‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ by William Carlos Williams is a twenty-four-line poem that is separated into sets of three lines, or tercets. William did not imbue this piece with a specific pattern of rhyme or rhythm. But the poem is unified by one of the most obvious and notable features about Williams’ writing— the lack of end punctuation. This fact stands true for this piece and the very similar work (that also describes a Brueghel painting) ‘Hunters in the Snow.’
The title of this piece, as well as the scene described in the text, comes from a painting of the same name by the artist Pieter Brueghel. Williams describes in his short stanzas the drama playing out within the painting. The piece which was painted in the 1560s depicts a scene from the story of Icarus and Daedalus.
In Greek mythology, the story goes that Daedalus, a master craftsman, and inventor, created wax wings for himself and his son, Icarus. The boy, despite his father’s warnings, flew too close to the sun and melted the wax The moment that Icarus hits the water is shown in Bruegel’s work.
When looking at the painting, a viewer should take note of the small splash towards the bottom right corner. Also visible are limbs flailing in and out of the water. All around different people move about their lives. They continue in their daily works, more concerned with progress than with the struggles of a fellow man.
Summary of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
The poem being with the speaker stating that it was spring in which Icarus fell. The season is depicted by Pieter Brueghel through the trees, the ploughing farmer, and the color choices. Williams takes the season and plays with the “pageantry” of everything associated with it. There are people working, all to the benefit of themselves.
In the next lines, he draws a reader’s attention to another part of the scene. The young man, Icarus, has flown too close to the sun and is now drowning in the bay. Although this is clearly a tragedy for his father, and for the man himself, no one notices. This is why in the final lines Williams refers to the death as “unsignificant.”
Analysis of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
In the first lines of this piece the speaker introduces the reader to the story which forms the backbone of both the painting and poem ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.’ From the second line, a reader should be aware that it will deal with the tragic, and avoidable death of Icarus, son of Daedalus. It is also clear through the first lines that the text is going to discuss a famous depiction of the story, the painting of the same name by Pieter Brueghel.
The speaker continues on to say that when the tragedy occurred, it was spring. This comes from looking at the painting and deciding, at least according to the painter, that it depicts springs. This adds depth to the narrative as spring is generally associated with life, birth and natural beauty.
One might also look at the colours used by Brueghel and interpret them as associated to spring. The water is a bright green, and miscellaneous plants are blooming around the hill in the bottom left. The true subject of the piece contrasts markedly with one’s conceptions of what spring should be. In amongst what seems like a peaceful pastoral scene, a young man drowns.
The second set of lines are used to help describe the scene for one who has never seen the painting. He states that there is a “farmer…ploughing / his field.” Every part of the “pateantry” of spring is being played out by the coast.
of the year was
the edge of the sea
In the next set of lines, the speaker describes a certain feeling in the air. The painting has a “tone” much like a poem does. In this case, it seems as though the “year was / awake tingling / near.” Something seems to be dawning or developing in the scene. The “tingling” is in this context associated with spring, but could also refer to the darkness of what is occurring to Icarus. It alludes to a tragedy under the happy veneer of the work.
The next lines bring the reader, and the viewer of the painting, down to the “edge of the sea.” It is a spot, as is the rest of the portrayed scene, that does not care for anything but “itself.” The sea may have things happening around and in it, but in reality these things do not impact its larger body. This is the same way in which the farmers and sailors address the world.
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
While the sun’s brightness at this moment might be beneficial to the workers, it is harming someone else, fatally. It “melted / the wings’ wax.” Without prior knowledge of this story, these things would be hard to reconcile. The title of the poem helps one understand what exactly the speaker is talking about.
He speaks of the fall of Icarus as being “unsignificant.” This was not because it wasn’t tragic, but because no one noticed. His father, still flying, can be seen in the sky looking down on his son, but the other characters do not look towards the water. They remain focused on accomplishing the tasks they set out to do.
The final three lines contrast with the rest of the poem. They are also somewhat of a shock if by this point one does not understand the underlying tragedy that inspired both poem and painting. There is a “splash” in the water that goes “quite unnoticed.” This light sound meant nothing to those who heard it, but it was the sound of “Icarus drowning.”