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Wings of Wax and Feathers: The Myth of Icarus and Avian Symbolism

During my research for the annotated bibliography, I stumbled upon an article discussing the use of the Icarus myth in Romantic poetry. According to the abstract, the myth of Icarus is used as an archetype for the Romantic genius; and invokes the motifs of soaring, falling, birds, and wings; and portrays these themes  as supernatural phenomena to create a sense of the sublime. I thought that the subject matter of the poems in Thursday’s class, particularly “To a Sky-Lark” could stand to be examined in this fashion.

Here is a brief summary of the myth for those who are unfamiliar with it: In order to escape imprisonment, Daedalus, a skillful artisan, crafts wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son, Icarus, so that they may fly over the sea and escape. Daedalus cautions Icarus to neither fly too high, for the sun would melt the wax, nor too low, for the sea foam would soak the feathers. However, the prideful Icarus flies too close to the sun and the wax melts, causing Icarus to fall into the sea and drown.

 In Percy Shelley’s poem “To a Sky-Lark”, one is immediately confronted with Icarian symbolism by the title of the poem, which is dedicated to a bird, and by the first stanza:

“Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird thou never wert-

That from Heaven or near it

Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art”

 

In lines one and three, Shelly describes the sky lark in supernatural terms, referring to it as a “spirit” which is either “from heaven or near it”. And from lines two, four, and five we learn that the bird Shelly is referring to is in fact not a bird at all, and then Shelly makes an allusion to Milton, who is apparently the poetic genius that Shelly is revering in this poem. 

The second stanza refers to the myth as well in lines one and two: “Higher still and higher/ from the earth thou springest”. However, unlike Icarus, the poet does not fall to his death: “And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest”. The motif of soaring is also referred to later in the poem as a “scorner of the ground”. 

Throughout the poem, the sky lark continues to be described in supernatural terms, such as a sprite, or a dreamer of dreams that mortals cannot comprehend, and several of the poem’s stanzas are similes that attempt to describe it in different ways. This sort of beauty and awe that defies description contributes to the poem’s sense of sublimity. 

Of course, Shelley is not the only one to use these thematics, as we have seen in the poetry of Clare and even Byron when he mockingly refers to Southey as a flying fish flopping on the deck. Invoking this myth also outlived the Romantic movement as well: James Joyce uses the name Daedalus as the surname of the protagonist in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

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One response to “Wings of Wax and Feathers: The Myth of Icarus and Avian Symbolism

  1. Alex

    This explains why I was suddenly reminded of Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man while reading this — I had no idea why it popped into my head but, well, now I know.
    I also find it a strange coincidence that Shelley loved Milton, since it would come to pass that the monster in his wife’s novel (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) would later be compared to Milton’s depiction of Satan in his book Paradise Lost.

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