According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is an ecphrastic poem. Ekphrasis or ecphrasis is the graphic, often dramatic description of a visual work of art. In ancient times it referred to a description of any thing, person, or experience. The word comes from the Greek ek and phrasis, ‘out’ and‘speak’ respectively, verb ekphrazein, to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name.
William Carlos Williams wrote this poem upon seeing Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape With The Fall of Icarus.
The poem, as indicated by the title, touches upon the Greek tragedy of Icarus, the story in which Icarus, the son of Daedalus, took flight from prison wearing wings made from wax and feathers. Icarus, disregarding his father’s wishes that he not fly too close to the sun, did just that and melted his way to a feathery demise, drowning in the sea.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus rings true to William Carlos Williams’s style of poetry — a style that employs enjambment and meter to illustrate the message of the poem as much as — if not more so — than traditional plot and imagery.
Thus, Williams takes us along the journey of the mythical Icarus as he soared on wax wings. At least, at the very beginning of the poem, it seems as if it is just a flight. The enjambment pulls us steadily through the poem as if on an easy drifting through the sky. We explore the scenery along with Icarus, and yet, the poem seems not about Icarus. The poem is the journey, the scenery, the day rather than a story. However, it is at the final line of the poem that we realize the true focus of the poem: “Icarus drowning”. William reveals to us his initial deceit, showing us that the poem was a descent rather than a flight — each stanza pulling the reader from the sky, and bringing us quite literally to the ending: death. This little surprise at the end mirrors Icarus’s own supposed surprise.
The death of Icarus, the poet tells us “According to Brueghel,” took place in spring when the year was emerging in all its pageantry. The irony of the death of Icarus, who has always been an emblem for the poet’s upward flight that ends in tragedy, is that his death goes unnoticed in the spring — a mere splash in the sea. The fear of all poets — that their passing will go “quite unnoticed” — is an old and pervasive theme. That Williams reiterates the theme is significant in the life of a poet who always felt the world had never fully recognized his accomplishments.