Failing and Flying by Jack Gilbert explores the idea that although something may ultimately fail, the process of arriving at that point may be a triumph. Gilbert draws upon the tale of Icarus, pointing out that although he did indeed fall, he flew before that, gaining a sense of majesty in doing so.
After a failed marriage, the speaker of the poem is ridiculed by those around him. People tell him it was an obvious mistake, that they should have known better. Comparing his story of love to the flight, and fall, of Icarus, Gilbert suggests that although his marriage ultimately crumbled, people should give credit to the happy moments they shared before the end. The poem argues that something doesn’t have to last forever to be a success, moments along the way are just as important as the final destination.
Jack Gilbert splits Failing and Flying into 25 lines, the poem comprising one continuous stanza. The central idea of the poem places the importance of the experience above that of the final outcome, with the continual line structure reflecting this sense of a journey. Although there is a clearly defined end of the poem, the heart lies within the central moments, the most interesting and beautiful images being housed along the way. Gilbert uses the structure of Failing and Flying as a mirror to reflect the ideas suggested throughout the poem.
You can read the full poem here.
Failing and Flying Analysis
The common collocation of ‘flying’ is with the opposing word, ‘falling’. Yet, by actually framing the title as ‘Failing and Flying’, Gilbert connects the idea of ‘failing’ with ‘falling’. In the myth of Icarus, he flew too close to the sun, causing his wings to melt, sending him plummeting to his death. Here, Gilbert is suggesting that you sound not conflate the ideas of failing with falling, countering the idea that Icarus failed by suggesting that he actually succeeded for a long time, only beginning to fall right at the end.
The title becomes a close homophone reflecting this story, ‘Failing’ and ‘Failing’ being extremely similar words. Using this, with the context of the story of Icarus, Gilbert suggests that although love may fail at the end, it is still important to remember those moments in which it flew – the happiness that came before the fall being just as important as the end.
The first word of the poem includes ‘Everyone’ in the folly of forgetting the rest of the myth of Icarus. Alike the idea that he must also not fly too low, people forget that he flew for quite some time before falling. Indeed, Gilbert writes that ‘Icarus also flew’, reminding people that there is more to the story than simply the end. This sense that everyone has made the mistake of forgetting this is suggested through the repetition of ‘everyone’ in deviating forms, ’they knew’, ‘everybody’.
He uses this to represent love as a whole, suggesting that the final collapse of a relationship is not the most important thing. One must remember that there were moments along the way where the relationship ‘flew’, happiness and joy were everywhere and everything was good. Although things have now changed, the ‘marriage’ has ‘fail[ed]’, that does not discount everything that lead up to this moment.
The use of an end stop following the first and second lines forces a metrical break at these moments in the poem, emphasising the message that Gilbert is trying to convey. The reader must take a moment to absorb the idea proposed, before continuing with the poem.
The use of enjambment across the third, fourth, and fifth line of the poem suggest a sense that time is passing. Now having shifted back in time, Gilbert is representing the time spent within the relationship to be moving quickly. This could represent the idea that everyone forgets that in a relationship there are moments of happiness and connection, even if the ending is not pleasant. The contrast between the emphasis placed on the ‘end’ of the relationship and the lack of emphasis, demonstrated by enjambment, compounds this sense of differing attitudes to moments in the relationship.
It is perhaps interesting that when others comment on Gilbert’s relationship, they only comment on how ‘she / was old enough to know better’. This could reveal a fundamental bias in how Gilbert believes people view relationships, with the female seemingly having to take the blame for not ‘know[ing] better’. This could pose the question, why is it not equally the man’s fault? It seems that Gilbert is revealing an inherent bias within society in regard to how breakups are viewed.
It is across the sixth and seventh lines of the poem in which the core idea of Failing and Flying arrises. Gilbert subverts the common phrase “anything worth doing is worth doing well” into ‘anything/worth doing is worth doing badly’. Within this phrase, he is suggesting that it is better to have a go at something, get the experience and maybe give up, rather than not trying something because you are striving for perfection. This could be applied to his relationship – although it didn’t work out, he tried his best and will now remember the moments they had together forever.
Within these lines, Gilbert explores these moments of happiness that he is leaving behind, a collection of special moments that define the happy stages of their early relationship
The focus on ‘stars’ and in drawing upon the semantics of nature, Gilbert suggests the beautiful moments they had together, their relationship being equated to serene images such as ‘dawn mist’.
Yet, within the images of the ‘stars burning’ and the ‘dawn mist’, while indeed compounding a sense of the beauty of their relationship, there is also the idea that it is finite. Everything that ‘burns’ will of course eventually burn out. Similarly, ‘dawn’ is a transient idea, each day moving irrevocably towards nightfall, the absence of imagery of ‘light’ eventually arriving. There is a suggestion that Gilbert knew the relationship would not last forever, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy it while it lasts.
How can people say that just because the relationship is over it ‘failed?’, Gilbert reminds the reader that although something may end, that does not mean it didn’t happen – take solace in the knowledge that you will always have the shared memories together. The final two lines of the poems reaffirm Gilbert’s idea, ‘I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,/ but just coming to the end of his triumph’, things ‘coming to the end’ not meaning that the whole process was a ‘failing’ event.