Innocent behind (querying thoughtless lines of poetry)

Just because a famous poet wrote it doesn’t mean we can’t read it carefully, and find really silly things wrong with it. Here’s Yeats, with “Leda and the Swan”…

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

It makes you wonder what is a NON-helpless breast? One that jumps up and whacks the swan with its … ahem … mammary accoutrements?

Breughel: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.
Breughel: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus; detail.

And take another famous and sloppy poet, Auden, in ‘Museé des Beaux Arts’:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster…

Excuse me: last time I checked the OED “leisurely” was an adjective, not an adverb; you can turn “slowly”, but you must turn “in a leisurely manner…”, not “turn leisurely”. And…

the torturer’s horse
scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

Innocent behind? Innocent BEHIND? Puh-leeze! Isn’t that the very same horse’s behind that, just an hour ago, was seen beating up a shopkeeper and torturing a small boy with its rump?…

But maybe the horse didn’t scratch its behind, innocent or guilty:

The peasants in Bruegel’s Icarus were too busy making ends meet to even be curious of the splash, just like the dogs in “The Massacre of Innocents” were too overly concerned with their own simple lives to pay attention to the slaughter all around them… The other mention of an animal in the poem, a horse scratching itself on a tree, is questionable; Kinney comments that “only one torturer’s [horse] stands near a tree, however, and he is unable to rub against it because another soldier… is standing between the [horse] and the tree…” (Kinney 530). This must be the painting and the horse that Auden is referring to, however, because it is Bruegel’s only painting with a horse near a tree, and the only torturer’s horse in this particular painting.
From: “Auden and Bruegel: On Human Nature”, by Danielle Selber, at

And of course the Breughel painting is not called “Icarus”, because it is not about Icarus: it is titled “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”. It’s a landscape painting, a painting about a landscape. Icarus is just a detail, like the daydreaming shepherd and the man fishing.

Of course if Auden had given the painting its proper title, he would have given away the point of his poem: it’s just a landscape painting. People fall out of the sky; a torturer tortures, but his horse’s arse doesn’t; life goes on.