By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ by W. H. Auden (1907-73) was written in 1939, following the death of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats in January of that year.
As well as being an elegy for the dead poet, ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ is also a meditation on the role and place of poetry in the modern world. What is poetry for? Can it make anything happen? Should it make anything happen? You can read ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ here before proceeding to the analysis below.
‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ is in three parts, each of which has its own form and style.
PART I: In the first section, W. H. Auden discusses the death of W. B. Yeats ‘in the dead of winter’ (well, Yeats did die in January, after all), a time when the brooks were all frozen over and snow made it difficult to make out the public statues.
It was so cold the mercury in the thermometers dropped. As Yeats lay ill and dying, the world – and, specifically, Ireland – went on as usual (a common theme of Auden’s when dealing with death: consider ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, written just one month before Yeats died). When Yeats died, his death ‘was kept from his poems’: in other words, the poetry Yeats wrote remains unaltered by the fact that Yeats the man has now died.
Auden then describes Yeats’s death, in the third stanza, concluding that, with his passing, Yeats ‘became his admirers’: once Yeats the man had ceased to be, Yeats the poet became whatever his readers and fans decided he was. Here, we can sense Auden making a broader point about the ‘immortality’ of poets: they survive or don’t survive depending on who reads them, and how those readers read them.
Yeats’s work is ‘scattered’ all over the world in those cities where people read him, often finding surprising things in his work which Yeats himself would not recognise (‘unfamiliar affections’). Auden here is prefiguring one of the most influential ideas in twentieth-century literary criticism, that of the ‘intentional fallacy’ or ‘death of the author’, where the worth and meaning of a writer lie with the reader rather than the author. Auden says that the words of a dead man are ‘modified in the guts of the living’: we cannot help but change the meaning of what a poet wrote, adapting it to suit out our times and our own feelings.
Auden concludes this first section of ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ by acknowledging that the world will go on tomorrow, but a ‘few thousand’ will think of the day Yeats died as ‘one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual’.
There is a refusal to indulge in sentimental public mourning here (something that also underscores the surprising origins of Auden’s most famous poem, which had its roots in parody rather than sincere elegy), and a classical downplaying of the importance of Yeats’s death. It is important and noteworthy, but it is like a day on which one does something out of the ordinary (slightly), rather than a dramatic day that changes everything.
PART II: in the second section of ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, Auden turns to address (or apostrophise) the dead Yeats directly. ‘You were silly like us’, he says, and in a single stanza of ten lines utilising pararhyme (all/still, decay/poetry, survives/executives/griefs/survives, and one concluding full rhyme, south/mouth), Auden begins to turn away from Yeats in particular to think about poetry more generally.
It is here that Auden makes his famous statement that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. This is often analysed as an admission of poetry’s limitations as a tool for social and political change (indeed, Auden once said in an interview that his poetry didn’t help to save a single Jew who was murdered in the Holocaust).
But is it as simple as that? Should poetry make anything happen? Did Wilfred Owen’s war poetry? Did Yeats’s own poems? When we analyse this statement, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, in the context of the whole stanza, a more complex and interesting ‘argument’ emerges. Auden says in the previous line that ‘Ireland has her madness and her weather still’, because ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. But who in their right mind would expect a poem to change the weather?
This is absurd, and deliberately so: Auden is wryly remarking on the failure of poetry to change things, but this is not quite the cry of despair and powerlessness it is often taken for.
After all, as Auden goes on to say, poetry ‘survives’ in a whole host of places, and although it doesn’t make anything happen, it is itself a ‘way of happening’ (emphasis added), not something that makes history happen but part of history itself, perhaps, and part of life.
PART III: the final section of ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ is written in regular quatrains of trochaic tetrameter catalectic (i.e. with the second half of that fourth and final foot lopped off), rhymed aabb. The trochaic metre here evokes the song, and there is something more formal (in both senses of the word) and even incantatory about this concluding section.
Having addressed the burial of Yeats, Auden concludes by addressing the shade of the dead Yeats again, asking him to ‘persuade us to rejoice’ and to heal us with the ‘fountain’ of his work. The final couplet sees Auden commanding Yeats – Yeats the poet, for Yeats the man has gone – to teach the free man, the living, to praise and celebrate in the short time allotted to us (‘the prison of his days’).
Throughout ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, there is a taut restraint that prevents the poem from spilling over into mawkishness or sentimentality. Auden describes the day of Yeats’s death as ‘a dark cold day’, but this is objectively true, rather than mere pathetic fallacy or Romantic expression.
Of course, this doesn’t discount the possibility that Auden feels the day of Yeats’s passing to have been ‘cold’ and ‘dark’ in a more abstract, even metaphysical sense, but it is also something on which all of the instruments can ‘agree’: it was cold and it was dark.
As Rick Rylance remarks in his excellent book Literature and the Public Good (The Literary Agenda), ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ is a poem that is dialectic, in that we cannot simply isolate one line of one section of the poem and pronounce that we have found the true meaning of it.
He gives the example of that famous statement from the second section, ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. This appears to be contradicted by what we find in the third and final section of ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, in which the poet is ordered to do a number of things – letting the healing fountain start within the deserts of the heart, teaching the free man how to praise – which can only be described as making things happen.
One of the reasons the poem is not just a technically accomplished but also a semantically profound poem is the tension between these differing views of what poetry is and should be. It also marks Auden out as a modern poet, aware that a complex world – and a complex thing like artistic influence and poetic function – cannot be reduced to simple slogans or maxims.
‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ is, in the last analysis, a powerful poem not just about Yeats but about all poets whose work can teach us ‘how to praise’. These final words of Auden’s poem are, fittingly enough, inscribed on the poet’s own memorial stone in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.