This week's theme should be blindingly obvious by now...
(Poem #50) In Memory of W. B. Yeats
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. 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.
February 1939. Somehow, his undoubted talent and massive influence on other writers notwithstanding, I've never been a great fan of Auden's poetry. Dunno why it's so, it just is. Nevertheless, there are some times when Auden really hits the mark, and this poem is one of them. Sadly, I don't have the time right now to write more than a few short notes, so I'll leave you with these points to ponder: - the elegiac repetition of the line 'The day of his death was a dark cold day' (with its throbbing and mournful alliteration - "drums, drums in the deep" ) heightens the feeling of melancholy in the first section. - 'Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still' - a poignant line, harking back to Yeats' own work, and (in my mind) to Newbolt's "Ireland, Ireland" (Minstrels, Poem #41). - the strong political content of the last section (which, by the way, was fairly typical of Auden's early work; see the biographical note below): note that this poem was written just a few months before the start of the Second World War - the very last line - "Teach the free man how to praise" - I cannot think of a better poetic epitaph for Yeats. - the whole poem can also be read as Auden's personal testament to the social and political role of the poet in the twentieth century. And while you chew on those, you might as well go through the following Biographical Note: Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England, in 1907. He moved to Birmingham during childhood and was educated at Christ$BCT(B Church, Oxford. As a young man he was influenced by the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, as well as William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Old English verse. At Oxford his precocity as a poet was immediately apparent, and he formed lifelong friendships with two fellow writers, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood. In 1928, Auden published his first book of verse, and his collection Poems, published in 1930, established him as the leading voice of a new generation. Ever since, he has been admired for his unsurpassed technical virtuosity and an ability to write poems in nearly every imaginable verse form; the incorporation in his work of popular culture, current events, and vernacular speech; and also for the vast range of his intellect, which drew easily from the an extraordinary variety of literatures, art forms, social and political theories, and scientific and technical information. He had a remarkable wit, and often mimicked the writing styles of other poets such as Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, and Henry James. His poetry frequently recounts, literally or metaphorically, a journey or quest, and his travels provided rich material for his verse. He visited Germany, Iceland, and China, served in the Spanish Civil war, and in 1939 moved to the United States, where he met his lover, Chester Kallman, and became an American citizen. His own beliefs changed radically between his youthful career in England, when he was an ardent advocate of socialism and Freudian psychoanalysis, and his later phase in America, when his central preoccupation became Christianity and the theology of modern Protestant theologians. A prolific writer, Auden was also a noted playwright, librettist, editor, and essayist. Generally considered the greatest English poet of the twentieth century [I prefer Yeats - thomas.], his work has exerted a major influence on succeeding generations of poets on both sides of the Atlantic. W. H. Auden was a Chan to 1973, and divided most of the second half of his life between residences in New York City and Austria. He died in Vienna in 1973. thomas. PS. Another famous Auden elegy is "Song IX" from 'Twelve Songs' (1936) (later published as "Funeral Blues" in 'Tell me the Truth about Love', 1976), which was recited in the movie 'Four Weddings and a Funeral'. I'll run that one too, some time.