Musée des Beaux Arts
How we cite our quotes:
how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; (13-14)
The total lack of surprise or despair or any of those other emotions that require exclamation marks is pretty striking here. Notice how the speaker doesn't outline precisely who or what it is that's turning away? That leaves just enough space for "everything" to include the poem itself – and, by extension, us as readers.
the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; (14-16)
Deciding what to care about is such a simple process that sometimes we don't even realize that we're doing it. That's probably why Auden chooses a simple farmer (that's the sixteenth-century version of Nascar dads and soccer moms) to be the barometer of ethical responsibility. If he can't figure out when to care, chances are that most other people won't, either.
and the expensive delicate ship […]
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. (18-20)
Is the entire world morally bankrupt? That's sort of what we're left with after reading the second of these excuses about having other stuff to do. Notice how beautiful and pleasant all of the language describing the ship and its actions is? It almost makes the disaster seem surreal…or even mythic. Ironically enough, it was.