This morning’s newspaper headlines the N. C. General Assembly’s last minute power grab to limit the already restricted powers of Democratic Governor-elect Roy Cooper. The Republicans are defending their actions, saying the Democrats “did it first” 20 and 40 years ago. Colin Campbell reports:
“House Bill 17, which legislators approved Friday, would limit the number of state employees the governor can hire and fire to 425. The current limit is 1,500 and was increased from 400 around the time Republican Gov. Pat McCrory took office.”
Another red flag flew up when I turned the page to this political cartoon by Tom Toles of the Washington Post:
In March 1938, Germany invades and annexes Austria. With no appetite for another war, Britain looks away. Tensions escalate. Just when Great Britain seems on the cusp of war, reprieve comes in the form of an agreement by Hitler to hold a diplomatic conference at Munich. There, on September 23, 1938, representatives from Germany, Italy, France, and Britain sign the Munich Agreement. Czechoslovakia was not invited to the talks.
The next day, Hitler and Chamberlain sign a separate Anglo-German Declaration of their own. Chamberlain flies home to England and declares:
“We have achieved peace in our time.”
Soon after Chamberlain’s return to England, Germany seizes Czechoslovakia, and a year later invades Poland.
Chamberlain’s famously false declaration of “peace in our time” comes from his “Radio Speech to the British People,” delivered on September 27, 1938, in which he reports on his talks with Hitler regarding Germany’s territorial claims on Czechoslovakia. It’s worth examining his rhetoric of appeasement more closely.
Chamberlain acknowledges “the present anxious and critical situation” and “growing anxiety” about another world war:
“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
“Yet I believe after my talks with Herr Hitler that, if only time were allowed, it ought to be possible for the arrangements for transferring the territory that the Czech government has agreed to give to Germany to be settled by agreement under conditions which would assure fair treatment to the population concerned.”
“For the present I ask you to await as calmly as you can the events of the next few days. As long as war has not begun, there is always hope that it may be prevented, and you know that I am going to work for peace to the last moment. Good night.”
Notice how Chamberlain distances Britain from Europe, trying to reassure people that things aren’t as bad as they seem, and that surely Hitler will be just and appropriate in his political and military actions.
W. H. Auden wasn’t reassured. In fact, he was as troubled by British appeasement as he was by German aggression. He expressed his concerns obliquely, in a poem called “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.
Auden wrote this poem in December 1938, while staying in Brussels, Belgium with his lover, Christopher Isherwood. While there, he visited the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique and saw its collection of Early Netherlandish painting, including “Old Masters” such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569). The speaker of the poem strolls by a series of paintings, pausing to reflect on Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.
In both the poem and the painting, suffering happens elsewhere, off in “in a corner, some untidy spot” of the world distant from us. You scarcely notice the flailing legs of Icarus in the bottom right corner of the painting, your eyes drawn to the central figure of the plowman, who looks down at the ground, focused on his work. Like the speaker, he is “just walking dully along,” scarcely attending to a drama of mythical proportions unfolding beside him. “The ploughman may / Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, /But for him it was not an important failure.” He “Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on”—not unlike Republican leaders today, who overlook impending disaster, focused on immediate goals of consolidating their own power. And sadly, not unlike me, who though opposed to current political trends, find it all to easy to go on with my doggy life, focused on the business of everyday life.
Auden’s poem responds to escalating political tensions and events in Europe by looking back, indirectly through art from long ago and far away, at his own nation’s response, examining the moral consequences of appeasement. And in that indirection, Auden both mirrors and critiques evasive political discourse. He doesn’t stand outside or above the problem; he acknowledges that he’s part of it. As a poet, he’s just as guilty of evasion and accommodation, finding it just as difficult to confront the political crisis directly and feeling helpless to do anything about it.
“Of suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters”—and the old poets, too. Even as Auden acknowledges how difficult it is to remain focused and vigilant, he reminds us to pay attention. In the the familiarity of his colloquial language, the sharpness of his description, and the subtlety of his analysis, he awakens our attention. He makes us think again about the risks of appeasement and accommodation and the moral consequences of ignoring the suffering of others.
Chamberlain, Neville. “Radio Speech to the British People” (September 1938). The Past Speaks: Sources and Problems in British History. Volume II: Since 1688. 2nd edition. Lexington, MA, and Toronto: D. C. Heath & Co., 1993. 368-370.
“The Munich Agreement and the Anglo-German Declaration (September 1938). The Past Speaks: Sources and Problems in British History. Volume II: Since 1688. 2nd edition. Lexington, MA, and Toronto: D. C. Heath & Co., 1993. 370-71.