The Lament for Icarus, by Herbert Draper
The Lament for Icarus
Herbert Draper, 1898


Primarily a painter of mythological marine subjects, Draper is often regarded as a successor to Frederic Leighton more by virtue of his consummate technique than his subject-matter. Trained at the Royal Academy and at the Académie Julian in Paris where he worked under Boulanger and Lefèbvre, he was awarded a Gold Medal and traveling scholarship by the Royal Academy in 1889 which enabled him to continue his studies in Europe before completing his education in Rome.

The Lament for Icarus, with its liquid light effects and mastery of form, provides testimony to Draper's Continental allegiances. The painting is an imaginative adaptation of the Icarus legend which had become a popular pretext for the representation of ephebic beauty following the exhibition of Leighton's Daedalus and Icarus in 1869. The body of Icarus is shown draped almost languidly on his wings and attended by three sea nymphs who, overawed at this image of physical perfection, are shown lamenting his death. The theme of transience is reiterated by the symbols of the lyre and wreath, and through the passage of sunlight which casts an iridescent glow on distant cliffs. In developing the composition Draper adopted Leighton's method of making separate figure studies for which he employed four youthful models—Ethel Gurden, Ethel Warwick, Florence Bird and Luigi di Luca—all of whom were Academy professionals. Although Draper abided by the persistent studio convention of posing male and female models separately, by the late nineteenth century audiences had come to accept the frankly erotic interaction of those models on the canvas, so much so that it was now possible to place the male nude under the desiring female gaze. Indeed, so worthy was the work considered when exhibited at the Academy in 1989 that it was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest on behalf of the nation.

The Lament for Icarus may have been conceived as a tribute to Leighton who had died in 1896, but as Simon Toll has recently suggested (Herbert James Draper: A Life Study, by Simon Toll, 2001), it may also be a more private statement of loss, following the death of Draper's father in 1898. The use of the male body as a vehicle for the projection of subjective emotion is a characteristic of late-Victorian painting and sculpture, and here the rippling wings and drapery gently caress the surface of a body that appears to melt within the arms of the nymph, accentuating the theme of human mutability.

          —from Exposed: The Victorian Nude, edited by Alison Smith, 2002


*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *


Here are four poems that illustrate widely contrasting thoughts on the myth of Icarus:

To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph

Consider Icarus, pasting those sticky wings on,
testing this strange little tug at his shoulder blade,
and think of that first flawless moment over the lawn
of the labyrinth. Think of the difference it made!
There below are the trees, as awkward as camels;
and here are the shocked starlings pumping past
and think of innocent Icarus who is doing quite well:
larger than a sail, over the fog and the blast
of the plushy ocean, he goes. Admire his wings!
Feel the fire at his neck and see how casually
he glances up and is caught, wondrously tunneling
into that hot eye. Who cares that he fell back to the sea?
See him acclaiming the sun and come plunging down
while his sensible daddy goes straight into town.

      —Anne Sexton

*       *       *       *       *       *

Icarus

Showed that anything more spectacular had occurred
Than the usual drowning. The police preferred to ignore
The confusing aspects of the case,
And the witnesses ran off to a gang war.
So the report filed and forgotten in the archives read simply
Drowned, but it was wrong: Icarus
Had swum away, coming at last to the city
Where he rented a house and tended the garden.
That nice Mr. Hicks the neighbors called him,
Never dreaming that the gray, respectable suit
Concealed arms that had controlled huge wings
Nor that those sad, defeated eyes had once
Compelled the sun. And had he told them
They would have answered with a shocked, uncomprehending stare.
No, he could not disturb their neat front yards;
Yet all his books insisted that this was a horrible mistake:
What was he doing aging in a suburb?
Can the genius of the hero fall
To the middling stature of the merely talented?
And nightly Icarus probes his wound
And daily in his workshop, curtains carefully drawn,
Constructs small wings and tries to fly
To the lighting fixture on the ceiling:
Fails every time and hates himself for trying.
He had thought himself a hero, had acted heroically,
And now dreamt of his fall, the tragic fall of the hero;
But now rides commuter trains,
Serves on various committees,
And wishes he had drowned.

      —Edward Field

*       *       *       *       *       *

Icarus

It was his idea, this flying thing.
We collected feathers at night, stuffing
our pockets with mourning dove down. By day,
we’d weave and glue them with the wax
I stole after we’d shooed the bees away.

Oh, how it felt, finally, to blow off Crete
leaving a labyrinth of dead-ends:
my clumsiness with figures, father’s calm
impatience, cool logic, interminable devising.
The sea wind touched my face like balm.

He thought I’d tag along as usual,
in the wake of his careful scheme
bound by the string connecting father and son,
invisible thread I tried for years to untie.
I ached to be a good-for-something on my own.

I didn’t know I’d get drunk with the heat,
flying high, too much a son to return.
Poor Daedelus, his mouth an O below,
his hands outstretched to catch the rain
of wax. He still doesn't know.

My wings fell, yes—I saw him hover
over the tiny splash—but by then I’d been
swallowed into love’s eye, the light I’ve come to see
as home, drowning in the yes, this swirling
white-hot where night will never find me.

And now when my father wakes
each morning, his bones still sore
from his one-time flight, his confidence undone
because the master plan fell through,
he rises to a light he never knew, his son.

      —Christine Hemp

*       *       *       *       *       *

Icarus

Did Icarus,
       falling,
       watching white feathers flutter upward,
       curse the wax as a fair-weather friend?
It seemed such a strong solid type,
       but it melted away
       when things got hot.

Did he rail at the sun,
       which beckoned enticingly,
       and then changed from a beacon to a furnace?

Did he blame Daedalus, his father?
Who warned him not to fly too high
       in the same distracted tones with which
       he admonished his son
       to put on a sweater in the cold,
       to eat his lima beans,
       to not run with scissors.
How could he have known that this time the old man really meant it?

Or did he regret that the illustrious inventor,
       when creating his flying apparatus,
       did not take the obvious next step:
       the emergency parachute?

He must have thought
       all of this
              and more.

It was
       a long
              long
                     fall.

But as he neared the ocean,
       came close enough to wave to the startled fishermen in their boats,
       he laughed,
              and admitted
              that even had he known
                     of the many failings of fathers and feathers,
                            he would have done it anyway.

      —Wendy A. Shaffer