In Memory of W. B. Yeats: by Auden | Summary and Analysis

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      In Memory of W. B. Yeats was first published in New Republic 1939. The poem was written by Auden to mourn the death of W.B Yeats, the great Irish poet and a contemporary of Auden, in January 1939. The poem is divided into three sections which form separate poetic units within the poem; the relationship among these units is not very close and organic, as each section is based on somewhat independent strains of thought. This poem is one, and perhaps the best, of a set of poems grouped together as "Occasional Poem" at the end of Auden's volume of 1940, Another Time.

      Yeats had died in France early in 1939, in his seventy-fourth year, and throughout the 1930s he had been recognised by the poets who are often thought of as Auden's group as the greatest poet, English literature, of his time. C. Day Lewis imitated his style extensively; Auden himself modelled September 1, 1939 very much on Yeat's Easter, 1916. Mac Neice wrote a good, short critical study of Yeats, and Spender was greatly influenced by him. C. Day Lewis and Mac Neice had probably a specially intimate appreciation of Yeats, being themselves being protestant, of Anglo-Irish gentry. Yeats had published all these poets in his Oxford Book of Modern English verse, praising them with his usual generosity, but expressing distaste for what he thought of as their fanatical doctrinaire quality. They themselves wero a little embarrassed by having to admire so much a poet who believed in so many things they did not believe in - magic, reincarnation, cyclical theory of history, romantic love, the good society as consisting of aristocrats and peasants. It is important in reading Auden's poem to conceive clearly the typical attitude of the English intellectuals towards Ireland and the Irish tradition. This is partly one of profound historical guilt, and partly an attitude of boredom and irritation. T.S. Eliot perhaps condensed it finally when speaking not of Ireland but of Scotland, and praising the Scottish poet Hugh McDiarmid, he talked about "small oppressive nationalities." The small nationalities have in fact been oppressed. The Irish claimed a charm from their provenance.

Yeats often felt a little of this himself:
One of Ireland haveI come.
Great hatred, little room.

      To write this commemorative poem Auden had several problems to solve. He has to state, or rather imply that Yeats came out of a rather wild, insignificant little country, whose main importance for Auden, is that it "hurt (Yeats) into poetry" and that what Yeats said in poetry is, if translated into prose, mostly silly or dangerous. Further, Yeats's mode of life, the social and literary success so much promoted by flattered and flattering women like Lady Gregory, Olivia Shakespeare, Dorothy Wellesby, is something like the mode of life of a country curate purred at by gentle spinsters. And yet having said all this, he has to convey a sense of Yeats super human mastery in the use of words. This great cool poem is partly and accurately, about Yeats himself. This is the topic, and more profoundly, this is the theme. "Do not", one might almost summarize the drift, "try to judge the things he was saying or the man he was. We all say silly things, and are all silly men. Listen to the magnificent noise he was making".

Auden's Poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats as its title indicates is an elegy written to mourn the death of W.B. Yeats, but it is different from the conventional elegy. Traditionally in an elegy all nature is represented as mourning the death, here nature is represented as going on its course indifferent and unaffected.
In Memory of W .B. Yeats


      Section I of the poem describes in the dramatic setting the death of Yeats. It was 'the dead of winter, when 'the brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted'. All instruments agreed that "the day of his death was a dark cold day". Significantly, Auden dovetails a series of bleak images at the outset of the poem to underscore the indifference of nature to the event - the death of Yeats. Such a device establishes the mood of the poem and determines the attitude of the poet. Ironically - and the irony is grim, indeed - Auden looks upon the death of Yeats the individual as an ordinary occurrence. His death did not affect the order of things:

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays..

      And here Auden introduces an idea which is central to the theme of the poem.

Now he is scattered away a hundred-cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections...
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

      The poet as an artist becomes independent of his work. He dies physically, but his poetry lives after him. He becomes what his readers make him.

      We find a shift in the imagery in stanzas iii, iv and v of section 1. The nature imagery of the first stanza gives way to the imagery of a modern urban civilization. It takes the poem further from the convention of pastoral elegy. Now the central image is that of 'a hundred cities of brokers 'roaring like beasts on the floors of the Bourse'. We are brought to confront the beatings of a modern world and also the sensibilities of Auden as a modern poet. Section 1 ends with the refrain:

All the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

      The cold in nature described in stanza I envelopes the urban scene also.

      Section II - The shortest unit in the poem-introduces another strand of thought:

Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still.
For poetry makes nothing happen.

      Despite the great poetry of Yeats, Ireland has remained the same. Poetry fails to produce any revolutions or to make changes in society. What lives after a poet is his style: his manner of saying rather than the subject or the content of his poetry. And this style, manner and language of the poet come to dwell in the subliminal depths of the human psyche, "where executives would never want to tamper it". The uniqueness of poetry lies in the manner in which it objectifies the human condition: it survives, A way of happening, a mouth.

      Section III is compact and formal. Taking as the spring-board the thought of the preceding section, Auden expands it further in this section. With the death of Yeats the Irish vessel' is 'emptied of its poetry'. Time which is indifferent to the faults of character or physical charm 'worships language'. It has forgiven Kipling and Paul Claudel for their views since they wrote well. The language of a poet redeems his views, and oddities of character.

      The second half of Section III deals with imminence of World War II, the year of Yeats' death being 1939. The mystery and drama of Yeats s death is now set against a world overhung with the clouds of war.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate.

Critical Appreciation

      Auden's Poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats as its title indicates is an elegy written to mourn the death of W.B. Yeats, but it is different from the conventional elegy. Traditionally in an elegy all nature is represented as mourning the death, here nature is represented as going on its course indifferent and unaffected. The great poet's death goes unnoticed both by man and nature; human life goes on as usual and so does nature. Secondly, in the traditional elegy death is glorified and said to be a great loss for mankind at large. But Auden does nou glorify Yeats. He goes to the extent of calling him "silly," and further that his poetry could make "nothing happen", "Ireland has her madness and her weather still." Thus Auden reverses the traditional elegiac values and treats them ironically.

      The poem contains two basic, related points: that a poet's work ultimately becomes independent of him, because he has no control over the interpretation which posterity will give it; and that therefore it is conditioned by society, and its role in society can be no more than a passive one. The rather sinister dramatization of Yeats' death in the first section is thus an essential part of the mystery of a poet's destiny, and the numb elegies-reinforce the sense that the external world, in the grip of winter, is quite irrelevant to the internal world of poetry. The external instruments measure the fact of weather and fact of Yeats' death, but the internal 'guts' receive and modify his life's work. The initial sections of the poem deny that personal lives have impact on the world. It should be noted that the third and the last section of the poem is the most formal. The first section was in iambic lines of unequal length, divided into verse blocks of unequal length, not giving the effect of free verse. There are equivalence of feminine-ending, like 'forests' and 'poems': there are half-rhymes like 'rumours' and 'admirers': yet the total effect is apparently loose and free, a formal and deliberately contrived casualness. One line ends with the carefully chosen, ostentatiously unemotive word 'unusual'. The blank verse of the second section is very conventional. The seven syllable lines of the last section seem by contrast to move formally, like a funeral march, with a balance in each line between two major and two minor stresses the rise and fall of the slow-marching soldiers (feet): and with formal movement, the grand last section makes a formal statement.


      In Auden's poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats the imminence of World War II has been dealt in the second half of section III. In comparison to section III the sections I & II are quite relaxed in structure. The mystery and drama of Yeats' death is now set against a world overhung with the clouds of war.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark
And the living nations wait,
Each requested in its hate...

      In the time of war, the poets generally pursue the hidden truth, to explore the subliminal depths. With the gift of his poetry, of saying things in a powerful manner he can persuade mankind to rejoice even in the face of the curse of war. Only the poet can sing of human success' and cause the healing fountain' to start in "the deserts of the heart.

      W.B. Yeats is only incidentally the subject of the elegy. It embodies some important view of Auden about the destiny of a poet and the value of poetry as art. In Memory of W.B. Yeats is a modern poem in its imagery, concept and versification. Auden shows considerable ingenuity in using blank verse, iambic lines of unequal length, half-rhymes and feminine endings.

      The thematic strength of this splendid poem is in the balancing of the true statements, that poetry in the world of matter of gross political and social action, can do almost nothing, and yet in the world of spirit, of man's transcendence of his fate, can do almost everything. There can be fewer finer examples in the English language of irony as celebration.

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