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I’ve never taught about the Cold War at the same time that Russia invaded the Ukraine. Up until a few years ago, I had never taught about the influenza epidemic after World War I during a global pandemic, or taught about lynching during the Black Lives Matter movement.

The current reality certainly puts a new lens on the way that we examine the past. W.H. Auden wrote this poem in 1938, a period of crisis in Europe. As Elisa Gabbert noted in her piece on the poem in the New York Times, “something’s only a disaster if we notice it.”

“Musée Des Beaux Arts”
By W.H. Auden

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 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.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

One Comment

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I can’t tell you how often I return to this poem. I think it must be St. Luke’s favorite poem, at least.

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