Analysis of ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’


“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” is a subtle poem, which philosophizes about some very complex allusions. The art of reading poetry, human consciousness, morality, and peoples’ distractions and indifference in a beautiful, chaotic world are to name a few. Multiple readings might also be permissible due to the poem’s confrontations with uncertain thoughts and paradox. Williams’ masterful creation of the poetic image is meant to show us that images are to be celebrated and held above everything else in everyday life as a reassurance of beauty in a world where people are often too quick to call their very existence meaningless.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus Analysis 

Modernist William Carlos Williams, the first of his kind as an imagist, was at odds with authors before him in style, form, theme, voice, purpose, and virtually all areas where he could have allowed himself to be a victim of conventionality. He wrote short lines with simplified language in defiance against symbols, emblems, and propaganda as devices in literature and thought it wrong to incorporate politics, spirituality, and deliberately placed riddles. Before this time, poetry was defined rather differently. Romantics learned lessons from nature; Victorians spoke politically and preached spiritually; all wrote about their own life experiences, using rhythm and rhyme, abundant metaphors, and impossible language to educate and be discussed within a rather limited, exclusive audience of an educated, high society. This, Williams would say, deters people from the true beauty that belongs to and within the objects themselves, without our interference and with only our casual observation

Williams, however, has discovered a game in his deeply artistic vision of poetry in creating a communion in peoples’ shared experiences, those everyday simple experiences with our senses. Just as how some people might call this kind of poetry “insignificant,” Williams’ modernist imagism metaphorically snaps a photograph of a seemingly ordinary moment in time, captures it, and gives what would generally be considered “insignificant objects” significance. This significance is attributed to the fact that we all share this common experience—the natural tendency to take mental pictures at any given moment which stay in our memory almost permanently, whether we are conscious of it or not, and build structures of associated thoughts and feelings into random accidental designs of shapes, lines, shades, and colors. Symbols are similar to images in that they can be found everywhere; both exist in our imaginations; both require participation from the reader.

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” is a unique commentary on the painting “The Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Brueghel, the artist he mentions in the first line. The painting is of Icarus, drowning off the shore while the rest of the world on shore continues, and no one attempts to save him nor do they even notice his plight. The message is double-sided: that should not be preoccupied with the tragedies in life, because they are unavoidable as part of the world’s disordered flow. Instead, it is better to take refuge in the beauty of nature’s complex design in simple, ordinary things. Williams’ is saying that some things are out of our control, and we do not need to interfere. We must learn to accept life and death or else the world will continue to turn without us, regardless of our emotional health. The edge of the sea is “concerned with itself,” just as the farmers on the shore are only concerned with themselves, likewise with Icarus.”

Conversely, Williams’ says that we should not be absolutely helpless and compliant in the face of doom while staring at the clouds and admiring rocks and dirt if one were to consider the significance of the story of Daedalus and Icarus. In this Cretian myth, Daedalus, the father of Icarus, is a famous architect, is appointed to build a labyrinth for King Minos. The king imprisons the father and son inside the labyrinth, and when they are unable to find their way out, Daedalus fashions two sets of wings made out of wax and bird feathers. When the two of them take flight for their escape, Daedalus warns Icarus to not fly too high where the sun’s rays can melt the wax or too low where the mist can dissolve it. This story is an example lesson of Aristotle’s philosophy of the “Golden Mean,” which promotes moderation for good living. The doctrine says that it is bad to behave on either extreme— that of excess or of deficiency—and everyone should act in accordance with measuring every action to find a comfortable in-between. In Icarus’ case, he took the road of excess by flying too close to the sun, which melted his wings and sent him plummeting to his death.

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In considering the story of Icarus and the Aristotelian “Golden Mean,” Williams is not saying that we should be picking daisies and always have our heads in the clouds, but at the same time, we should not hide our heads in the sand either. We should not over-indulge ourselves with the good aspects of life while ignoring and running away from the bad parts; but rather, we simply ought to not let inevitable sorrows and the misfortunes of our past weigh us down.

Williams might also be referring to himself in the poem as the victim. He is Icarus drowning in the bay, while no one pays attention or is bothered. This may be an anxiety about his career and if anyone will remember him and his writing after he is gone. Icarus was given flight only temporarily before coming down crashing. The achievements of Daedalus and Williams remain suspended in uncertainty, and the rest of the world is apathetic.

Another lesson could be of a religious parable. Daedalus commits the sin of playing God by tampering with His designs, improving them. Humanity’s cunning in technology and progress toward advancing ourselves beyond normal human beings will often fail, as it disrupts the flow of nature. Humans are not made to fly as they are, and so Icarus suffered the consequences of our limited potential. This will always happen because of our own fault—in our dangerous pursuit of power and thirst for knowledge beyond our means. Likewise, in reading Williams’ poetry, the reader’s overanalyzing of this simple text might just as well be removing him or her further and further away from the actual poem itself. Scholars’ arrogant inclination to dissect literature and apply their knowledge overcomplicates the intention of Williams’ poetry, that of simple delight.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus Tone

Rich with meaning through observation, it can be seen that various things are going on in the image. The set is around the 1560s and the background is set with a plowman doing work in his field, a fisherman, all set in the backdrop of a small bay that contains a few ships. There is an image where we see legs sticking out of the water in the painting.  These can be interpreted to be the legs of Icarus, who drowned as he flew too close to the sun. He had wings made of wax by his father, Daedalus. It has been interpreted that the painting is a representation of humankind’s ignorance towards suffering. The poem throughout appears very secular in nature.  There is no mention of God, no religious symbols.

This poured into the story a slightly religious taste, but it was not the painting that did give this idea.  Especially striking is that this particular painting deal with a death, in this case, the death of Icarus. If the painting had taken place in an earlier time, it might have had more of a religious connection. This is due to the lack of religious icons in this image, it is apparent that the piece of art was a true product of humanist art.

Williams creates a vivid image of the surrounding landscape. This takes away from the seemingly tragic death of Icarus and overrides it with something as average as landscape. Williams describes the landscape and surrounding community as “awake tingling” which is ironic, the poem is supposed to be about death. Throughout the entire poem, Williams is “painting a picture” for the reader and illuminates the natural world. Strangely enough, the last line is “this was Icarus drowning”. The reader would think the last line would continue to be about the landscape.

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