Today is officially the Spring bank holiday, but it seems that we’re pretty much past Spring and into early summer already. What a brilliant two months of glorious weather we have had, while so much sickness and suffering have been happening in hospitals and care homes around the country – and across the world. But that, somehow, is the way things are with suffering.
W H Auden explored this theme in his poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, reflecting on a painting by the elder Bruegel in the Fine Art Museum in Brussels, ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’. In the foreground of the painting is a ploughman ploughing a cliff-top field; beyond him is the sea, with passing ships, and distant shores. And in the middle distance a splash, as the falling Icarus plunges into the sea, the wax fixing his feather wings having melted as he flew too near the sun.
Suffering takes place, says Auden, ‘While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’; while ‘the dogs go on with their doggy life’. Even ‘the dreadful martyrdom must run its course’, while ‘the torturer’s horse/Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.’ How true: we may live our ordinary lives without even noticing the suffering of others. In another poem, Auden offers a kind of solution for our self-absorption: ‘You must love your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart.’