Landscape with the Fall of Icarus – Ekphrasis

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

This painting by Pieter Bruegel, without further context, can be confusing. Here, you see a man with a plow in his field. Behind him is the ocean with boats. To the bottom right corner, a person is drowning. 

After taking in this photo and wondering what could possibly be going on here, reading William Carlos Williams’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” will help explain it. The poem conveys exactly what is going on in this scene:

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

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

“According to Bruegel,” a single man who captured the moment Icarus fell in his art, the time of year was spring. There was a farmer ploughing. The sun beat down. This sweltering sun melted Icarus’s wax wings, causing him to fall from the sky and drown, unnoticed by his surroundings.

This poem follows the Greek myth of the tragedy of Icarus, in which Icarus’s father fashions wax wings on his son in order to escape imprisonment. Against his father’s warnings to stay out of the sun, Icarus foolishly continued flying as the sun melted his wings.

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