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Icarus: entering the world of myth
Icarus: entering the world of myth

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4.5 A further angle on the poems

It is worth noting that Stop All the Clocks has received its iconic and sentimental status partly because of its appearance in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral (directed by Mike Newell, 1994). In the cinematic context it underscored a moving scene with the deceased’s lover reciting the poem as a sincere lament (although those less taken with the film’s relentless sequence of comic vignettes may have welcomed the moment as ‘tragic relief’). But this is the beauty of ‘reception’, that it reinvents the original meaning and timbre of the text, as Stop All the Clocks was most likely intended to be a pastiche of love in grief rather than a genuine outpouring of sorrow. The bereaved lover is demanding against all reason that time is suspended, and that cosmic and conventional activity ceases, but this is part of the helplessness and hopelessness of the human condition.

Although it would seem in Musée des Beaux Arts that Auden identifies himself intimately with the painter’s view of Icarus, there are moments when Ovid’s Metamorphoses text reasserts itself. The forsaken cry (line 16) evokes the terror of Icarus and the helpless grief of Daedalus. Ovid’s creation of a telescoped time frame, the joyous flight suddenly cut short as the boy plummets towards the water, is reflected in Auden’s line.

Michael Riffaterre detects equivocation in Auden towards Brueghel’s depiction of Icarus (1986, pp. 1–13). Riffaterre argues that Auden has reinstated Icarus in all his poignancy after buying into Brueghel’s comical depiction of his deathly fall. Auden redirects our gaze to Icarus falling out of the sky which has no place in the narrative sequence of the painting. Auden identifies the body of the boy and gives him voice whereas the white legs in Brueghel completely anonymise him. Auden also suggests in this last stanza that the ship must have seen ‘something amazing’ and the reader is left with the abiding image of the boy falling out of the sky.

Riffaterre believes that ‘Pointing to what is hidden in the landscape makes the description of the landscape a pretext to show what it is hiding’ and he cites Auden’s poetic principles: ‘To me Art’s subject is the human clay/And landscape but a background to a torso’ (p. 9). In that case, there is a double bluff in Auden’s focus on Icarus in the second stanza, in that he paradoxically restores him to centre stage. Riffaterre makes the interesting point that ‘Auden’s melodramatic focusing on a child’s death eliminates the artist’s symbolism’ (p. 10). I think what Riffaterre is getting at is the choice Auden has made to restore the poignancy of Ovid’s portrayal while praising the painter for downsizing the tragedy of an individual. The poet imagines ‘the forsaken cry’ and the very focus on the ‘white legs’ has already foregrounded them in our minds even if they are minimalised in the painting.

Riffaterre goes on to complicate the process further in that he believes Brueghel is making a statement about artistic failure; high-flying Icarus ends as a brushstroke in the painting but is still recognisable as an aspiring artist by the critical viewer. Icarus loses his status as a symbol in the Auden poem because he is simply, if unutterably sadly, the silly little boy who flew too close to the sun.

Both artist and poet, separated by centuries and huge cultural distances from Ovid, are still conducting a dialogue with their Roman source and simultaneously ‘mything’ Icarus for their own particular purposes. Roland Barthes argued that myth cannot really be grasped as an object, a concept or even an idea, but should be seen as a speech act, a message, a very specific sort of communication (1993, p. 93).