Waiting for Icarus
Greek myths are often used to enhance stories or explain phenomenon. Muriel Rukeyser uses one such myth which tells of a Greek hero, Icarus. The myth states that Daedalus, Icarus' father, was hired by King Minos to build a complex labyrinx in which to hold prisoners. Upon completion of the job, the King refused to allow Daedalus and his son, Icarus, to return home. Daedalus used his great creativity to make wings of wax for himself and his son. After explicit instructions from his father, Icarus and his dad flew out of the prison, over the sea, and towards home. Despite his dad's warnings, Icarus chose to fly too close to the sun, melting his wings and falling to his death in the sea and drowning. Rukeyser uses the myth of Icarus as an avenue to help illustrate the feelings of a young lady waiting patiently for broken promises and shattered dreams to come true.
The poem's title, “Waiting for Icarus,” allows the reader to have an idea of the setting, as many are aware of the heroic tale of Icarus. The similarity in the tales end here, however. Rukeyser's poem is not of a hero ending in tragedy, but rather the struggle of his lover and what she endures as she awaits his return. The first stanza begins each line with “He said” (1-11). This repetition makes one aware that the thoughts shared and promises made were those of her lover and hints towards disillusionment. Towards the end of the stanza, one can detect a bit of irony as the young lady states, “He said the wax was the best wax /He said Wait for me here” (9-10). While she obviously followed his instructions, she is beginning to doubt his very words as he still has not returned as promised. It appears that she has lost faith in her lover and his broken promises by the end of the first stanza.
The overall tone and viewpoint take a drastic turn in the second stanza. Just as the first stanza uses repetition, the second does as well, however, the second stanza is from the women's perspective and each repetitive line starts with “I remember” (12-18). The young lady reminisces about all the time she has spent waiting on her lover, and the experiences she has been through while anticipating his return. The amount of time lost is referred to when she remarks, “I remember the islands going dark on the sea” (13). Although not given an exact time frame, the idea that she has wasted days and even, possibly, her life is evident from her tone.
Time is not the only thing lost. Dignity is also lost, as well. The speaker shares that that the girls are laughing and even suggesting that “he only wanted to get away from me” (15). The hurt she feels, not only by being abandoned by the lover, but also by being laughed at by her friends, can be seen in these lines. Even more hurtful than her friends making fun of her, she shares that her own mother calls her lover “a trashy lot” (16) and goes on to hurt her even more by stating, “Women who love such are the worst of all” (18). The betrayed lover has come to the realization, with the help of time, family, and friends, that she has indeed been abandoned by her lover with his empty promises and has no intention of returning to her to “drink wine together” (1).
The final three lines of the poem depict the enlightened young lady's thoughts after she is hit with the full realization that she has wasted her time, and she shares that she feels like a fool but may be able to get away from these feelings. She states, “I would have liked to try those wings myself / It would have been better than this” (20-21). She hints she would like to run away, as her lover did, and leave of all her problems behind.
Although Icarus is only mentioned once, in the title, the author alludes to the myth throughout the poem by her choice of words. Inadvertently, Icarus becomes the lover who has run away leaving his girl waiting on the beach for his return. The author mentions inventors referring to the missing lover, which as the myth states is Icarus' dad's profession. The legend goes on to tell of how Icarus flies into the sky using his wing made of wax which parallels the authors choice of words as the lover reminisces that her lover told her, “He was going into the world and the sky” (7) with the promise that “the buckles were very firm” (8) and “the wax was the best wax” (9). Muriel Rukeyser does an excellent job of taking a popular Greek myth and using it to tell the untold side of the story.
Rukeyser, Muriel. “Waiting for Icarus.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Ed.
Edgar V. Roberts. 9th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2009. 1000.