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The story of Icarus has captivated poets and artists throughout the ages. The idea of a young man struck down as a consequence of challenging his human limitations continues to hold a fascination. We are enthralled by Icarus, admiring his gumption while simultaneously chastising his foolishness. 

Poets and artists throughout the ages have found in the story of Icarus rich fodder for their creative imagination. Through paintings, sculpture, poetry, and fiction, they have rendered their interpretations of the story of this young boy who has the nerve to soar to heights that defy common sense. 

An example of this can be found in the work of the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel (1525-1569). Bruegel provides an interesting approach to the story of Icarus. In an exquisite painting on exhibit in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, Bruegel depicts the Fall of Icarus. The painting shows people going about their business, sailing, farming, etc. while in the lower corner, almost as an afterthought, are the legs of Icarus as he plummets to the sea. 

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by Pieter Brueghel (1526/1530-1569) [Public Domain]; via Wikimedia Commons

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" by Pieter Brueghel (1526/1530-1569) [Public Domain]; via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps Bruegel is suggesting while suffering and tragedy may have a profound impact on those who fall victim to it, the rest of the world seems to take another’s tragedy as a matter of course and go about its business relatively unaffected.  Bruegel may even be hinting at something more: questioning the value of Icarus’ challenge to human limitations.  After all, how significant could this challenge be if it fails to interrupt even the most mundane routines of everyday life?

The English poet, W.H. Auden (1907-1973) tackles the story of Icarus in his poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts” (1940). Auden describes human suffering as seemingly inconsequential to those not affected by it. Interestingly, he includes a description of Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus to illustrate his point, observing that the sight of a young boy falling out of the sky barely elicits mild surprise on the part of those who witnessed the spectacle.

Finally, in his novel, The Testament of Deadalus (1962) Michael Ayrton offers an interesting twist to the story of Icarus by shifting the focus of attention away from the boy. Instead of spotlighting Icarus, Ayrton turns his lens to Icarus’ father, Daedalus. Daedalus speaks in first person narrative to himself and to the reader as he struggles to come to terms with the death of his son. The work is a powerful and poignant testament of a father grappling to find understanding in the midst of overwhelming grief. Ayrton enhances the impact of his story by inserting his own dynamic drawings throughout the text.

There are numerous other artistic interpretations of the story of Icarus. These three happen to be among my favorites and are well worth an exploration.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar