|Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (Pieter Bruegel, 1558)
Long ago and far away, Greek parents told their children the story of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus told his son Icarus the truth: stay away from the sun. Then, with his son, Daedalus flew to freedom. But only Daedalus got there. His son did not stay away from the sun and died on the way. Daedalus got there, but he never wanted to be there with no son.
Pieter Bruegel painted this story in 1558. He called it Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. In Bruegel’s story of Icarus, a farmer plows, a shepherd dreams, a fisherman fishes, and sailors sail, but no one cares that Icarus dies.
In 1938, the English poet W. H. Auden saw Bruegel’s story of Icarus. Then Auden wrote his own story of Bruegel’s story of the old Greek story. Auden saw the lack of caring in Bruegel’s story. He asked us to think about it.
In 1999, the American Alan Devenish wrote a poem called “Icarus Again.” That poem is his story of Auden’s story of Bruegel’s story of the old Greek story of Icarus.
Of that old Greek story, Devenish says: “You’d think we’d have enough of falling/ since that sunny day high off the coast of
Of Bruegel’s story, he rightly says that Bruegel’s green sea, in which Icarus dies, does not care that Icarus dies in it.
He says that Auden’s story is right: “we plow through life/ head bent to the furrow while tragedy falls from the sky.”
But Devenish also tells us his story of Icarus. First, he tells us that, today, people still fall from the sky. Sometimes space shuttles explode by accident. Sometimes planes with people in them fall from the sky because other people want them to. One way or the other, people still fly into the sky and then, like Icarus, fall out of it and die.
Devenish says we always fly but sometimes die. For him, this is sad but right: “Love itself believing against all gravity/ our waxen wings and how foolish not too.” Is he right?