About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
“I have been doing the art gallery and trying to appreciate Ruebens. The daring and the vitality take one’s breath away, but what is it all about? — Auden in a letter from Brussels in 1938, hence the inverted word order of the first line, which emphasizes ‘about.’
Auden reciting it:
Two other paintings, at least, influenced the poem. Bruegel the Elder’s “Numbering at Bethlehem” (alluding to the Nativity, and the ‘numbering’ of the Jews in the Third Reich and the indifference to their suffering), and “Massacre of the Innocents,” which depicts Matthew 2:16-18 and Herod’s murdering of all boys under two (so, understandably, the children in the poem did not especially want Jesus’ birth to happen – those that were killed are the first Christian Martyrs). Although this was before Auden’s return to Christianity, the poem’s big on the Nativity, and Jesus’ suffering.
Perdix was Daedalus’ apprentice, but Daedalus threw him from the Acropolis when Perdix’s skill exceeded his own. Minerva transformed him into a bird. (This is not a true story.) So the death of Icarus is not completely ignored or unnoticed – little Perdix the bird watches from a branch just below Icarus’ legs. Both fell from the sky, the innocent one survives. I think he’s a partridge, and partridges don’t fly well. He’s had enough of the sky and falling from it, one imagines.
There is a Flemish proverb, apparently, that goes something like “a plow stops for the death of no man,” but I couldn’t find it. You find it.
The world of business — farming, fishing, shipping — ignore suffering and proceed indifferently. Originally in Ovid, the three men in the painting might pay attention to the flight, but here Bruegel has them oblivious to the death. “Some angler catching fish with a quivering rod, or a shepherd leaning on his crook, or a ploughman resting on the handles of his plough, saw them, perhaps, and stood there amazed, believing them to be gods able to travel the sky.” The quivering rod, the crook, the handles of his plough are probably not euphemisms, although seeing two guys flying would be pretty exciting.
I read that the white dot above the donkey’s ear is a dead body. I also read why, but now I can’t remember. I can’t find where I read it and this is extremely frustrating. Motherfucking fuck.
Wikipedia: “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a painting in oil on canvas long thought to be by Pieter Bruegel, although following technical examinations in 1996, that attribution is regarded as very doubtful, and it is now usually seen as a good early copy by an unknown artist of Bruegel’s original, perhaps painted in the 1560s, although recent technical research has re-opened the question.”