“A great book reads you,” W. H. Auden once wrote, meaning that you grasp the depths of a profound work of literary art the more you deepen your own sense of life. But a great work of art can also interpret the context in which it is interpreted.
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.
The Times’s interpretive essay was written by Elisa Gabbert, the newspaper’s poetry columnist. Gabbert movingly writes that “I’ve been reading this short, wry poem about suffering for more than 20 years.” Perhaps having in mind Auden’s remark about a great book reading you, she adds that “pain is a kind of wisdom, maybe. As I age, I’m making the poem better.” You may quibble with whether she is making the poem better as she gets older—more likely, the poem, a la Auden, is making her “better”—but you can admire her passion for a work of art.
Gabbert’s essay also deepened my sense of the atmosphere we live in. It appeared in a newspaper that, like so many liberal outlets now, has surrendered any attempt at impartially reporting the news, instead presenting events as morality tales of good and evil, whose moral is, in every case, an exhortation to the reader: “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” The poignant irony is that the Auden who satirized the ideological conformity imposed by the modern bureaucratic state in his poem “The Unknown Citizen”
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year
has had his poem pressed by the well-intentioned Gabbert into something like a panini of the proper opinions and conventional pieties of the liberal class who, alas, organize public opinion on a minute-by-minute basis.
No work of art can be summed up in a series of categorical statements about its “message,” but Gabbert tells us that Auden’s poem is a straightforward exposure of people who let bad things happen—she is perhaps thinking of Ukraine—and do nothing. “Ignoring [human suffering],” she writes, in a summary of Auden’s intentions in writing the poem, “is the most natural thing in the world. It is also a moral error.”
You could spend decades searching for a great poet who trafficked in pointing out moral errors, but you’d never find one. Art doesn’t scold, or make clear moral points, let alone cluck-cluck its superior virtue. In “Musee des Beaux Arts,” Auden is evoking the permanent condition of the world, in which people suffer while other people either go about their business or look the other way. He is not writing an opinion piece urging people to buy hybrid vehicles, for example. What he is doing is describing how things are, and enacting, in the poem itself, a wisdom about the world.
The painting that Auden describes, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Bruegel, hangs in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. Auden wrote the poem in December 1938, fresh from the fronts of the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese war. But the poem doesn’t have much to do with war, or with the suffering caused by war. It is about human suffering in general.
The striking aspect of the painting is that the great mythic theme of Icarus’s fall—an event that would have been, in the hands of any number of Old Masters, placed at its center—Bruegel treats as just another mundane event among all the other mundane events he portrays: a shepherd with his sheep, a fisherman fishing, a ship sailing by, a farmer plowing the land. The drowning of Icarus is depicted in the lower right corner of the painting, as just another everyday incident.
Bruegel’s denial, or even undermining of, heroic motifs in art appealed to Auden, who preferred writing in a subtle, ironic style to what he referred to as “the old grand manner.” More to the point, though, is Auden’s references to Christ’s torture and crucifixion in the first stanza of the two-stanza poem. Written shortly before Auden’s reconversion to Christianity, the poem seems to gesture to a transcendent truth buried in everyday life.
Gabbert does not refer to Auden’s religious beliefs, and when she does take up the poem’s allusions to Christian motifs, she gets them wrong. “The painting,” she writes, both confusing the poem with the painting and the painting’s own possible meanings, “is about the fraught relation between attention and disaster—as is the poem: Something’s only a disaster if we notice it.” Yet in the painting, Icarus’s fall is still a disaster, though no one sees it. And in the poem, Christ’s “dreadful martyrdom” and Icarus’s fall are still disasters, though no one sees them. Auden even refers to the boy’s fall as a “disaster.”
The poem is not about the “fraught relation between attention and disaster,” whatever that means. It is about disaster and suffering happening in the midst of lives untouched by disaster and suffering. Auden writes, “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 along.” The poem describes how even Christ’s torture happened obscurely, mundanely: “even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course . . . in some untidy spot/Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”
Gabbert believes that the Old Masters, in the manner of editorial writers, were bothered by the fact that suffering was “easy to ignore.” For Auden, though, the Old Masters understood suffering’s “human position.” Blindness or indifference to suffering isn’t an error easily corrected by an adjustment to your moral posture. It is a profoundly ambiguous and complex essence of being human.
Gabbert thinks that the “dreadful martyrdom,” obviously a reference to Christ’s agony at the hands of the Romans, is instead a reference to King Herod’s order to kill all male children under two years old. When Auden writes so sweetly and earthily about 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,” Gabbert comments that the children did not want the birth of Christ to happen because of Herod’s order. This makes no sense since Herod gave his order—if he did actually give it—after Christ was born, so it would be too late for the children not to want it to happen. And Auden writes “there must always be/Children who,” implying that he is referring to a permanent trait of children. With typical tenderness, Auden imagines children, perhaps siblings, jealous of another child’s arrival. Anyway, he is writing about children skating in an entirely different painting by Bruegel.
Gabbert herself does not seem to be paying attention to the poem or the poet she is writing about. She declares that a horse is not scratching itself on a tree in another painting by Bruegel that Auden alludes to: The Massacre of the Innocents. But at the lower right-hand corner of that painting, a horse is doing just that. “Most of his poems,” Gabbert proclaims about Auden, “also have a clear rhyme scheme.” No, they don’t. “‘Shone’ in the British pronunciation rhymes with ‘on,’” she reports. No, it doesn’t.
In an uncomfortable irony, Gabbert becomes the person, indifferent to the sufferings of others, whom she claims Auden is condemning. In the painting, she writes, Icarus “also looks pretty close to the shore, like . . . maybe if he just stood up? I find this very funny.” But there is nothing funny about the boy’s legs thrashing about as he is drowning. It is heartbreaking; if it weren’t, Bruegel and Auden would not have made such a fuss about people ignoring it. Gabbert also thinks that the devastating final line of Auden’s “Epitaph on a Tyrant”—“And when he cried the little children died in the streets”—brings that poem to a close “with a satisfying click.”
Gabbert makes a great show of her ultra-sensitivity to moral issues, projecting them onto the immensely complex painting and poem. “Do [the poet and the artist] call attention to this general lack or dearth of attention to condemn human indifference or to excuse it?” She cannot conceive of a work of art that does not give a clear answer to a clear moral question. Instead the poem offers “a space for moral work, and moral possibility . . . It asks us to question our place in the world—to ask what we might be missing.” In Gabbert’s hands, a poem about the “human position” of suffering, in which the same sun destroys a boy’s reckless, touching ambition and then shines indifferently “on the white legs disappearing into the green/Water” leads to a workshop in social sensitivity.
Gabbert concludes her telling misreading of Auden’s masterpiece by posing a series of questions that are like lanterns swinging over the conventional pieties that constitute what passes these days for the liberal imagination. “If the horse can scratch its behind in innocence, is the torturer also innocent, in a way?” In a way. “Are we no better than horses, or they no better than us?” What would a New York Times meditation on human existence be if it did not assert both the relativity of evil and the unexceptionalness of being human? And don’t forget the wickedness of eating anything with more protein than a blade of grass: “Does the torturer have to torture, as the fisherman has to fish? (A disaster for the fish?)” Such “proper” sentiments could not have been more alien to Auden.
Gabbert lingers over Auden’s later revulsion against one of his most famous lines from another poem: “We must love one another or die.” We die anyway, he supposedly said, and after revising the line in various ways, he excised it altogether. She sarcastically writes that Auden was at first settling for the maudlin notion that “love conquers all.” In fact, the true sentiment at the heart of that line never left Auden. Just before his death he was working on what he called “Shorts,” proverbs in the form of three- or four-line poems. One went like this: “Man must either fall in love/with Someone or Something,/or else fall ill.”
Auden was invoking agape, the Greek word used in the New Testament over 200 times, signifying self-sacrificing love for another or, as Auden put it, describing his experience of agape as a young man sitting with three colleagues at a public school where they were all teaching: “[I] felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.”
Another way to describe agape is to say that it is a form of absolute attention to another person’s humanness. The idea of self-surrendering attention was a preoccupation of Auden’s; he once characterized people in thrall to a vocation as “forgetting themselves in a function.” “How beautiful it is,” he continues, “that eye-on-the-object look.”
This puts Gabbert’s opaque remark about attention and disaster in a different light. For in Bruegel’s painting, the ploughman is paying absolute attention to his work; the fisherman is absolutely fixed on fishing; the sailors are completely caught up in sailing, and “the sun shone as it had to.” Rather than a spectacle of selfishness, these people and nature itself are “forgetting themselves in a function,” which is a form of agape, of love for the work of living. Even the sun, so destructive to Icarus on the one hand, nourishes the life-giving seeds the farmer is planting in the earth on the other. Perhaps we cannot fulfill the saintly idea of loving our neighbor, but we can, in the ordinary motions of our lives, perform the work at hand, and thus cause no harm to our fellows, even if, the human condition being what it is, we do not possess the capacity to relieve suffering whenever and wherever we witness it. Maybe that is why the ploughman is the largest figure in the painting, occupying the foreground nearly in the center of the picture. “No one having laid the hand upon the plow, and looking on the things behind, is fit for the kingdom of God,” as Luke 9:62 has it. Surely Auden knew that exhortation to keep your eye on the work of God; on, that is, the work of earning the gift of your portion of mortal existence.
I came upon Gabbert’s essay on March 6. On that day, the Times ran an article about three members of a Ukrainian family killed by a Russian missile while attempting to flee to safety. In the middle of this unspeakably tragic account appeared an ad, but it was not just any ad. Just under the photograph of two dead girls, lying several feet away from their dead mother, who was partially covered by clothes, was a photograph of two models acting the parts of a mother and her small child, both of them laughing. It was an ad for a children’s hospital, the import of which was that this lucky child had been restored to a healthy life at the hospital, to the great joy of both mother and child. The paper’s seeming indifference to human suffering was almost obscene. And here, on the very same day, the Times was publishing a lengthy essay distorting a great poem into an instance of handwringing over people who are indifferent to the suffering of others. Such inverted projections of bad faith seem to constitute nearly the entirety of liberal culture these days.
“About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters: how well they understood/Its human position.” They would have been bewildered, though, by how today’s masters of public opinion have lost touch with the human position altogether.
Photo by H V Drees/Getty Images