Poems on Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

XIR3675 Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69); 73.5x112 cm; Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium; (add.info.: Icarus seen with his legs thrashing in the sea;); Giraudon; Flemish,  out of copyright

XIR3675 Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69); 73.5×112 cm; Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium

Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden

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.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
William Carlos Williams

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

In memory of W. H. Auden
William Matthews

His heart made a last fist.
The language has used him
well and passed him through.
We get what he collected.
The magpie shines, burns
in the face of the polished stone.

His was a mind alive by a pure greed
for reading, for the book
which “is a mirror,”
as Lichtenberg said: “if an ass
peers into it, you can’t expect
an apostle to look out.”

It was a mediating mind.
There were the crowds like fields of waving wheat
and there was the Rilkean fire
he didn’t like
at the bottom of the night.
He loomed back and forth.
The space shrank.
The dogs of Europe wolved
about the house,
darks defining a campfire.

My friend said Auden died
because his face
invaded his body.
Under the joke is a myth–
we invent our faces:
the best suffer most and it shows.
But what about the face
crumpled by a drunk’s Buick?
Or Auden’s
face in its fugue of photographs
so suddenly resolved?
It isn’t suffering that eats us.

They were not painting about suffering,
the Old Masters. Not the human heart but
Brueghel turns the plowman away
for compositional reasons
and smooths the waters for a ship he made
expensive and delicate.
The sun is implied by how
the sure hand makes the light fall
as long as we watch the painting.
The sure hand is cruel.


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