Thursday, February 22, 2007

W. H. Auden, "In Memory of W. B. Yeats"

(d. January 1939)


He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instrument we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergree forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fasionable queys;
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.

What instrument we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


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, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw town that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.


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 beatiful 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.



This is, quite simply, one of the great elegies of English literature, and one of the most significant poems in the twentieth century. It gives an utterly original, riveting, and convincing account of the dissolution of an individual into the matter of history; at the same time, it gives a gloss of how history shapes and gives impetus to the individual. It sets the argument of the place of this individual as a poet, of poetry within history, the ambivalently qualified contention "poetry makes nothing happen...." It also pays homage to the courage of Yeats and poetry, whether they do good or not, or are foolish or not, in their steadfast vision of darkness as well as dedication to crafting some fruit out of darkness. Each of us, "In the prison of his days," is at the mercy of both time, history, and other forces scarcely understood by us, which rightly scare us. Those who struggle to pierce that dark by the burning of their own passion indeed deserve our praise.


Erin said...

Thank you for the comment at the end - I had to analyse this at school and your comments were very handy in my powerpoint XD

Anonymous said...

It's "snow disfigured the public statues," not status.

You might also wish to mention that Auden changed his mind later in life and deleted the second through fourth stanzas of Part III.

John Guzlowski said...

One of my favorite poems, I first read it in high school before I knew who Yeats was.

The opening stanzas with their cold hard world dragged me in, and still do.