William Carlos Williams
Mark A. TamboneEnglish Composition II
Final Project: The Use Mythical Imagery in “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams
In this final project, we aim to establish a comparison between the images in the poem; Brueghel’s painting, and the Greek myth of the Icarus and Daedalus. In our introduction, we shall provide a background on the myth; the labor of the poet William Carlos Williams, and the painter Brueghel. Afterward, we shall answer the questions posed in a thorough and comprehensive way.
Brief Synopsis of the Myth of Icarus and Daedalus. Icarus, son of Daedalus, one of the most revered inventors in the court of Minos, king of Crete. The most familiar recount with the myth we have is that of Ovid. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Daedalus was shut down in his tower to prevent him from revealing the secrets of the labyrinth (Ide 1). Since he could not leave Crete by sea, as Minos had all the boats strictly controlled. Nor by foot, since Crete, being an island did not have land routes, the only way to escape was by air. Knowing that, Daedalus fabricated two sets of wings, one for himself, and another for his son Icarus. Daedalus gave the wings a bird-like appearance and covered them with wax. After the wings had been done, Daedalus and his son, Icarus prepared for the journey. The inventor warned his son not to fly too close from the sun, as the sun could melt the wax, nor too low as the foam could soak the feathers. (Ovid VIII). Disregarding his father advice, Icarus flew too close from the sun, and his wings started to melt. As the feathers came loose, Icarus plunged to his death in the sea, while Daedalus saw it, incapable of saving his son.
William Carlos Williams’ Poetry. “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” is one of William’s approaches to Greek mythology with his poetry. Williams recounts the myth through the eyes of Brueghel and gives it his flavor, and intentions. For instance, images such as “the whole pageantry/ of the year/was awake tingling/near” (Williams 1) are references of the painting, which pictures the scene like in the spring. Also, the idea of Icarus’ flight to the sun is also a reference to poets, who fly too close to the sun, or the fame, yet die unnoticed. That is the poets’ biggest fear. To go unnoticed, and unrecognized. (Rodgers 30). However, despite the symbolism, always present in poetry, we shall not forget that Williams was an imaginist poet, whose goal was to represent the subject with no excess of jargon or verbiage. It was a reaction against the language of the romanticism, aimed to replace the muddy abstractions with clear and precise words that depicted the subjects like they really are, not in a figurate or decorative light (Poets.org 1). In general, what Williams proposed was to give the painting a voice of its own, to make it stand stronger.
Brueghel’s Painting. After a radiocarbon dating of the painting, scholars believe it is not the original, but a copy of the painting. However, that does not lessen or diminish the painting’s expressive characteristics. Armed with Ovid’s recount of the myth, Brueghel did a masterpiece of Flemish paint. (Hunt 1) The painting shows a landscape that is present in the whole picture, yet divided between the sea, the sun, and the land. It looks like if Brueghel would have wanted to illustrate Icarus’ three stages of life, flight, and dead. The only difference between Ovid’s poem, and Brueghel’s painting is that in Ovid’s work, many witness Icarus fall, while in the painting no one does.
Why Study Myths and Mythology?In a liberal education, the study of the classic is a key point on developing a sense of self. Although laced with symbolism, mythology has many resources we can use. For instance, Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst, considered that myths hold many symbols that are relatable to us, regardless of the time. Besides, myths exist for a reason. We might argue about their reality or lack of, but what we cannot deny is that most of them convey a symbol, or a moral to be learned.
Why this Myth Still Resonates Today.What we rescue from the myth, and that we consider can be used today is the symbol behind it. Symbols are expressions of the human psyche; they are the external representations of inner truths. Icarus myth shows us two possible symbols. The first is to take the middle way, the sun could mean the instant and never lasting gratification of the art while the water and the fall with no witnesses could mean the losing of our self. On the other hand, we could think that there is a component of “hear, and do what your elders say”. Nevertheless, we consider the first option more plausible.
Have Brueghel and Williams Captured the Emotion of the Myth? Certainly. However, both have used different devices to convey similar meanings. To Brueghel, the goal was to depict the fall as an act of stupidity and vanity. That is why he painted it without people seeing it. If we analyze it, we can see that the painter punished Icarus with what he feared the most, not death, but the loneliness of that who dies unrecognized. Williams takes another approach. To the poet, the act that lead to Icarus death is not as important as the circumstances, and the surroundings. For instance, when Williams writes “Sweating in the sun/that melted/the wing’s wax” (Williams 1) he is describing us the situation, and preparing us for the inevitable death of Icarus, but he does not exalt it, nor gives it more importance. To him, the death of Icarus was insignificant. The important is the symbolism behind the poem, which we described earlier in our essay.
Explain what you believe the Artists are saying. We consider that both artists address the subject from different points of view. For instance, to Brueghel the death of Icarus is more a psychological issue. He depicts the scene but leaves the spectator to think about Icarus hubris, a sentiment that lead him to his death. To Brueghel, trying to rise over the sun is a punishable offense, as it is not possible to rise over the divinity (Hunt 1). To Williams, the subject of the poem does not seem to be Icarus’ hubris. He is not prizing the boy for his foolish decision, but he is not condemning him either. We believe that Williams is more preoccupied of the circumstances surrounding the death, than for the death itself. However, the attention to the details posed by Williams is that of a master, a man whose poetry has achieved the sun Icarus could not.
“A Brief Guide to Imagism.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets. Web. <http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/brief-guide-imagism>.
Hunt, P. “Ekphrasis or Not? Ovid (Met. 8.183-235 ) in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” (2005). Stanford University. Web. <http://traumwerk.stanford.edu/philolog/2005/11/ekphrasis_ovid_in_pieter_breug.html>.
Ide, K. “The Daedalus of History and Myth: The Meaning of Creation in Literature from Homer to Joyce.” Senior Thesis (2011). University of California. Web. <https://complit.ucdavis.edu/sites/complit.ucdavis.edu/files/attachments/kris_ide.pdf>.
Ovid. “The Internet Classics Archive | Metamorphoses by Ovid.” The Internet Classics Archive | Metamorphoses by Ovid. Web. <http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.html>.
Rodgers, A. “On “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”” The Image of Women in the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Web. <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/williams/icarus.htm>.
Williams, W.C. “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets. Web. <http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/landscape-fall-icarus>.
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