Discuss the major elements of an analysis of William Carlos Williams' "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus."

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carol-davis's profile pic

carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” was written by  William Carlos Williams who wrote under the labels of modernist and imagist. He favored the preciseness of imagery with clear, sharp language.  The intention was to illustrate his scenes without using symbols and minimal figurative language which might take away from his image. His poetry is meant to show impressions as masterful creations that are to be held aloft and reassuring to the reader.

This poem is based on a landscape painting by Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the elder, which portrays a scene from Greek mythology but is set in the time of the artist. William’s purpose was to put words to the scene of the painting.

The myth

Icarus, son of Daedalus, took flight from imprisonment wearing the fragile wings his father had fashioned for him. Heedless of his father's warning to keep over the sea and avoid flying too close to the sun, the exuberant boy flew too near to the burning sun, which melted his wings. Icarus hurtled to the sea and death.


The type of poem is narrative because it tells a story.  Written in free verse, there are no set stanzas and no distinct rhyme scheme. The poet creates three line stanzas which include enjambments.  There is no punctuation or capitalization. His matter of fact language serves to link the pleasant scene of the landscape with the death of the young boy.

Changing with the turn of events, the tone of the poem begins with joy and happiness until the realization that Icarus is going to die. Then, the reader feels the more gloomy and depressing reality of death.

Thematically, the poem concerns the lack of awareness of the troubles of others when a person’s life is going well. The pain and tragedy that one person faces may go unnoticed to the rest of the world.  

Summary of the poem

Williams creates a vivid image of the surrounding landscape. This takes away from the seemingly tragic death of Icarus, and overrides it with something as everyday as a pastoral landscape.

The poem describes the surrounding natural world and all of the spectacle of the time of year. A farmer is plowing his fields when Icarus falls. The scene is filled with life.  No one pays any attention to the falling boy. As the reader gets further and further into the story, the reader joins Icarus as he falls from the sky and comes closer to his death. The sun was hot and melted the wax wings. There was a splash. Icarus fell into the sea and drowned


Off the coast

There was

A splash quite unnoticed

This was

Icarus drowning

Williams employed a clever way of inserting with a splash  the sad, quiet death of Icarus.

thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Several poets have written about this well-known painting by Pieter Bruegel, including Auden. What makes the painting so interesting is that Icarus, the putative subject, falls from the sky in the background, and the farmer doesn't notice. There is a literary device in the fact that Icarus is often seen as a metaphor for the poet or other figure who soars too close to the sun, moving too far above ordinary life, and is damaged, just as the wings of Icarus melt causing him to die at what should have been the triumphant moment of his escape. Bruegel, and concomitantly Williams, make us aware of the importance of the ordinary, which you could take as a theme of this poem; the fall of Icarus can also be seen not as a grand tragedy but rather as:

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed

mercure's profile pic

mercure | (Level 1) Honors

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Landscape with the fall of Icarus


According to Brueghel when Icarus fell it was spring a farmer was ploughing his field the whole pageantry of the year was awake tingling near the edge of the sea concerned with itself sweating in the sun that melted the wings' wax unsignificantly off the coast there was a splash quite unnoticed this was Icarus drowning

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