The Torturer’s Horse

I’m reading my 20th Spencer novel  by Robert B. Parker, and while I have found that some of them are positively preposterous, and all are very formulaic, I still enjoy reading about Spencer beating up thugs, making love to Susan Silverman, and quoting poetry.

In Painted Ladies, the wife of a murder victim alludes to a poem by W.H. Auden, written in Belgium in 1938, called Musee des Beaux Arts. This was when Auden was living with Christopher Isherwood.

The poem refers mainly to a painting by Brueghel depicting the fall of Icarus, but it also alludes to another Brueghel painting called “The Massacre of the Innocents” in which “the torturer’s horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”

Musee des Beaux Arts

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 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.

The editors at Poetry Pages suggest the theme of the poem can be summed up in this quote from Robert Frost: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned in life: It goes on.”