“In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” W.H. Auden constructs a multifaceted modern elegy, switching between different poetic forms to examine his subject from different angles.
A beloved, popular artist can often be seen as a larger-than-life figure, someone to whom the public feels extremely connected, even on an emotional level, despite only knowing them through their work. However, even when an artist reaches wide visibility and acclaim, can they truly be said to have changed the world in any real, perceptible way? Is art even supposed to transform the world or politics? The death of William Butler Yeats, one of the world’s most iconic poets whose work was strongly connected to his country Ireland’s struggle for freedom, raised many of these questions. Yeats’s work had become widely known worldwide, Yeats even won the Nobel Prize, and yet, at the time of his death in 1939, much of the poverty and pain of his homeland remained in spite of his documenting of it. W.H. Auden used the occasion of Yeats’s death to dwell on what the role of the poet and poetry are supposed to be in modernity. With the poem “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” Auden constructs a multifaceted modern elegy, switching between different poetic forms to examine his subject from different angles, musing on Yeats’s personal life and childhood, his impact on culture and about the state of modern poetry in a more general way.
The poem is split into three cantos, each with its own distinct style. The first canto is composed of blank-verse stanzas, usually of around six lines each. The blank-verse style echoes the broad, detached overview of this canto provides, jumping from how the natural and industrial worlds react to Yeats’s death, to Yeats’s personal feelings on the day of his death, his effect on his followers and depictions of the modern urban world. The next canto is composed of just one stanza, with lengthier, enjambed lines. The distinctly modern, almost prose-like form of this section suits its unorthodox subject matter for an elegy, as instead of mourning the subject, the speaker muses philosophically about the nature of poetry as a whole. The final canto is broken up into ten quatrains with two perfect rhymes each, feeling more antiquated than the previous sections, demonstrating the continued power of traditional poetry after the passing of Yeats, a poet notable for his formal mastery.
The poem begins with a panoramic view of the day Yeats died, as the speaker notes,
He disappeared in the dead of winter
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues.1
These lines are notable for how little they directly pertain to Yeats or the direct reactions of people who knew him, as is common in elegies. The opening line does not even state that Yeats died, merely that “He disappeared,” leaving his death vague and mysterious and making him almost inhuman, that he was not a regular person who died, but an important feature of the world that suddenly vanished. The blank verse of the lines feels very stately and official, suiting Yeats’s grand stature. The following two lines subvert traditional romantic poetry. While one phrase in the second line, “the brooks were frozen,” focuses on the natural world in reaction to the poet’s death; the other two images, of “the airports almost deserted” and the “disfigured public statues,” depict man made artifacts. Where more traditional elegies often place a death in the context of nature, Auden also juxtaposes Yeats’ death against the industrial world, which is only appropriate when memorializing a quintessentially twentieth-century cultural figure. The stanza ends on the pair of lines “What instruments we have agree/ The day of his death was a dark cold day,” infusing the grief surrounding Yeats’s death with a scientific objectivity.2 Once again, Auden adapts poetic tradition, as he romantically shows the whole world mourning Yeats, with the entire “day of his death” being “cold and dark,” but makes it rational and modern by claiming that this “dark[ness]” was measured by “instruments we have.”
The second canto begins with the line, “You were silly like us; your gift survived it all.”3 Where the previous canto emphasized Yeats’s larger-than-life status by suggesting his death turns the entire world “cold,” this line reasserts his humanity. Yeats was not just a serious, influential artist, he was a “silly,” ordinary human being too, his special poetic “gift . . . surviv[ing]” all manner of personal and political trauma. The next section of the stanza lists various issues Yeats dealt with such as “physical decay” and “Yourself,”4 showing that Yeats was not immune to typical human struggles like aging or self-criticism. The speaker also addresses Yeats directly in the second person, further bringing him down to Earth, as Yeats is not treated like a distant legend, but a person one could talk to. The speaker then notes that “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.”5 Yeats’s poetic talents thus did not exist in a supernatural vacuum but were the result of the very particular milieu that he was brought up in, the pain he felt from having to deal with Ireland’s struggle for independence inspiring him to become a poet. This section of the poem also brings Yeats down to Earth through form, as the lengthy lines flow together almost like prose, contrasting with the very formal blank verse of the previous canto. Additionally, the speaker addresses Yeats directly in the second person, treating him like a person one could talk to, rather than as a mythical figure, only to be discussed from a distance.
The stanza then shifts to musing about the nature of poetry itself, as the speaker claims “Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still/ For poetry makes nothing happen.”6 Even in spite of Yeats’s tremendous cultural and political influence, Ireland remains essentially unchanged, still full of the “madness” that “hurt” Yeats in his youth. The speaker then boldly states that “poetry makes nothing happen”; it is not ultimately meant to change the world, no matter how politically engaged it may be, but to be enjoyed as art, which is why even a poet of Yeats’ stature could not truly transform things. The speaker elaborates that poetry “survives/ In the valley of its saying where executives/ Would never want to tamper.”7 Poetry reverberates in a “valley” just below the everyday business of the modern world, with “executives” seemingly unable to understand it or even disturbed by its meaning. Poetry also “flows on south/ From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs/ Raw towns that we believe and die in.”8 Poetry draws on the “isolation” and “griefs” caused by the “busy” modern world, resonating with our “raw[est]” beliefs and primal feelings. Ultimately, poetry “survives” as its own unique “way of happening,” in contrast to the speaker’s earlier statement that it “makes nothing happen.”9 While poetry may not always directly affect the outside world, a poem itself is an experience that gives a “mouth” to our raw inner feelings and beliefs.
The poem’s final canto reverts to a much more traditional poetic style, composed of quatrains with an AA/BB rhyme scheme. The poem’s third to last stanza seems to celebrate Yeats, and all poets, in a somewhat mythic way, stating:
Follow, poet, follow right,
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice,
Still persuade us to rejoice.10
The speaker acts like a chorus, celebrating the “poet” as if he were a hero, cheering him on to “follow right” and “persuade us to rejoice.” While the previous canto serves to bring Yeats down to the human level, here Auden’s antiquated voice shows how poets can still serve as valiant figures. Poets can bravely plunge into the dark, “bottom[s] of the night” and bring to light truths that would otherwise go unacknowledged. They can also “persuade” people “to rejoice” and find the joy that can get buried in mundane life. The perfect end rhymes within the stanza sound anthemic when read aloud, a testament to poetry’s undiminished ability to excite, allowing one to “rejoice” in the sheer catchiness of the language. Auden demonstrates that there is a nobleness to poetry after all, and its visceral power, even in its most elemental, simple forms, will never truly fade.
“In Memory of W.B. Yeats” stands as a uniquely modern elegy that spans multiple poetic forms, while jumping in subject from mourning Yeats himself to philosophically dwelling on what poetry’s role in the world should be. The work demonstrates poetry’s continued potential and relevance with its range of forms and subject matters, even as it questions poetry’s ability to shape the world. Even if poetry supposedly makes nothing happen, it still has the ability to voice people’s feelings and even heal. An influential poet like Yeats really is a noble figure after all.
- W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” Poets.org, 1-3.
- Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” 30-31.
- Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” 32.
- Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” 33-34
- Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” 34.
- Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” 35-36.
- Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” 36-38.
- Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” 38-40.
- Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” 41.
- Auden, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” 54-57.