In Greek mythology, “Icarus” is the tale of a boy who along with his father are attempting to escape from Crete where they have been held captive. Icarus’ father constructed two sets of wings from wax and feathers. He instructed Icarus not to fly to close to the sun as the sun will melt the wax and his wings will not stay together. However; in the midst of excitement Icarus flew too close to the sun and his wings fell apart, no longer allowing him to fly and plummeting him into the sea. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Page’s “This Heavy Craft” both make reference to Icarus, in contrasting ways. Whereas Auden’s rendition speaks of a sad truth about humanity with a more negative connotation, Page’s take on Icarus is more hopeful and positive.
“Musée des Beaux Arts”, (which is French for “Museum of fine arts”) makes reference to Icarus through the painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Brueghel. This painting lays out a scene of ordinary life taking place, while Icarus, in plain view is drowning in the sea. “Musée des Beaux Arts” brings forth the reality that “individual human suffering is ignored”. Page takes a more encouraging route through “This Heavy Craft”, by using Icarus as someone who was unsuccessful in the beginning but still has the motivation to keep going and try to succeed. “The wax has melted/but the dream of flight/persists” (1-3). Page makes her first reference to Icarus in the first lines of the poem, and straight from the beginning, optimism is evident. While Auden’s poem speaks of the suffering not only Icarus but other people in general go through, Page speaks about after you recognize you have failed and still persisting to achieve what you started.
“Musée des Beaux Arts”, speaks of people called “The Old Masters”. “The Old Masters are presented as figures of omniscience”(92), they have “complete knowledge” and understanding of everything. This includes suffering. The Old Masters were able to see how when something bad was happening to one person, other people in the world were carrying on about their day normally as if nothing bad was happening to respond to. The poem starts out speaking of people in general. “…How it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just/ walking dully along” (3-4), “it” referring to an individuals suffering. “Musée des Beaux Arts” main theme is suffering throughout the poem. “This Heavy Craft” maintains the theme of optimism. P.K Page’s take on Icarus is Inspirational. “The wax has melted/but the dream of flight/persists” (1-3), this is written literally as Icarus’ goal is to fly, but it is also meant figuratively. Even through Icarus has initially failed he still believes he can keep going and achieve his goal, this thinking could be used in many situations.
Auden writes “…The aged are reverently, passionately waiting/For the miraculous birth, there always must be/Children who did not specially want it to happen…”(6-8), something that is exciting and life consuming to one person, doesn’t even cross the mind of another, even if it is something as “miraculous” as the life of another whether it be living or not. Page writes “I, Icarus, though grounded/in my flesh/have one bright section in me”(4-6), the bright section which he refers to makes up think of light which is a symbol of hope. Unlike in “Musée des Beaux Arts” , “This Heavy Craft” gives the reader promise of a positive outcome. “The Old Masters” are referenced again when said, “They never forget/That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course”(10-11). Eventually everyone dies, and “The Old Masters” are aware of that. Auden continues this stanza by nonchalantly changing the subject, “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”(12-15). Auden demonstrates the point of his poem in these lines by doing just what he’s speaking of.
He tells us he’s aware of suffering, but goes onto something else and pays it not a lot of attention by speaking of insignificant activities which are also happening at the same time which showing any anguish. Auden makes reference to another of Pieter Brueghal’s painting, “The Massacre of the Innocents” when he writes of the “torturer’s horse”. The painting “The Massacre of the Innocents”, like “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” displays a scene of suffering. While all this suffering is happening around the horses, they just they the humans providing the torturing are indifferent to the surroundings. In “Musée des Beaux Arts” last stanza Auden now makes his reference to Icarus going from general suffering to specifically about the scene of Brueghal’s painting. Auden uses the painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” as his example that people do not care about others as much as they should.
He refers to Icarus’ fall as a “disaster” and explains that “everything turns away quite leisurely”(16-17) from the sight of Icarus drowning. Inanimate objects such as the sun even do not make attempt in helping or sympathizing for the victim, for it continues shining on him even though he’s in a dark place “the sun shone/As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green”(19-20). He takes this a step further and says that in addition to the sun, the water and a nearby ship also carry on without taking notice as they have “had somewhere to get to”(23). Much like people, these objects do not seem to be shaken or traumatized by the sight of Icarus but continued and “sailed calmly on”(23). Auden plays into the readers emotions when he writes “the ploughman may/Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry/But for him it was not an important failure”(17-19). The auditory imagery of the splash and hearing Icarus hit the sea and then crying out makes the reader feel sympathy for Icarus, and then to continue reading to hear that someone heard this happening and decided it wasn’t important enough to take action makes the reader think negatively towards humanity.
Page finishes “This Heavy Craft” with Icarus using the metaphor of a bird within him, “in my flesh/have on bright section in me/where a bird/night after starry night/while I’m asleep unfolds its phantom wings/and practices”(5-11). Icarus is constantly trying, day and night to make right his wrong and fly again. The bird within him is a metaphor for his longing to fly away.
Auden and Page, both using Icarus as a main component of their poems, did so in two opposing ways. Auden was able to make the reader see that humanity can be cruel and apathetic towards human suffering, while Page encourages the reader that if at first you don’t succeed to continue on and stay positive. “Musée des Beaux Arts”, takes a pessimistic and realist route, while “This Heavy Craft” is more optimistic and idealistic.