This past week I gave a talk on ekphrasis and the ways in which pictures in themselves may tell stories. In part I wanted to give a little history, and so looked back to Homer’s description of Achille’s Shield, as well as to consider the ways in which, despite being saturated with images, we are less skilled in reading them now—simply because we are no longer accustomed to spending a lot of time with a single image. The other aim of the talk was to discuss my own practice and think about the different ways I have approached writing about artworks in my own poetry; in the middle of it all, however, I looked at two poems I particularly love that take the same great painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder as their starting point—“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.”
Of course the story of Icarus is a particularly human story: having been granted a godly ability—flight—Icarus in his imperfection and ambition ignores his father Daedelus’s instructions and flies too high: proximity to the sun melts the wax that binds his wings and he drops. If pride goes before a fall, surely Icarus’s fall is the greatest of them all; and, too, surely this story shows us that we must respect the word of engineers when it comes to safe use…
In my mind I can easily picture an ecstatic Icarus in full flight; I can, too, imagine his fall, and the terror he is feeling. What is fascinating about Brueghel’s picture, though, and what no doubt captured the attention of both William Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden who responded to the painting in two great poems, was that the fate of Icarus was, in this artist’s view, not necessarily any more important or interesting than the ordinary lives of those around him as he experienced his ultimate drama. The spectacle of his fall is almost no spectacle in his painting—though the title tells us Icarus is there, and in its way, the hunt for the tragic figure is not unlike a highbrow game of “Where’s Wally?” Oh there he is, in the bottom right-hand corner—or rather, there’s half of him. His top half is already submerged. (Fly too close to the fire and you’ll get doused with so much water you’ll drown—or more likely, die on impact.)
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) is one of the American poets most held up as necessary to the development of an “American poetry”; alongside his poetic practice he also kept up a medical practice: Williams was a paediatrician (who delivered, to my delight, the seminal Earthworks artist Robert Smithson, in New Jersey) and a GP. I don’t know if it’s apocryphal, but I’ve heard around the place that one of the reasons his poems are so slender is because he drafted them on slender prescription pads. If true, then again necessity becomes the mother of invention: his line, and, later in his career, his tri-step indentations are part of his poetic footprint. While left-aligned, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” is a typically skinny poem, making use of line breaks that highlight the work done by even the smallest parts of the sentence. This is his text in response to Brueghel’s painting:
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
—William Carlos Williams
There are many things I take away from this poem: it is so skilled in staying entirely within the frame of the picture itself; the way the poem proceeds follows the eye’s arc. Of course we start with the light, of course we are drawn to that vibrant tunic worn by the farmer in the centre of the image; we scan the foreground, then move to the background. Indeed, if the painting was untitled I can imagine that many viewers passing the painting in a gallery today would not notice that pair of legs down in the right hand corner of the frame—that “splash quite unnoticed” is the occasion of the painting, yes, but more than that the Brueghel is so deliberate in downplaying the great drama of the image. So too with the final lines: “this was/ Icarus drowning”—the line break eschews drama. Williams could have just as easily have broken the line “this was Icarus/ drowning” presenting us the mythic figure on one line, and saving his fate for the step down the page. It’s hard to quantify the way the psychological impact of these line breaks, but the effect would have been different and, in my view, more dramatic. While there’s nothing wrong with the dramatic, such an approach would have played against the intent of the painting.
W. H. Auden (1907-1973)—a poet as vital to the continuation of the British tradition as Williams is to American poetry—takes up the same painting with his famous poem “Musee des Beaux Arts.” There are a number of differences between Auden’s rendering of Brueghel’s painting and that of Williams—as to be expected from two highly developed, individual poetic voices. Beyond the cosmetic appearance of the poem though—fat vs. skinny—Auden begins his work outside of the frame of a single specific image.
Musée des Beaux Arts
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.
—W. H. Auden
Effectively the first stanza of Auden’s response to Brueghel is an essay on the nature of representation and the meaning of the spectacle in relation to the lives of the many. Some spectacles—war, natural disaster—are inescapable. But many more extraordinary events happen in the midst of the bustle.
It’s striking, though, that in the second part of the poem when he enters the painting, the poem follows the same pattern of description as Williams’s approach. Both introduce the particular master, Brueghel, and follow from the central figure of the image—the farmer, turned away, through to the landscape and the “something amazing” that is being ignored. Auden, however, goes a step further in turning away from the action: after he’s located Icarus in the painting, he returns to larger scene, to the ship that “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” This final line deflates the extraordinary, and returns us to the opening “essay” in which “the dogs go on with their doggy life.” The ship has more “shiply” concerns than a boy falling to earth (or ocean).
Giving a talk—or writing an essay—gives me the chance to return to work I truly love and articulate something about it, as well as address how such things relate to my own poetry. It’s hard for me to think of two poems that, despite their startlingly similar approach to the central painting, so clearly evoke the two poles of ekphrasis—that is, the choice for the writer to stay within the frame, or the choice to step outside it. Thinking about these poems I have realised how often I think about how much I imagine the scene beyond the edge of the frame, or imagine the audio landscape, the filmic “atmos” that can only be imagined, and how often I invoke that “offstage” world within the body of my own descriptions. Having noticed this tendency, I’m left to contemplate the ways in which this may enhance or disrupt the project of representation, and how to work with that disruption in the future.