Article of the Month

The Fall of Icarus                                                          By M. Haroon Qureshi
The fall of Icarus is a moral presented through the use of mythology by the Greeks. A
man by the name of Daedelus had assisted the wife of King Minos mate with a pristine white
bull that was meant to be sacrificed to the Greek ruler of the oceans, Poseidon, as Poseidon’s
punishment to King Minos who refused to sacrifice it. And Daedelus had also assisted the king’s
daughter, Ariadne, to save her lover Theseus from his banishment to the Labyrinth, a maze
Daedelus crafted for the king, by the king. Daedalus wasn’t against the king, however his actions
angered him and he, along with his son Icarus were thrown into the Labyrinth. To escape,
Daedalus built two sets of wings out of scrap copper and from the wax from the candles he was
supplied with. He gave his son a set of wings and told him not to fly too close to the sun as the
sun’s heat would melt the wax and lead him to plummet to his death. However, when the time
came, Icarus was said to have been overcome with what could be described as an adrenaline rush
and out of excitement, he elevated himself in the sky until he came so close to the sun that his
wings melted and he plunged to his fatal death. And the moral implied by the Greeks in this story
is codified in the phrase, “Don’t fly too close to the sun,” meaning don’t go too far beyond one’s
own limits. And this event, the fall of Icarus, is what is primarily discussed by the poet Wystan
Hugh Auden in his poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts.”
Auden was born in Britain and there he was raised and developed his work in a greatly
exposed political and social environment in a highly industrialized area of North Britain. And
with Auden himself being quite social and outgoing, he often incorporated morals and politics
into his work as he aged and traveled to different lands. His parents had great influence over him
and with his father as an expert on mythology and his mother a strict Anglican, his poetic works
often have religious and mythological themes. And this poem reflects his interests in morals,
philosophy, and mythology while pertaining to a theme of the continuity of life’s sufferings. And
I believe that Auden’s intention for writing such a poem was in order to express his beliefs on
how life will always include suffering and as such, suffering is entirely normal so people are able
to easily look past it when it does not involve them. And in the end, life will continue despite the
suffering, only leading to more pain and that the cycle of agony is continuous, therefore people
are required to be able to move forward in order to sustain society. And Auden uses the painting
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Breughel the Elder of the sixteenth century
Netherlands to demonstrate his point.
The poem begins with the words, “About suffering”, indicating that the point of
discussion in the poem is in fact suffering. And then he explicitly states that he is mentioning
human suffering in line three. I believe that the first three lines of the poem are mainly to add an
air of mystery to Auden work to hook in the reader due to the use of vague and cryptic language
that doesn’t properly follow English grammar. And I believe that from the fourth line and beyond
the actual message of the poem can be visualized. Here, Auden begins to relate the casual
experiences of human life, such as eating and walking, and the extremely memorable occasions,
such as the birth of a baby, in order to present his perspective in lines nine through thirteen. Here
Auden speaks of how suffering is waiting for everyone, “Anyhow in a corner”, detailing that it
isn’t possible to evade and that at best it is delayed. The usage of “even the dreadful martyrdom
must run its course” in the previous line amplifies the message by stating that even those
suffering for the sake of others should expect an even greater suffering. The idea of suffering
being universal in the life of everyone, even those acting casual, is related beyond humans and to
life in general with the statement of the dog in lines 13 and 14 as it resides in “the torturer’s
house” while it “scratches its innocent behind”.
In the second stanza of the poem, Auden actually proceeds to address Breughel’s work of
Icarus as a reference to his ideas of universal suffering being ordinary. In the painting of Pieter
Breughel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, an ordinary day of spring is displayed
with a farmer plowing his field, a shepherd tending to his livestock, and sailor’s off on trade
ships. The one obscurity, aside from a mysterious island cave, is the drowning body of Icarus,
which is minuted down to a small, unnoticed casualty. And this scenery of Icarus’s death being
left as a stone unturned is what Auden refers to. He states in the second stanza, that “everything
turns away” from Icarus “quite leisurely” as if nothing catastrophic occurred. To the ploughman
“the forsaken cry … was not an important failure” and “the expensive delicate ship that must
have seen … sailed calmly on” from Icarus’s death. The painting itself captures how death,
which is considered amongst the worst tragedies, is trivialized by its commonality, over a
hundred per minute worldwide in modern times, along with all types of suffering in general.
Auden is not well known for using a vast variety of thematic devices in his poems as they
are typically free-verse narrative poems with little boundaries in terms of linguistic choices. But
his informal grammar structure acted as a thematic device as he employed it to deliver a
philosophical message. And Auden made an unambiguous analogy to the works of Pieter
Breugel and of the mythology of the Greek’s from which the story of Icarus derives from. And
Auden structured his sentences in staccato, long flowing sentences with few stops, in order to
display that his idea throughout the entire poem was very connected.
To conclude, “Musee des Beaux Arts” is a poem that takes a downcast moral lesson from
one of the most famous tragedies in mythology, the Fall of Icarus. And it applies a mural in order
to further visualize the concept, that being the fact that suffering is commonplace. It stated that
life as a whole is constantly under the shadow of pain, and that it is natural to accept pain in
order to proceed. While Auden might not have stated it himself, I would like to extend the
conversation to how it is okay to suffer, and that to grow in life, those living must walk past it.