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Even the Dreadful Martyrdom Must Run Its Course

Look at the bottom right of the above painting, Pieter Breughel the Elder’s “The Fall of Icarus.” I would particularly direct your attention to the bare legs of Icarus, who has fallen from the sky into the ocean—punishment for presuming to fly too close to the sun. The following poem by W. H. Auden refers to it in the last stanza. The poem is called “Musée des Beaux Arte.”

 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.