March 2, 2010

From Gerald R. Lucas

Musée des Beaux Arts[1]
By: W. H. Auden (1938)

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters;[2] 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 5
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 10
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 Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may 15
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, 20
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Pieter Bruegel de Oude - De val van Icarus.jpg

Notes and Commentary

  1. Reading Auden today for my 20th-century British Poetry and Prose class. I was particularly struck by this poem and its matter-of-fact tone. It seems to point out the indifference of the world, the universe, and other humans to individual suffering. And not only suffering, but the mundane aspects of daily life make us miss the wonders of the world around us. How much do we miss conducting the business of our lives, especially when the business seems the most important? I would ask our Georgia state legislators to consider this while they're crippling the university system. What do you think, Sonny? Do you see Icarus falling?
  2. Auden’s meditation on human suffering places it in the realm of the everyday, and in the context of great tragedy. As asserts, “normality and suffering coexist and may indeed be inseparable” (Emig 2000, p. 129).

Work Cited

  • Emig, Ranier (2000). W. H. Auden: Towards a Postmodern Poetics. New York: St. Martin’s Press.