In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle ponders the meaning of Auden’s famous statement
‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’ This statement, made by W. H. Auden in his 1939 poem ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, has provoked plenty of commentary since Auden’s poem was published. But what did Auden mean when he asserted that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’? Did he really believe such a thing?
Although many people think Auden is offering a gloomy statement about the inefficacy of poetry to change anything in the world, the assertion that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ is not quite so straightforward as it may first seem.
‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ 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?
Auden’s poem is, then, as much about his own poetry as it is about Yeats’s. As Geoffrey Hill acknowledged in ‘September Song’, many elegies are as much about the elegist as they are about the person being elegised: they often reflect the concerns of the living as much as they memorialise the dead. Auden, who by 1939 had acquired a reputation as the leading English poet of the 1930s – the head of a group known as the ‘Auden Group’, which also included Louis MacNeice and Stephen Spender – was a deeply political writer who, like his prose counterpart George Orwell, tried to throw himself into the midst of political events before writing about them. As a man of the Left (like Orwell, though Orwell disagreed with Auden’s approach to political writing), Auden is someone with a deep social conscience who wants to highlight injustices and atrocities where he finds them.
But does that mean that he believes poetry should help to change these injustices? Does he believe it contains that much power, especially in the twentieth century? The Romantics like Percy Shelley may have believed that poetry could be a tool for political change. Does Auden feel the same way?
It is in the second section of the three-part poem ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, that Auden opines that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. Until this point, Auden has been talking about Yeats and how his work will survive now he has died. But in this middle section, Auden turns to address 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 change the fate of a single Jew in the Second World War). Poetry, then, can make nothing happen, cannot avert tragedies or atrocities or political tyranny.
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 of Auden’s poem, 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.
And in saying ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, Auden is definitely not saying that poetry is therefore pointless or ineffectual: simply that it doesn’t directly influence things in the way that, say, a political speech or a protest or petition might. Rather than making things happen, poetry survives, and it is in this ability to transcend the generations – and the lifetime of the poet who creates it – that poetry has its power.
And 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.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.