William Carlos Williams

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Student Question

In "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," what does "awake tingling near the edge of the sea" mean?

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Williams' poem is meant to evoke a famous painting, Pieter Breugel the Elder's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus." The painting in turn refers to the mythic story of Icarus, who, using a set of wings of wax, flew too near the sun, melted his wings, and fell to his death. The story is commonly understood to mean that one shouldn't dare too much, or that one should know one's boundaries. The painting is a panoramic landscape of springtime; in the foreground is a farmer ploughing, and in the background is the sea, with sailing ships. If you look closely, you can see a pair of tiny legs splashing into the sea. That's Icarus. Even though Icarus had this amazing flight, his death is just a tiny, insignificant detail in the picture.

Williams' poem tries to put the painting into words and highlights the insignificance of Icarus in the painting. One way of thinking about the poem is that Icarus is the poet, whose failure, like Icarus's, is ignored. The lines in question, "awake tingling / near / the edge of the sea" are a little difficult to understand. First, what is "awake"? Presumably, we are to understand that "the whole pageantry / of the year" was "awake," in other words, all the activity of a busy spring is visible. This, then, is what is "tingling / near / the edge of the sea." The word "tingling" suggests some sort of interaction between land and sea. The nature of this "tingling" is not clear, except in the general sense that the picture is "tingling" with activity. The next lines make Williams' attitude toward the scene clearer: the pageantry was "concerned / with itself," in other words, everyone in the painting was too busy to notice Icarus. The indifferent tone of Williams' poem both captures the spirit of the painting, and dramatizes how hard it is to get people to pay attention!

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