Allusion, Artistry, and the Fall of Icarus

Images of Icarus in Poetry


Images of Icarus, Daedalus, the labyrinth, and King Minos appear in many literary works, both poetry and prose. Among the most famous of the prose allusions to the legend is Stephen Daedalus, protagonist of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

The following poems are just a sampling. Williams's poem refers to the same Breughel painting as Auden's poem but the form (tercets) and rhythms and diction are very different. I have paired the poem with a Kent Lew painting I found on the Web because the painting's Icarus, like the poem's, seem to me contemporary.

Anne Sexton's sonnet is a response to--an allusion to--another poem, William Butler Yeats's "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing" as well as an allusion to Icarus. I like the image of  "shocked starlings pumping past" as well as the emphasis on the exuberance and daring of young Icarus.

"Icarus' Diatribe" by Aaron Pastula was another Web discovery. Here the voice of Icarus longing to soar is a chant, rich with reminders of the legend of the minotaur and the misfortune of a boy trapped in a maze.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by William Carlos Williams | To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph by Anne Sexton | Icarus' Diatribe by Aaron Pastula | Musee des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden 


Icarus Kent Lew

Kent Lew





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

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was 

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning



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

Consider Icarus, pasting those sticky wings on,
testing that 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.



Icarus' Diatribe
Aaron Pastula

Poet Magazine vol. 6, no. 4 (Winter 1995-96): 24

How we have wasted the years here, Father;
Grounded in the shadow of Talus, whom you envied
Too much, and murdered. We might be free

Ariadne had not received a precious ball of thread
With which to save her lover, yet you would rescue
Another even though we are trapped, and only
Two left.

I've watched your shadows sleep against stone walls
While I ran our labyrinth, the sun above
Driving me as if I should call for my final repose

Do you remember the torrid wind maneuvering
Around the angles of our usless garrison,
Filling empty mouths with surrogate conversation?

Seldom spoke, you and I, roaming like languid souls
When the Minotaur's threat was dead.
And yet I felt the lyre singing in my breast,

Crying out background noise for the construction
Of my cunningly wrought wings; my only means to rise
Above these steadfast fortress walls, lest I

To your silence. I know the gulls were wailing
When I robbed them, but they had flown too close:
I am not to blame for the necessity of my purpose.
To you

I am as your own divided heart - double-sexed
And beating as a thief's in the falling hours of twilight,
Awaiting my time to retire. Instead I take flight,
The sun

Drawing me as an opiate away from our
Etherized utopia, leaving you puzzled; compelling
You to follow me out above the open,
Beguiling sea




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