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Essays on Poetry Auden’s Memorial to Yeats by Katherine Bailey

Fashioned neither of marble nor carved limestone, the most illustrious and enduring memorial to Anglo-Irish poet William Butler Yeats comes from the pen of British poet Wystan Hugh Auden in his elegy “In Memory of W.B. Yeats, January 1939.” In the opening stanza, pervasive winter imagery conveys Auden’s bereavement:  

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

The lines, “O all the instruments agree / The day of his death was a dark cold day,” are repeated later in the text, a technique embodying the idea that, without a doubt, the world has suffered an unappeasable loss. Unlike conventional expressions of mourning, Auden’s tribute makes no attempt to persuade readers of Yeats’s greatness. Clearly, that is assumed. He does, however, convince us that Yeats accomplished extraordinary deeds while encumbered by human imperfection. Yeats, after all, “was silly like us.” With the memorable line, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” Auden indeed puts his finger on the essence of Yeats.

Though Auden was some 40 years younger than Yeats, the Irish poet’s demise provoked personal sorrow. In Auden’s pantheon of mentors, which included Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot, Yeats claimed the highest rung. It was Yeats’s verse that filled his head and stirred his aspiring poet’s soul; the resonance was uncanny. When Auden learned Yeats’s professional goal, an aim he had appropriated from Aristotle – to think like a wise person but to express oneself like a common person – he understood that was exactly what he intended in his own verse. Auden revered the older poet’s work ethic, the extraordinary human energy and brutal pace that shaped Yeats’s vivid, precise words and awesomely beautiful images. A command of imagery (mental pictures that a poet instills in the reader through figurative language, especially metaphor and simile) was what the young Auden sought, and he looked to the master for inspiration. Significantly, he discovered through reading Yeats that authenticity in a poet was imperative. For the purpose of provoking reader emotion, or impressing critics, or enhancing a rhyme, he must not sacrifice personal honesty. A scrupulous commitment to avoid hypocrisy would battle unendingly with Auden’s creative gifts.

Literary historians classify both Yeats and Auden as Modern poets, noting that Yeats’s early poetry, that written prior to World War I and stemming from his unfathomable communion with the metaphysical and from his obsession with ancient, mystical Ireland, did not, of course, fall into the category of Modernism. But in the second half of his career, an interlude during which he wrote about Ireland’s political events and public figures, Yeats is correctly labeled a Modern poet. Critics appraise Auden’s poetry as Modern. As Modernists, the two writers joined countless disillusioned contemporaries in questioning the certainties that had, prior to the anarchy of World War I, supported religion, morality and politics. Their poetry encroached on the very foundations of Western Civilization.

Despite this general transformation in poetry, Auden, like Yeats, believed in the poet’s timeless obligation to simply affirm the use of language and imagination. In part of his tribute to Yeats he writes:

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…

And the idea is present again in part three:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent…
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;

Still, as he matured as poet and man, in spite of enduring affection for Yeats, Auden publically underscored the fact that he and the older writer were different – indeed, more dissimilar than alike. Visionary and personal intensity characterized Yeats’s verse. For example, his achievement in occasional poems consisted in converting a public event, say Dublin’s 1916 Easter Rising, into an abstract idea about Ireland: “A terrible beauty is born.” Yeats’s firm belief in the cyclical nature of history equipped him to cope with his era’s chaos. In a poem honoring Charles Stewart Parnell he wrote authoritatively, “An age is a reversal of an age.”

Lacking Yeat’s certainties, Auden’s poetry was less intense, less visionary. He adhered, he noted with characteristic candor, to the literary tradition of light verse. (Years later he modified that description to “serious light verse.”) He explained that he wrote poetry intended to be read, having for its subject-matter the occurrences of everyday life and his experiences as an ordinary human being. Consistent with his compulsion for poetic honesty, he worked at avoiding false emotion, inflated rhetoric, and spurious fact. If Yeats succeeded in assigning tragic Irish events into his private myth for Ireland, Auden, by contrast, knew he was dishonest in fitting the political turbulence in Spain and China into a Marxist myth – Marxism being his early worldview.

By 1939 when he wrote the memorial to Yeats, Auden had evolved spiritually from indifference to, to forgiveness of, to love for the cruel world he perceived. Around the same time he wrote the tribute to Yeats, he penned “September 1, 1939” about the inevitability of another world war, the moving final stanza of which is much quoted:
Defenseless under the night
Our world is stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

The human as an “affirming flame,” according to him, was the answer to a world of problems where, in the end, all else failed.

On the ever-perplexing issue of the relationship of poetry to history, the poets predictably fell into opposite camps. Yeats enthusiastically cited Edmund Burke:

“[The written word] by virtue of its eloquence and insight has a palpable influence on the course of human action or the prosecution of public policy.”

Personalizing this idea, in a late poem he fretted, “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?” The play refers to Cathleen ni Houlihan, a drama about the 1789 Irish patriots who conspired with the French in a doomed rebellion against England. So strong was his belief in the power of his pen to romanticize bloodshed that he held himself responsible for luring young people into the ill-conceived 1916 Easter Rising. Also, the underpinning of much of Yeats’s early verse was, of course, a belief in an ancient Ireland peopled by Celtic heroes, a lofty sensibility that he believed could have contributed to the unleashing of the 1916 carnage.

In comparison, Auden, the poet who wrote the memorable line, “For poetry makes nothing happen,” perhaps because he was cut of humbler cloth, never attributed a relation of cause and effect to the impact of his poetry on history. He strove not to provoke action, but rather to arouse a feeling, suggest a contingency, or plant an insight.

Consistent with Auden’s self-effacing nature was his demanding conscience. Disconcertingly, in 1964 when asked for a contribution to a book of essays on Yeats, the literary lion to whom he paid such eloquent homage in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats, January 1939,” Auden replied:

“I am incapable of saying a word about W.B. Yeats because, through no fault of his, he has become for me a symbol of my own devil of inauthenticity, of everything I must try to eliminate from my own poetry.”