In Memory of William Butler Yeats
Being one of the greatest poet in the modern world and a major figure devoting to the Celtic Twilight, which is a trial and a “popular desire for a revival of Irish traditional culture” (Kelen 32), William Butler Yeats died in January, 1939. Meanwhile, it was only eight months before the outbreak of World War II and the whole Europe was on the edge of the war – there were revolutions within the Continent and people got scared and considered themselves in a war.
In Wystan Hugh Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”, Auden makes use of an elegy to state the fact of the death of a great poet and moreover, takes the readers to a wider political context focusing on the extent of effectiveness of poetry in time of tumult. In my view, Auden delicately divides the focus of the poem into two levels, the superficial level (the fact of Yeats’ death) and the in-depth level (the effectiveness of the poetry in relation to the political context).
The two levels are evenly distributed to the three sections of the poem so that even though different sections carry different meanings, they form cohesion. In the first section, Auden states the fact of Yeats’ death on an intense cold day by making use of imagery such as the “frozen brooks” (line 2), the “deserted airports” (line 2) and the “disfigur[ing] of the public statues” (line 3).
In fact, starting from the second stanza, Auden has made use of the metaphorical use of different parts of the nature like the “wolves” (line 8), the “evergreen forest” (line 8) and the “peasant river” (line 9) to represent the approaching of a terrible war in the Eastern Europe. In my opinion, Auden, in the third stanza, wisely draws a parallel between the dysfunction of Yeats’ different body parts and the disruption of the European society so that by describing the chaos within Yeats’ body, we get the idea of the tumult in the actual world.
Finally, Auden emphasizes the point that even though the news about Yeats’ death “is scattered among a hundred cities” (line 18), life of the majority of the people remains unchanged so that while the “brokers [go] [on] roaring on the floor of the Bourse” (line 25), the “poor [maintain] [their] [dignity] [as] [to] [have] sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed” (lines 26 – 27) and individuals go on to be imprisoned in their own obsession of freedom.
Section two focuses specifically on Yeats and the survival of his poem. While a number of his poems are dedicated to his upper-class acquaintances like Maud Gonne, some others are written with political intentions to make changes in the Irish society at that time. However, as Auden mentions in section two, “poetry makes nothing happen” (line 37) – the “[madness]” (line 35) of Irish politics remains unchanged even with the survival of the poem.
In addition, by making use of the metaphorical meaning of “mouth” (line 42) as the action of reciting and singing, Auden suggests the survival of poetry by means of spreading via the mouth. In the last section of the poem, the two levels of focus of the poem are brought together again so that while the first stanza of section three focuses on the burying of Yeats as “an honoured guest [of] [the] earth” (line 43), the second stanza takes the readers to the “nightmare of the dark” (line 46), which actually symbolizes the eve of World War II.
In the last four stanzas of the poem, Auden reveals the need of poetry at the critical time by first giving the readers the idea of the feeling of hopelessness of human beings – the “disgrace from every human face” (lines 48 – 49) and the “seas of pity in each [human] eye” (lines 50 – 51), which is then followed by statements of how human beings can transform the “distress” (line 59) into hope by means of the spreading and singing of poetry. In section two, Auden states the fact in Ireland that “poetry makes nothing happen” (line 37).
According to him, poetry survives in the way of spreading through singing and reciting (this is an example of the use of the metaphorical meaning of “a mouth” in line 42); however, the spreading is restricted to limited dimension so that poetry only takes effect in non-political areas, where “executives would never want to tamper” (lines 38 – 39). In my opinion, this is a great challenge to the value of poetry and leaves the importance of the existence of poetry at a critical time called into question.
First of all, I believe that poetry is not merely written as a form of literature that is “sung, chanted, spoken, or written according to some patterns of recurrence” (Baldick 172). Poetry, in my view, has its own implication that exceeds its literal level of meanings. Louis Macneice argues in his book, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, that “art [is] [certainly] [not] for art’s sake” (18) as he believes that “a poet like W. H. Auden should reassert that a poem must be about something” (Macneice 18).
He further comments that a poem is “more of a poem if it fulfils its business of corresponding to life” (Macneice 193). Personally, I agree with the statement as it is my belief that poetry cannot stand on its own as a form of literature – it always reflect the thought, intention, feelings, opinion and stand of the poets. For example, in Yeats’ poem “A Coat”, the poem cannot be just about “a coat” but also reflect the poet’s disappointment about the “critic[‘s] misinterpretation of the poet’s work” (Kelen 34).
As poem is “more than a poem” if it has something related to the life of human beings, poetry should be capable of making something happen. Referring back to the poem, Auden, in the last two stanzas of the poem, stresses the value of poetry at critical time by showing the readers its power to transform despair into hope – through the nourishing of the “farming of a verse” (line 59), “a vineyard [can] [be] [made] [out] of the curse” (line 60).
Here, Auden implies that with the spreading of the poem by means of singing and reciting, people are able to turn their habit of cursing, an oral action that shows their disappointment about the condition of living, into a widespread “vineyard” which bears “verse[s]” as beautiful, admirable and fruitful as the grapes in a real vineyard. In fact, Auden wisely makes use of the two rhyming words “verse” and “curse” which share both similarity and contrast in their literal meaning: they are both in oral form but while one gives people a pleasant feeling, the other gives people a nasty feeling.
In other words, by turning “curse” into “verse”, people’s nasty, wicked behaviour is transformed into something that is healthy and appreciated. Adopting a similar technique, Auden goes on to show the transforming power of poetry in the following two lines of the same stanza: “human unsuccess” (line 61), in my opinion, refers to some painful experiences of human beings such as wars and disasters.
In fact, people facing painful experiences normally show signs of “distress” (line 62). Nevertheless, with what Auden suggests by “sing[ing] [the] human unsuccess in a rapture [out] of distress” (lines 61 – 62), he suggests that human beings should be positive and avoid getting despaired at time of distress. In addition, by the singing of the poetry, Auden expects that people’s distress be released and be replaced with a feeling of “rapture”.
In the last stanza of the poem, Auden further comments on the value of a poem at the critical time through the transformation of despair into hope, nothingness into meaningfulness: in the first line of the last stanza, Auden makes use of the imagery “deserts” (line 63) to express the despair of a human’s “heart” (line 63). In my view, deserts give people a feeling of dryness, emptiness and lifelessness. Here, Auden makes use of this imagery to refer to the feelings of brutality, indifference and vainness of people at time of chaos. To me, when a “heart” is filled with “deserts”, it signifies the idea of hopelessness.
Fitted into the historical context of the poem, people are living on the edge of war but just as what Auden mentions in the first section, their lives remain unchanged despite the upcoming crisis. This shows their indifference to the maintenance of peacefulness and stability in the world. In addition, as described in the same stanza, people are “each in the cell of [themselves] almost convinced of his freedom” (line 28): they are kept in the prison of their own interest and convince themselves that they are free despite the truth that they are facing the danger of a war.
This shows the vainness within their heart. Auden, in the second line of the last stanza, compares the emergence of poetry to the “start[ing] of the healing fountain” (line 64). To me, a fountain is a saviour to the desert just as poetry is a saviour to the hopelessness of human beings. Here, the moistening of the dry land by the water from the fountain in fact represents the enriching of the human spirit in resistance to the despair by the poetry.
Furthermore, in the last two lines of the stanza, Auden once again mentions the “free man in the prison” (lines 65 – 66) who corresponds with the person “in the cell of himself” in the fifth stanza. By “teach[ing] [him] how to praise” (line 66), Auden intends to give the message that it is through the spreading and singing of poetry can those people (who consider themselves ‘free’) know the way to respect their life, live a life to the full and celebrate the coming and completion of each day even though they are living in hardship.
In fact, the last stanza serves as the same function like the description of transformation from “curse” into “vineyard”, and from “distress” to “rapture” in the previous stanza. All the components from the two stanzas work well with each other to reinforce and put emphasis on Auden’s point of the role of poetry as to inspire people at time of distress. In conclusion, Macneice comments that “Yeats did not write primarily in order to influence men’s actions but he knew that art can alter a man’s outlook and so indirectly affect his actions” (192).
I agree with this statement as we can see from this poem Auden’s stand on the value of Yeats’ poetry – although the situation in Ireland remained constant despite Yeats’ devotion to Irish poetry, Auden believes that poetry, including that of Yeats’, is capable of transforming the mental and spiritual outlook of human beings so that when they are hopeful and passionate for their life and future, they act more positively and contribute to a world with peace and hope. This is the time when poetry really makes a difference to the world.