “sun,” then the “wax,” then a “splash”), giving it all a predictability that wrecks the whole of any real value.

The following poem is W.H. Auden’s famous take on the painting, a poem that not only approaches its subject differently, but recognizes that its own needs are quite different from the painting’s:

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.

Pieter Bruegel's The Census At Bethlehem (1566)

Pieter Bruegel’s The Census At Bethlehem (1566)

Reading the above, it’s surprising, then, that William Carlos Williams decided to write his own poem, given that Auden’s work preceded his, and Carlos, by contrast, had very little to add — even as Auden’s coverage of Icarus is technically just 1 stanza, with the beginning covering 1, or possibly 2 or 3, other paintings, depending on whom you believe. In short, stanza 1 is often associated with Bruegel’s The Census At Bethlehem (1566), and perhaps 1567’s Massacre Of The Innocents, the first of which is described for the scene’s misleading banality (similar in that way to Icarus), as well as for its unexpected connection to the other paintings. W.H. Auden’s title, then, is already better in Williams’s, because while Williams simply repeats a painting’s title, before its dull, prosaic recap, Auden situates himself in a museum wherein he names only 1 work directly, thus lending a mystery to the rest and forcing the reader to build less predictable connections, and trying to probe not only the poem, itself, but these other works, as well.

Yet even if one were to NOT see the paintings in question, it’d not really matter, anyway — the hallmark of a good “painting” poem. That’s because Auden, from the very beginning, creates his own meanings without using the painting as a crutch. Right off the bat, a good reader will be able to see this poem’s superiority. Just on a purely musical level, for instance, this beats Williams’s lines by a long shot: the first line builds an anticipation for the line’s grammatical subject, given only in line 2, the pause (marked by a colon) in line 2 setsg up an interesting philosophical posit that forces you to stop and think, instead of merely putting your brain on autopilot as with Williams; and, finally, the painting’s mention, all the way in line 4, stuffed into the longest line of the poem, as if trying to contain Bethlehem’s content, done with variable line-lengths, rhythms, sounds, and musical stresses that put Williams to utter shame. Of course, I’ve not even mentioned the sheer number of excellent phrasings (thus trumping Williams numerically): “human position”; “how it takes place/ while someone else is…”; “reverently, passionately waiting”; “must run its course/ in a corner, some untidy spot…” — and, of course, the more prosaic lines which, unlike in Williams, are used as a breather when contrasted against Auden’s more musicked and poetic constructions, instead of merely being prosaic for its own sake.

As for Auden’s treatment of Icarus, itself? Stanza 2 immediately captures the painting’s import and thrust in the first line (compared with Williams’s signal mid-poem, after a number of useless descriptions), then interprets it, with casual lines like “But for him it was not an important failure” thus taking on a more sarcastic ganch by its simplicity. ‘Less with more,’ in the classic sense of the phrase, and nothing lost! Again, this is prosaic wording done right, and while it’s not too different in thrust from Williams, the ‘how’ of Auden’s construction is simply from another place.

I’d recommend both painters and poets to study these works, and to especially take note of their differences. Too often, similar-looking poems are carelessly lumped together with NO regard to what’s actually being said, within. And, in a way, perhaps the telling’s unimportant. Anyone (as Williams shows) can speak. Is my solution ‘showing’, then? Hell no. It’s to pick either, or, or both, and merely do it well. And THAT is the real difference, for else is merely a rude clawing for your attention.



10 Comments On Bruegel’s “Icarus,” W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, And “Painting” Poetry

  1. michael bravo

    you are an asshole
    a snob
    you rob
    the brilliance
    of simplicity
    so you can stand about
    with your dick hanging out
    too proud too too proud
    to call one super
    another in

    1. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

      Michael. You suck even at doggerel. Watch and learn:

      “Simple, simple — keep it simple!”
      farts an ass of cellu-dimples;
      leaks its jealousy, invective,
      strains to argue sans corrective,
      grunts and groans into the void,
      sits and pops a hemorrhoid
      when all the asshole really needs
      is some fiber for its screeds
      bulking up the present mass
      into drops of clever sass.
      Yet he cannot like I can
      dump a line that’s worth a damn:
      thinking that he has me beat,
      aims for toilet, browns the seat.

  2. Mark Shulgasser

    You must be kidding. Breugel the elder not a technical master? ” . . . excepting Hieronymous Bosch, who died a few years before the artist’s birth, and served as a kind of model, there was remarkably little depth in the art world, as a whole. ” ?? You have the taste of a 12 year old. But that’s OK.

    1. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

      Actually, I called him a great artist, which is a far deeper compliment than mere technical mastery. I can browse Reddit for a day and find a dozen technical masters just on there, but how long would it take to find a truly great painter?

      But, I guess, Mark, this is what happens when you’re a moron who can’t easily differentiate between conceptual categories. Ta ta!

    2. Burak

      Alex please can you help about the differences between the painting in the musee des beaux arts poem and landscape with the fall of lcarus

  3. KWHammond

    Alex I really enjoyed the essay. That enjoyment was somewhat diminished, however, by seeing your responses to the comments. You might do yourself and your readers a favor to resist the temptation to respond to internet comment trolls.

    1. Avatar photoAlex Sheremet

      Thanks, but I enjoy it- and you should also remember that, trolling or not, idiot comments nonetheless put ‘real’ ideas into the ether. It is wise to tackle them, if you have some time. Just look at all the honest and well-meaning questions about easily-dismissed talking points from readers. Many people do learn something even from the more aggressive, dumb, and LCD interactions.

  4. Alexandra Wade

    I believe both poems have merit and attempt to convey similar ideas in two very different, though successful, styles.
    A few thoughts: WCW’s line breaks are not random– he ends the lines predominantly with nouns and verbs to keep the poem moving. You may not respond to William’s work, but his use of simple, everyday speech(idiom) is entirely intentional; to confuse William’s seemingly sparse lines with a lack of depth is misguided. And just my two cents, though I admire Auden enormously, “reverently, passionately waiting” sounds verbose, and pulls me out of the poem somewhat.

  5. Braxton

    While I enjoyed reading this well thought out review, and respect your opinion, I have to totally disagree. While both of these poems are certainly fantastic in their own way, I feel that William’s poem is quite superior for a variety of reasons, such as its stark normality that somehow makes that simple idiom seem magical and vibrant in its simplicity; it’s like looking at a rock on a shore that’s technically crude, but the shape is unusual, and it’s almost like a piece of found art, or something to be drawn. And then there’s the variable foot he uses in his spacing, that causes a weird magnetic acceleration to the next line. And the little things like the Year “tingling” and the description of this event w/ the profound simplicity of a “splash”. Genius to me.


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