Pieter Bruegel the Elder was astonishingly independent of the dominant artistic interests of his day. He painted no commissioned portraits nor any of powerful contemporaries. He deliberately revived the Gothic style of Hieronymus Bosch and then went on to original themes. He died quite young in Brussels in 1569, but had already developed such a range – the everyday work and play, landscape, politics and religion.
According to Robert Denham, Bruegel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ has been the subject of at least sixty-three poems. Make that 64.
extract from Ignored, forgotten – Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, July 6
Sailors crawling the rigging of the closest
vessel are busy with their tasks to hand
as Bruegel’s figures usually always are.
Feathers floating from the sky give away
the game, the ship’s sails billow but not
one push of breeze disturbs the precipice.
The fisherman is concentrating on the sea,
now an uncanny green, and the vacant shepherd
gazes vacantly the other way. Accidents happen.
The scene is from Ovid: ‘some angler catching fish with a quivering rod, or a shepherd leaning on his crook, or a ploughman resting on the handles of his plough, saw them, perhaps, and stood there amazed, believing them to be gods able to travel the sky.’ (Metamorphosis, Book 8, 183-235). Bruegel had such a range and such originality in themes, work and play, politics, and religion as well as execution. The composition is stranger the more one looks at it.
For another of my ekphratic poems – on an image by the photographer Olive Cotton, see here
Many poems have been written about this work from 1558. In December 1938, having witnessed violent conflicts in Spain and China and with prospects of immanent war in Europe, W H Auden visited this museum. His poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ was inspired by ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, and is one of his best-known. (First published as ‘Palais des beaux arts’, New Writing, Spring, 1939.) The most famous line is about the Old Masters, ‘About suffering they were never wrong’, memorable but nebulous. The first stanza refers to ‘The Census at Bethlehem’, 1566. He then looks at Icarus: ‘In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster.’ Auden was mistaken. The locals have not deliberately ignored and turned away from the drowning. They are all intent on what they have to do. They have not avoided being witness. John Sutherland suggests, ‘Underlying the poem is an essay by Freud which Auden returns to time and again in his poetry: ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ . . . Our aspirations, achievements, human ‘progress’ and our increasing ability to communicate, is a one-way trip to loneliness and despair.’
William Carlos Williams offered his poem: ‘Landscape with The Fall Of Icarus’: ‘According to Brueghel when Icarus fell it was spring . . . ‘ ‘according to Williams /but no-one ploughs/ in spring.’ I add! I find Williams’ poem not nearly as rich or interesting as Auden’s. ‘Too late. The worst has happened: lost to man, The angel, Icarus, for ever failed.’
In Michael Hamburger’s ‘Lines on Brueghel’s ‘Icarus’, Icarus isn’t a foolish youth driving too fast or flying too high, but an angel. I don’t believe in angels, but Bruegel certainly did, he painted plenty, but there’s no sense of one here, a pair of legs, wingless, unable I swim, no supernatural powers. Whereas Williams poem told me nothing and was sparse (which he often made work), I find Hamburger’s poem a tangle. Bruegel took the ‘common’ people seriously, possibly for the first time in art, but Hamburger describes the shepherd as ‘Churlish and slow’.
Australian artist/filmmaker Lynette Wallworth writes, ‘I adore this painting. It has proven to be a point of endless contemplation and inspiration for me. It is philosophically how I think about my own work. . . We cannot stop the world, so how do we draw attention to a moment of alteration, that might signify much. . . I make my work endeavour to pull attention towards the small, unfolding, essential drama that might be otherwise overlooked.’ She ends her essay: ‘Even in our most tired, busy and distracted days, there is always the opportunity to turn towards the one small thing that matters. That is the joy of art and life, there is always meaning to be made.’ (‘Artist Lynette Wallworth explains why finding meaning is an art and making meaning is art Icarus’, The World Economic Forum, 29 July 2020).