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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

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English Literature

Have you ever looked at a piece of artwork and felt moved enough to write about it? What about a whole book of poems about paintings by just one painter? William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), American poet and medical doctor, was so inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s (c. 1530-1569) paintings that he wrote a book of poetry concerning 10 pieces of Bruegel’s artwork. In 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' (1960), Williams compliments Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1560) brushstrokes by immortalizing the painting in verse.

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' Poem

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' is an ekphrastic poem by American poet William Carlos Williams. The poem is a description of the oil painting of the same name by Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1530-1568).

Williams originally published 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' in the journal The Hudson Review in 1960; he later included it in his poetry collection Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962). With Pictures from Brueghel, Williams was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature.

An ekphrastic poem is a poem that was written as a description of an existing artwork. In this case, Williams’s poem is ekphrastic as it serves as a complementary description to Bruegel’s painting of the same name.

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

near

the edge of the sea

concerned

with itself

sweating in the sun

that melted

the wings' wax

unsignificantly

off the coast

there was

a splash quite unnoticed

this was

Icarus drowning1

William Carlos Williams: Background

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) was an American poet and medical doctor. Williams was born and raised in Rutherford, New Jersey; he attended medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and returned to Rutherford after graduation where he began his own medical practice. Williams drew inspiration from his patients and neighbors in Rutherford and sought to represent American patterns of speech, dialogue, and cadence in his poetry.

Williams is a poet of both the Modernist and Imagist movements. Imagism is a poetic movement in which poets utilized clear, concise vocabulary in order to represent sharp images. Modernism is an artistic movement of the 20th century; Modernist poets sought new and innovative ways to write and convey poetry. In Williams’s case, that meant having poetry reflect the idiom of everyday American people. His poems often focused on the small joys and everyday moments of life.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1560): Painting

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, painting, StudySmarterLandscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Peter Bruegel the Elder, 1560, wikicommons

To understand the context of Williams's poem, it is important to understand Bruegel's painting. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a landscape oil painting that depicts a pastoral scene. The viewer sees, from closest to furthest, a plowman with a horse, a shepherd with his sheep, and a fisherman gazing into the water.

The foreground is a rural coast leading down into the blue sea atop which are some ships. In the distance, we see a coastal town. In the bottom right part of the sea, two legs stick out of the water where our protagonist, Icarus, has fallen into the water, completely unnoticed by the three other figures.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: background

Bruegel was a Master painter of the Dutch Renaissance artistic movement. He is an interesting choice of artistic muse for Williams, as the two, separated by centuries and medium as they are, share many similarities.

Bruegel is lauded for bringing “genre paintings” to prominence in the 16th century. This undertaking served to elevate genre paintings and landscape scenes representing pastoral life to new heights, as the prevailing hierarchy in the artistic world lauded historical paintings, those of prominent public or political figures. Rather than adhere to this artistic hierarchy, Bruegel’s paintings announced the importance of genre paintings in art and the inherent artistic merit of paintings that depicted the scenes of everyday life for the vast majority of people.

Does this sound familiar? Remember, Williams’s goal as a poet was to elevate the small moments of everyday life to worthy of poetic immortalization. Bruegel did the same thing with oil painting!

Genre paintings are paintings that represent moments from everyday life. They generally focused on common people without clearly-identifiable subjects such as kings, princes, or merchants.

Who is Icarus?

Icarus is the tragic protagonist of Greek myth, expanded upon in Roman poet Ovid’s (43 BCE - 8 CE) epic poem Metamorphoses (8 CE). In the myth, Icarus is the son of Greek craftsman Daedalus. In order to escape Crete, Daedalus fashions wings out of beeswax and feathers for him and his son; before taking flight, he warns Icarus not to fly too high toward the sun or too low toward the sea or else his wings will melt or clog up.

Despite his father’s warnings, Icarus enjoys the flight so much he soars ever higher until he gets too close and the sun’s heat melts his wax wings. He falls into the ocean and drowns.

Have you ever heard the phrase “flew too close to the sun”? That comes from the myth of Icarus! It is used to mean someone who has become overconfident; their ambition leads to their downfall.

 Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Sculpture of Icarus, StudySmarterSculpture of Icarus, pixabay.com

In Ovid’s retelling, the plowman, shepherd, and fisherman are all present and watch, stunned, as Icarus tumbles out of the sky to his death. In Bruegel’s version, however, the three peasants take no notice of the man drowning after falling out of the sky. Instead, Bruegel’s emphasis is on these peasants and their pastoral ways of life. The fall of Icarus is a cautionary tale of overambition, and Bruegel juxtaposes that with the simple lives of the peasants.

‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’: Themes

The main themes Williams explores in ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ are that of life and death. In pointing out that the fall of Icarus occurred during spring, as visualized in Bruegel’s painting, Williams first writes about life. He goes on to describe that landscape as “awake tingling” (8), and the world beyond the confines of the canvas as “pageantry” (6).

This contrasts with the plight of Icarus, and his unnoticed death. The main theme in ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ is thus the cycle of life—even as a tragedy such as Icarus’s death after his great flight occurs, the rest of the world continues living and working without taking note.

Williams's use of language is consistent with his position as a Modernist poet. Brief but effective, in 21 lines Williams distills the essence of Bruegel's painting. Williams eschews the grandiosity of Greek myth and instead chooses to spend the majority of the poem describing the natural surroundings and the farmer plowing. Icarus is mentioned in just the very first and very last stanzas.

Williams's choice of words to describe Icarus's plight include "unsignificantly" (16) and "unnoticed" (19). Rather than focus on the incredible feat that was Icarus in flight, Williams instead focuses on Icarus's fall and subsequent drowning. By contrast, the farmer ploughs his field as spring awakens and life thrives.

Like the majority of Williams poems, 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' takes pleasure in the small facets of the daily life of working people. While the farmer ploughs, content with his plot in life and completing honest work, Icarus plunges unnoticed to his death after soaring too close to the sun.

‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ Meaning

Why would Williams be so interested in this painting? What is so special about Bruegel’s interpretation of this classical myth? Bruegel's interpretation was important for its relegation of Icarus's fall to the background of a pastoral scene rather than placing it at the forefront.

Williams was likely intrigued by this interpretation that focused on the lives of everyday people, much of the same focus that Williams utilized in his poems. For this reason, Williams likely took an interest in Bruegel's painting and sought to textualize Bruegel's visual interpretation of the myth.

In ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,’ Williams takes a well-known epic of Greek myth and, inspired by Bruegel’s painting, places it within a real-world context. While Ovid’s original poem is an emotional tale of ambition and consequence, in Williams’s hands Icarus’s fall is a non-event.

The overall meaning of the poem is that, even after a tragedy such as the death of Icarus, life goes on. His main focus is that of the farmer and the landscape while Icarus’s fall is but a background event unnoticed by the rest of the inhabitants of the painting. Farmers plow, winter turns into spring, Icarus falls from the sky—and life goes on.

Literary devices in Williams’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’

Williams uses literary elements such as enjambment, juxtaposition, tone, and imagery in his interpretation of Bruegel’s painting.

Enjambment

Williams uses enjambment, a poetic device in which each line of a poem continues into the next without punctuation. In this way, Williams doesn’t tell the reader where to pause, and each line of his poem runs into the next. Williams is well-known for his Modernist-style poetry in which he sought to diverge from established poetic conventions. His use of enjambment within a free-verse poetic form is one example of how he rejected classical poetic forms in favor of new, innovative structures.

The second and third stanzas exemplify this effect: "a farmer ploughing/his field/the whole pageantry" (3-6) right into "of the year/was awake tingling/near" (7-9). In this case, 'the whole pageantry' can be read as ending the second stanza and describing the farmer ploughing his field as a scene of pageantry but it also leads directly into the next line, where the whole pageantry is expanded to include 'of the year.'

Juxtaposition

Williams’s poem utilizes juxtaposition throughout. He notes that in Bruegel’s painting, it is spring, the season that represents birth and life. He continues and states that the year was “awake tingling” (8), emphasizing the vitality of the landscape. By contrast, he ends with Icarus’s death, “unnoticed” (19) and insignificant as it may be.

This further serves the interpretation that life goes on regardless of tragedy. Additionally, while Icarus's gravity-defying flight is a worthy spectacle and feat of technology, it is merely a splash in the sea against the backdrop of the activity of daily life. It might be a feat worth remembering, but caught up in the movement of everyday activity, no one paused long enough to notice it.

‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ Tone

In ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,’ Williams adopts a very matter-of-fact, detached tone. He starts the poem with a reiteration of a fact, “According to Bruegel…” (1). The rest of the poem continues in the same vein; despite his use of imagery and other poetic devices, Williams utilizes a tone of detachment.

Just as Icarus’s death was insignificant in the context of the painting and the poem, Williams’s retelling is dry and realistic. His use of this detached, factual tone serves to underscore the nature of the poem's subject—Williams is indifferent to Icarus's fall, as is the rest of the world.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, detail of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, StudySmarterDetail of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Peter Bruegel the Elder, 1560, wikicommons

Imagery

While the poem is quite brief, Williams utilizes clear imagery to convey the meaning of the poem. In transcribing Bruegel’s painting, Williams emphasizes the farmer and the landscape. He notes that it is spring, and the land “awake tingling” (8). He uses alliteration to emphasize specific vivid images, “sweating in the sun” (13) which melted the “wings’ wax” (15). His stanzas-long inclusion of descriptions about the landscape, the farmer, the sea, and the sun serves to emphasize his brief, insignificant notice of Icarus’s drowning.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus - Key takeaways

  • 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' (1960) is a poem by American poet and medical doctor William Carlos Williams (1883-1963).
  • The poem is based on a painting by Dutch Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
    • The painting is a rendition of the myth of Icarus.
    • In the myth, craftsman Daedalus makes wings of wax and feathers so he and his son, Icarus can escape Crete. He warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun; Icarus does not heed his father's warning and the wax of his wings melt, sending Icarus plunging to his death in the sea below.
  • Bruegel's painting and William's poetic transcription emphasize the meaning that life goes on even in the face of tragedy.
  • In Williams's poem and Bruegel's painting, the everyday people take no notice of Icarus's drowning, instead they continue to go about their daily business.

1. William Carlos Williams, 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,' 1960.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

The main idea of ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,’ William Carlos Williams’s poem, is that, even in the face of immense tragedy, life goes on. While Icarus plunges to his death, spring continues on, farmers continue to tend to their fields, and the sea continues to rise and fall.

‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ is a free verse poem composed of seven stanzas with three lines each. Williams writes using enjambment, so that each line of the poem continues into the next without punctuation.

Williams originally published ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ in 1960 in The Hudson Review. He later included it as one of the 10 foundational poems of his collection, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962).

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1560) is an oil painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder. The existing painting that hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels is believed to be a replica painting by an artist working in Bruegel’s studio and not one done by Bruegel himself. Instead, it was a recreation of a painting done by Bruegel that has since been lost to time.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he writes about the Greek myth of Icarus. In the story, Icarus and his father, craftsman Daedalus, attempt to escape Crete by flying with wings made of wax and feathers. Daedalus constructed the wings, and warns Icarus to not fly too close to the sun or too close to the sea. Icarus, in his joy at flying, ignores his father’s warning and soars high into the sky, near the sun. As a result, his wings begin to melt, and Icarus falls into the sea and drowns. The poem is a warning about the perils of overambition and hubris.

Final Landscape with the Fall of Icarus Quiz

Question

What is the poem 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' (1960)?

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Answer

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' (1960) is a poem by American poet William Carlos Williams. The poem is inspired by a painting of the same name by Dutch Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The poem and painting concern the myth of Icarus, and have themes about the cycle of life and death.

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Question

Who painted Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1560)?

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Answer

Dutch Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel the Elder is attributed to Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1560). The actual painting itself that hangs in a museum is believed to have been painted by an apprentice in Bruegel's studio. However, art historians believe the original painting, which has been lost, was done by Bruegel.

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Question

What is the theme of 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus?'

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Answer

The major theme of 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' is life and death. Williams emphasizes life in recounting the landscape—it is springtime, the farmer is plowing, and the rest of the world is made up of "pageantry" (6). By contrast, Icarus dies by drowning. However, life goes on. By stating Icarus's death goes unnoticed, Williams emphasizes the continual nature of life, and how, even in the face of tragedy, it must go on.

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Question

What is the myth of Icarus?

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Answer

The myth of Icarus is recounted in Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is a Greek myth in which craftsman Daedalus creates wings of wax and feathers so that he and his son, Icarus, can escape Crete. He warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun or too low to the sea in order to not damage his wings. Icarus, in the joy of flight, ignores this warning and flies close to the sun. As a result, the wax on his wings melts and he plunges to his death in the sea below. It is a story that warns of hubris and ambition.

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Question

Which piece of art came first?

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Answer

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' poem by Williams

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Question

How are Bruegel and Williams similar as artists?

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Answer

Both Williams and Bruegel are known for their innovation in their respective fields that rejected previously standard classical conventions. For Bruegel, that meant he rejected the hierarchy of genre in art that favored historical paintings by creating works of art that emphasized the everyday moments of life. Similarly, Williams rejected classical poetic structures in favor of new poetic forms that also captured the small moments from day-to-day life.

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Question

Williams is associated with which poetic movements?

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Answer

Imagism and Romanticism

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Question

What is the main idea of ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus?’

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Answer

The main idea of ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,’ William Carlos Williams’s poem, is that, even in the face of immense tragedy, life goes on. While Icarus plunges to his death, spring continues on, farmers continue to tend to their fields, and the sea continues to rise and fall.

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Question

What literary devices does Williams use in 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus?'

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Answer

Williams utilizes enjambment, juxtaposition, imagery, and a distinct tone throughout the poem. Each of these devices serves to further Williams's poetic position and the meaning of the poem as a rumination on life and death and how, even after a tragedy, life goes on.

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Question

What is the structure of the poem ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus?’

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Answer

‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ is a free verse poem composed of seven stanzas with three lines each. Williams writes using enjambment, so that each line of the poem continues into the next without punctuation.

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