Punctuation Makes Meaning

What I'm going to suggest here is probably a horrible thing to do to a perfectly lovely poem, on the one hand; but, on the other, it is, perhaps, a way of explicating it and, at the same time, illustrating how we use punctuation to make meaning.  William Carlos Williams, a 20th Century American poet (and physician) wrote a moving and descriptive poem that captures the essentially existential message embodied in the painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," a work completed circa 1558 by the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525?-1569).

Williams punctuates the poem only by use of a few capital letters, an apostrophe to indicate possession, and by the arrangement of the lines.  However, formatted and punctuated differently, the poem could be used as a descriptive caption under a reprint of the painting in an art history book.  And that's what I'd like you to do.

First, what is a myth? Here are the definitions according to Dictionary dot com: myth. More powerfully, here is a bit about myths from 20th Century religion scholar and professor, Joseph Campbell: "Read the myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people's myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts - but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive." Elsewhere, Campbell defines "myth," simply stated, as "another man's religion," positing that it is dangerous to think of one's own religion as holding "absolute truths" while denegrating the beliefs of others as mere "myth." Read part of his 1988 interview for Public Television in the series titled Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth.

Next, it would help to know something about the Icarus myth, so take the following link to Thomas Bulfinch's Mythology web site and scroll down about half way to find out about Daedalus and his son Icarus.

After you are familiar with the myth, come back to this page and study Bruegel's painting below;  contemplate what the painting says about the nature of myths in the everyday world.

Instructions: On a Microsoft Word document with your name(s) at the top, answer these three questions.

1. What did Icarus do? (Summarize the myth as if you are telling it to someone who does not know it. Do it in three sentences or fewer.)
2. (In one to three sentences) In its historical context, what is the message or moral of the Icarus myth? (It might help to know what the word "hubris" means in its historical context, not just as it is used today, because most scholars agree that hubris was the boy's downfall. Historically, "hubris" does not mean simply arrogance nor does it mean disobedience to a parent.)
3. (In one or two sentences) What does this painting by Brueghel say about the nature of myths in the everyday world?

Finally, highlight the text of the poem, and click the copy command from the edit menu on your browser.  Then paste the poem into your Word document.  Without rewording it in any way, refomat the poem into prose sentences and punctuate them correctly so that it describes the painting and conveys its meaning. This is due at the start of your next class.

"Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"
by William Carlos Williams

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Read some other wonderful poems and some writing prompts about the painting by Bruegel or about the Icarus myth

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