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“In Memory of W.B. Yeats” was written by Auden in February 1939 in Memory of William Butler Yeats after his death in Roquebrune (Southern France) on January 29, 1939. This poem follows the traditional elegiac form. An elegy in literature is a poem that expresses mourning and grief, especially as a funeral song or a lament for the dead. The word ‘elegy’ is derived from the Greek term ‘elegeia’ and this was originally referred to any verse written in elegiac couplets and covering a wide range of subject matter, including the epitaphs for tombs.
This form is a very ancient literary tradition that began with Theocritus and Moschus, defined by Virgil, developed and enriched by the great Renaissance poets and popularly reinvented by P.B. Shelley and Matthew Arnold in the 19th century.
It is a 63-lines poem that is divided into three sections.
Summary of “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”
The poem is based on the great modern poet W.B. Yeats and is written in a tributary form, with a reflection on the foreshadowing events of World War II. The poem focuses on the poetic afterlife and also the function of poetry as an art to unify the collective minds of the readers in a world crippled with modern technology and warfare. The lament in the poem is not just directed to the death of Yeats but also towards a world that is threatened by its own destructive potential. The repute and fame of W.B. Yeats was such that for his admirers, it crossed all borders of nations. For Auden, while the memory was to do with the past, it took place in the present. And the only way a poet could honour the dead, was to write an elegiac poem.
William Butler Yeats died in winter: the brooks were frozen, airports were all but empty, and statues were covered in snow. The thermometer and other instruments told us the day he died “was a dark cold day.”
While nature followed its course elsewhere, mourners kept his poems alive without letting the poet’s death interfere. Yet, for Yeats himself, mind and body failed, leaving no one to appreciate his life but his admirers. He lives through his poetry, scattered among cities and unfamiliar readers and critics, who modify his life and poetry through their own understandings. While the rest of civilization moves on, “a few thousand” will remember the day of his death as special.
In the second section of the poem, Yeats is called “silly like us.” It was “Mad Ireland” that caused Yeats the suffering he turned into poetry. Poetry survives and gives voice to survival in a space of isolation.
In the third, final section of the poem, the poet asks the Earth to receive Yeats as “an honoured guest.” The body, “emptied of its poetry,” lies there. Meanwhile, “the dogs of Europe bark” and humans continue their “intellectual disgrace.” But the poet is to “follow right / To the bottom of the night,” despite the dark side of humanity somehow persuading others to rejoice in existence. Despite “human unsuccess,” the poet can sing out through the “curse” and “distress.” Thus one’s poetry is a “healing fountain” that, although life is a “prison,” can “teach the free man how to praise” life anyway.
Along with his piece on the death of Sigmund Freud, Auden’s tribute to the poet William Butler Yeats is a most memorable elegy on the death of a public figure. Written in 1940, it commemorates the death of the poet in 1939, a critical year for Auden personally as well as for the world at large. This was the year he moved to New York and the year the world catapulted itself into the Second World War.
Yeats was born in Ireland in 1856 and embraced poetry very early in his life. He never abandoned the traditional verse format of English poetry but embraced some of the tenets of modernism, especially the modernism practised by Ezra Pound. He was politically active, mystical, and often deeply pessimistic, but his work also evinces intense lyrical beauty and fervent exaltation in Nature. He is easily considered one of the most important poets of the 20th century, and Auden recognized it at the time.
The poem is organized into three sections and is a commentary on the nature of a great poet’s art and its role during a time of great calamity—as well as the ordinary time of life’s struggles.
The first, mournful section describes the coldness of death, repeating that “The day of his death was a dark cold day.” The environment reflects the coldness of death: rivers are too frozen to run; hardly anyone travels by air; statues of public figures are desecrated by snow. These conditions symbolize the loss of activity and energy in Yeats’ death.
At the same time, far away, wolves run and “the peasant river” flows outside of the rest of civilization (“untempted by the fashionable quays”), keeping the poetry alive. The implication is that the poems live even though the man may be dead. The difficulty with this situation, however, is that the man can no longer speak for himself; “he became his admirers.” His poems, like ashes, are “scattered” everywhere and are misinterpreted (“unfamiliar affections” are brought into the poems). The ugly fact of bad digestion modifies the poems as “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.”
Furthermore, as in “Funeral Blues” and “Musée des Beaux-Arts,” the events of the average day go on—a trader yells on the floor, the poor suffer—for most people, the day goes unmarked. It takes a special soul to mark the importance of the day of the death of a great poet, and only “a few thousand” have such a soul. As scholar James Persoon writes, “These two elements—the poet’s death as a national and natural crisis and the poet’s death as almost completely insignificant—describe a tension within which Auden explores the life of the work after the death of the author.” Thus, in addition to the thermometer telling us so, the speaker of the poem tells us that it is a “dark cold day” with respect to the popular reception of Yeats’ poetry.
In the second section the speaker briefly reflects on the generative power behind Yeats’ poetry. It was “Mad Ireland” that “hurt” him and inspired his poetry as a form of survival. For Yeats, “silly” like other poets or, more broadly, like other Irishmen or humans, poetry was a “gift” that survived everything other than itself—even Yeats’ own physical degeneration, the misinterpretations of “rich women,” and Yeats’ own failings. Poetry itself, from this perspective, survives amid everything, not causing anything, but flowing out from isolated safety (perhaps the Freudian subconscious) and providing voice (metaphorically a “mouth”) to that deep level of raw and unassailable humanity.
The third and final part brings the reader back into more familiar territory, with six stanzas of AABB verse, every line in seven-syllable trochaic verse (three long-short feet followed by a seventh stressed syllable).
The body of Yeats (“the Irish vessel”) rests in the ground, the warring nations fight (metaphorically, the “dogs of Europe bark”), people misinterpret his work (“intellectual disgraces”), yet somehow, his poetry retains a place somewhere. The true poet, like Yeats himself, will “follow right / To the bottom of the night” (to the primordial humanity expressed in Yeats’ poetry), to that fundamental human freedom where an “unconstraining voice” can “persuade us to rejoice” in our existence.
True enough, the human“curse” (evoking the Fall of Man in Genesis) remains; death awaits. This is all too true in a time of war. But the poet can turn the curse into a “vineyard” where a sweet poetic drink can form. On the one hand, there are “deserts of the heart” and human distress, yet on the other hand, with this wine, a “healing fountain” can release a man from “the prison of his [mortal] days.” A poet like Yeats, despite everything, can “teach the free man how to praise” that fundamental spark of existence that survives in one’s poetry.
Symbols and Images; Rhyme, Form and Meter; Speaker and Setting
Let us now discuss some of the stylistic features and poetic devices employed in the poem. The poem makes effective use of the images of water, frozenness and immobility and impending doom. Moving, flowing and churning things up, water is the quintessential symbolic image for motion and change. Water is personified as a ‘peasant’ river and a ‘fashionable’ quay. Art/poetry is imagined as a river snaking through landscapes of concrete and congestion. Water images are also used to depict the negative: the ‘seas of pity’ ‘frozen’ inside people become a potent image of failed compassion. Finally poetry is described as ‘the healing fountain’, the water that nurtures our souls.
Nightmares and barking dogs and hitting the rock bottom are some images of death, destruction and doom, which are all expected in an elegy.
Rhyme, form and meter are the poem’s blueprints. Each of the three sections of the poem has unique formal characteristics. Auden uses the traditional elegy form, simple rhyming couplets as well as free form. Yeats himself was a master of form. He played around with everything from traditional Irish limericks and lyrics to epics. Auden’s poetic tribute alludes to Yeats’ technical skill.
In this poem the speaker is very close to the poet. The setting reflects the tone of the poem. The first section gives the grim details of dying in a hospital. However apart from the setting of Yeats’ actual death, the whole landscape of his life including Ireland is depicted. The setting expands to include the world in 1939. Auden paints a vivid picture of a world built of isolationists and the nightmarish oncoming of World War II. The three settings of the poem cover the mundane details of life even as it philosophizes on the state of world affairs and the value of poetry.
Tone and Themes
Now that we have looked at the variations in form, metrical patterns and setting, let us see how Auden conveys a mixture of urgency and hesitation. It is indeed a formidable task to chronicle the life of the most famous poet of his age. That tension gives the poem its sonic variants. Auden maintains a simple, restrained tone throughout the first section. Then the landscape shifts and suddenly Auden is addressing Yeats as a friend.
Soon another form takes over almost as if the personal address has become too emotional to the speaker and so he reverts to the traditional forms like rhyme and elegy.
The changes are lightning-fast and Auden packs a lot of emotion into those few stanzas. Auden’s language in this poem is incredibly sparse almost as if he is determined to depict Yeats’ death with a restraint that he himself doesn’t feel.
A poem can have more than one theme. Examining the themes of a poem helps us understand it better. ‘In Memory of W.B.Yeats’ is about death. Here, death becomes an occasion for Auden to reflect upon the complicated legacy Yeats left behind and the ways in which his work coloured the 20th-century poetic landscape.
Another major theme is the social validity of art or poetry. The poem presents the view that while art doesn’t ever change anything it offers fresh perspectives and makes us feel things about people and places that we might not spend any time thinking about at all.
Unlike traditional elegies, this poem urges us to think about Yeats’ failings as well as his achievements. Perhaps the only real way to express admiration is to do so honestly.
The theme of isolation is prominent in the poem. Auden suggests that while poetry is not a cure-all, it can certainly help people see the truth of their situation even if it forces them to acknowledge their own loneliness.