I am hardly the first person to be inspired by Bruegel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, but it was fun to get a response to my post yesterday from a friend in the Burlington Choral Society.


She sent me W. H. Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts,” one of two famous poems written about the painting.

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.

The other famous poem about Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is by 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
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

My thoughts: There is so much about sound and time implied in this still, silent painting.  The time for Icarus to fall from the sky, perhaps to cry out.  The slow movement of the ships, sails flapping, wood creaking.  The sound of the plow turning the earth (which looks more like whale blubber than soil), row by row, the ploughman completely consumed by his task.  The fisherman, unaware of Icarus entering the water, surely about to look up to see what the sound of the splash was, so near.  The munching (perhaps bleating) of the sheep, with the shepherd looking up into the sky, perhaps noticing Daedalus, though his posture leaning on his crook is the antithesis of the astonishment we would expect if he were actually to be seeing a man flying.

Breugel, it is clear, considers peasants close to the earth, and by implication confers on them both a more basic and more “rarified” life intelligence than those who are more distant from nature.  But the fact that “life goes on” in the painting despite Icarus’ untimely end is not so much indifference, which is a human attribute, as it is the cold-hearted calculus of nature, of Gaia, which has adheres to its own extra-human rhythms of life and death.

Elisabet Sahtouris, an evolutionary biologist writes in Earthdance: Living Systems in Evolution (1999), in what reads to me like a modest philosophical update of Breugel (who pretty much got it right in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, painted around 1560): “Our human task now is to wake up and recognize ourselves as parts or aspects of God-as-Nature and behave accordingly…  We are right to worry about our survival, for we foolishly jeopardize it.  We are wrong to devote our attention to saving or managing nature.  Gaia will save herself with or without us, and hardly needs advice or help in managing her affairs.  To look out for ourselves, we would be wise to interfere as little as possible in her ways, and to learn as much as possible of them.”

One final question, to which I appeal to my readers for an answer, since I have none: Why did Breugel paint the sun as setting – cooling and benign – rather than hot and high in the sky, capable of melting wax?