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Winged Man -- Stephen Vincent Benet

(Poem #609) Winged Man
 The moon, a sweeping scimitar, dipped in the stormy straits,
 The dawn, a crimson cataract, burst through the eastern gates,
 The cliffs were robed in scarlet, the sands were cinnabar,
 Where first two men spread wings for flight and dared the hawk afar.

 There stands the cunning workman, the crafty past all praise,
 The man who chained the Minotaur, the man who built the Maze.
 His young son is beside him and the boy's face is a light,
 A light of dawn and wonder and of valor infinite.

 Their great vans beat the cloven air, like eagles they mount up,
 Motes in the wine of morning, specks in a crystal cup,
 And lest his wings should melt apace old Daedalus flies low,
 But Icarus beats up, beats up, he goes where lightnings go.

 He cares no more for warnings, he rushes through the sky,
 Braving the crags of ether, daring the gods on high,
 Black 'gainst the crimson sunset, golden o'er cloudy snows,
 With all Adventure in his heart the first winged man arose.

 Dropping gold, dropping gold, where the mists of morning rolled,
 On he kept his way undaunted, though his breaths were stabs of cold,
 Through the mystery of dawning that no mortal may behold.

 Now he shouts, now he sings in the rapture of his wings,
 And his great heart burns intenser with the strength of his desire,
 As he circles like a swallow, wheeling, flaming, gyre on gyre.

 Gazing straight at the sun, half his pilgrimage is done,
 And he staggers for a moment, hurries on, reels backward, swerves
 In a rain of scattered feathers as he falls in broken curves.

 Icarus, Icarus, though the end is piteous,
 Yet forever, yea, forever we shall see thee rising thus,
 See the first supernal glory, not the ruin hideous.

 You were Man, you who ran farther than our eyes can scan,
 Man absurd, gigantic, eager for impossible Romance,
 Overthrowing all Hell's legions with one warped and broken lance.

 On the highest steeps of Space he will have his dwelling-place,
 In those far, terrific regions where the cold comes down like Death
 Gleams the red glint of his pinions, smokes the vapor of his breath.

 Floating downward, very clear, still the echoes reach the ear
 Of a little tune he whistles and a little song he sings,
 Mounting, mounting still, triumphant, on his torn and broken wings!
-- Stephen Vincent Benet
I was delighted to discover today's poem - Icarus has always seemed to me
one of the most intensely poetic figures in Greek myth, but I'd yet to read
a poem that came close to doing the story justice. Today's is a beautiful
exception, though - soaring, sweeping, extravagant, and with a verse form
that keeps perfect pace with the content (one of the things I have against
some of the other poems I've seen - if ever a subject should not be tackled
in free verse, this is it).

Some of the effects are truly beautiful - images like 'Motes in the wine of
morning, specks in a crystal cup', the almost musical repetition of
'dropping gold, dropping gold', the unexpectedly triumphant ending. I also
loved the way the form shifted from four lines to three in mid-poem, picking
up the pace as Icarus breaks away to catch and sing the sun in flight.

The first verse, incidentally, is very reminiscent of Noyes' 'The
Highwayman'. The latter was published in 1907; 'Winged Man' was published in
'Young Adventure' [1918] so it's reasonable to assume Benet was influenced
by Noyes.


Benét, Stephen Vincent

  1898-43, American writer; b. Bethlehem, Pa. He is known for his vivid
  literary treatments of American folklore and history. Benét is famous for
  John Brown's Body (1928; Pulitzer), a long narrative ballad of the Civil
  War, several volumes of verse, including Heaven and Earth (1920) and The
  Burning City (1936), and masterful short stories, particularly The Devil
  and Daniel Webster.



Benet's book 'Young Adventure' is online in its entirety at the Poets'
Corner: [broken link]

Here are some other poems that go well with today's:

John McGee's sublime 'High Flight', poem #276

Hopkins' 'The Windhover', poem #35

and Whitman's 'Dalliance of the Eagles', poem #268

Tennyson's 'Eagle', for that matter, poem #15

and the entire series of poems on death in the flames:
poem #34, poem #36, and poem #38.


I really am surprised by the paucity of good poems on Icarus; I suspect that
I am just unfamiliar with most of them. If you have any favourites to
recommend, please do write in.


25 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Ginny Connors said...

Other poems on Icarus:

W.H. Auden's Musee des Beaux Arts

and William Carlos Williams' Landscape with the fall of Icarus

(both of these poems are on the painting by Brueghel)

and Jack Gilbert's Failing and Flying


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Anonymous said...

T'is a pity, for I have a fear of heights; and, had I wings... most likely, would'st plummet from the sky.. like poor Icarus... as the sun's rays, melt away; the "glue that binds me"... to "wings"; wrought of HEAVIER THEN AIR metals; and inflexible wooden struts... that, "provide stability"; but, neither lift nor forward momentum or torque... to remain aloft... on buffeting winds of Winter! There I go, spinning and looping; like a leaf... loosed from it's lofty perch; drawn by gravity's pull... to impact with ground; like it's bretheren before it... But, since my heft; is more that a sullen leaf, I bounce... thud! thud! thud! 'til, finally crumpling in a barely recognizable "ball of mesh and mash"... are, only suitable.. for "separation" and "recycle"... at end!!!

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