Analyzing Poetry #2


Musée des Beaux-Arts

Poem 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 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 poem was written right before WW2

The story takes after Ovid’s Myth about Icarus, who had escaped prison with his father but sadly died because of his disregard for his father’s instructions. 

The poem focuses on the surroundings of Icarus however. In the painting made by Pieter Breughel, Landscape With the Fallen Icarus, Everybody in the painting seems to find the drawing Icarus irrelevant and unimportant. Even the fisherman, who was stationed right next to the suffering boy, turned a blind eye. 

In lines 14 to 21, The poem talks about how the town and ships quite literally just didn’t care about the suffering boy. No-one turned to even look. 

In lines 3 to 5, The poet gives the viewpoint of someone who passes a suffering person on the street. One may just simply walk dully along, ignoring those who are suffering because they simply do not matter to them. 

People don’t understand the meaning of “Suffering” so easily when they have no experienced something so cruel. Suffering plagues those who least deserve it, usually. 

This is also discussed in Ovid Myth About Icarus, but we aren’t talking about that right now. 

Finally, the poet even goes as far as giving examples of how the animals didn’t even care in lines 12-14. The dog goes on with its life and the horse seems unfazed. Even the shipped that sailed past the drowning boy paid no attention, simply because they had places to be. (Lines 19-21)