English Literature
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

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The Intersection of Poetry and Art: A Tribute by William Carlos Williams to Pieter Bruegel

The power of art can often inspire us to create, to reflect, and to imagine. For William Carlos Williams, one particular artist's work was so impactful that he dedicated an entire book of poetry to it. It was the 16th century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder's paintings that moved Williams to create the poem 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' (1960), a beautiful homage to Bruegel's masterpiece.

The Poetic Interpretation of 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' is an ekphrastic poem, a type of literature that vividly describes an existing work of art. Williams originally published this poem in The Hudson Review in 1960, and it was later included in his collection Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962), which posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. This widely recognized poem is a tribute to Bruegel's painting of the same name.

Who was William Carlos Williams?

Born and raised in Rutherford, New Jersey, Williams was a medical doctor by profession. But his true passion was writing, and he often drew inspiration from his patients and his community. Williams was a prominent figure in the Modernist and Imagist literary movements, known for his use of clear and concise language and unique writing techniques.

Pieter Bruegel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' (1560): A Brief Overview

To fully appreciate Williams's poem, it is important to understand the context behind Bruegel's painting. 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' is a pastoral landscape oil painting that depicts a peaceful countryside and a bustling coastal town in the distance. In the foreground, we see a plowman, a shepherd, and a fisherman, with a pair of legs sticking out of the water in the bottom right corner, representing the fallen Icarus.

The Visionary behind the Painting: Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Bruegel was a Dutch Renaissance master painter known for his genre paintings, which focused on the everyday lives of ordinary people instead of the traditional subjects of the wealthy and powerful. Williams shared a similar vision - to elevate the small moments of everyday life through art. This shared belief is evident in both Bruegel's paintings and Williams's poetry.

In Conclusion

Williams and Bruegel were both masters in their respective crafts, each with a deep appreciation for the beauty and significance of everyday life. Through their collaboration, they have immortalized the ordinary and brought it to the forefront as a subject worthy of artistic praise. 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' serves not only as a poetic tribute, but also as a timeless reminder of the human experience and our place in the world.

Literary Elements in William Carlos Williams's Interpretation of Bruegel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'

In his poem 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,' Williams utilizes various literary devices to convey his unique interpretation of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting. These devices include enjambment, juxtaposition, tone, and imagery, which all contribute to the overall meaning of the poem.


William's use of enjambment, a technique where lines flow into each other without punctuation, reflects his rebellious Modernist style. In the second and third stanzas, enjambment is used to create a continuous flow, emphasizing the theme of change and movement within the poem.


The theme of change is further emphasized through juxtaposition. While Bruegel's painting portrays the vibrancy of spring, the poem ends with the insignificant death of Icarus, unnoticed amidst the daily activities of the people. This contrast highlights the idea that life continues despite tragedy.


The tone of William's poem is detached and matter-of-fact, starting with the statement "According to Bruegel..." (1). This detached tone mirrors the indifference of the world towards Icarus's fall, further emphasizing the theme of life going on.


Despite its brevity, the poem is rich in imagery. William vividly describes the farmer, the landscape, and the sea, all contributing to the theme of life continuing amidst tragedy. His use of alliteration, such as "sweating in the sun" (13) and "wings' wax" (15), adds to the vividness of the descriptions.

Main Takeaways from 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'

Published in 1960, William Carlos Williams's poem is a unique retelling of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting depicting the myth of Icarus. Both the painting and the poem convey the idea that life continues even after tragedy strikes, as portrayed through the indifference of everyday people to Icarus's fall. This perspective adds a new dimension to the classic cautionary tale against overambition, highlighting the insignificance of one's death in the grand scheme of things.

William's interpretation of Bruegel's painting is a testament to his inimitable style and themes of everyday life, making 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' a notable addition to Modernist poetry.

What is the Main Idea of William's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'?

The main idea of 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' by William Carlos Williams is that life goes on amidst tragedy, as portrayed by the indifference of everyday people to Icarus's fall. Through his unique interpretation of the classical myth, Williams emphasizes the idea that no matter how significant or insignificant one's death may be, life continues on.

The Meaningful Structure of ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’

In the well-known legend, Icarus meets his untimely demise while the world carries on, seemingly unaffected by his fate. This theme is mirrored in William Carlos Williams’ poem ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’. But what is the structure of this piece and what message does it convey? Let’s take a closer look.

Poem Structure

‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ is crafted in free verse, consisting of seven stanzas, each comprised of three lines. Williams expertly employs enjambment, allowing for a smooth flow of lines, creating a sense of fluidity and continuity.

Publish Date

Initially published in 1960 in The Hudson Review, ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ was later featured as one of the fundamental poems in Williams’ compilation, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems (1962).

The Mastermind Behind the Masterpiece

The renowned painting ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ (1560) is attributed to Peter Bruegel the Elder. However, the existing painting in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels is believed to be a replica created by an artist in Bruegel’s studio, rather than the work of Bruegel himself. The original painting has since been lost.

The Myth of Icarus

The poem is inspired by the Greek myth of Icarus, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this tale, Icarus and his father, Daedalus, attempt to flee Crete using wings made of wax and feathers. Daedalus warns Icarus not to fly too close to the sun or the sea. However, in his excitement, Icarus ignores his father’s caution and ultimately falls to his death as his wings melt.

The Significance of the Poem

Through the tragic story of Icarus, the poem serves as a warning against the dangers of overconfidence and excessive ambition. It serves as a reminder to remain humble and sensible in the pursuit of our desires, or else we may face a similar fate as Icarus. As life continues on, the poem serves as a poignant reminder that our own actions and choices can have a profound and lasting impact.

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