Sunday, April 11, 2010

An illustrated Sunday poem

[Landscape with The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1525-1569]

My favourite teacher at school introduced this great piece of Auden to me when I was in my mid-teens (the Classics guy, naturally: he was an endearing oddball, and - since I didn't seem to need much help with the Latin and Greek - we'd spend hours hanging out and just chatting about stuff, any old stuff, stuff like this poem; his sensibility and interests, his mischievous sense of humour were rather reminiscent of my favourite blogger, Other Mens' Flowers Tony). I think it must have been shortly after this famous work of Brueghel's had been featured in Edwin Mullins's superb BBC2 series 100 Great Paintings - one of the highlights of my childhood and a cornerstone of my education. The painting is an elegant, bitter joke - the story of Icarus is so famous, such a powerful metaphor, but here it's reduced to an irrelevance, almost invisible - an observation on the triviality of human endeavours and the loneliness of suffering, brilliantly analysed by Auden.

Musée 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 Breughel'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.

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)


JES said...

The moment I've been waiting for, and believe me, it's an exciting one: the moment when you post about something which I already posted about, too. (That was, however, within the first 3 months or so of the time when I started writing RAMH, so the writing and general tone are not what I wish they were.)

It's been terribly frustrating for me to have been unconsciously dogging your heels all this time!

Froog said...

Hmm, not sure if I'd read that piece of yours before or not. Just before I became one of your regulars, I think; but I have nosed around a fair bit in your archives too.

It wasn't in my mind when I posted this, though. This is one of those subjects that have been in my mind to post since.... forever; mainly, though, for the nostalgic recollection of my not-very-Classics-focused Classics classes, and that wonderful BBC TV series that came out towards the end of my high school days, rather than the poem itself.

The last time I was considering addressing this (a couple of years ago?), I couldn't find any decent-sized images of the painting online.

It's strangely reassuring to discover yet another coincidence of interests - soulmates across the oceans. Although I'm more often struck by how uncannily reliable you are at introducing me to new things that you know I'll like.