Tuesday, September 2, 2014

In Memory of W. B. Yeats


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.

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.


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.


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 fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

I have the sense that Auden wrote three separate epitaphs for Yeats, but ultimately decided to combine them as a single one, perhaps because neither the first nor especially the second was really finished. The third, which is, reflects Yeats' own enjoyment of doggerel and metre-and-rhymed verse – one of many styles he embraced through a long career in poetry, but imitatively his; however, in doing so, it also poses a challenge to the reader, because it might well be an imitation of Blake's "Tiger, tiger, burning bright", which would be a double-statement of much praise, great poet identified with great poet, great human identified with great feline; but it might just as easily be an imitation of Jane Taylor's "Twinkle, twinkle, little star", and would thereby reduce Yeats to the level of a third rate nursery rhymer, and turn the burning iridescence into a mere supernova. Oh, but I do hope, I really do, and I am certain, I am absolutely certain, that Auden was only thinking of the Blake here.

The precise realism of the opening stanza, literalising the traditional metaphor of eulogy, seems to me spoiled by its repetition at the end of the first canto; it is almost as if Auden was worried that we might miss his cleverness and therefore needed to repeat it; but the repetition reduces it to bathos, and to cliché. (This, I know, is pedantic criticism. But I am teaching the poem to A-level students, who are seeking A-grades. Comments of this sort in a league table driven examination are virtual guarantees of A-grades).

Compensation for this comes with the tenth and eleventh lines - Auden's recognition that the works of an artist are the children he has brought into the world, who will survive his passing; the idea conveyed not philosophically or as poetic manifesto, but by treating the poems as living creatures, and sparing them the sadness of their creator's death. A fine touch. Bathos transformed, this time, into pathos.

That eleventh line also serves as an argument against the fifth line of the second canto: "For poetry makes nothing happen". Auden is anyway wrong; some poetry does indeed make things happen - Dante's poetry, for example, engendered European literature (and see my comments on George Seferis here). Yeats' poetry led to a Nobel Prize for Literature, and it is inconceivable that Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan or Seamus Heaney, to name but three, could have achieved what they did without him. There are even those who blame (or credit) Yeats, in part at least, for the ultimate success (or failure) of Irish Nationalism.

The opening canto is the one people remember, yet it is the third which strikes the deepest chord; where the first two are Auden writing about Yeats, the third is a symbiosis of both poets, a combining of their strengths as poets, their power in the world; Auden's personal message to the present enhanced, endorsed, by the life and work of Yeats. Ironic, too – for in that final canto Auden is indeed making the claim that poetry can make things happen; indeed, that if poetry does not, perhaps there is nothing else that can. The heroism of Yeats harnessed to encourage the heroism of others.

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