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"Fall of Icarus" by Breughel

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.

Copyright 1976 by Edward Mendelson, William Meredith and Monroe K. Spears,
Executors of the Estate of W. H. Auden.

"In three words I can sum up everything I've learned in life: It goes on."
-Robert Frost


The basic premise of the poem is response to tragedy, or as the song goes "Obla Di, Obla Da, Life Goes On." The title refers to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels. Auden visited the museum in 1938 and viewed the painting by Brueghel, which the poem is basically about. Generalizing at first, and then going into specifics the poem theme is the apathy with which humans view individual suffering.
Auden wrote that "In so far as poetry, or any of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate."
The poem juxtaposes ordinary events and exraordinary ones, although extraordinary events seem to deflate to everyday ones with his descriptions. Life goes on while a "miraculous birth occurs", but also while "the disaster" of Icarus's death happens.

background info:
For those cultural barbarians who don't know the story of Icarus, here it is, in condensed form. Icarus was a Greek mythological figure, also known as the son of Daedalus (famous for the Labyrinth of Crete). Now Icarus and his dad were stuck in Crete, because the King of Crete wouldn't let them leave. Daedalus made some wings for the both of them and gave his son instruction on how to fly (not too close to the sea, the water will soak the wings, and not too close to the sky, the sun will melt them). Icarus, however, appeared to be obstinate and did fly to close to the sun. This caused the wax that held his wings to his body to melt. Icarus crashed into the sea and died.

Some have even claimed to find hints of Auden's eventual reconversion to Christiantiy in the poem. Richard Johnson, author of "Man's Place: An Essay on Auden", believes there is a touch of Christian awareness in the poem, especially the timeline. The reader of the poem is placed in front of the Breughel painting in a museum, and at the same time is expected to project those images and truths to the world outside. There is also a sort of continuity through the poem as you read it and are allowed to see what the poet means. This allows a reader to become aware of his human position.
The poem first discusses a "miraculous birth", and at the end "the tragedy" of a death. The theme in the poem is human suffering. If you add these things together, and stir really well you might even get some hints at religion, mainly at Christianity
Also, the poem suggest a religious acceptance of suffering (example: eating your morning breakfast while watching coverage of a serious trainwreck on CNN). Religious acceptance basically means coming to terms with the ways of the world.


the artist:
Peter Breughel, who lived in the first half of the 16th century in a little country called Belgium. His paintings, in general, have allegorical or moralizing significance. The "Fall of Icarus" was his only mythological subject.
In general Breughel accents the figures in his drawings with a delicate line, however, the persons he paints seem stubby and at the same time lively. His contemporaries tended to stick to religious subjects, but brave Peter broke away with his own painting style.

the painting:
Auden's poem settles a bit heavy on the stomach. The subject matter is taken very seriously and his views are expressed. However, it is fair to argue that Breughel's painting doesn't take it so serisouly. Look closely at the ship on the right, can you see the legs sticking out of the ocean water? It flopping every which way. It could be argued that the fall of Icarus is therefore portrayed as humorous by Breughel. Or Breughel mean to portray the Icarus event as non-significant to make the point of the painting stronger: apathy of human suffering?

Buy the poster of this masterpiece at!
size: 11 in. x 14 in.
price: $13.50
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W.H. Auden Society
Literary society commemorating the life and works of W.H. Auden. Lots of links to his works and related items.

Virtual Street Band
This Virtual Street Band (which only exists and performs in cyberspace) has put 3 poems of Auden to music and made some flash videoclips to go along with them. Checking this site out is totally recommended, the site has a really cool feel to it, and the clips are awesome.

University of Gent: Poem from Four Weddings and a Funeral
During the funeral oration in Four Weddings and a Funeral, Matthew cites Song IX by W.H. Auden (1936?, from: Twelve Songs) in honour of his deceased lover, Gareth. This site has the clips from the movie and the poem.

The Academy of American Poets: WH Auden
Entry about Auden, his life and his works and a few links.

ICARUS (the myth):
A quick synopsis of the boy, the wings, the legend. Including an excerpt from Ovid's Metamorphoses which describes in detail Ovid's point of view on the matter.

The Story of Icarus
Someone's personal redition of the perils of Icarus.

Icarus Rising
Site with a nice story of the legend of Icarus, while at the same time paying tribute to the crew of STS-51L.

Site with extensive critique of Ovid's Metamorposis.

Allusions - Icarus Site Map
A site with information on works of art (painting and literature) that refer to the myth of Icarus. Obviously a school related site, so the info is very related to assignment for that course.

BREUGHEL (the elder):
Breughel's Work
Quality large scale images of some of Breughel's paintings.

Discovering Breughel
A bit about Breughel, where he lived where he worked and the convenient option of taking a tour of the Breughel hotspots in Brussels.

Ultimate Saver- Breughel
Place where you can download a screensaver which displays Breughel's work.

Breughel -Encyclopedia
Columbia Encyclopedia entry about Breughel (the family).

Icarus the game
Apparently someone capitalized on the poor boy and made a PC role-playing game out of it.

Icarus Films
A leading distibutor of documentary film and video. Wonder if they have any footage of the actual disaster?

Scientific American- The Lure of Icarus
Article about people that wanted to be like Icarus with their own home-made contraptions.

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