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In Memory of W.B. Yeats - W. H. Auden

Wynstan Hugh Auden was a modern poet (1907 – 1973) not only in the sense that he belonged to the 20 th C. but in that he addresses social issues in an attempt to solve them.  He was heavily influenced by other great early 20th Century poets like T.S. Eliot, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender and the dramatist, Christopher Isherwood. 

In his early years, Auden was a radical left-wing, agnostic anti-fascist, quasi- Marxist activist protesting a hierarchical depersonalised society that was hostile to the aspirations of the common man and denied the individual a chance for personal fulfilment.  Modern society isolates us from our fellow man, alienating our individual struggles for recognition. 

It was Auden who first used the term “The Age of Anxiety”   Fear is specific while anxiety is non specific.

In his late thirties, he converted to Christianity, disclaiming his earlier poetry which his followers saw as an abandonment.

In many ways he was the antithesis to William Butler Yeats yet he demonstrates a great admiration of his technical skill. 

Audience:  He addresses W.B. Yeats personally and his followers indirectly. Auden includes other artists, aesthetes as well as the general public.

Form:

Auden, like the metaphysical poets prefers the demotive tone - more cerebral than heart strings.  This is an inverted Elegy  (Consolation is no longer appropriate where an afterlife is no longer viable.)

Anti - elegiacs:

1)    Wintry settings rather than warm pastoral.

2)   The traditional response by nature is changed to society’s response: bitter twist of an indifferent society rather than nature’s symbolism.

3)   Instead of conventional funeral procession, we are given a glimpse of Yeats’ passage through life.

4)   Instead of: separation of body and soul:  the poet is torn from his poetry.

5)   Instead of immortality of soul:  his poetry lives on and immortalises him.

6)   Instead of meditating on serenity of afterlife: we are given a depiction of the bleakness of pre-war Europe.

7)   Instead of consolation of religion: Auden appeals to the endurance of language through art

Tone:

Like the Metaphysical poets of the 17th C. Auden attempts an objective detachment on personal subjective issues. He adopts a low key, rational and reasonable approach. He is unsentimental, impersonal, unemotional, restrained, ironic but sometimes didactic.

He expresses no particular personal loss for the death of Yeats; the poet is only one of “of a few thousand”

The whole poem is anti- hyperbolic, low-key; it has the remoteness of the Anglo-Saxon tone, the occasion is played down. It has the chatty, inclusive, anti-rhetorical manners of a heightened conversation – rather than an emotional lament.

Nature was unaffected, - last day was recorded by impersonal, clinical weather instruments.

“0 all the instruments agree/ The day of his death was a dark cold day.”

This is an anti-romantic debunking of a traditional eulogy.  We have limited possibilities for human achievement or accomplishment.

Poet may die, but language lives on.  Auden respects "memorable language".

Techniques:

Auden likes to experiment with new forms so there is an uneven quality to the poem.  It is a mixture of prosaic, poetic, rhetorical; a juxtaposition of Prose and Verse.  He often exploits light verse, perhaps to lampoon popular songs.

The prose form characterised by longer irregular lines is often relaxed, conversational, documentary,

While the regular stanza form is poeticised with regular rhyme and meter suited to more dignified, elevated and heightened thoughts.

The “0” of “0 all the instruments agree...” lyrically breathes life into the lifeless world with emotive warmth. 

Structure:

3 sections; the first in mixture of prose and verse appears a cold insensitive arid impersonal account of the death of a poet.

The second stanza is a transitional one shows more sympathy and understanding despite the fact that it frankly accuses Yeats of being “silly” but modifies this by including “us” in the same kind of naive idealistic hopes.  Wittgenstein informs us that "unless we do silly things, we can never learn anything".

The third stanza is the eulogy, a (lyrical) song of praise to the deceased, yet its poetic, elevated style with its rhyme, rhythmic flow and solemn language has undertones of mockery in the beginning but appears much more serious and sincere at the end.

THEMES:

The Age of Anxiety – Alienation.

Modern Angst; The modern world is characterised by rootlessness, isolation, insecurity, awareness of failure, obscurely dominated by fear and guilt, and a sense of man’s inhumanity to man on a mass scale.

Post WWI period one of enormous displacement, unrest, disillusionment, confusion.

Auden yearned for a reconciled harmonious world, a sense of place, stability, community, belonging and a better humanised world.

Auden seeks for values and meaning in ordinary temporal world full of callous indifference to others.

All truths are derived from the ordinary, daily common lives of contemporary people even though he can depict the banality of life.

The emphasis focuses on the immediate and earthly rather than transcendental.

The objective impersonal approach to the subject gives both the reader and poet a sense of relatedness through its universal significance (we are all in the same boat). Men become isolated from each other because they fail to recognise general truths to which we are all subject.

Recognising truths about our common humaness can make us responsive to those around us. By loving our neighbour we gain a sense of belonging. Love harnesses our instinctive energy – our Life Force.

2) The role of the artist in life is explored in a number of poems, especially, ‘Musee.de Beaux Arts’,  In Praise of Limestone..’, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ and ‘Moon Landing’.

Suffering may be universal and significant, however it takes place in very ordinary conditions and in unprepossessing circumstances.  Despite failure or loss, we can affirm life.  As Friedrich Nietzsche observed: "To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in your suffering."

Yeats believed that in the midst of tragedy, the artist will transfigure it into something (useful) edifying.  ex:

 ‘Sing of human unsuccess/ In a rapture of distress’     (In Memory...) 

The artist transfigures the most ordinary situations, arid human suffering through language and still makes life worth living and praising. ex:

‘Time / Worships language / Still persuade us to rejoice.. / Teach the free man how to praise.’ 

Despite imminent war, intellectual disgrace, impotence, the anxiety of the dissolution of a doomed modern civilisation, the poet is invoked to celebrate life and fellow man through language.

The curse of Adam (isolation, displacement) can be transformed by

‘the farming of a verse’ to a ‘vineyard’

The angst (alienation) ‘deserts of the heart’ can be counteracted by exploring and celebrating community, love, kindness so that we

‘Teach the free man how to praise’.

Though   ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ appears despairing, Auden clearly believes this may only be so in the political and collective spheres.  

Some Literature has had a profound and moving effect on History by raising public awareness to issues and helping to changing people's mind sets.  The Protest song writers of the late 1950's to the 70's such as Pete Seeger, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan and many others helped to liberate people's minds from entrenched ideas.  Novelists like Charles Dickens, Kafka, Tolstoy, Steinbeck... Playwrights; Arthur Miller, David Williamson, highlighted issues that forced people to look at themselves in a new light.

Brecht posed an antithetical view with: "Art is not a mirror to reflect society, but a hammer to shape it"

Plato had many conflicting ideas about Art, but he believed Beauty in Art appeals the virtuous in us.   When we live in barbarian times do artists merely reflect darkness or should they make beautiful art to improve society? 

In December 1937, Picasso declared:

“Artists who live and work with spiritual values cannot and should not remain indifferent to a conflict in which the highest values of humanity and civilization are at stake.”

In our personal lives, Art is significant and enduring with more subtle edifying influences with transformative possibilities..

Immortality of Art:  ‘The death of the poet was kept from his poems’.  Though Yeats has died, his poetry will live on forever and continue to inspire people throughout the ages. 

John Donne also considered his love immortal, commemorated in: “We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms”

Kenneth Slessor laments the fact that Joe Lynch has no grave with  a permanent “funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.”  However he has been immortalised in Five BellsThe fact that this poem lives on seventy years later illustrates what Auden said about Yeats;  “the death of the poet was kept from his poems”.   Literature can have more staying power than the grandest monuments made of durable stone.

Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder.

´The words of a dead man

Are modified in the guts of the living”.

 ‘Nothing replaces the reader’s responses: the sound of poetry on both the outer and inner ear, the visions of fiction in the mind’s eye, the kinaesthetic assault of total theatre’   Handbook of Criticism – Guerin.

Ted Hughes, in a letter to Keith Sagar. THL 23 May 1974:  “Poems belong to the reader – just as houses belong to those who live in them not to the builder” 

It is vitally important to realise that good works of art are complex, ambiguous, conflicted and problematic – they do not provide answers, merely raise important issues many of which are not resolved.  No one has a monopoly on interpretation of the text and each reader has as much entitlement to adopt a view as the next. 

T.S. Eliot put it thus:

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better.  There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

Eliot later examined the ineffability of communication in The Love-Song of J.Alfred Prufrock where he has his persona admit:

“It is impossible to say just what I mean!” …….. and later   That's not what I meant at all./ That is not it, at all."

And:

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better.  There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

Aristotle's profound observation:

"The superiority of poetry over history consists in its possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness".

Language:   

Do poets write to have something to say or because they enjoy writing?  Auden would say both but lean towards the latter.  “The surest sign that the poet-to-be has real talent is that he is more interested in playing with words than in saying anything original”.

 W. H. Auden was admired for his unsurpassed technical virtuosity and ability to write poems in nearly every imaginable verse form; his incorporation of popular culture, current events, and vernacular speech in his work; and also for the vast range of his intellect, which drew easily from an extraordinary variety of literatures, art forms, social and political theories, and scientific and technical information.

* Mostly impersonal, understating the significance of Yeats’ death.   His colloquials mock or undermine the solemnity of the overriding tone of the poem.  Auden despised pomp, pageantry and circumstance.  Platitudes, fulsome praise and other banalities were to be avoided.

False language: 

Auden, like Shakespeare abhorred pomp, pretension and affectation.  He also agreed with Homer that "Words empty as the wind, are best left unsaid" .  Auden attempts to find the right word - the authentic word to depict the real scene or situation.  He hates platitudes or: blandishments, flatteries, cajoleries, praises, fulsome, effusive, insincerities, rhetoric, oratory, banality, prosaicism, clichéd, bromides, cant, hollowed language,  husks or shells of words,

“Base words are uttered only by the base
And can for such at once be understood;
But noble platitudes — ah, there's a case
Where the most careful scrutiny is needed
To tell a voice that's genuinely good
From one that's base but merely has succeeded.” 
                                                        ―
 W.H. Auden, Collected Poems4

Of the many definitions of poetry, the simplest is still the best: 'memorable speech'. Introduction to The Poet's Tongue (1935)

The simple ordinary phrase that goes to the heart o the matter.

Auden manages the inclusion of both the prosaic and the poetic forms in the same poem

The artist transfigures the most ordinary situations and human suffering through language and still makes life worth living and praising.

* refrain—like repetition of poignant lines ‘instruments’ provides unity to 1 st section.

*: demotive language in:

“The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living".

* elegant lyrical language of 3rd section is a resonant celebration of the power of language to express the human spirit. 

Evaluation:

Like Yeats, Auden depicts the tragedy of suffering in life and history, yet he does so in a detached alienated (Brechtian), matter of fact manner without comment or empathy.  As in his other poems he depersonalises people and transforms them into bizarre extensions of objects.  Is he suggesting we have become an uncaring society?

Auden lived a shambolic life, drank and smoked to excess and used barbiturates to cope with anxiety and stress.  His eccentric domestic life was opinionated, moralistic but sincere. 

To copy truth may be a good thing, but to invent truth is much better”.

He helps us to live.

Clive James:  " Auden’s unrecriminating generosity toward a world that served him ill, was a moral triumph". 

Hitler’s supporters

It took most elites a long time to accept the rise of democracy.  A letter of Flaubert to George Sands illustrates:  "He had become aware that all his life he had been indignant.  Indignation was in his marrow, it held him up and drove him along.  It was understandable because he couldn’t stand the philistine middle class and the idea of a philistine and stupid working class replacing them was too horrid to think about".

Oscar Wilde too, warned about the tyranny of the people which could be as brutal as that of Princes or the Pope.

Yeats entertained some fascist tendencies including eugenics and a preference for aristocratic authoritarianism.

Alexis de Tocqueville, however, visiting America comments on small parties and great parties. "A great party is one where we are committed to principles rather than their outcomes, to general considerations rather than individual ones.  Great parties have more noble characteristics more general enthusiasms, more genuine convictions, more open and bold approaches than a small party."
 

In 1943 Orwell commented that "the best writers of our time have been reactionary in tendency”’.

It is surprising how much support both Mussolini and Hitler had amongst the establishment from the abdicating King of England to philosophers and poets.  During times when the devil has the most influence, writers such as W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Heiddeger, ….. came out in support of elite fascism. 

Australia’s Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, in a 1939 “Departed Friends” speech delivered against a background of catcalls declared:

“History will label Hitler as one of the really great men of our century....As far as the German people are concerned Hitler has proved himself a great man and a tireless worker.  He dragged his nation from bankruptcy and revolution, and I think he has too much intelligence to lightly cast them back into another war”.

While Menzies soon lost the Prime Ministership, he regained it in 1949 and became our longest serving leader.


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