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Close Reading of “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”

Updated on February 23, 2016

The poem “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams is based on a painting by the same name by Pieter Brueghel. The painting from 1558 depicts a coastal countryside with a farmer plowing the land, a shepherd guarding his flock, and a fisherman at the water in the foreground. The background contains several ships, mountains, a setting sun, and more coastal towns in the distance. In the bottom right corner, two legs can be seen sticking out of the water, appearing to splash and struggle. However, nobody seems to notice or care. These legs supposedly belong to Icarus, a character from a Greek myth who flew with wings secured by wax, made by his father Daedalus. However, when he flew too close to the sun, as his father had warned against, the wax melted and the wings failed, sending Icarus plummeting to his death in the sea. Williams’ poem describes this famous painting.

Williams’ style in this poem is very similar to his other poems, such as “This is Just To Say” and “The Red Wheelbarrow”. He uses simple language in a simple way. His work is not overbearing or too high class; instead, the poem is easily accessible to anyone who can read English. There are no fancy metaphors or other poetic devices. The poem also has no rhyme scheme, although it does have a rhythm. Furthermore, the poem is triadic, with seven stanzas consisting of three lines each.

One especially interesting feature of the poem is the lack of punctuation. There is no punctuation at all, other than one apostrophe. The lack of periods, commas, semicolons, and other devices that indicate a pause gives the poem a run-on quality. This gives the reader freedom to pause where they feel fit, which varies from reader to reader and therefore can give the poem slightly different meaning depending on where the pause is taken. For example, one could read part of the poem: “[T]he sun / that melted the wings’ wax / unsignificantly[.] / [O]ff the coast[,] / there was / a splash quite unnoticed[.] / [T]his was / Icarus drowning[.]” (Williams 786). Another person might read that part of the poem in a slightly different way: “[T]he sun / that melted the wings’ wax[.] / [U]nsignificantly[,] / off the coast[,] / there was / a splash[.] [Q]uite unnoticed[,] / this was / Icarus drowning[.]” (Williams 786). In the first example, the sun that melted the wings’ wax is “unsignificant”, while the splash was “quite unnoticed” (Williams 786). In the second example, the splash was “unsignificant”, while Icarus drowning was “quite unnoticed” (Williams 786). While these different examples don’t change the entire meaning of the poem, they do give the reader some freedom to fit the poem to their imagination. This works especially well with this poem if the reader has seen the painting, because then they have an image of what happened in their head, and they can read the poem in a corresponding way.

Although this poem is simple and easy for the common person to read, it does have meaning. Williams begins the poem by introducing both topics: the painting and the myth. He claims that it was spring in the painting, which he knows because the plants are green and the farmer is plowing his field in preparation for planting (Williams 786). Williams further describes the scene in the painting as the “pageantry” of the year “awake” and “tingling” (786). He declares that everything in the picture is “concerned / with itself”, as the viewer can see that everyone is hard at work, minding their own business or lost in thought within their own minds (Williams 786). The poem mentions the sun and its role in melting the wax that held Icarus’ wings in place, which is a reference to the Greek mythological story. Williams refers to either the melting of the wax or the splash of Icarus hitting the water “unsignificant”, although it is unclear which one due to the lack of punctuation (786). He then calls the splash “quite unnoticed”, and says in a matter-of-fact way, “[T]his was / Icarus drowning” (Williams 786).

While analyzing the meaning of the poem, the reader can draw a few conclusions. Spring is usually thought of as a time for rebirth and life, which is ironic because in this painting and poem, Icarus is dying. Looking into the poem deeper, one can find an even more interesting point that the poem makes. Everyone is too busy or absorbed with himself to notice Icarus’ fall and death. The farmer is busy plowing the field, the shepherd is lost in thought among his sheep, and even the fisherman, who is closest to Icarus, is not paying enough attention to notice Icarus. Icarus is drowning, and the world is moving on without consequence. This self-absorption can be compared to Icarus’ downfall, since Icarus was too self-confident to heed his father’s warning and pay attention to his proximity to the sun. The message in this poem may even serve as a warning against too much self-confidence or self-absorption, because without it, Icarus might not have fallen or someone might have at least noticed and tried to save him. But instead, Icarus falls and drowns, and life goes on for everyone else without consequence.

Works Cited

Williams, William Carlos. "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. Shorter 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 2013. 786. Print.

© 2016 ReverieMarie


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    • ReverieMarie profile image

      ReverieMarie 15 months ago from Tuscaloosa, Alabama

      @Glenn Stok - thank you for reading and for the comment! I really appreciate the compliment :) The myth of Icarus has always fascinated me, and I love Williams Carlos Williams' simplicity, so this poem quickly drew me in. I agree with your comment - I think his simplicity is very artfully done. It is easy to tell too much - telling just barely enough takes talent!

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 15 months ago from Long Island, NY

      Your complete explanation of the poem and of William's painting adds a lot of understanding and meaning that I think would otherwise have been overlooked. I would never have noticed Icarus struggling in the water if it weren't for you.

      Even though Williams does mention it in his poem, the lack of punctuation causes one to miss most of the thought behind it. Just as you had talked about, the reader can interpret the poem so differently based on where they pause.

      I have come across authors who don't place commas and periods in the right places, and I find it hard to know exactly what they are trying to say. But in William's case, I think it's more of an art form.

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