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.
Auden is witnessing the painting “The fall of Icarus” by Broueghel and is reflecting on how the old masters have looked upon human suffering as a subject theme for art. Auden is touched by the theme of the young boy Icarus who flew to the sun with waxen wings and after the wings melted in the sun’s heat crashed into the sea and died. The irony of Icarus’ unsung death has been brought out in the painting by the way how the world took his death.The farmer went on ploughing, the ship sailed calmly on;someone is eating or opening a window;children skating on the pond’s edge-everything seemed as though the world went on as usual and the martyrdom did not really matter.”The expensive delicate ship” had noticed the boy falling out of the sky but it had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Auden is touched by the tragedy of Icarus ,although the painting itself does not seem to pay any tributes to the boy .Icarus stands as a symbol of the indomitable human spirit but the world does not seem to care.The visual beauty of the painting acts as a powerful image for the poem. The vivid picture of the fall of Icarus portrayed therein suggests a world untouched by the tragedy and the under-current of irony in the poem brings out this aspect beautifully.