Landscape with the Fall of Icarus - long thought to be by Pieter Bruegel the elder is now considered a copy of a work rather than the original. It is in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels where Auden saw it in 1938.
Auden's words brought to mind the presepi which will be appearing in churches and homes next month: tableaux of the Nativity surrounded by people going about their normal business. Though some may be aware of the event being celebrated others are oblivious to the occasion. And I've often observed it in miniatures and early paintings in museums and churches that while the mundane activities of the town or country continue unaffected miracles are wrought, martyrdom inflected and achieved and the gods thunder, roar and laugh.Musée des Beaux ArtsW. H. Auden - 1938About 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.
Copyright © 1976 by Edward Mendelson, William Meredith and Monroe K. Spears,
Executors of the Estate of W. H. Auden.
Post Script: Auden was not the only poet inspired by Bruegel's painting, William Carlos Williams also wrote a short poem entitled Landscape with the Fall of Icarus