William Carlos Williams ends his poem with these lines:
a splash quite unnoticed this was Icarus drowning
He had begun it with an appeal to his authority, Brueghel, before going on to describe The Fall of Icarus in detail: the farmer doing his plowing, the awakening of spring, the self absorption of life at the edge of the sea, and the small detail of Icarus's fast disappearing legs. A crucial aspect of Brueghel's painting is its perspective. The landscape and the action are seen from above-- from the viewpoint, in other words, of Daedalus. The force of the picture is thus, I think, to move the viewer not only to recognize the unconcern for catastrophe inherent in the preoccupation of ongoing life, but also to register a horrified protest that it should be so. Perspective allows the painter to make this protest. How is the poet to do it?
In "Musee des Beaux Arts," Auden does not try, contenting himself with rueful recognition of the world's indifference to individual martyrdom. But Williams achieves a more subtle, more faithful, more deeply felt response to the painting by means of carefully controlled imagery, grammar and diction, punctuation (or rather the absence of any punctuation whatsoever), and order. His method is evident first in the title of the poem. We know the painting simply as The Fall of Icarus. Williams's revision of the title grammatically subordinates the tragic event to "Landscape," just as the painting subordinates the image of Icarus to all that surrounds him. Yet the last word in the title, emphatic in its position, is "Icarus." The tension between grammatical subordination and rhetorical emphasis is paralleled and amplified in the stanzas that follow.
Williams does not dwell on the images of the poem, showing us even less than Auden does. The matter-of-fact language, the absence of any punctuation (which I take to indicate an absence of expressive inflection), and of course the explicit assertion of the event's insignificance, all work to understate, if not undercut, the pathos of Icarus's headlong plunge to death. And yet the last words of the poem are "Icarus drowning." The words resonate, and the splash is not quite unnoticed. The reader is forced to take notice, forced paradoxically not only to see but to feel the painful irony of death in the midst of life. Williams's remarkable, forceful understatement brilliantly captures the protest expressed through the perspective of Brueghel's painting.
From The Explicator 58.3 (Spring 2000)