In Breughel's Icarus...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.
Auden is referring to a painting by Dutch painter, Pieter Brueghel, based on Ovid’s Myth of Icarus, the story of a boy who flew too close to the sun. It hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels.
If you look closely, in the lower right hand corner of the painting you can see Icarus with melted wings falling into the sea. Ovid's point was the danger of hubris; Brueghel had another idea.
In Brueghal’s version of the myth, Icarus falls and no one cares. Sailors on their ships, farmers and others are unconcerned, going about their own business, unaware of the calamity unfolding in front of their eyes. All are apathetic in the face of appalling tragedy and heartbreak.
Few of us are aware of the sadness all around us; we go our way inattentive and unmoved, too busy with our own business to respond to human need. Something amazing has happened: "a boy falling out of the sky"—right in front of our eyes—but we have "somewhere to get to and sail calmly by."
You don’t have to go far to uncover tragedy and heartache: a young widow, stricken with loneliness; an anxious parent concerned for a critically ill child; a frightened man awaiting heart surgery; a care-worn checker in a grocery store working at a second or third job to make ends meet; a young boy who's never had enough father; a single mother whose worries have washed her hope away; an old man who inhabits his bleak world alone; a needy soul behind our own front door—all right in front of us. Perhaps we don't have much to give, but we can see beyond what others see to the possibility of mercy, compassion and understanding.
I wonder how many times I've glanced at a grocery clerk, a bank teller, a waitress and failed to see the marks of woe, the drab, cheerless affect, the weary face, the downcast eyes, the mumbled response to my frivolous query, "How are you?" I hear the splash but miss the forsaken sigh, the deep sorrow in their response. I turn away from the disaster. I feel no tug on my heart; I have somewhere to get to and sail calmly by.
John Newton said on one occasion, "If, as I go home, a child has dropped a halfpenny, and if, by giving another, I can wipe away its tears, I feel I have done something. I should be glad to do greater things, but I will not neglect this." Nor should I.
"Oh, how blessed are those who care," Israel's poet mused (Psalm 41:1). How rare and how happy they are.