We all know the myth of Icarus, the boy who disobeyed his father’s commands not to fly too high and too close to the sun with his wings built of wax and feathers, whose wings melted, and thus fell to his death in the sea. It is one of the most popular and enduring of the Greek myths. It has been told time and time again, from the earliest Greek poets, to the Romans Hyginus and Ovid, a variety of Renaissance playwrights and poets (no less than Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton), and modern poets like Auden, Williams, and Sexton. It has been represented in art throughout these time periods as well. And there are similar stories in Hindu, Chinese, and Babylonian mythology as well. It has even inspired a psychological term: “Icarus Complex,” to characterize certain kinds of bipolar mania, relating to the symptoms of being obsessed with heights, fire, and water, displaying narcissistic behavior, and extremely far-fetched fantasies/thoughts.
But why do we all continue to be so enchanted by, or fascinated with, or obsessed with Icarus?
Consider this painting, “The Lament for Icarus” by Herbert James Draper:
Or the “Icarus” by Henri Matisse, one of the plates he made to illustrate his book Jazz:
And the famous “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” ostensibly by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (though there seems to be some question about that):
This last was the inspiration for the poems by both W.H. Auden and William Carlos Williams (two of my favorite poems, frankly). I’ve included them here, because why not.
Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
William Carlos Williams
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
sweating in the sun
the wings’ wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
But then there is also the now-less-known poem by Stephen Vincent Benet. Benet is one of my personal favorite poets (you’ll noticed I created a photoset specifically for his poem “Nos Immortales”), but he is not much remembered these days. When I was in high school we was still discussed somewhat because his (truly amazing) short story “By the Waters of Babylon” was included the old Prentice Hall Literature textbooks (he also wrote the short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster”). And some people still remember him because he wrote the epic long-form narrative poem John Brown’s Body. One of his short stories was even adapted into the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He won the Pulitzer twice. And yet no one really talks about him anymore, and certainly not about his poetry as a whole. I fear he is considered too flowery and emotional for modernism and contemporary poets.
In any case, his poem about Icarus is one of the best (in my humble opinion). He approaches the pathos, the inspiration, rather than the tragedy or hubris of the story.
“The Winged Man”
Stephen Vincent Benet
The moon, a sweeping scimitar, dipped in the stormy straits,
The dawn, a crimson cataract, burst through the eastern gates,
The cliffs were robed in scarlet, the sands were cinnabar,
Where first two men spread wings for flight and dared the hawk afar.
There stands the cunning workman, the crafty past all praise,
The man who chained the Minotaur, the man who built the Maze.
His young son is beside him and the boy’s face is a light,
A light of dawn and wonder and of valor infinite.
Their great vans beat the cloven air, like eagles they mount up,
Motes in the wine of morning, specks in a crystal cup,
And lest his wings should melt apace old Daedalus flies low,
But Icarus beats up, beats up, he goes where lightnings go.
He cares no more for warnings, he rushes through the sky,
Braving the crags of ether, daring the gods on high,
Black ‘gainst the crimson sunset, golden o’er cloudy snows,
With all Adventure in his heart the first winged man arose.
Dropping gold, dropping gold, where the mists of morning rolled,
On he kept his way undaunted, though his breaths were stabs of cold,
Through the mystery of dawning that no mortal may behold.
Now he shouts, now he sings in the rapture of his wings,
And his great heart burns intenser with the strength of his desire,
As he circles like a swallow, wheeling, flaming, gyre on gyre.
Gazing straight at the sun, half his pilgrimage is done,
And he staggers for a moment, hurries on, reels backward, swerves
In a rain of scattered feathers as he falls in broken curves.
Icarus, Icarus, though the end is piteous,
Yet forever, yea, forever we shall see thee rising thus,
See the first supernal glory, not the ruin hideous.
You were Man, you who ran farther than our eyes can scan,
Man absurd, gigantic, eager for impossible Romance,
Overthrowing all Hell’s legions with one warped and broken lance.
On the highest steeps of Space he will have his dwelling-place,
In those far, terrific regions where the cold comes down like Death
Gleams the red glint of his pinions, smokes the vapor of his breath.
Floating downward, very clear, still the echoes reach the ear
Of a little tune he whistles and a little song he sings,
Mounting, mounting still, triumphant, on his torn and broken wings!
I think it is Benet’s poem that gets closest to understanding our continuing obsession with the character and fate of Icarus. It is not simply a question of a young man who disregarded his father’s warnings; it is not simply a question of hubris. It is about desire, daring, defiance.
Perhaps, just perhaps, it is also about self-destruction.
I think there is a strong connection between the Icarus myth and the French concept of “L’appel du vide” – the call of the void. The sudden powerful urge some people feel to jump from a high place when they come to them – for instance, the balcony of a tall building, a tourist spot at the Grand Canyon, etc. There is no conscious, reasonable, thought process. The person need not even be remotely suicidal, or depressed. Sometimes the desire simply arises out of nowhere, without warning. I wonder how many people have found themselves nearly stepping off the edge before the even realize what they’re doing. I wonder if anyone who did commit suicide did so by accident, in response of the call of the void, when they would never have done so under any other circumstance.
I think of myself, visiting the Grand Canyon with friends, jumping onto outcroppings and pillars no sane person should. Of balancing on one leg so I can dangle the other foot over the edge. Of thinking: “Go ahead and jump. I’ll bet you can fly.” I think of myself sitting in my room alone at three in the morning, with a razor lined up against my wrist, waiting for some kind of sign. Yes or no.
And for some reason, I always think of that great line from The Dark Knight (yes, the Nolan Batman movie), that line we all know: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
That may be true. But also consider that some people may only want to watch themselves burn. Self-immolation, literal and figurative, is a powerful motivator. And sometimes that desire arises out of nowhere. From nowhere. From the depth of the void. And sometimes it calls to us from above, from the glow of the sun.