Skip to main content
en flag
nl flag
zh flag
fr flag
de flag
ja flag
ko flag
ru flag
es flag
Listen To Article

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.

Leave a Reply