When W.H. Auden took the cue for his poem ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ from Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus, he did not presume the reader’s knowledge of the iconography of the painting but rather sprang open its central and universal theme, which touches all our lives: how ‘dreadful martyrdom must run its course’. It is easy to think our lurid times are perhaps unsuited to such universalities, given the way we loudly chart even the smallest martyrdom, or indulge the biggest Trump on any manner of forums without ever feeling the need to properly situate the subject within a unifying longue durée. The cultural seeds of Trumpism may be found in most real estate offices, just as they are in Aeschylus and Dan Brown. But who cares about that? When it comes to capturing hearts and minds, umbrage and outrage are as much subject to the traction of demand and supply as anything else. At present, there are more poets writing in this country alone than there are footballers kicking goals at the highest level or politicians compromising the healthy future of our children’s climate. But where are the crowds, where is the hysteria, and the press conferences? Thankfully, not here. Like the ploughman ignoring Icarus falling into the sea in Brueghel’s painting, the workaday world and its directional spotlight will always carry on as if nothing has happened in the poetry world.
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