Two Poems: One Painting

First, a painting (most likely*) by the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder; Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Landscape with the fall of Icarus

Click for full size

It’s a beautiful painting and one of my favorites. Before I get too involved in my own thoughts, let’s see what two poets had to say about it. First, the American poet William Carlos Williams.

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

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

It’s very much a Williams poem, start to finish. Short and direct lines that describe exactly what’s being seen and hardly more. Like a lot of his work, though, there is a depth to the poem that comes with reflection. To begin with, there is Williams’ mastery of the English language as he describes spring as the time of year when the earth is “awake tingling / with itself.” There is also the matter of poor Icarus, pushed to the side of the painting and the bottom of the poem “unsignificantly” and unceremoniously drowning. For Brugel’s part, it is an odd way to approach such a famous myth, and it certainly seems as if Williams is taking note of that fact. Perhaps it speaks to the futility that we face day after day; that no matter the effort we spend piecing together the wings of our escape, the world will forever be too busy to even watch us suffer as we fall. Or maybe it is to point out that, in a the whole wide world, only so much tragedy can be noted and attention payed.

Let’s move to the British poet, W.H. Auden, and his “Musée des Beaux Arts.”

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.

While Williams saw and described the painting, Auden sees and emotes the painting. From the very first line, “About suffering they were never wrong,” Auden sets his poem up to be an examination not so much of what’s on the canvas, but the context and the creation of the work. By invoking Breughel’s name, for instance, he is thinking beyond merely what he can see and into the abstract of creation as a method of examining the larger concepts of life; like suffering.

What I find most interesting is that, despite the fact that these two poems are radically different in form and tone, they are, in essence, speaking to the same overarching theme. The common link between the two works is the fateful Icarus, relegated to the bottom corner of the painting (a painting with is name in the title!) and largely ignored, even though he is clearly going to drown and die. At the end of the day, Icarus’ fall isn’t “an important failure” worth any sort of note, but simply a thing that happened on a day.

It begs the question then, what is an important failure? What is it about certain tragedies that grab our attention while others fade into the background of everyday life?

At the heart of both of these works is the struggle to make sense of those type questions. To make sense of a world that sometimes, well, just doesn’t seem to care. While that might seem a rather bleak thought, consider this: if we live in a world that doesn’t see us as one thing or another (ie: important vs unimportant) than we are free to make of ourselves whatever we wish. With that, what are you going to make of yourself?

*There is some debate as to whether Bruegel painted Landscape at all. You can read more about the controversy over at Wikipedia if you’d like. It’s fairly interesting with lots of radiocarbon dating and the like.

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