“Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid.” Jan Vermeer, 1677.
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
“A Youth Making a Face.” Adriaen Brouwer, 1635.
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.
“Landscape With the Fall of Icarus”. Pieter Brueghel*, 1558.
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.
(W.H. Auden, “Musee des Beaux Artes.” 1938).
*It has been discovered through radiocarbon dating that Landscape With the Fall of Icarus is not by Brueghel the Elder, though it is thought to be based on a lost painting of his, and that association lead to the centuries-long misattribution of the painting’s provenance.