Sunday Poetry: In Memory of W.B. Yeats, by W. H. Auden

In Memory of W.B. Yeats

I

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
The snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have 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.
What instruments we have 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 making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on 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.

[Auden later deleted the next three stanzas.]

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the 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 fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

WH Auden
____________________________

I apologize for failing to post a poem yesterday, and I will try to atone for my lapse by bringing three poems in one. WH Auden was a good friend of William Butler Yeats, and one of their mutual acquaintances was the man who taught me poetry in college, and who I learned today died in early October.

Yeats and Auden were similar but distinct poets. Both married words and sound, but Yeats was more adept at sound and rhythm, while Auden was a master of phrasing thoughts so perfectly that the phrases stick in your mind forever. My mind recalls the sense and thrill of entire Yeats poems, while Auden comes back in crystalline phrases.

“he became his admirers.”

“A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.”

“The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.”

“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 making where executives
Would never want to tamper,”

“In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.”

I love that stuff. Auden just nails phrases so perfectly – they ring in my mind and come to my tongue in different circumstances.

This is not a traditional elegy – it lacks the sentimentality and mournfulness of most of that genre. Instead, it reflects a poet assessing the gap left by a fellow poet. It’s no stretch to see that Auden is measuring himself at the same time – like many eulogists, he cannot help but be spurred to consider his own mortality.

Yeats died in 1939, just as Europe was poised for World War II. In light of the “dogs of Europe” barking, the death of a poet could not dominate the thoughts of anyone but his friends. Maybe a few would remember the day as a little out of the ordinary, but the world would not stop to acknowledge the passing.

Just as tomorrow, we will elect an historic new president, it seems a little silly to be stuck thinking back to a college professor whom few will remember, who taught me poetry I no longer write. But I think that Auden was suggesting that even those who do not make big things happen, and whose work exists only in the sense that others may recall it and carry it forward in their own way in their own guts, those who open our hearts to joy and praise accomplish something.

William Murphy was a cantankerous, demanding, dominating force. I took a poetry seminar from him that only one other student dared take, and he lectured the two of us for four hours at a crack. When I started the class, I believed that poetry was an archaic form of literature outstripped by recorded music, and I’m not sure I was wrong, but William Murphy taught me to love poetry nonetheless.

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