Landscape: W.H. Auden and Brueghel

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.

By W.H. Auden

I remember sitting in my British Literature class, senior year, and seeing this painting by Brueghel.  I saw the landscape first, then the ploughman and his horse, and finally the ship sailing away.  We had first read W. H. Auden’s poem and I was searching for the relationship with Icarus.  He had flown too close to the sun and melted his wings falling tragically to the earth. 

My heart went out for his ambition and his outcome. 

I scanned the skies, but could not find him.  I followed his trek downwards, and there they were.  His legs kicked out with a splash.

“To summarize this poem and this painting” our professor said.  “Life goes on.”

It was a truth that many modernist scholars agreed to.  Writer Robert Frost agreed in saying: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned in life:  It goes on.”  This was a truth that really humbled me and my ambitions as a graduating senior.  Life might not always go my way, and when it doesn’t, the world may not bend with my sorrows or grief.  Other people have lives, plans and their own tragedies to deal with as well. 

This is something that really hit me in studying the disconnection with modern literature.  Many writers grieved within their own isolation.  All that they had was a pen and paper to express how they felt.  Not everyone read it and went “WOW” as I did when first reading The Alchemist.  This dealt with the darker side of the human condition.  I found myself wanting to learn more.

This is my introduction into the modern side of literature.  Stay tuned for more.


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