In Memory of W.B. Yeats

The poet W.B. Yeats died in January 1939. In a poem dedicated to his memory, his fellow poet W.H. Auden gives a chilling description of the mood in Europe on the brink of war:

 

In Memory of W.B. Yeats 

He disappeared in the dead of winter: 
The brooks were frozen, the air-ports almost deserted, 
And snow disfigured the public statues; 
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day. 
O all the instruments agree 
The day of his death was a dark cold day. 

Far from his illness 
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests, 
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays; 
By mourning tongues 
The death of the poet was kept from his poems. 

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself, 
An afternoon of nurses and rumours; 
The provinces of his body revolted, 
The squares of his mind were empty, 
Silence invaded the suburbs, 
The current of his feeling failed: he became his admirers. 

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities 
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections; 
To find his happiness in another kind of wood 
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience. 
The words of a dead man 
Are modified in the guts of the living. 

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow 
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse, 
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed, 
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom; 
A few thousand will think of this day 
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual. 

O all the instruments agree 
The day of his death was a dark cold day. 

II 

You were silly like us: your gift survived it all; 
The parish of rich women, physical decay, 
Yourself; mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. 
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, 
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives 
In the valley of its saying where executives 
Would never want to tamper; it flows south 
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, 
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, 
A way of happening, a mouth. 

III 

Earth, receive an honoured guest; 
William Yeats is laid to rest: 
Let the Irish vessel lie 
Emptied of its poetry. 

Time, that is intolerant 
of the brave and innocent, 
And indifferent in a week, 
To a beautiful physique, 
Worships language and forgives 
Everyone by whom it lives; 
Pardons cowardice, conceit, 
Lays its honours at their feet. 

Time that with this strange excuse 
Pardoned Kipling and his views, 
And will pardon Paul Claudel, 
Pardons him for writing well. 

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

Intellectual disgrace 
Stares from every human face, 
And the seas of pity lie 
Locked and frozen in each eye. 

Follow, poet, follow right 
To the bottom of the night, 
With your unconstraining Voice 
Still persuade us to rejoice; 

With the farming of a verse 
Make a vineyard of the curse, 
Sing of human unsuccess 
In a rapture of distress; 

In the deserts of the heart 
Let the healing fountain start, 
In the prison of his days 
Teach the free man how to praise.

 

TASKS

  1. Why do you think the poet has used a different form of poetry for each of the three parts of the poem? Which do you like best?
  2. What use does the poet make of natural images to convey his feelings?
  3. Write a short report on W. H. Auden, including: his history, what he published, one more of his poems.