Lines on Brueghel’s “Icarus”

Michael Hamburger’s poem is on my mind today, which I unapologetically quote in full below. I’ve always loved the viewpoint that Hamburger chooses for his poem.

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.

8 thoughts on “Lines on Brueghel’s “Icarus”

  1. Ah, I love Brueghel. Try to get a high res image of the painting and see why almost every poem about it misses the point. It warrants patient and detailed examination as, like in every B, the meaning is always hidden. Something Augustine said, apparently: “Some of the expressions are so obscure as to shroud the meaning in the thickest darkness. And I do not doubt that all this was divinely arranged for the purpose of subduing pride by toil, and of preventing a feeling of satiety in the intellect, which generally holds in small esteem what is discovered without difficulty.”

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    • So do I, Claudia, and particularly the Icarus painting, which I think about often. My own assumption has always been that the poem is about the mundanity of death. Although death is entirely natural, common, we humans invest our subjective experience of death(s) with an overwhelming degree of significance.

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      • It seems the view point is not much different if you look closely. The disregard for the tragedy taking place
        is similar. One thing I like is the reference to Icarus as an angel. Both Auen’s poem and Icarus are favorite things of mine and I have written several poems dealing with both. But I would like to see your take on the angelic quality more expounded upon. I have always seen Icarus as a promethian character, heroic in his disregard of the threat of being too bold, an archetype of man’s searching nature for answers to the unknown. Putting him in the guise of an angel creates a new perspective of sacrifice for example sake. Anyway, go poem, just my ramblings. >KB

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        • The fallen angel references seem to me an almost religious reading. Auden and Hamburger choose the fall as a consequence of human folly interpretation, rather than a quest for progress reading.

          I’ve always been more intrigued by Daedalus, and why Brueghel chose not to depict him. Or the sun. And of course the ploughman who is the true subject of the painting.

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