A Boy Falls into the Sea

 

In the last few days, this Coronavirus thing has awakened in my mind the image of a horse scratching its behind on a tree. After a few days of wondering why I had connected, in some part of my subconscious, a scratching horse with a pandemic, I went to Google and typed in “horse scratching his rear end.”

Nothing. At least nothing more than a bunch of articles on how to stop your horse from constantly scratching his rear end on fences and poles. All good advice, no doubt, but not to my purpose.

I used to teach literature, so I thought the horse-scratching image might come from a poem I had once taught. So this time I went back to Google and typed in “poem: horse scratching his rear end.” Ah, there it was! About ten items down, after more advice about the itchy rear end of horses, I found a reference to a poem by W.H. Auden that contains the image of a horse scratching his rear. The poem was Musee Des Beaux Arts. Google is a miracle.

Ah, it was all coming back. I used to love to teach that poem. How could I have forgotten it? And now as I glanced through the poem, not having read it for thirty or so years, I saw why that image of the horse kept rearing up in my subconscious — and why I connected the horse with the Coronavirus. In Auden’s poem, the horse nonchalantly scratches his rear end on a tree while his owner is torturing someone.

The horse is us! We nonchalantly scratch our rear ends (metaphorically, of course) while the Coronavirus leaves suffering in its wake. Auden’s poem is about our ability to go on blissfully with our lives while others are suffering.

Auden points to images in Pieter Bruegel’s painting, The Fall of Icarus, to make that idea come alive. His poem begins with these words: “About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters.” What those Old Masters, in particular Bruegel, were never wrong about was that people suffered while the rest of us are either unaware or don’t care.

I went back to Google to look up the painting, Bruegel’s The Fall of Icarus, that is the source much of the imagery in Auden’s poem, Musee Des Beaux Arts.

It’s a curious painting. The image around which everything revolves is so small it seems almost an afterthought. But if you look hard, you can see two little legs (lower right) disappearing into the sea. Those are the legs of Icarus.

If you remember the myth, Daedalus is a master craftsman who constructs wings so that he and his son can escape the Labyrinth where they were imprisoned. But Daedalus’s son Icarus, full of hubris, flies too close to the sun. The wax that holds his wings together melts, and Icarus falls from the sky into the sea and drowns.

But what really matters in the painting is the reaction of the plowman in the foreground, who tills his soil and ignores the death of the boy. He has a field to plow. The men aboard the ship also ignore the falling boy. They must have seen Icarus falling into the sea, Auden tells us, but they had harbors to reach “and sailed calmly on.”

In the middle of a pandemic, Auden’s (and Brugel’s) theme is a reminder, uncomfortable but totally understandable, that we can go blissfully about our business — like the torturer’s horse, the plowman, the men aboard the sailing ship — while others suffer, sometimes even on a mass scale.

But of course we have to ignore most human suffering. It would overwhelm us if we didn’t. Auden tells us that the Old Masters like Bruegel knew this.

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.

A horse and a virus — just a few days ago they were somehow linked in my mind. I didn’t know how. It took Google to show me how they fit together.

Postscript One:  When I finished this post, I was struck by how pedestrian Auden’s theme is when it is put into prose — but how nuanced and dramatic the theme is when put into poetry.

Postscript Two: In case you’d like to read Auden’s poem in its  entirety, here it is:

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  1. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    KentForrester: this Coronavirus thing has awakened in my mind the image of a horse scratching its behind on a tree

    Your response is more rational that anything the CDC has done…

    • #1
  2. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Folks, I think Kent has been cooped up too long . . .

    • #2
  3. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I’m glad you didn’t forget to include a picture of Bob.  Here’s a link to the fuller-sized image. It may help.

    • #3
  4. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    KentForrester: this Coronavirus thing has awakened in my mind the image of a horse scratching its behind on a tree

    Your response is more rational that anything the CDC has done…

    Doc, you’re going to hurt the CDC’s feelings if you keep that up. 

    • #4
  5. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Stad (View Comment):

    Folks, I think Kent has been cooped up too long . . .

    Stad, my natural state is being cooped up, so I don’t know any difference now. However, Marie and I are just about to leave to walk the dog and do a little grocery shopping.  We need yogurt and beer.

    • #5
  6. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I’m glad you didn’t forget to include a picture of Bob. Here’s a link to the fuller-sized image. It may help.

    Retic, when I press that link, I’m taken to the Bruegel painting.  I don’t think Bob was born when Bruegel painted The Fall of Icarus.  Wait, I see Bob helping the shepherd.  Thanks.

    • #6
  7. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I’m glad you didn’t forget to include a picture of Bob. Here’s a link to the fuller-sized image. It may help.

    Retic, when I press that link, I’m taken to the Bruegel painting. I don’t think Bob was born when Bruegel painted The Fall of Icarus.

    Are you telling me that isn’t Bob next to the guy leaning on his staff, looking up at the sky? 

    • #7
  8. OldDanRhody (this comment has … Member
    OldDanRhody (this comment has …
    @OldDanRhody

    I remember that poem from a literature class.  I thought it profound – still do.

    • #8
  9. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    It’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

    • #9
  10. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    JoelB (View Comment):

    It’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

    Joel, I don’t know.  I tend to think that the hokey pokey is what it’s all about.

    I’m sorry for that.  Of course you’re right.   I just feel giddy and flip today.  I just got back from Safeway and found everything I needed: Fage yogurt, Bud Light beer, and  blueberries that were crisp and firm. (Marie and I secretly open the plastic container to test the blueberries.  They’re dead to us if they are soft.)

    • #10
  11. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    We are physical creatures. Out of sight, out of mind. 

    By which I mean some people are both practically blind and completely nuts.

    • #11
  12. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    No link to the poem?

    • #12
  13. D12 Coolidge
    D12
    @D12

    But of course we have to ignore most human suffering. It would overwhelm us if we didn’t. Auden tells us that the Old Masters like Bruegel knew this.

     

    @kentforrester I was subconsciously holding my breath for nearly the entire post as I dared not guess your conclusion. (Surely you can see how it is that many people would make the opposite point.) I couldn’t agree with you more. Life cannot be lived if we must drop everything to respond to every crisis around us. Here’s hoping the plowing, sailing, and carrying on will resume in America in short order! 

    • #13
  14. D12 Coolidge
    D12
    @D12

    Skyler (View Comment):

    No link to the poem?

    @skyler, here you go.

    • #14
  15. Thistle Coolidge
    Thistle
    @Thistle

    Thank you for this. I’ll be teaching this poem in a few weeks (online), so this is a helpful way to make the poem and painting relevant. Auden’s poem reminds me of the Benedictine saying “ora et labora”–pray and work. I’ve been repeating that to myself and my students lately.

    • #15
  16. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Thistle (View Comment):

    Thank you for this. I’ll be teaching this poem in a few weeks (online), so this is a helpful way to make the poem and painting relevant. Auden’s poem reminds me of the Benedictine saying “ora et labora”–pray and work. I’ve been repeating that to myself and my students lately.

    Thistle, you’ll be teaching it online?  How interesting.  For whom?  Paying gig?   To whom.

    The phrase you use, “Pray and work,” suggests your teaching might be for a Christian school, and your reference to the Benedictines suggests it might be a Catholic school.

    Tell me more.  I taught an online class a long while back.  It wasn’t very successful. I hope you can do better. 

    • #16
  17. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    Folks, I think Kent has been cooped up too long . . .

    Stad, my natural state is being cooped up, so I don’t know any difference now. However, Marie and I are just about to leave to walk the dog and do a little grocery shopping. We need yogurt and beer.

    Yogurt and beer . . . there’s an interesting combination . . .

    • #17
  18. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I appreciate @d12‘s comment–life must go on. But I also think there is a danger of trying to ignore the tragedy happening around us. I’m trying to make life normal for me and my husband and not shut out the suffering around me. That’s a tough thing to do, without becoming overwhelmed. But I’m trying. Thanks for a good post, Kent.

    • #18
  19. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    I appreciate @d12‘s comment–life must go on. But I also think there is a danger of trying to ignore the tragedy happening around us. I’m trying to make life normal for me and my husband and not shut out the suffering around me. That’s a tough thing to do, without becoming overwhelmed. But I’m trying. Thanks for a good post, Kent.

    Reasonable people do what they can without letting it overwhelm their own lives.  They take a loaf of bread to an enfeebled person down the street, but they don’t daily bake 20 loaves to distribute to 20 different shut-ins located in various parts of the city.

    That is, we apply reason to our altruistic feelings. Our ship sails on, as it has to, even when it leaves a city full of suffering people. 

    • #19
  20. Thistle Coolidge
    Thistle
    @Thistle

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Thistle (View Comment):

    Thank you for this. I’ll be teaching this poem in a few weeks (online), so this is a helpful way to make the poem and painting relevant. Auden’s poem reminds me of the Benedictine saying “ora et labora”–pray and work. I’ve been repeating that to myself and my students lately.

    Thistle, you’ll be teaching it online? How interesting. For whom? Paying gig? To whom.

    The phrase you use, “Pray and work,” suggests your teaching might be for a Christian school, and your reference to the Benedictines suggests it might be a Catholic school.

    Tell me more. I taught an online class a long while back. It wasn’t very successful. I hope you can do better.

    Yes–a paying gig for an online school that teaches homeschoolers around the world. Not a Catholic school, but I’ve taught in classical and Christian “brick and mortar” schools where students learn Latin and read The Rule of Benedict. I love the phrase so much I got a tattoo ;-)

    • #20
  21. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Thistle (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Thistle (View Comment):

    Thank you for this. I’ll be teaching this poem in a few weeks (online), so this is a helpful way to make the poem and painting relevant. Auden’s poem reminds me of the Benedictine saying “ora et labora”–pray and work. I’ve been repeating that to myself and my students lately.

    Thistle, you’ll be teaching it online? How interesting. For whom? Paying gig? To whom.

    The phrase you use, “Pray and work,” suggests your teaching might be for a Christian school, and your reference to the Benedictines suggests it might be a Catholic school.

    Tell me more. I taught an online class a long while back. It wasn’t very successful. I hope you can do better.

    Yes–a paying gig for an online school that teaches homeschoolers around the world. Not a Catholic school, but I’ve taught in classical and Christian “brick and mortar” schools where students learn Latin and read The Rule of Benedict. I love the phrase so much I got a tattoo ;-)

    Ah, a tattooed person on Ricochet.  That increases our cool factor by, well, a lot. 

    You know, Thistle, I really like schools like the one you work for — schools  that have stepped up to serve the increasing number of students who are home schooled.  And around the world!  I assume to English speaking students.

    Way to go, Thistle. 

    • #21
  22. Skyler Coolidge
    Skyler
    @Skyler

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Ah, a tattooed person on Ricochet. That increases our cool factor by, well, a lot. 

     

    Or not. Tattoos always make me think someone is trying to hide a skin disease.

    • #22