New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Art into Poetry, Poetry into Art – or Ekphrasis – 2 Poetry on Landscape with the Fall of Icarus Pieter Bruegel the Elder c1555

By Shirley Bell


I have now discovered that there is a definition:-

“Ekphrasis generally refers to any written response to art, regardless of the form of the art or the form of the writing. Up until the last twenty years or so, ekphrasis simply meant a  description of a work of art and was mostly used by classicists or historians. “http://teachers.yale.edu/curriculum/viewer/initiative_10.01.11_u

I stumbled across it while I was trying to date Michael Hamburger’s Lines on Brueghel’s “Icarus” which I have not done although I have scoured the web. So if anyone has a date for this I would be very grateful, out of a desire for completion.

I knew the Auden poem from an anthology called Voices from my A level years. It stayed with me because it was such a perfect epitome of the terrible indifference of everyday life to suffering. It is so easy to live a comfortable life here in the UK while the television screen relays an endless scenes of terrible anguish – which we can switch off.

The Breugel painting has fascinated several poets. Auden’s poem dates from 1938, William Carlos Williams from 1960 and I am guessing that Michael Hamburger’s followed these chronologically and recently Ahren Warner has followed suit. (from Confer, Bloodaxe Books, 2011.)



The tale of Icarus originates in Ovid’s Metamorphoses – see the end of the article for Ovid’s narration of the story*.

Auden has a lucid description of everyday, lumpen banality, someone is “walking dully along”, martyrdom takes place in “some untidy spot”, dogs get on with “their doggy life”, the torturer’s horse “scratches its innocent behind.” This is an amoral space where no-one cares and like the ship they all “sailed calmly on” oblivious or indifferent to “something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky”.

William Carlos Williams gives us a series of brief pictures, but his pictures are full of life. This poem is active and involving, the farmer ploughing, “the pageantry of the year was awake, tingling”, the “edge of the sea concerned with itself sweating in the sun” until “unsignificantly” (Word dislikes that) “a splash quite unnoticed” is the drowning Icarus. In all that fullness of life, a death is  simply overlooked.

Hamburger offers a cool formality. Yet again this an active poem, full of the lives of the sailor in his “world of ropes”, the sheep in the “sheepish present”, the uncertain shepherd gaping at what would surely be an eagle not a falling man. But the poem is contained in its rhyme scheme which gives it an unruffled elegance.

Ahren Warner on the other hand gives a slantwise, witty art historical riff on the old masters and leaves Icarus to oblivion in his watery grave.


Auden wrote Musée des Beaux Arts, named for the Museum of fine Arts in Brussels,  after viewing the Bruegel painting there in 1938.

Wikipedia sums up  the poet as: – “Wystan Hugh Auden 21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973) was an English-American poet. Auden’s poetry was noted for its stylistic and technical achievement, its engagement with politics, morals, love, and religion, and its variety in tone, form and content”


 Musée des Beaux Arts (1940)

W.H. Auden

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.


“William Carlos Williams (September 17, 1883 – March 4, 1963) was a Puerto Rican-American poet closely associated with modernism and imagism. His work has a great affinity with painting, in which he had a lifelong interest. In addition to his writing, Williams had a long career as a physician practicing both paediatrics and general medicine.” Wikipedia





Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
William Carlos Williams


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


“Michael Hamburger OBE (22 March 1924 – 7 June 2007) was a noted British translator, poet, critic, memoirist and academic. He was known in particular for his translations of Friedrich Hölderlin, Paul Celan, Gottfried Benn and W. G. Sebald from German, and his work in literary criticism”

Lines on Brueghel’s “Icarus”
Michael Hamburger

The ploughman ploughs, the fisherman dreams of fish;
Aloft, the sailor, through a world of ropes
Guides tangled meditations, feverish
With memories of girls forsaken, hopes
Of brief reunions, new discoveries,
Past rum consumed, rum promised, rum potential.
Sheep crop the grass, lift up their heads and gaze
Into a sheepish present: the essential,
Illimitable juiciness of things,
Greens, yellows, browns are what they see.
Churlish and slow, the shepherd, hearing wings —
Perhaps an eagle’s–gapes uncertainly;

Too late. The worst has happened: lost to man,
The angel, Icarus, for ever failed,
Fallen with melted wings when, near the sun
He scorned the ordering planet, which prevailed
And, jeering, now slinks off, to rise once more.
But he–his damaged purpose drags him down —
Too far from his half-brothers on the shore,
Hardly conceivable, is left to drown.


“Ahren Warner (born 1986) is a British poet. Warner has published two books of poetry, Confer (Bloodaxe, 2011) and Pretty (Bloodaxe, 2013)” Wikipedia





Though, when it comes to breasts, it’s a different story.

Cranach, for example, never seems to have progressed

Beyond his pubescent attempts at apprenticeship:


tennis balls sewn to a pillow of hay, fingers coming

to terms with the concept of foreplay. So too

with Titian, whose Venus bares handleless plungers


or the fruits of a template mocked up at Bellini’s.

For breasts, you want Rochegrosse, his Chevalier

surrounded by breasts real enough to have men


gripping their gallery plans discreetly, or Picabia

at his most garish: his naked, peroxidised blonde

stretching to coddle her slavering mutt. Her breasts


impress their tender weight upon us, and though

not as lofty as Pieter would have liked, she too

knows something of our weakness; that we fall


and are floored as much by the slat lure of skin.




Bk VIII:183-235 Daedalus and Icarus

Meanwhile Daedalus, hating Crete, and his long exile, and filled with a desire to stand on his native soil, was imprisoned by the waves. ‘He may thwart our escape by land or sea’ he said ‘but the sky is surely open to us: we will go that way: Minos rules everything but he does not rule the heavens’. So saying he applied his thought to new invention and altered the natural order of things. He laid down lines of feathers, beginning with the smallest, following the shorter with longer ones, so that you might think they had grown like that, on a slant. In that way, long ago, the rustic pan-pipes were graduated, with lengthening reeds. Then he fastened them together with thread at the middle, and bees’-wax at the base, and, when he had arranged them, he flexed each one into a gentle curve, so that they imitated real bird’s wings. His son, Icarus, stood next to him, and, not realising that he was handling things that would endanger him, caught laughingly at the down that blew in the passing breeze, and softened the yellow bees’-wax with his thumb, and, in his play, hindered his father’s marvellous work.

When he had put the last touches to what he had begun, the artificer balanced his own body between the two wings and hovered in the moving air. He instructed the boy as well, saying ‘Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way, in case the moisture weighs down your wings, if you fly too low, or if you go too high, the sun scorches them. Travel between the extremes. And I order you not to aim towards Bootes, the Herdsman, or Helice, the Great Bear, or towards the drawn sword of Orion: take the course I show you!’ At the same time as he laid down the rules of flight, he fitted the newly created wings on the boy’s shoulders. While he worked and issued his warnings the ageing man’s cheeks were wet with tears: the father’s hands trembled.

He gave a never to be repeated kiss to his son, and lifting upwards on his wings, flew ahead, anxious for his companion, like a bird, leading her fledglings out of a nest above, into the empty air. He urged the boy to follow, and showed him the dangerous art of flying, moving his own wings, and then looking back at his son. 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.

And now Samos, sacred to Juno, lay ahead to the left (Delos and Paros were behind them), Lebinthos, and Calymne, rich in honey, to the right, when the boy began to delight in his daring flight, and abandoning his guide, drawn by desire for the heavens, soared higher. His nearness to the devouring sun softened the fragrant wax that held the wings: and the wax melted: he flailed with bare arms, but losing his oar-like wings, could not ride the air. Even as his mouth was crying his father’s name, it vanished into the dark blue sea, the Icarian Sea, called after him. The unhappy father, now no longer a father, shouted ‘Icarus, Icarus where are you? Which way should I be looking, to see you?’ ‘Icarus’ he called again. Then he caught sight of the feathers on the waves, and cursed his inventions. He laid the body to rest, in a tomb, and the island was named Icaria after his buried child.



Shirley Bell (Editor)


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