“‘I warn you,’ Daedalus had said, ‘not to fly so low that the mist or fog weighs down your wings, nor so high that the sun scorches you: fly between the two! Avoid too much heat and too much damp, too much dryness and too much cold. Keep to the center of their wheel. Don’t look at Bootes or Helice, or at Orion’s drawn sword. Take me as your guide and follow!”
“But Icarus grows excited. He forgets the advice. Soon he masters the beating of his wings and swoops in wide, playful circles above the sea. Does Minos see him laughing and dancing on the invisible crest of the world? Like a swimmer, turning his back on the cries from shore, he is already far at sea. He has tired of following his father’s shoulders, his snowy wings and shock of hair. He enters into glory as into a garden, a garden of flames that surrounds him; and he breathes in. ‘O Sun! Father!’ he cries to the encircling fire. Once more he kicks on the wind! Again he beats his wings on the torrid wave of the wind! Once more he thrusts up into the light!”[i]
We know of course, how this is going to end: wings and wax melting, bursting into flames, and finally falling into the sea below. Deadalus, the great engineer and inventor, who had constructed these devices for himself and his son, Icarus, had been imprisoned by King Minos in the very dungeon he had constructed for the Minitaur on orders from this king.
The excitement and enthusiasm of this young man overshadowed the warnings of his father, to stay the course. It is an ancient moral tale from Ovid that has fascinated many generations of painters and poets: from Pieter Breughel (both the Elder and the Younger) to Henri Matisse and from William Carlos Williams to Claude-Henri Rocquet.
Many years ago, in literature and composition classes in Baltimore we were exposed to both classic and contemporary writers, especially Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov, Ed Sanders and Susan Sontag. Ezra Pound, T. S. Elliot, Dylan Thomas and Marianne Moore were always mentioned as well, but William Carlos Williams was often sited only as a footnote. Sometimes at night I would hit the library and find the new (at the time) two volume edition of Williams’ Collected Poems on the reserve shelf. I read through the entire collection several times that semester.
I have read that Williams himself was aware of and frustrated by the lack of greater recognition his work was afforded at that time. He continued to write nonetheless, and his last collection, “Pictures from Breughel” proved beyond a doubt his importance. Three months after his death, Williams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for this collection. His deep seeing, attention to detail and sensitivity towards Breughel’s work have continued to influence many younger painters and poets.
II 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
[i] Rocquet, Claude-Henri; Bruegel or the Workshop of Dreams; The University of Chicago Press; Chicago and London; 1991. (p. 122).
[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” Pictures from Breughel; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1962; p. 4.