Poetic Retellings of Icarus
There are those stories that everyone grows up with – the parables, the fables, the fairytales, the myths. Most people hear the stories as children, or in school, and merely shelve them in their heads as a nice story. There are some people, however, who look back at these classics and think “What if?” Thus, retellings of these stories come into being. Maybe it is because of a genuine interest, maybe because of questions that the original story failed to answer, maybe the writers were too frustrated with the plot or the moral of the original story, or maybe they simple thought of it as an exercise in creativity with a chance to appeal to a pre-built audience, not unlike an inside joke. Two poems, one by Edward Field and another by Anne Sexton, retell the classic Greek myth of Icarus and take the tragic tale most commonly used as a cautionary tale against disobedience and, with a few tweaks, turn the tragedy of the original myth into incomparable, albeit momentary, glory.
The story of Icarus is one that most even vaguely familiar with Greek mythology would know. Icarus and Daedalus, Icarus’ father, had been exiled because of something that Daedalus, a very famous and talented craftsman, had done. To escape, Daedalus fashioned wings for the two of them, so they could fly out of exile and back to their home. Some interpretations of the story say that Daedalus had made wax wings, while others say that the feathers were only attached to a wooden frame with wax. As they were flying, however, despite instructions from his father to be careful not to fly too near to the sun or the ocean, Icarus became either bored with their straight path or too exhilarated by the flight and did just those two things. Soon enough, his wax wings started melting and poor featherless Icarus, flap as he might, fell into the ocean to drown. This story is usually presented as a cautionary tale for children who refuse to listen to the advice/instructions of their parents. The story could also be seen as a warning against the ego; no matter how great or powerful you may seem, you must always still remain aware of your own mortality.
The question, then, is “why retell the Icarus story?” The tragic tale of Icarus is not in itself the main story. Instead, it is part of a larger story concerning Daedalus, the Labyrinth that he created for a king, and the Minotaur, the death of which led to the father and son duo’s exile. One way to look at it is that the story had so long been touted as a warning story against child disobedience that the nuances and other angles of the story have long been lost. Another reason is similar to the a style that historical fiction writers have of using the undocumented parts of famous stories, gaps in the timeline for example, and weave it with their own imaginations. The story of Icarus is so famous, but it is very straightforward compared to other Greek myths, and not too many actual details are known of his flight, what went into his head, etc. In fact, not much is known about Icarus himself; some stories cast him as a young boy while others show him as a young man, and other details such as his personality are unknown. Writers can take advantage of this lack of details and do with fashion the story as they wish. Edward Field and Anne Sexton decided to retell the story of Icarus and put it into poems. The two writers employed two very different approaches to Icarus.
There are two main ways that a story is told anew other than simply modernizing its details. One way is to ask “what then?” on top of “what if?” Many a child has wondered what happens after “happily ever after” in a fairytale, or what happens to a character after the story is over. Edward Field used this approach, as well as some modernization, as he weaved an even more tragic end for the famous Icarus after the myth. He starts the poem from where the original story had left off – the drowning of Icarus. Instead, Field presents “what if” Icarus had not drowned and simply swam away to safety and began a new life. After such a spectacular adventure, Field’s Icarus began what can be called a rather mundane life as he “rented a house and tended the garden,” with tending a garden seen as something the retired do (Field 9). Field shows how apathetic modern people can be to such a great feat. In the story, the “police preferred to ignore / the confusing aspects of the case” (Field 3-4) and the witnesses thought that a “gang war” (Field 5) was more interesting than a man who flew. Later, he mentions how Icarus “could not” (not would not) “disturb [his neighbors’] neat front yards (Field 17). People today are so jaded and obsessed with perfection that they would not recognize or “comprehend” the sheer value of such a story if it did happen for real. Field fashions an end for Icarus that is much more tragic than flying into the sun for a glorious moment and drowning: living life in mediocrity as a perpetual failure.
The next method is to simply look at the story in a different light from the way it is usually approached. Anne Sexton did not modernize the story of Icarus, but only exaggerated certain parts to further her point. Instead of dwelling on the failure of Icarus’ flight, due to the tragic end, Sexton celebrates the glory and success of the flight. She describes the flight in uplifting terms, saying that Icarus flew for a “flawless moment over the lawn / of the labyrinth” (Sexton 3-4) and that he was “larger than a sail, over the fog and the blast / of the pushy ocean” (Sexton 8-9). In the latter quote, Sexton describes the ocean negatively, calling it “pushy,” attributing some blame for Icarus’ failure to this feature. She furthers her point by saying “Who cares that he fell back to the sea?”, suggesting that the fact that he failed at the end did not negate the fact that he succeeded to begin with so he could reach that failure (Sexton 12). She even goes so far as to put a negative spin on the “sensibility” of Daedalus, suggesting that a lack of the sense of adventure is boring as Daedalus went “straight into town” without ever tasting the glories that Icarus did (Sexton 14). Even, from the title of the poem, “To a Friend Whose Work has Come to Triumph,” the reader can infer that Sexton is showing that success is much more important than failure, no matter how dire that failure may seem.
The two writers gave their own spin on the story of Icarus, reverting the classic cautionary tale into stories of faded glory for Field, and triumph for Sexton. To achieve this goal, however, both writers had to sacrifice some details of the original story. For example, neither of the two mention that it was Daedalus who actually made the wings and suggest that it was Icarus who did. In fact, Field’s story finds Icarus “[constructing] his wings and [trying] to fly” even though the original story did not mention Icarus having any of his father’s talent for craftsmanship (Field 24). Sexton, while mentioning certain details from the story such as the Labyrinth and even mentions Icarus’ “daddy” at the end, also fails to note that it was Daedalus and not Icarus who made the wings. In fact, in the first line of the poem, Sextion describes Icarus “pasting those sticky wings on,” definitely suggesting that it was he, not his father, who made them (Sexton 1). Field uses the omission to further the story of Icarus’ tragedy as the “genius” who succeeded once with grave results, only to fail nightly ever after in the modern world who could not understand his genius. Similarly, Sexton uses the omission to draw the contrast between the glories of success and the relatively unimportant fact of failure; she could not exactly make that point if it was not Icarus’ success to begin with.
Other than this omission, what the two poems have in common is that fact that they do not dwell on the failure of Icarus falling into the ocean after his wings melted. In fact, they get rid of the common use of the story as a cautionary tale against disobedience because since they both underplayed the role of Daedalus, there was really no disobedience in their retellings to caution with. Field may have shown the decline of Icarus after his fall, but it does not mean that the flight was no less a “spectacular” feat. Both stories go beyond the superficial and overused perspective of the Icarus story and let emerge a detail most often left ignored: even though Icarus fell at the end, he still flew to sun. Despite what their original reasons for writing the poems were, the retellings expose some insights into the authors. It does not seem to matter to them that Icarus fell into the ocean, nor does it matter that it was Icarus’ disobedience and ego that led to his downfall. What seems to matter to the authors is that Icarus flew at all, flying into the sun is something glorious that children and adults alike can only dream of doing, and maybe that could explain why these two poets were taken enough by the story to retell it.