Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster;
- Now we're moving onto solid ground. Our speaker's not wandering in front of random pictures anymore. He's given us a point of reference: Pieter Breughel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus."
- We'll get into the painting a bit more in our "Setting" section, but for now let's just point out that it's an old painting (done in about 1558, to be precise). That's why our speaker refers to Brueghel as an "Old" master. He meant the "old" part. You can see an online version of the painting here.
- Our speaker doesn't refer to the painting by its full title, of course – sort of like how you might talk about a painting that you just saw…or a painting that you know so well you feel like you can give it a nickname.
- We think that the discrepancy between Brueghel's name and our speaker's reference is actually pretty interesting. It shows that, despite all evidence to the contrary, our speaker actually is interested in the story that's happening in the background.
- Who's Icarus? We're glad you asked. Check our discussion of him in "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay." For now, though, let's just say that he's the granddaddy of big plans that just never quite get off the ground. Literally.
the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;
- There's something devastating in the understatement of these lines. Sure, spring planting is an important time. Ask any farmer – they'll tell you that there's about eighteen hours of work to do in about eleven hours of daylight. Maybe our ploughman is just too busy to pay attention to noises off in the water. But from what we can tell, it sounds like someone's drowning. Heck, check out Breughel's painting if you don't agree. There are legs out there in that water! Something is not right.
- Maybe the farmer's just got too much to do to head off and play lifeguard for silly people who shouldn't be swimming in the ocean. Maybe he's just not concerned about random sounds. Maybe people drown in that water every day. Whatever the reason, this particular fall is not important enough to merit his attention.
- Then again, what does constitute an "important" failure? Something so dreadful that it affects 10 people? 100? 100,000? When does something become "big" enough to care about?
- Sure, that's not what our speaker's actually saying. But he sure as heck is insinuating it. After all, a "forsaken" cry is one that people have deliberately ignored. And it's that indifference which really drives our speaker to generate this poem.
the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
- Once again, there's a certain inevitability in these lines. The natural world goes on, no matter what happens. Dogs do what dogs do. The sun does what it always does: it shines.
- Notice how Auden manages to make this both a story and a description? Here's what we mean by that: he's allowing the speaker to narrate Brueghel's painting – and in so doing, he makes all the action happen in real time. We are there as the sun is shining and Icarus is drowning. Does that make his version more real or more alive than Brueghel's? Not necessarily. But it does make us pay attention to the temporality of Icarus's fall. It's no longer static. It happens across time – the time that it takes us to read the last few lines, as a matter of fact. And that drawn-out falling makes the tragedy of Icarus' death all the more excruciating to witness.
- Then again, our speaker could just be describing what he sees in the painting. Brueghel manages to make the light strike Icarus's legs. That's how we know that he's actually in the water. That and the fact that Brueghel tossed his name into the painting's title, of course.
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.
- Wow. These lines sure do pack a wallop. Check out the dictionary definition for "selfish, indifferent jerk" and you'll probably find something that looks a lot like these lines.
- All of the peace and tranquility in this poem (and, well, in the painting to which it refers) gets exposed as something that looks a lot like hypocrisy. Sure, everything is expensive and beautiful and perfect. But that's only a thin veneer over what's actually the action in this scene – a terrible, terrifying drowning.
- Like Brueghel, Auden is emphasizing Icarus's surroundings. In so doing, he transforms the myth; it's no longer about a boy who dreamed too big and couldn't figure out how to fly. It's about all the simple, ordinary people who wouldn't go out of their way to pull a drowning boy out of the water. Sure, the ordinary stuff might not be quite as exciting as the myth. Heck, it's not even what art is supposed to be about, is it? We're supposed to be reading about heroes and dragons and martyrs and all the flashy stuff, right?
- Maybe not. Maybe Auden's point is that even the heroes need ordinary people to do extraordinary things sometimes. Or even just behave like sympathetic human beings.
- Auden's poem doesn't emphasize the extraordinary – just like the rest of the lines, these lines are simple. No tricky words. No fancy rhymes. In so doing, he could just be normalizing the sorts of indifference he describes. Several critics (we won't name any names) have said just that.
- We wonder, though, if he's not exposing that indifference for what it is: an unwillingness to recognize amazing things or out of the ordinary things or even just awful things. In other words, this poem is asking us to open our eyes. You just never know what you're going to see once you do.