In Memory Of W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats #

When Yeats died in 1939, Auden wrote this poem in his honour. In many ways Auden was the antithesis to William Butler Yeats yet while he demonstrates a great admiration of his technical skill, he has serious reservations on his philosophies. There is little personal emotion evident, but a great deal of professional respect. Auden addresses Yeats directly, yet in a detached objective manner.

Audience #

W.B. Yeats followers/ other artists, aesthetes

Form #

Elegy — inverted (Consolation no longer appropriate where 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 17^(th) 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 all have limited possibilities for human achievement or accomplishment.

Poet may die, but language lives on and his poetry has the potential to heal,

“With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse”

and restore

“In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start”
- hope in people.

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.

Mateusz Marecki claims that W.B. Yeats is in fact “silly like us”, presents the great poet in a different light, which results in a partial disenchantment both of a traditionally glorified figure and of a magical aura around him.

Writing that W.B. Yeats, just like all other people at the time, was exposed to confining conventions established by “The parish of rich women” and maintaining that he also had to deal with “physical decay”, himself and “Mad Ireland”,

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.

All truths are derived from the ordinary, daily common lives of contemporary people.

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.

  1. The role of the artist in life is explored in a number of poems, especially, ‘ 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.

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:

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.

What emanates from W.H. Auden’s elegy is evidently a growing anxiety about Fascism and its repercussions. The sombre tone of the whole poem manifests itself in the use of words and phrases, such as “the dead of winter”, “a dark cold day”, “frozen”, “deserted”, “dark” and “evaporated”, which all have explicitly negative connotations. (Mateusz Marecki)

According to Edward Mendelson, Eliot, in “The Social Function of Poetry,” wrote that:

“no art is more stubbornly national than poetry,”

and Yeats’s entire project was to create a nation, a unifying myth for Ireland—from the Celtic twilight poems and Cathleen ni Houlihan to one of his final poems, “Cuchulain Comforted.” He wanted “an Ireland/The poets have imagined.”

Auden’s response to this kind of thinking can be discerned in this mock elegy for Yeats:

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

Auden told Robert Fitzgerald that “America is the place because nationalities don’t mean anything here, there are only human beings, and that’s how the future must be.”

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. It is entirely possible that Auden is mocking Yeats.

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.

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 resonating poetry will live on forever and continue to inspire people throughout the ages.

Language: #

  • Mostly impersonal, understating the significane of Yeats’ death.

  • 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

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 by exploiting the fear of communism.