First published 7.13.03 at another blog of mine.
Musee des Beaux Arts
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.
Auden’s poem seems to divide people into two categories, based on what the speaker’s viewing in the paintings he’s seeing.
One category is composed of those who, for whatever reason, are indifferent to the sufferings of others, or just don’t realize at all that anything’s going on.
The other category seems to be composed of the “aged,” “martyrs,” and Icarus.
Now if we take the “aged” to be people like Simeon, and “martyrs” to be, well, “martyrs,” then the connection between those two groups is obvious, but it leaves out Icarus.
Ovid thought Icarus was just being a boy when he flew too close to the sun and fell to his death. Other authorities, I’m sure, are more concerned with Icarus’ potential or actual hubris. Brueghel’s own painting features a ploughman plowing as its most prominent feature.
The ploughman plows, the ship sails, only the shepherd stares at the sky, away from where Icarus fell, and the painting seems to scream “Look at Icarus; his ambition and hubris earned him death and smallness. Whereas these other people, who know their roles in life, and who work hard at their given station, well, they persist, at the least.” (Brueghel’s capacity to be ironic shouldn’t be ignored just because he illustrated Dutch proverbs much of the time.)
And Icarus and the martyrs and the aged do have something in common: they stand for something, and have some sort of ambition, some sort of hope, and that’s what creates the suffering they go through. If they didn’t want anything, or didn’t care for anything in particular, they’d suffer less, certainly.
But who wants to suffer at all? We can always be the speaker, and just move on to the next painting, quite casually, as if we’ve learned nothing at all: For we, like the ship, have “somewhere to get to” and we can therefore “sail calmly on,” too.
(At least that’s what I hope.)