February 21: Happy birthday, Mr. Auden

"Landscape with The Fall of Icarus", ca. 1590-95, by Pieter Breugel the Elder

“Landscape with The Fall of Icarus”, ca. 1590-95, by Pieter Breugel the Elder

In celebration, here is Wystan Hugh Auden‘s poem about Breugel’s painting (above).

Musée des Beaux Arts

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.

“Musée des Beaux Arts” is my favorite of Auden’s poems; I’m suppose it’s almost everybody’s favorite (if they read him), but I love it dearly so I won’t pretend to be original. It has everything I need – poetry, painting, death and survival. That first line has been stuck in my head forever.

Click here for a much larger version of the painting. The Breugel images are from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain.


A happier birthday

Christmas birthday window

Christmas birthday

During the northeaster, I was not only cold, but seriously ill and bitterly regretting my procrastination over snow tires. In spite of hanging quilts at the windows, the only warm spot in the house was my bed by the stove, so I lay there, only getting up for work or to feed the child. In the middle of all this, my cat brought a Norway rat into the house and released it, unharmed. I did my best to harm it, failed, and went off to sleep at another house. I know that was stupid, but it was late at night, and I was sick, tired, and actually quite terrified. I came back the next morning with gloves and boots on, trapped it and herded it out the door. Why does my cat do this? (It was nonstop when I was pregnant.) Does she think I need more protein? A hobby? I’ll be delighted when she’s too old to catch anything. Even watching her nap is making me cross.

Lying still for a change gave me plenty of time to plan for the holidays. My daughter’s birthday is right before Christmas; there’s no time to swap decorations, so I steer away from red and green and try to come up with something that works for both. I redid the front window, and am experimenting with white LED lights veiled with white fiberfill, courtesy of Pinterest, which finally sent me something I liked, a picture of a cloud lantern. The Christmas tree, this year, is a cryptomeria japonica. It is an evergreen, but the one I bought looks like fragile green feathers. The lady who sold it to me was extremely stern, as if she doubted my ability to care for it – and she should. It’s down in the basement now, because I’m following her instructions very strictly. It can come inside for ten days, when it will be swathed in illuminated clouds and tiny ornaments, and then handed over to my former mother-in-law, who is a serious gardener. Even she hadn’t heard of cryptomeria, so she’s pretty excited.

Anyway, the birthday-of-the-glowing-clouds will feature lunch, cake, and a high-stakes game of hunt the thimble. Our cabin is perfect for hiding thimbles; the children will be totally enraged by the time I’m done with them. After that we’re going ice skating. Some of them can skate, and some of them are going to be hanging on to adults or the wall, but as Thurid says, everyone is happy on the ice.