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ICARUS - POEMS & PAINTINGS
Midi Sequence by permission John Sankey -- his performance of "Fancie" by Wm. Byrd [MB46]. Click on your browser refresh button to repeat the music.
Introduction: The Story from Bullfinch's Mythology:
(Click HERE to skip to poems and paintings)
The labyrinth from which Theseus escaped by means of the clew of Ariadne was built by Daedalus, a most skilful artificer. It was an edifice with numberless winding passages and turnings opening into one another, and seeming to have neither beginning nor end, like the river Maeander, which returns on itself, and flows now onward, now backward, in its course to the sea. Daedalus built the labyrinth for King Minos, but afterwards lost the favour of the king, and was shut up in a tower. He contrived to make his escape from his prison, but could not leave the island by sea, as the king kept strict watch on all the vessels, and permitted none to sail without being carefully searched. "Minos may control the land and sea," said Daedalus, "but not the regions of the air. I will try that way." So he set to work to fabricate wings for himself and his young son Icarus. He wrought feathers together, beginning with the smallest and adding larger, so as to form an increasing surface. The larger ones he secured with thread and the smaller with wax, and gave the whole a gentle curvature like the wings of a bird. Icarus, the boy, stood and looked on, sometimes running to gather up the feathers which the wind had blown away, and then handling the wax and working it over with his fingers, by his play impeding his father in his labours. When at last the work was done, the artist, waving his wings, found himself buoyed upward, and hung suspended, poising himself on the beaten air. He next equipped his son in the same manner and taught him how to fly, as a bird tempts her young ones from the lofty nest into the air. When all was prepared for flight he said, "Icarus, my son, I charge you to keep at a moderate height, for if you fly too low the damp will clog your wings, and if too high the heat will melt them. Keep near me and you will be safe." While he gave him these instructions and fitted the wings to his shoulders, the face of the father was wet with tears, and his hands trembled. He kissed the boy, not knowing that it was for the last time. Then rising on his wings, he flew off, encouraging him to follow, and looked back from his own flight to see how his son managed his wings. As they flew the ploughman stopped his work to gaze, aid the shepherd leaned on his staff and watched them, astonished at the sight, and thinking they were gods who could thus cleave the air.
They passed Samos and Delos on the left and Lebynthos on the right, when the boy, exulting in his career, began to leave the guidance of his companion and soar upward as if to reach heaven. The nearness of the blazing sun softened the wax which held the feathers together, and they came off. He fluttered with his arms, but no feathers remained to hold the air. While his mouth uttered cries to his father it was submerged in the blue waters of the sea which thenceforth was called by his name. His father cried, "Icarus, Icarus, where are you?" At last he saw the feathers floating on the water, and bitterly lamenting his own arts, he buried the body and called the land Icaria in memory of his child. Daedalus arrived safe in Sicily, where he built a temple to Apollo, and hung up his wings, an offering to the god.
Daedalus was so proud of his achievements that he could not bear the idea of a rival. His sister had placed her son Perdix under his charge to be taught the mechanical arts. He was an apt scholar and gave striking evidences of ingenuity. Walking on the seashore he picked up the spine of a fish. Imitating it, he took a piece of iron and notched it on the edge, and thus invented the saw. He, put two pieces of iron together, connecting them at one end with a rivet, and sharpening the other ends, and made a pair of compasses. Daedalus was so envious of his nephew's performances that he took an opportunity, when they were together one day on the top of a high tower to push him off. But Minerva (Athena), who favours ingenuity, saw him falling, and arrested his fate by changing him into a bird called after his name, the Partridge. This bird does not build his nest in the trees, nor take lofty flights, but nestles in the hedges, and mindful of his fall, avoids high places.
The death of Icarus is told in the following lines by Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles):
"...with melting wax and loosened strings
Sunk hapless Icarus on unfaithful wings;
Headlong he rushed through the affrighted air,
With limbs distorted and dishevelled hair;
His scattered plumage danced upon the wave,
And sorrowing Nereids decked his watery grave;
O'er his pale corse their pearly sea-flowers shed,
And strewed with crimson moss his marble bed;
Struck in their coral towers the passing bell,
And wide in ocean tolled his echoing knell."
MUSEE DES BEAUX ARTS
by W. H. Auden
Here is a recording of the poem by your reader, in streaming RealAudio: Click HERE [1:16]
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 Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the plowman 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.
LANDSCAPE WITH THE FALL OF ICARUS, painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder:
Pieter Brueghel the Elder
OTHER POEMS BASED ON THE ABOVE PAINTING:
LANDSCAPE WITH THE FALL OF ICARUS
by William Carlos Williams
Here is a recording of the poem by your reader, in streaming RealAudio: Click HERE [0:29]
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings' wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
TO A FRIEND WHOSE WORK HAS COME TO TRIUMPH
by Anne Sexton
Here is a recording of the poem by your reader, in streaming RealAudio: Click HERE [0:55]
Consider Icarus, pasting those sticky wings on,
testing this strange little tug at his shoulder blade,
and think of that first flawless moment over the lawn
of the labyrinth. Think of the difference it made!
There below are the trees, as awkward as camels;
and here are the shocked starlings pumping past
and think of innocent Icarus who is doing quite well:
larger than a sail, over the fog and the blast
of the plushy ocean, he goes. Admire his wings!
Feel the fire at his neck and see how casually
he glances up and is caught, wondrously tunneling
into that hot eye. Who cares that he fell back to the sea?
See him acclaiming the sun and come plunging down
while his sensible daddy goes straight into town.
- Anne Sexton
Cf. also Wm. Butler Yeats [1865-1939]: To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.
by Edward Field
Here is a recording of the poem by your reader, in streaming RealAudio: Click HERE [1:41]
Only the feathers floating around the hat
Showed that anything more spectacular had occurred
Than the usual drowning. The police preferred to ignore
The confusing aspects of the case,
And the witnesses ran off to a gang war.
So the report filed and forgotten in the archives read simply
Drowned, but it was wrong: Icarus
Had swum away, coming at last to the city
Where he rented a house and tended the garden.
That nice Mr. Hicks the neighbors called him,
Never dreaming that the gray, respectable suit
Concealed arms that had controlled huge wings
Nor that those sad, defeated eyes had once
Compelled the sun. And had he told them
They would have answered with a shocked, uncomprehending stare.
No, he could not disturb their neat front yards;
Yet all his books insisted that this was a horrible mistake: What was he doing aging in a suburb?
Can the genius of the hero fall
To the middling stature of the merely talented?
And nightly Icarus probes his wound
And daily in his workshop, curtains carefully drawn,
Constructs small wings and tries to fly
To the lighting fixture on the ceiling:
Fails every time and hates himself for trying.
He had thought himself a hero, had acted heroically,
And now dreamt of his fall, the tragic fall of the hero;
But now rides commuter trains,
Serves on various committees,
And wishes he had drowned.
WAITING FOR ICARUS
by Muriel Rukeyser (1973)
Here is a recording of the poem by your reader, in streaming RealAudio: Click HERE [1:27]
Here is a recording of the poem by the poet herself, also in streaming RealAudio: Click HERE [1:27]
He said he would be back and we'd drink wine together
He said that everything would be better than before
He said we were on the edge of a new relation
He said he would never again cringe before his father
He said that he was going to invent full-time
He said he loved me that going into me
He said was going into the world and the sky
He said all the buckles were very firm
He said the wax was the best wax
He said Wait for me here on the beach
He said Just don't cry
I remember the gulls and the waves
I remember the islands going dark on the sea
I remember the girls laughing,
I remember they said he only wanted to get away from me
I remember mother saying: Inventors are like poets,
a trashy lot
I remember she told me those who try out inventions are worse
I remember she added: Women who love such are the worst of all
I have been waiting all day, or perhaps longer.
I would have liked to try those wings myself.
It would have been better than this.
Muriel Rukeyser (1973)
Inclusion of this poem was kindly suggested by Nancy Schadt.
by Christine Hemp
The text of the following poem has been seen on my site since its first publication, and can now be heard in audio. It is an important poem in the scheme of things at the dawn of twenty-first century American poetry. Note especially the "white-hot" energy of the next to last stanza.
Here is a recording of the following poem by your reader, completed December 29, 2003 in streaming RealAudio: Click HERE [1:37]
It was his idea, this flying thing.
We collected feathers at night, stuffing
our pockets with mourning dove down. By day,
we'd weave and glue them with the wax
I stole after we'd shooed the bees away.
Oh, how it felt, finally, to blow off Crete
leaving a labyrinth of dead-ends:
my clumsiness with figures, father's calm
impatience, cool logic, interminable devising.
The sea wind touched my face like balm.
He thought I'd tag along as usual,
in the wake of his careful scheme
bound by the string connecting father and son,
invisible thread I tried for years to untie.
I ached to be a good-for-something on my own.
I didn't know I'd get drunk with the heat,
flying high, too much a son to return.
Poor Daedelus, his mouth an O below,
his hands outstretched to catch the rain
of wax. He still doesn't know.
My wings fell, yes - I saw him hover
over the tiny splash - but by then I'd been
swallowed into love's eye, the light I've come to see
as home, drowning in the yes, this swirling
white-hot where night will never find me.
And now when my father wakes
each morning, his bones still sore
from his one-time flight, his confidence undone
because the master plan fell through,
he rises to a light he never knew, his son.
from Graven Images, A Journal of Law, Culture, and the Sacred; and in XY Files: Poems of the Male Experience Anthology by Sherman Asher Press (Santa Fe).
copyright Christine Hemp
By Wendy A. Shaffer
Here is a recording of the poem by your reader, in streaming RealAudio: Click HERE [1:10]
watching white feathers flutter upward,
curse the wax as a fair-weather friend?
It seemed such a strong solid type,
but it melted away
when things got hot.
Did he rail at the sun,
which beckoned enticingly,
and then changed from a beacon to a furnace?
Did he blame Daedalus, his father?
Who warned him not to fly too high
in the same distracted tones with which
he admonished his son
to put on a sweater in the cold,
to eat his lima beans,
to not run with scissors.
How could he have known that this time the old man really meant it?
Or did he regret that the illustrious inventor,
when creating his flying apparatus,
did not take the obvious next step:
the emergency parachute?
He must have thought
all of this
But as he neared the ocean,
came close enough to wave to the startled fishermen in their boats,
that even had he known
of the many failings of fathers and feathers,
he would have done it anyway.
Wendy A. Shaffer is a graduate in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. "Icarus" is her first published poem, reprinted with the permission of the author. Click on her name to visit her journal.