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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

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

W.H. Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" can be found here [link]

a reading


Because of the issues that arise out of Auden's revising of his texts it has to be noted that the version that I am addressing, the version in the link above, is the version of the poem found in Auden's Collected. To note, this is not the same version found in the Selected, which has the original version of the poem, the primary difference being Part 3 having different stanzas.

In my previous post I took a look at W.H. Auden's The Sea and the Mirror, a literarily curious work but for me not a successful work, to give a moment's thought to the idea of difficulty. Within the post I made mention of Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," a work that is a favorite of mine, not just within Auden's oeuvre but in verse in general. In this post I want to pick up "In Memory," for no reason other than to give a reading of it.

I will simply start at the beginning and work through to the end, pointing out the ideation and structure I see at play within the text. At times I may move rather quickly. But then my aim is not to give some definitive reading. Indeed, there is no such thing. There is only ever one's own reading of a text. Which does not mean that every reading is equal in value. A reading's strength comes out in discourse, when its validity is tested by other people. This does not, however, carry us to the idea that there could be – or should be – found one ultimate, undefeatable "meaning" of any given text. There can be multiple strong readings of a text. Their value lies in whether and how they assist other readers in forming their own strong readings.[FN]

[FN] While I attempt to keep this to a reading that comes entirely from the text itself, I cannot say that my reading of "In Memory" is not uninfluenced by my reading of Arthur Kirsch's "Introduction" to The Sea and the Mirror (Princeton UP, 2003).


Beginning at the beginning, Part I, stanza 1:

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

Notice how the first line has something of an identity to itself. It is functioning as a beginning, as lead-in to what will follow. In its structure, it declares itself as a beginning, one that introduces what is to come. Now, Auden at his worst often reads as though he is far more concerned with how the words sound together than with what the words mean together (or independently). This is not, however, Auden at his worst.

Though the verse is free, it is aurally controlled. The lines generally are shaped to four or five stresses. And there is no small amount of aural composition.

Line 1: "disappeared" is echoed consonantly by "dead" and both assonantly and consonantly by "winter"

Line 2: "brooks" and "frozen" pair. More interesting is the word "almost," which gives us not only repetition of the initial "a"s, but also strengthens the sound of the s/t combinations within the last three words of the line.

Line 3: the use of "u" sounds. Etc.

Worth noticing across the first stanza as well is the willingness to repeat words: "dead"/"dying"/"death" and three "day"s. In combination with the use of "d" (with "t") sounds throughout this pulls the stanza together into a unit.[FN]

[FN] I am of the opinion that if a word is the right word for the moment, you should not be afraid of using even if you have just recently used it. A question worth having in mind while reading: when does repetition of words strengthen a stanza and when does it weaken it?

But let's not forget about the ideation with that opening line. Though it is an in memoriam verse, the line does not open "He died." Rather, Yeats "disappeared"; it is the world in the depth of winter that is described as "dead." Which is how the world is described in the lines following: where there should be motion, in the brooks, there is stillness; so also where there should be activity, in the airports. And civic identity and history, as embodied in the statues, is disfigured. The energy of the verse is put into describing the world, not Yeats. And it is not because of Yeats's death that the world is dead; the world is not described as experiencing a symbolic death. Rather, the very nature of the day, as to which "what instruments we have agree", was in itself that of a "dying day."

This thought is given more shape with the second verse.

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.

Note the structure: the stanza is one sentence, a list of three elements: the "wolves ran," the "peasant river" was "untempted," and the "death of the poet was kept from his poems." All three occur "far from his illness." There is an identity being established: the world of Yeats's poems is the world of peasant rivers and of wolves in "evergreen forests." There is also an opposition: the world of "the death of the poet" is not the world of "his poems."

In this, and in the first and second stanzas, we find what is the ideational core of "In Memory," a fundamental opposition. In the first stanza Auden establishes the material world, in the second he turns to the spiritual world. The material world is a "dying" world, while the spiritual world is "evergreen." And that spiritual world is what is found in Yeats's poetry.

By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

Not only "found in," though. Yeats's verse is not merely a verse about a world of evergreen forests. It doesn't merely document that world. Rather, it is equated to that world: that world is the experience of Yeats's poetry, and vice versa. And that world is to be opposed to the world of airports and public statutes, and even of brooks when thought of in their material reality.

The third stanza focuses on that final line of the previous, on "the death of the poet," the death of Yeats himself.

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.

The division is already established: the material Yeats and the spiritual Yeats are two things. Stanza 3 is primarily the description of the death of the material Yeats, worked in terms of a country. Yet, in that "he became his admirers," even Yeats's spiritual self is not unaffected by his death. This idea is picked up by stanza 4.

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.

Yeats will not be exempted from the fate of all thinkers: once they no longer can speak for themselves, other people will – and must – speak for them. This applies both to the material and spiritual realities: on the material side, Yeats the man – the civic individual – will "be punished under a foreign code of conscience"; on the spiritual, "his happiness" will be found "in another kind of wood." Though Yeats's words – whether it be those of his worldly self or his poetic self – continue to exist beyond his death, they can exist only "in the guts of the living."

Stanza 4 is for me a pessimistic stanza, which is to be opposed to stanza 5. (For me "In Memory" is as a whole a rather pessimistic verse, painting a very dark vision of the world). Thus the opening "but."

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.

That opposition can be read also as the opposition between the material and the spiritual

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


But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
. . .
A few thousand will think of this day

Auden speaks between these two stanzas of two realities: the material reality of the many, and the spiritual reality of the few. It is unavoidable that "the words of a dead man" can only be spoken, considered, interpreted, and experienced by the living; and that applies both to the material and spiritual words. But, there is a difference between the many and the few. For the few, those who keep the death of the poet "from his poems," those true "admirers," those who are most participant in the spiritual reality of Yeats's poetry,

A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

It will not be that great of a divorce. The day of Yeats's death will amount only to something "slightly unusual": the poetry, for those few, will live on mostly undamaged. It will live on mostly as it has always lived. (How is spoken of in Part II.)

Which brings us to the close of the first part, lines we have seen before.

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

Just as the first part has a defined opening, so also does it have a defined closing, the same lines that closed the first stanza. In a great part the repetition works to give the first part an aural unity. And there are other ways that the six stanzas are tied together. The most obvious is the structure of the stanzas: each one closes with a two-line statement, except for the third stanza, which closes in a one-line but two-part statement.

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

By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.[FN]

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

A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

With that final, two line stanza, the whole is closed just as was each of its parts, though also with the ending bending around to tie up with the beginning. As well, it is re-emphasized: it was not just Yeats that was dying that day but the whole of the world.


[FN] It is a worthwhile question to ask as a writer of verse why Auden did not break the final line of the third stanza to close it also with a two-line thought. I believe the answer lies as an issue of form. For me dividing the final line into two lines would diminish the punch of the thought.

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.

The new final line would be but a two-stress line that has five unstressed syllables to those two stressed. It is a rather weak closing line, that would, because of the length of the stanza in the stanza beginning generally shorter than the norm across the Part, cause the stanza to trail off. Compare it to the structure of the close of stanza 2.

By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

Which is not written:

By mourning tongues the death of the poet
Was kept from his poems.

The stanzas are as a whole written to close aurally strong, if not emphatically.



Part II opens

You were silly like us

re-establishing, through contrast with the lines that close Part I, the primary opposition of the poem: the material world, the spiritual world; the world of the many, the world of the few. On that latter opposition: I believe it is false to read "In Memory" as being in any way elitist. First, while the "us" in the opening phrase can be read to apply only to poets, I believe it should be more expansively applied to both true poets and true readers of poetry. Second, the poem as a whole does not read as praising the few over the many; rather, it reads as a pessimistic acceptance of the dark, harsh nature of the world, in which so many are lost. As well, the expansive nature of the last stanzas of "In Memory," which speaks to the value of true poetry, defeats any accusation of elitism.

That said, the contrast between the closing of Part I and the opening of Part II marks a shift in subject. Part I is primarily about the material world, about the world of the many. Part II will be about the world of the few. Perhaps in emphasis, as we now entering the world of poetry, there also is a change in form. The free verse of Part I is dropped for iambic hexameter.

Note that that opening phrase is not written:

We are silly like you.

That construction creates the idea of imitation, the group attempting to follow the character of the one. Rather, the text is written the other way around: the one carries the characteristic that is inherent to the group. It is as important to see that the clause is not only saying that Yeats was "silly," but that the whole of those "few thousand" are silly. It is the nature of those who inhabit the spiritual reality. Yeats was not individual, but part of a group: the group of true poets (and, by extension, true readers of poetry).

What does "silly" mean? Hold that question for a second. First, lets continue.

                                    your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.

The work gets a touch biographical, but does not lose the opposition between the material and the spiritual, implying here not only did Yeats's spiritual "gift" survive all the material turmoil and obstacles of his life, but even it was generated by that turmoil, especially as regards the country of Ireland. But while there may be a relationship between Yeats's material and spiritual realities, the latter had, in the end, no effect on the former.

                    Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen:

The famous and so often mis-read line. The verse is not saying "poetry makes nothing happen" period, end of thought. It is saying "poetry makes nothing happen" in and from the viewpoint of the material world.

And thus we come to an understanding of the word "silly." The Oxford Dictionary site offers as definition of silly:

1. Having or showing a lack of common sense or judgement; absurd and foolish.
      1.1 Ridiculously trivial or frivolous.

an idea that fits the thought of poetry from the point of view of the material world. Poetry has no effect on "the floor of the Bourse," no influence on the business of airports or the civic world of cities. As such, from the view of that world, it is trivial, frivolous; even absurd and foolish. But that does not mean poetry has no value or action; to understand the value of true poetry one must understand that it is not of the material reality; it is of another modality of being altogether. Continuing:

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.

True poetry does not have material effects. It does not engage the world in rational argument. And Auden is making an argument – if a poetic one – within "In Memory" for the nature of true poetry. Just as the world is divided into the civic many and the poetic few, so also is verse – and literature, and all of the works of humankind – divided. True poetry does not make things happen in the sense of material (or political) endeavors; rather, true poetry, a spiritual endeavor, is a way of happening. It is a different modality of thought from material, rationalistic, civic being. Rather than categorical thought, poetry is experience.


What does that mean? Part I established the opposition between the material and the spiritual, but it was primarily about the material world. Part II gave us the relationship between spiritual "poetry" and the material world, and pointed to what poetry "is" with it being not a material event. In Part III, we are brought to the spiritual poet himself. We are given thought to what true poetry is: why Auden calls it a "mouth," and a "way of happening" rather than a thing that happens.[FN]

[FN] The word mouth is another word repeated through "In Memory." How it is used is worth pondering.

Another part, another change in form. The verse has become very formal, rhymed lines of strict iambic quadrameter (without the opening unstressed syllable), set in four-line stanzas. The feel of the verse is most like classical poetry, most like something one might expect to hear at a funeral.

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

Where stanza 3 of the Part I spoke of Yeats's death in material terms, here he is described as a spiritual creature: the material "vessel" is emptied of its spiritual "poetry." Using that division the first stanza introduces the Part 3.

It continues with description of the material world, here in as dark of terms as has been had thus far. (It is worth noting "In Memory" was written in 1940, in the early stages of WWII.)

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.

In opposition to that reality, Auden gives us the "silliness" of poetry.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

I read the verse as speaking specifically of Yeats but also generally to all true poets and to all who would aspire to such. This begins the ars poetica, the argument by example of what true poetry is and does. That argument begins with a plea for Yeats (Yeats's work) – and for those who would be true poets – to "follow right / to the bottom of the night," the dark night of material reality that was described in the previous two stanzas. There they are to speak with an "unconstraining" voice: another element of opposition between the material and the spiritual: constraining vs. unconstraining. With that voice, Auden begs of Yeats to continue to do, even after death, what his poetry has done all along.

Still persuade us to rejoice

I find that "still" to be one of the most powerful words of the poem. For it embodies the intensity of that plea: "still persuade us," for without poetry, life would become so dark as to be unbearable. But do not pass too quickly by that word "persuade": it gives to true poetry an action, as though reading it, the spiritual engagement of reading true poetry, shows the reader an opposition, a spiritual brightness, to "the dark cold day" of material being, a brightness that can persuade a reader to "rejoice" even in the face of the bleakness of material life.

The final two stanzas give example to that idea of rejoicing in the face of despair.

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.

I find it not amiss and to the point that the examples are internally contradictory: a vineyard despite, presumably, the curse that cast mankind out of Eden; a rapture of unsuccess; a fountain where there is no water; and freedom within a prison. But then poetry is experience, not material definition. And true poetry is irrationally symbolic, not rationally, categorically organized. One can not rationally argue a person into finding the will and desire to sing raptures in the face of continued distress; the "argument," as it were, must be an experience. Poetry "makes nothing happen" materially: it does not operate in rational or political argument. When a text does so it is not true poetry. True poetry rather is and must be an experience, a spiritual experience. It is a way of happening, a way of speaking, the only way through which can be generated the experience and modality of the spiritual.



Note: In reading "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" I am readily brought to think of Yeats's "The Tower," another verse about the spiritual and the material, a verse that is Yeats writing about his own death; and another verse written in three parts each in a different style. Stanza 2 of the first part always brings to mind the opening of the third part of "The Tower":

I choose upstanding men
That climb the streams until
The fountain leap, and at dawn
Drop their cast at the side
Of dripping stone;

I've never read anything saying Auden had "The Tower" in mind when he wrote "In Memory," but I have not read that much on Auden so that means nothing, really. I would not be surprised, however, if it were the case.

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