The poem examines the painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (thought to be by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in the 1560s), focusing on the sidelined suffering of the boy’s fall while the everyday occurences of other lives go on. There’s an irony here of the speaker going to a museum to learn about suffering – the realm of aesthetics offers the leisure of experiencing this aesthetically rather than politically? For Hannah Arendt, pain is private and eclipses the world – here is it the opposite? Does the person turn away?
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 Brueghel’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.