As you can sometimes see from my webcam, my desktop wallpaper for the past few years has been Pieter Breughel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus. In the Metamorphosis, Ovid tells the story of Icarus’ flight and fall in dramatic terms, speculating that
“Some fisher, perhaps, plying his quivering rod, some shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant bent over his plow handle caught sight of them [Icarus and his father] as they flew past and stood stock still in astonishment, believing these creatures who could fly through the air must be gods” (Metamorphosis 8).
The fisher, the shepherd, and the peasant are all present in Breughel’s sixteenth-century painting, but they aren’t standing stock still in astonishment. In fact, they don’t even notice the pair of white legs disappearing into the water, the small flurry of skin and feathers in the corner of the painting. This has always been poignant to me; the story unfolding in the painting will be told for thousands of years, and it sure as hell is the most important thing in the world to both Icarus and his father at the moment, but the rest of the world is just going on. Not callously, necessarily, and not with malice; it’s just continuing on oblivious.
W.H. Auden’s poem on the painting has always haunted me, and never more than now. I’m not sure that I can pinpoint why; it’s not that I’m angry that life goes on, and I certainly don’t think that this tragedy hasn’t received enough attention.
Musee des Beaux Arts (1939)
W.H. Auden (1907-1973)
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.