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.
Kallman, Chester, et al. The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: 1969-1973. 2015. United States, Princeton University Press, 1988.
Why I chose this poem
I had already memorized most of this poem when I prepared a teaching unit on artists responsding to art with art. I imagine I'll be starting the site with a lot of poems that I half-know and that have stayed with me for decades.
This seems so timely, the fractal nature of attention, the backdrop of COVID and US elections. The way I read news and feel danger in my body at the same time I walk through the trees and am, in the moment, perfectly safe and at peace.
I have come to believe there is no nobility in unnecessary suffering or feeling bad, certainly not in clinging to suffering and feeling bad. When there is no immeidate danger, it doesn't help me to hold discord in my body except to the extent that it informs my behavior. The negative feelings have no inherent virtue, only utility. I wish to act in the world from a calm center, informed by the myriad feelings that flow through me.