12. DAEDALUS AND ICARUS

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The myth

  • Daedalus a clever carpenter, inventor, first sculptor; imprisoned at Knossos on Crete
    • queen Pasiphae loves bull--Daedalus forced to build her wooden cow so she can sleep with it
  • Minotaur is result--man with bull's head; Daedalus forced to build labyrinth for it to be confined in
    • Minotaur (means "Minos-bull"; Minos is king, with palace at Knossos)
  • Daedalus, wishing to escape from Knossos, invents wings (wax and feathers) for himself and his son Icarus
    • warns son not to fly too close to sun
      • but Icarus does--wax melts, I. falls into Icarian (henceforth) Sea

Icarus in art and poetry

  • The myth, and Icarus' literal downfall, captured interest in ancient, especially Roman, times and also later as a popular allegory
    • warning to choose the cautious middle course, not extremes.

Study the following paintings:

  1. wall painting from Pompeii: The Fall of Icarus.
  2. Pieter Brueghel the elder: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1558). Below; also H&P color plate 12.
  3. Note: Brueghel spelled his name this way until 1559; then he switched to Breughel (as in H&P). Usually the elder is spelled with ue, and his son Pieter the younger is spelled with eu.

  4. Peter Paul Rubens: Fall of Icarus (c. 1636-1638).
  5. Sidney Harold Meteyard: Icarus (c. 1900).
  6. Marc Chagall: The Fall of Icarus (1975). H&P color plate 13.

Study the following poems:

1. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1962). William Carlos Williams (1883-1963).

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
it was
Icarus drowning.

2. Musee des Beaux Arts (1940). W.H. Auden (1907-1973).

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 must always 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 dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel's Icarus,for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
have heard the splash, the foresaken 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.

3. Icarus (1933). Stephen Spender (1909-1995)

He will watch the hawk with an indifferent eye
     Or pitifully;
Nor on those eagles that so feared him, now
     Will strain his brow;
Weapons men use, stone, sling and strong-thewed bow
     He will not know.
This aristocrat, superb of all instinct,
     With death close linked
Had paced the enormous cloud, almost had won
     War on the sun;
Till now, like Icarus mid-ocean-drowned,
     Hands, wings, are found. 

4. To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph (1962). Anne Sexton (1928-1974).

Consider Icarus, pasting those sticky wings on,
testing this strange little tug at his shoulder blade,
and think of that first flawless moment over the lawn
of the labyrinth. Think of the difference it made!
There below are the trees, as awkward as camels;
and here are the shocked starlings pumping past
and think of innocent Icarus who is doing quite well:
larger than a sail, over the fog and the blast
of the plushy ocean, he goes. Admire his wings!
Feel the fire at his neck and see how casually
he glances up and is caught, wondrously tunneling
into that hot eye. Who cares that he fell back to the sea?
See him acclaiming the sun and come plunging down
while his sensible daddy goes straight into town.

5. Icarus (1989). Edward Field (1924-).

Only the feathers floating around the hat
Showed that anything more spectacular had occurred
Than the usual drowning. The police preferred to ignore
The confusing aspects of the case,
And the witnesses ran off to a gang war.
So the report filed and forgotten in the archives read simply
“Drowned,” but it was wrong: Icarus
Had swum away, coming at last to the city
Where he rented a house and tended the garden.

“That nice Mr. Hicks” the neighbors called,
Never dreaming that the gray, respectable suit
Concealed arms that had controlled huge wings
Nor that those sad, defeated eyes had once
Compelled the sun. And had he told them
They would have answered with a shocked,
uncomprehending stare.
No, he could not disturb their neat front yards;
Yet all his books insisted that this was a horrible mistake:
What was he doing aging in a suburb?
Can the genius of the hero fall
To the middling stature of the merely talented?

And nightly Icarus probes his wound
And daily in his workshop, curtains carefully drawn,
Constructs small wings and tries to fly
To the lighting fixture on the ceiling:
Fails every time and hates himself for trying.

He had thought himself a hero, had acted heroically,
And dreamt of his fall, the tragic fall of the hero;
But now rides commuter trains,
Serves on various committees,
And wishes he had drowned.

6. Waiting for Icarus (1973). Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980).

He said he would be back and we'd drink wine together
He said that everything would be better than before
He said we were on the edge of a new relation
He said he would never again cringe before his father
He said that he was going to invent full-time
He said he loved me that going into me
He said was going into the world and the sky
He said all the buckles were very firm
He said the wax was the best wax
He said Wait for me here on the beach
He said Just don't cry

I remember the gulls and the waves
I remember the islands going dark on the sea
I remember the girls laughing
I remember they said he only wanted to get away from me
I remember mother saying: Inventors are like poets, a trashy lot
I remember she told me those who try out inventions are worse
I remember she added: Women who love such are the worst of all
I have been waiting all day, or perhaps longer.
I would have liked to try those wings myself.
It would have been better than this.


Last updated: 8/26/07

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