In ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ Auden taps into themes of life after death, the power of poetry, and the human condition. The powerful and wide-ranging themes are discussed within the context of Yeats’ life and death. Auden uses an exacting tone and direct language to depict the events around Yeat’s death. The mood is at times uplifting and at others concerning and worrying. There are many dark images and many fewer hopeful ones.
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Summary of In Memory of W.B. Yeats
The first part of the poem addresses the last days of Yeats’ life and what it was like right after he died. Auden speaks on the loss and how it impacted and didn’t impact, the world. The second section of ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ is directed, through a second person speaker, to Yeats himself. While the third is an elegy meant to sum up that which was spoken about previously but also make new statements about what poetry can do for humankind, especially in the face of WWII.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of In Memory of W.B. Yeats
‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ by W. H. Auden is a three-part poem that is further divided into stanzas of different lengths. The first part of the poem contains six stanzas, the second: one and the third: six again. Auden does not make use of a rhyme scheme in the first two parts of the poem but in the third he does. This makes sense considering the elegiac form of these last lines. They rhyme in a pattern of AABB CCDD, and so on, changing end sounds as he saw fit.
Auden had a different goal in mind with each section. The first images what it was like when Yeats was dying, the second is addressed to the poet himself, and the third is a much more traditional elegy.
Poetic Techniques in In Memory of W.B. Yeats
Auden makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’. These include enjambment, allusion, and alliteration. An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In the second part of the poem, Auden alludes to some of Yeats’ other works, especially those focused on the Irish Independence Movement and the Irish Nationalists at the heart of it. The final section alludes to the tragedies of the Second World War that was brewing in 1939 when Yeats died.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “dying day” in the fourth line of the first stanza in section one, or “Silence” and “suburbs” in stanza three of the same section.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines three and four in the first stanza of section three or that between lines one and two of stanza three of that same section.
Analysis of In Memory of W.B. Yeats
He disappeared in the dead winter:
The brook was frozen, the airports almost deserted,
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day
In the first stanza of ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ the speaker begins by referring to Yeats as having had disappeared in the “dead of winter”. The double image of death here, especially death in winter (as it is commonly associated) should not be ignored. As one would expect, everything in winter is frozen, dead, and deserted. The scene the speaker describes is a chilling one. The “snow disfigured the public statues”. By starting the poem off with this cold, death atmosphere Auden is setting the scene to speak about Yeats’ own death.
Far from his illness
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
In the second stanza of ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ the speaker describes how despite the death of this great man, things go on. The wolves are still running through the forests and the “peasant river” is untempted by the more “fashionable quays”. By speaking about nature in this way, personifying its descriptions, he is alluding to the human reaction to the poet’s death. It is clear from the emphasis placed on the continuation of normal day to day life that the speaker is bothered by it.
The final two lines of this stanza suggest that when readers encounter his poems his death will not weigh on their minds. It was “kept from his poems”. They continue on, just as the people do, unchanged by the death. The poems last past his death, as any writer would want.
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
The third stanza of ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ gives the reader a very human picture of Yeats’ death. His last moments were spent around nurses in the hospital. In the next lines, he depicts Yeats’ body at war with itself. His “body revolted” against itself and the “squares” (alluding to the architecture of a city square) “of his mind were empty”. There was nothing but “silence” in the suburbs. These human-built images are juxtaposed against the more natural imagery in the previous stanzas.
In the last line, he returns to the image of water that he touched on earlier in the poem. He adds that the poet became “his admirers”. His memory lived on in those who loved his written works.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
Are modified in the guts of the living.
In the fourth stanza of the first section of ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ the speaker describes how Yeats’ soul and essence are “scattered among a hundred cities” among all his admirers. He is still living, in a way, but has no control over how he’s perceived. He is in the “guts of the living” where his words are “modified”. This way of being is different, strange, and “unfamiliar” to the poet. By speaking about Yeats in the present tense in this stanza Auden emphasizes the theme of life after death.
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the bouse,
A few thousands will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
Once again Auden speaks on how the human world is going on without pause. He uses a simile to describe how the “brokers are roaring like beasts” (they are back to work) on the “bourse,” or the Paris version of Wall Street. He also describes the poor as back to normal as well, they suffer as they always do. This is an unhappy image of the world that is only expanded in the next lines as he speaks more broadly about humankind. He says that all are in the “cell of himself” where they are “convinced” almost, of their own freedom.
Yeats’ death is only one more moment of unpleasantness in the world. It passes just like everything else does.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
The last two lines of this first part of ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ act as a refrain. They are a repetition of the two lines at the end of the first stanza, reemphasizing the need for different instruments to measure the poet’s death. Humans are unable to adequately measure “The day,” or any day. This speaks to nature’s ability to move on, without fully comprehending something that’s happened. This is how Auden feels about the passing of Yeats’ death day.
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
The second part of ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ is only one stanza long. At the beginning of this ten-line section the speaker transitions from the third person to second. He addresses Yeats calling him “you”. The speaker says that “your gift survived it all”. It outlasted “your” physical decay and the “parish of rich women”. It is still there after “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry”.
Ireland is still as mad as it was and Yeats’ poetry, in the end, has made no difference. These are powerful lines that strike at the heart of one’s perception of the possibility of literature to effect change. These lines also refer to Yeats’ criticism and involvement in the Irish independence movement. In a number of other poems, such as ‘Easter, 1916,’ he speaks about this movement and the Irish Nationalists who were at the heart of it.
The speaker explains that nothing changed in the world due to Yeats’ poetry as poetry is not supposed to be something wielded for change. It is meant to do something different, something more ephemeral. The speaker says that poetry, like water (again) is something that “flows”. It enters into the “ranches of isolation and the busy griefs”. It travels from place to place, soothing bits of the world normally left untouched. Poetry is a “way of happening, a mouth” It is mobile and powerful, just not in the way Yeats’ might’ve sometimes hoped.
Earth, receive an honoured guest:
Emptied of its poetry.
The third section of ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ begins with Auden addressing the earth. This part of the poem takes the form of an elegy or a work written in dedication to someone recently deceased. He asks it to revive Yeats’ body where he is laid to rest. This is also the first time that “William Yeats” is mentioned by name. He was a “vessel” for his poetry and now that’s all that remains. It is empty of the poetry it once held.
In the nightmare of the dark
Each sequestered in its hate;
The second stanza of this section of ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ gives the reader a few more details about the poet’s death. It occurred in 1939 in the lead up to World War II. A nightmare is on its way and “All the dogs of Europe bark” at its approach. The nations of the world are “sequestered,” separate from one another basking in their individual hate. This separation and those differences are at the source of the conflict.
A reader should also take note that for the first time in this long work Auden is using a rhyme scheme.
Locked and frozen in each eye.
The power that poetry once held to “flow” between worlds seems lost in this stanza. “Intellectual disgrace” is what one can find in “every human face”. Nothing pleasant is occurring at this time in the world. It is interesting to consider why Auden chose to write so much about the political climate of the time in a poem that was supposed to be about Yeats. This was likely because of Yeats’ own interest in politics and the closeness with which he kept tabs on the world. By speaking about the wider world he is also giving more context to the time period in which Yeats died.
Stanzas Four and Five
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the fourth stanza of ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ the speaker celebrates Yeats’ ability to look into the “bottom of the night” with his “unconstraining voice”. IT was a tool that allowed him to see clearly. It still has power as well. This is another example of life after death that was so important in the first part of the poem.
Auden uses dark images in the fifth stanza to suggest how Yeats would’ve spoken about the state of the world during the Second World War. He’d “sing of human unsuccess / in a rapture of distress”.
In the deserts of the heart
Teach the free man how to praise.
In the final stanza of ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats,’ the speaker’s tone lightens, as does the imagery. The image of water appears again as well. The “healing fountain” should “Start” in the hearts of men, the speaker says.
The poem ends optimistically but also with a dark image of the human condition. He states that life is a “prison” and that by spending time with poetry, specifically Yeats’ poetry, one can learn how to praise, or be hopeful.