The Helpers and the Indifferent


Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Bruegel, c. 1558
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, Bruegel, c. 1558

W.H. Auden is a major poet of the 20th Century. He was also a friend and sometime student of J.R.R. Tolkien, and offered positive reviews and insightful criticism long before it was popular to do so. Today’s poem, I’m told, was written shortly after Kristallnacht. Given the recent tragedies across the world this week, it’s good to reflect on the difference between a leisurely turning away and the much-touted “helpers” advocated by Mr. Rogers. The poem is a little more meat-and-potatoes reading rather than cotton candy, but I’m confident you can make your way through it. It’s worth the effort.

Musée des Beaux Arts
by W. H. Auden

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 Brueghel’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.


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