Ekphrastic reimaginings of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus: Revisiting Butor through Auden and Williams

By Elizabeth Geary Keohane

Fig. 1 Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, oil on canvas, mounted on wood, 73.5 x 112 cm. Photo credit: © [Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo: J. Geleyns/Ro scan]

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555, oil on canvas, mounted on wood, 73.5 x 112 cm.
Photo credit: © [Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo: J. Geleyns/Ro scan].

This paper considers three ekphrastic texts that focus on the painting traditionally attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1555). The writings in question are W. H. Auden’s 1938 poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, William Carlos Williams’s poem, ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, first published in 1960, and Michel Butor’s section on the painting in his 1969 essay Les Mots dans la peinture. I favour the simplicity and straightforwardness of James W. Heffernan’s definition of ekphrasis, that is, as a ‘verbal representation of visual representation’.[1] Using such a concise definition of ekphrasis in fact broadens its parameters. It means that the ekphrastic leanings of a fluid piece of writing such as Butor’s intermittently lyrical essay, which examines the multifarious roles of words in painting, can be identified, despite the concept usually being understood as one rooted in poetry. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that Les Mots dans la peinture has an ‘ekphrastic bent’, and that the work merits further attention beyond its use as a key essay in the study of word and image relations, not least because of the lyrical quality that it occasionally exhibits.[2] Exploring Butor’s treatment of the Icarus painting alongside two poems on the same work of art, then, not only brings out some of the common problems faced by writers attempting ekphrasis, but allows us to start rethinking the way we approach this concept. It must be noted at this juncture that David Scott, in his seminal study Pictorialist Poetics (1988), singles out the creative challenges that the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus presents for the poet; an analysis of its influence on these writers therefore looks back to Scott’s extensive work in the field of textual and visual studies.[3] For Scott, in the case of the Brueghels and that of other contemporaneous Flemish painters, ‘their presentation simultaneously of a multitude of diverse actions or events demands an energetic and comparatively free movement of the eye’.[4] It will be my contention here that each of the three pieces of writing in question faces similar challenges in the light of the energetic reaction provoked by the encounter with this painting, especially when it comes to attempting to divert or redirect such dynamism to the page itself. In so doing, I will also uncover some of the reasons why this painting, in particular, acts as a creative stimulus for these writers.

Butor’s essay comprises fifty-one sections and explores the role of words in paintings. It focuses on art from the medieval era onwards, including contemporary art. Section 5 is entitled ‘la chute d’Icare’, and focuses on Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Butor gradually refines his focus to consider the upturned legs of Icarus, who is seen to struggle in the water following his fall from the sky. However, in keeping with the expansive nature of Butor’s project, the Icarus section does not begin with a discussion of the painting itself; instead, the writer outlines the usual reasoning behind his approach to contemplating an abstract painting, and the influence that any title accorded to a work of abstract art exerts upon the way in which he interprets it:

Imaginons sur une toile une forme triangulaire peinte la pointe la plus aigüe vers le haut; si elle a le titre ‘arbre’, je comprends qu’il s’agit d’un arbre, je lui donne un tronc, des branches; si c’est ‘montagne’, j’en déroulerai les pentes; si c’est ‘triangle’, ses bords deviendront lignes, ses pointes des angles […]; si c’est ‘composition’, ce qui requerra le plus mon attention sera la liaison avec le cadre; si c’est un simple numéro qui la désigne, alors, la plupart du temps, mes associations seront libres, parfois riches, et la forme flottera, se déformera sous mes yeux selon mon humeur, parfois fort pauvres.[5]

For Butor, then, the radical refocusing of our eyes generally necessitated by an encounter with modern abstract art is an approach already encouraged by the interplay that exists between the title of this Renaissance painting and the dynamic arrangement of the elements it depicts. Indeed, Butor argues that once he knows, from its title, that this landscape can be qualified further as one with the Fall of Icarus, the little drowning figure who initially escapes the viewer’s attention (since the lines of the painting seem at first to lead away from him in a deliberate fashion) becomes ‘le foyer de toute l’image’.[6] As Butor’s description of the Icarus painting takes flight, however, we see the writer moving further and further away from the analytic tone that would appear to elucidate or even prescribe a way of seeing; he instead appears enraptured by the work of art, drawn in by what he describes at the outset as ‘un symbolisme nouveau passionnant à élucider’.[7] As the section progresses, it even begins to exhibit characteristics similar to what we might see in a prose poem; in developing the image of the fallen Icarus, Butor’s description of the painting becomes increasingly lyrical. A new linear connection among the elements of the painting is established:

[U]ne sorte de chaîne va lier pour nos yeux désormais, à travers voiles et mâts du navire, l’imprudent fils de Dédale à son désir, à son meurtrier, le soleil à l’horizon, vraisemblablement à son lever, car c’est dès qu’il a commencé à montrer un peu plus fortement ses rayons qu’il a dû faire fondre la cire retenant les plumes sur les ailes ingénieuses à une immense distance, dans un tout autre endroit du ciel.[8]

Yet this move from general comments on the role of the title in approaching visual art to the effervescent and arguably poetic reverie above in fact attempts to mask another agenda on the part of the writer. For Butor, in Les Mots dans la peinture the ‘je’ is always in evidence. The encounter with the painting is therefore presented as a personal one; we are privy to the writer’s verbal appropriation of his ocular experience. Even in analysing the extent to which the title of the work of art impacts the way it will be viewed, Butor presents himself as actively following the vectors in the painting that ultimately lead his gaze towards the figure of Icarus. We will see that Auden and Williams eschew the idea of inserting themselves so noticeably into their respective poems; in both instances, Brueghel is the one brought into focus, creating the illusion that each poet is somehow deferring to the artist, or merely giving voice to what the artist might have intended to convey. Butor, however, appears to sidestep this potentially duplicitous aspect of ekphrasis (that is, putting words in the mouth of the artist when, in fact, they are solely indicative of the poet’s engagement with and interpretation of the visual representation at hand) by making his encounter with the work of art appear emphatically personal. At the same time, however, it can be argued that his invocation, in the opening lines of this section, of the general rules that govern the perception of any work of art seems to push for a collective understanding of this painting. Moreover, in elucidating the way in which he sees the painting, we too follow a similar trajectory as readers, an interpretation bolstered by the fact that Butor seamlessly switches to ‘nous’ and ‘nos’ during his enraptured description of the painting, the first mention of the first person plural being precisely ‘une sorte de chaîne va lier pour nos yeux […]’.[9] Butor’s personal encounter with the painting further imprints our way of seeing it due to the illustration presented alongside his text (in the case, a black-and-white reproduction of the work of art in question). The inclusion of this illustration has the desired effect of making the temptation to accept Butor’s implicit invitation to see the painting through his eyes seem even greater.

The title of Auden’s poem, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, firmly places the encounter with the painting in a museum setting and, in so doing, reveals a geographical location (the painting in question belongs to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique). However, any further insight into the location of the work of art does not feature in the poem itself, and the focus in the second stanza falls instead on what is depicted in the Icarus painting: ‘In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away/ Quite leisurely from the disaster […]’.[10] In his well-known essay ‘Ekphrasis and the Still Movement of Poetry; or Laokoön Revisited’, Murray Krieger uncovers what he identifies as the pervasiveness of stillness in ekphrastic work, that is to say, the way in which the plasticity of a given painting or sculpture can ‘still’ its verbal representation: ‘[t]he spatial work freezes the temporal work which seeks to capture it in that temporality’.[11] Drawing out the multiple meanings of the word ‘still’, Krieger writes:

Having […] borrowed it from Keats, I have freely used it as adjective, adverb, and verb; as still movement, still moving, and more forcefully, the stilling of movement: so “still” movement as quiet, unmoving movement; “still” moving as a forever-now movement, always in process, unending; and the union of these meanings at once twin and opposed in the “stilling” of movement, an action that is at once the quieting of movement and the perpetuation of it, the making of it […], a movement that is still and that is still with us […][12]

What makes the Icarus painting especially compelling for poets and other writers is that its dynamism – both in terms of the multiple connections among its various elements that its geometry might suggest, and the apparent simultaneity of several events – affords them the potential to disrupt the multi-faceted stillness that usually characterises verbal representations of the fine arts. For instance, in the case of the Auden poem, it can be said that the stillness Krieger sees as underpinning ekphrasis appears to be disrupted by the various movements that splice through the work’s final stanza – namely, ‘a boy falling out of the sky’, ‘the white legs disappearing into the green/ Water’ and the ship which ‘[h]ad somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on’.[13] Butor’s piece also invokes a mobility that seems to jostle with the stillness at the heart of ekphrasis: ‘Et puis nous savons qu’il tombe […], c’est une chute vertigineuse qui fait vibrer en réponse tous les autres mouvements’.[14] While Butor’s vibrations arguably constitute a successful transposition of the dynamism of simultaneity, and therefore reveal and even revel in the ultimate interconnectedness of elements on the canvas, Auden’s approach to the painting is to frame it, first of all, in terms of a fleeting moment, after which everything else is likely to carry on, regardless of the unfolding tragedy, and however spectacular that might be – ‘the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/ Something amazing […]’.[15] The closing lines of Auden’s poem put forward the possibility of onward movement, as well as suggesting the future completion of those actions already commenced, thus reconfiguring our way of viewing the Icarus painting, and moving it beyond a momentary – if eternally frozen – take on the simultaneously unfolding events it depicts. Auden’s poem therefore manages to transcend the stillness – in the temporal sense – which representing a painting might otherwise have imposed on it, offering a projection of the future where the sunken Icarus will have finally met his end, and the ship will have sailed past this catastrophe. His poem, then, can be said to encourage us to visualise a painting whose traumatic central event will no longer preoccupy us. Yet, in moving beyond the still-occurring, we too will share the ploughman’s indifference as he toils in the foreground, quietly ignoring or even failing to see what has happened, and therefore perhaps unwittingly reinforcing Auden’s dominant message: ‘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’.[16]

Unlike the offerings of Auden and Butor, Williams’s short poem ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus’ immediately invokes Brueghel; its first line, ‘[a]ccording to Brueghel’,[17] clearly attempting to create the illusion that its take on events is the one put forward by the artist himself. The fall of Icarus is described as ‘a splash quite unnoticed’. Indeed, the adverb that opens the penultimate stanza (which focuses on the figure of Icarus) is ‘unsignificantly’. While the painting is the indisputable subject of the poem, the visual representation of Icarus is always approached by Williams in terms of the seeming lack of importance that the work of art accords to this cataclysmic tragedy. Icarus is represented by two flailing upturned legs, his impending doom barely detectable in this vibrant landscape. Instead, the toil of the ploughman in the foreground of the painting initially comes to the fore of Williams’s poem, just as it, on a first viewing, dominates the painting itself. Notably, the ploughman’s beads of perspiration are given precedence over Icarus’s futile struggle in the water, unfolding in another corner of the painting. Although ‘sweating in the sun’ has the potential to act as a transferred epithet, switching the focus from the ploughman to Icarus, our transition from the foreground to the corner of the painting is not a smooth one; Williams’s short and jarring stanzas reflect the eye’s stilted progression across the canvas, as we search for the depiction of Icarus promised to us in the painting’s title. Just as Butor’s personal account of his experience of the painting implicates his reader, and most likely results in an adherence to the trajectory he has outlined when viewing the accompanying illustration, reading Williams’s poem also embroils us in his way of seeing the work of art. Moving past the foreground in a bid to locate and identify Icarus, Williams traces his own trajectory in encountering this visual representation, confirming the intentionally misleading nature of his invocation of Brueghel at the start of his poem. Making note of ‘the sun /that melted /the wings’ wax’,[18] the vertical thrust of Williams’s ultra-brief stanzas reflects the quickly failing mechanisms that cause Icarus’s inescapable dive into the sea, and offers his reader an alternative viewing trajectory – one that moves directly from the sky to the water below.

Although I have established certain similarities in the approaches of the three authors to the Icarus painting, I want to conclude by mentioning two things I find particularly striking: firstly, none of these writers engages outright with the possibility of two planes co-existing in the world represented on the canvas – a depiction of everyday life, no different from that seen in the multitude of Dutch landscape paintings during this period, with a mythological event superimposed on this representation of the banal. That is to say, the writers do not seem to underline that the simultaneity of unfolding events is apparent only to the viewer of the painting, the person who is capable of seeing it in its entirety. Looking at the painting in this way would have the potential to elevate the whole to act as a grounds for understanding our surroundings and our place in history. Of the three writers, only Auden is perhaps closest to engaging with the painting’s capacity to synthesise events. Certainly, Alexander Nemerov’s fascinating reading of Auden’s poem suggests that the complexities of this painting allow it to serve as the basis for the poet’s critique of contemporary events, namely the events leading up to World War II.[19] Secondly, in juxtaposing the ploughman in the foreground with the figure of the doomed Icarus in the background, each writer avoids engaging with the fisherman, who becomes especially prominent once the figure of Icarus has been identified by the viewer. Butor writes that ‘les personnages présents regardent tous dans d’autres directions’;[20] while the ploughman and the shepherd, head aloft in the air, who both feature in the foreground certainly face away from Icarus, the same cannot necessarily be said of the fisherman, who bends forwards over the rippling waters, his body seemingly arching towards the thrashing legs of the sun’s unfortunate victim. If, as Scott notes, ‘[w]hat happens in a distant and at first relatively overlooked corner of the canvas can be as interesting or significant as what goes on in the foreground of the painting’, [21] it is then worth shedding light on the role of the fisherman as much as that of the faraway farm labourers or Icarus himself. Is the fisherman simply casting his net, just as oblivious to the nearby drowning as the ploughman and the shepherd at work on the cliff, or can he be seen as the best demonstration of the artist’s ostensible message, if we are to revisit Auden’s interpretation of the painting, that everyday life marches on without any awareness of the sacrifices, real or mythological, of the past, or of any of the lessons such events might teach us? Above all, might the fisherman even function as a sly reference to the viewers of the painting, those who have finally turned towards Icarus, at least, and who remain intent on ensnaring meaning, lest it be swept from their grasp?

The complex visual narrative constituted by Landscape with the Fall of Icarus has repeatedly provided a suggestive starting point for poets attempting ekphrasis. Moreover, its intricacies have the potential to infuse other forms of written expression, such as the essay, in the case of Butor’s Les Mots dans la peinture, with a lyrical quality that calls into question the usual strict and exclusive definitions of ekphrasis. If a fragment of Butor’s essay can appear as enraptured by the Icarus painting as the earlier two poems that operate as traditional works of ekphrasis, then it might ultimately be necessary to rethink ekphrasis not so much as a mode of writing, but a mood that colours the writer’s creative process. The dynamism of the Icarus painting injects Les Mots dans la peinture with an unexpected element of poetry, whilst also allowing the stillness generally at stake in verbal representations of visual representations to be disrupted and challenged in ultimately productive ways. We can only imagine, then, that this work of art, and the verbal musings it has already generated, will continue to inspire, influence and perhaps even infuriate future writers.



Auden, W.H. Another Time. London: Faber, 1940.

Butor, Michel. Les Mots dans la peinture. Geneva: Skira, 1969.

Heffernan, James A.W. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Geary Keohane, Elizabeth. ‘Michel Butor’s Les Mots dans la peinture: A ‘Museum of Words’?’ MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities, 9 (2014): 57-66.

Krieger, Murray. Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Nemerov, Alexander. ‘The Flight of Form: Auden, Bruegel, and the Turn to Abstraction in the 1940s.’ Critical Inquiry, 31.4 (2005): 780-810.

Scott, David. Pictorialist Poetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Reprint: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Williams, William Carlos. Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, Norfolk: New Directions, 1962.


[1] James A.W. Heffernan, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 8.

[2] Elizabeth Geary Keohane, ‘Michel Butor’s Les Mots dans la peinture: A ‘Museum of Words’?’, MHRA Working Papers in the Humanities, 9 (2014): 60.

[3] David Scott, Pictorialist Poetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 125.

[4] Scott, Pictorialist Poetics, 125.

[5] Michel Butor, Les Mots dans la peinture (Geneva: Skira, 1969), 13-14.

[6] Butor, Les Mots dans la peinture, 14.

[7] Butor, Les Mots dans la peinture, 14.

[8] Butor, Les Mots dans la peinture, 14.

[9] Butor, Les Mots dans la peinture, 14 [my emphasis].

[10] W.H. Auden, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, in Another Time (London: Faber, 1940), 47.

[11] Murray Krieger, Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 265.

[12] Krieger, Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign, 267-68.

[13] Auden, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, 47.

[14] Butor, Les Mots dans la peinture, 15.

[15] Auden, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, 47.

[16] Auden, ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, 47.

[17] William Carlos Williams, ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus’, in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, 4.

[18] Williams, ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus’, 4.

[19] Alexander Nemerov, ‘The Flight of Form: Auden, Bruegel, and the Turn to Abstraction in the 1940s’, Critical Inquiry, 31.4 (2005): 780-810.

[20] Butor, Les Mots dans la peinture, 14.

[21] Scott, Pictorialist Poetics, 125.

Ekphrastic reimaginings of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus: Revisiting Butor through Auden and WilliamsAlex Bradley