In this lesson, you'll dive into the poem 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' by William Carlos Williams. You'll learn about what inspired this work and analyze the poem and its symbolism.
'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'
Have you ever read a book that was so well-written you could picture everything perfectly in your mind? The Imagist poets worked to achieve this goal, creating poetry that could invoke images. One of the most famous examples of Imagist poetry is 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.' In this poem, William Carlos Williams recreates, in words, a famous painting by Pieter Bruegel. If he's done his job well, you should be able to imagine the painting and understand the poet's ideas about life at the same time.
The Imagist poetry movement began in the early 1900s. The idea was to write poems like artists painted pictures. Imagine that you wanted to create a campaign to stop bullying. One way to do it would be to make posters that say 'Stop Bullying!' An even better way would be to put an image on the poster. If you pick the right image of a defenseless kid being bullied, you could influence anyone who looked at your poster to feel strongly about bullying. In this case, the best way to convey your message is by presenting an image. The Imagist poets took that idea and applied it to poetry. Instead of telling the reader what they wanted to get across, they tried to show it in carefully chosen images.
Before we examine William Carlos Williams' poem, we should first go over the Bruegel painting that inspired it. The painting was itself inspired by one Greek myth that relates a story about a father and a son team. The father, Daedalus, built artificial wings to allow his son, Icarus, to fly away from where they had been imprisoned. Icarus got a little too excited about the ability to fly, and even though his father told him not to, he flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax in the wings and caused Icarus to fall.
The painting by Pieter Bruegel captures the day that Icarus attempted to fly and plummeted to the ocean. In the painting, it's spring. There are images of farming, of herds of animals, and of merchant vessels at sea. There's also a tiny set of legs and a little splash where Icarus hits the ocean.
According to Bruegel
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
Analysis of the Poem
If you call someone a real 'Scrooge,' everyone knows what you mean, even if they haven't read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. In the same way, when you start mentioning Icarus around poets they understand that Icarus is a symbol. He has come to represent someone who pushes beyond his boundaries. The Greeks probably meant the story to be lesson to those who heard it - stay in your place and don't try to rise above what humans can do.
Bruegel's painting, however, is about how no one really notices the death of Icarus. If you look closely, you'll see that none of the farmers in the painting are paying attention to Icarus' flailing legs. He rose higher than any person had before, but his greatness went almost entirely unnoticed. In the painting, Icarus only takes up a tiny fraction of the canvas - a minuscule splash.
William Carlos Williams may have felt like Icarus. It took decades for the rest of the literary world to catch up to his groundbreaking ideas, and even now he's not all that well-known to the general public. His greatness may be like Icarus in the painting - truly amazing but hardly noticed.
The poem mentions farmers, the sea - the 'whole pageantry of the year.' Spring is beautiful and important, when the whole world is reborn. Compared to that great achievement, the accomplishments of men, even those as daring as Icarus or talented as William Carlos Williams, may go unnoticed.
'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' is a poem by Imagist poet William Carlos Williams. The Imagists used images to get across their ideas. In this case, Williams uses a description of a painting by Pieter Bruegel to get across the ideas that the most brilliant and talented often go unnoticed and that the achievements of mankind are nothing compared to the great achievements of nature.