Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Everything Turns Away

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, long thought to be by Pieter Bruegel, is probably a version of a lost original by Bruegel, likely from the 1560s or soon after.  The painting inspired two well-known poems:

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

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken 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.

---W. H. Auden, 1907 - 1973,  poem ca. 1938

The Fall of Icarus, Peter Paul Rubens

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

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

---William Carlos Williams, 1883 - 1963, poem ca. 1960

In the 1940s, the Swedish author and poet Erik Lindegren wrote his own Icarus poem in response to Auden's earlier work:


His memories of the labyrinth go numb with sleep.
The single memory: how the calls and the confusion rose
until at last they swung him up from the earth.

And how all cleavings which have cried out always
for their bridges in his breast
slowly shut like eyelids,
and how the birds swept past like shuttles, like arrows,
and finally the last lark brushing his hand,
falling like song.

Then: the winds’ labyrinth, with its blind bulls,
cacophonous lights and inclines,

with its dizzying breath which he through arduous
struggle learned how to parry,
until it rose again, his vision and his flight.

Now he is rising alone, in a sky without clouds,
in a space empty of birds in the din of the aircraft…
rising toward a clearer and clearer sun,
turning gradually cooler, turning cold,
and upward towards the spring of his blood, soul’s cataract:
a prisoner in a whistling lift,
a seabubble’s journey toward the looming magnetic air:
and the vortex of signs, born of the springtide, raging of azure,
crumbling walls, and drunkenly the call of the other side:
Reality fallen
        Without reality born!

---Erik Lindegren, 1910-1968  (translation by John Matthias and Göran Printz-Påhlson)

From Ovid's Metamorphoses - Book VIII

When Minos landed on the coast of Crete,
He bled a hundred bulls to mighty Jove,
And decked his palace with the spoils of war.
And yet strange gossip tainted all his honours:
Proof that his wife was mounted by a bull
Was clear enough to all who saw her son,
Half-beast, half-man, a sulky heavy creature.
To hide this symbol of his wife’s mismating
He planned to house the creature in a maze,
An arbour with blind walls beyond the palace;
He turned to Daedalus, an architect,
Who was well known for artful craft and wit,
To make a labyrinth that tricked the eye.
Quite as Meander flows through Phrygian pastures,
Twisting in streams to sea or fountainhead,
The dubious waters turning left or right,
So Daedalus designed his winding maze;
And as one entered it, only a wary mind
Could find an exit to the world again ---
Such was the cleverness of that strange arbour.
Weary of exile, hating Crete, his prison,
Old Daedalus grew homesick for his country
Far out of sight beyond his walls --- the sea.
“Though Minos owns this island, rules the waves,
The skies are open: my direction’s clear.
Though he commands all else on earth below
His Tyranny does not control the air.”
So Daedalus turned his mind to subtle craft,
An unknown art that seemed to outwit nature:
He placed a row of feathers in neat orders,
Each longer than the one that came before it
Until the feathers traced an inclined plane
That cast a shadow like the ancient pipes
That shepherds played, each reed another step
Unequal to the next.

With cord and wax
He fixed them smartly at one end and middle,
Then curved them till they looked like eagles' wings.
And as he worked, boy Icarus stood near him.
His brilliant face lit up by his father’s skill.
He played at snatching feathers from the air
And sealing them with wax (nor did he know
How close to danger came his lightest touch):
And as the artist made his miracles
The artless boy was often in his way.
At last the wings were done and Daedalus
Slipped them across his shoulders for a test
And flapped them cautiously to keep his balance,
And for a moment glided into air.
He taught his son the trick and said, “Remember
To fly midway, for if you dip too low
The waves will weight your wings with thick saltwater,
And if you fly too high the flames of heaven
Will burn them from your sides.
Then take your flight Between the two.
Your route is not toward Boötes
Nor Helice, nor where Orion swings
His naked sword.
Steer where I lead the way.”

With this he gave instructions how to fly
And made a pair of wings to fit the boy.
Though his swift fingers were as deft as ever,
The old man’s face was wet with tears; he chattered
More fatherly advice on how to fly.
He kissed his son --- and, as the future showed,
This was a last farewell --- then he took off.
And as a bird who drifts down from her nest
Instructs her young to follow her in flight,
So Daedalus flapped wings to guide his son.
Far off, below them some stray fisherman,
Attention startled from his bending rod,
Or a bland shepherd resting on his crook,
Or a dazed farmer leaning on his plough
Glanced up to see the pair float through the sky,
And taking them for gods, stood still in wonder.
They flew past Juno’s Samos on the left
And over Delos and the isle of Paros,
And on the right lay Lebinthus, Calymne,
A place made famous for its wealth in honey.
By this time Icarus began to feel the joy
Of beating wings in air and steered his course
Beyond his father’s lead: all the wide sky
Was there to tempt him as he steered toward heaven.
Meanwhile the heat of sun struck at his back
And where his wings were joined, sweet-smelling fluid
Ran hot that once was wax.

His naked arms
Whirled into wind; his lips, still calling out
His father’s name, were gulfed in the dark sea.
And the unlucky man, no longer father,
Cried, “Icarus, where are you, Icarus,
Where are you hiding, Icarus, from me?”
Then as he called again, his eyes discovered
The boy’s torn wings washed on the climbing waves.
He damned his art, his wretched cleverness,
Rescued the body and placed it in a tomb,
And where it lies the land’s called Icarus.

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