William Butler Yeats (b. 1865), Irish poet and dramatist, died in Roquebrune (southern France) on January 29, 1939.
In Memory of W. B. Yeats (1939)
There is a long history of elegiac poetry, poems written on the occasion of someone's death. "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" is a poem within that tradition, but it's also a poem which extends the tradition. Poems about death tend to be concerned not just with loss, but also with what remains after a man or a woman dies. Elizabethan sonnets, like those of Spenser or Shakespeare, often take this idea of something persisting after death and use it in the context of an imagined dialogue between lovers, rather than in relation to an actual death: the lover promises his beloved that even though she must die, she will live on forever in his verses. In the elegy, that living-on after death may be thought of in religious terms, or perhaps in terms of cherished memory, or it may make itself felt by changing those who remain, transforming despair into the resolve to go on with life. This last possibility is what Tennyson's poem, "Ulysses," is all about.
Auden's poem draws on all these traditions as it focuses just on that moment when the words of a poet must begin to live on after his death. The poem which Auden writes is the first step in preserving Yeats the poet. But most important, Auden understands this process of poetic after-life as taking place entirely within history. When Yeats's words disperse themselves after his death, they are received into a very specific time and place: Europe, 1939. Those who may continue to remember the poet's words live in a technological world of instruments, airports, cities, stock exchanges, and most important, they live at a moment of dark forboding, as the world seems about to go to war again. For Auden, while memory deals with the past, it takes place in the present. And so the only way a poet can honor the dead, is to write a poem about the present. That's just what he does in this poem.
After the lines "Let the Irish vessel lie / Emptied of its poetry," three stanzas that originally followed were omitted in the 1966 edition of Auden's Collected Shorter Poems and thereafter: "Time that is intolerant / Of the brave and innocent, / And indifferent in a week / To a beautiful physique, / / Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives; / Pardons cowardice, conceit, / Lays its honours at their feet. / / Time that with this strange excuse / Pardoned Kipling and his views, / And will pardon Paul Claudel, / Pardons him for writing well." Kipling's views were imperialistic and jingoistic; Paul Claudel (1868-1955), French poet, dramatist, and diplomat, was an extreme conservative in his political ideas. Yeats's own politics were at times antidemocratic and appeared to favor dictatorship.
Auden discusses Yeats as the last poet able to write about public events.
W. B. Yeats broadcasting at the BBC in 1937.
Europe in the Shadow of World War II
When Auden wrote "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" in February 1939, Europe was on the verge of World War II. War did not actually break out until Germany invaded Poland in September, but the sense of impending catastrophe is present throughout the poem. The failure of Britain and France to resist Hitler's claims on Czechoslovakia in 1938 seemed to define the mood of Europe as Auden wrote. In spite of the sense of expectant foreboding, all the nations seemed paralyzed, incapable of action.
Members of the Sudeten Free Corps training during the summer of 1938, in support of Hitler's designs on Czechoslovakia, which included uniting 3 million Sudetenland Germans with their fatherland.
October 3, 1938: Hitler's troops entering the Sudetenland, a region located on the slopes of the Sudetes Mountains in Czechoslovakia, and bordering on Bohemia, Moravia, and Germany.
Auden speaks about composing his poem on the death of Yeats under the approaching shadow of World War II.
Auden Talks About Modern Warfare
Auden talks about the difference between older notions of heroism and the impersonal, technological nature of modern warfare.
The Poet's Life and Work
Auden was the most active of the group of young English poets who, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, saw themselves bringing new techniques and attitudes to English poetry. Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis were the most prominent members of the new school, which soon afterward broke apart. Like many of his generation, Auden learned from the poetic wit and irony of T. S. Eliot, and the metrical and verbal techniques of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wilfred Owen. His English studies at Oxford familiarized him with the rhythms and long alliterative line of Anglo-Saxon poetry as well as with the rapid and rollicking short lines (a sort of inspired doggerel) of the poet John Skelton (ca. 1460- 1529); both influenced Auden's versification. He learned, too, from the songs of the English music hall and, later, from American blues singers.
The Great Depression that shook America in 1929 hit England soon afterward, and Auden and his contemporaries looked out at an England of industrial stagnation and mass unemployment, seeing not the metaphorical Waste Land of Eliot but a more literal waste land of poverty and "depressed areas." His early poetry is much concerned with a diagnosis of the ills of his country. This diagnosis, conducted in a verse that combined deliberate irreverence and sometimes even clowning with a cunning verbal craftsmanship, drew on Freud and Marx to show England both as a nation of neurotic invalids who must learn to "throw away their rugs" and as the victim of an antiquated economic system. The liveliness and nervous force of this early poetry of Auden's made a great impression, even though an uncertainty about his audience led him to introduce purely private symbols, intelligible only to a few friends, in some of his poems.
With time, Auden's poetry showed greater clarity of imagery and less of a desire to shock; he produced, in the years around 1940, some poems (such as "Lullaby") of finely disciplined movement, pellucid clarity, and deep yet unsentimental feeling. At the same time he was developing a more complex view of the world, moving from his earlier psychologically-based diagnosis of modern ills to a more religious view of personal responsibility and traditional value. But he never lost his ear for popular speech or his ability to combine elements from popular art with an extreme technical formality. Auden was always the experimenter, particularly in ways of bringing together high artifice and a colloquial tone.
Click to see a manuscript copy of "Mus" in Auden's hand.
For the first part of his career- the English and the early American phase- Auden was very much the poet of his times, first of the Depression and then of the Age of the Refugee. In the poems of this period he preferred to confront modern problems directly rather than to filter them, as Eliot did, through symbolic situations. The poems of the last phase of his career, notably those in About the House (1965) and City without Walls (1970), are increasingly personal in tone and combine an apparent air of offhand informality with remarkable technical skill. Auden grew increasingly hostile to the modern world and skeptical of all remedies offered for modern ills; he took refuge in love and friendship, (particularly the feelings of love and friendship he shared with Chester Kallman) his emotions grounded in a deepening but rarely obtrusive religious feeling. In the last year of his life he returned to England to live in Oxford, feeling the need to be part of a university community as a protection against loneliness. An uneven poet, a poet who in the opinion of some critics never quite fulfilled the enormous promise of his early work, Auden is nevertheless now generally recognized as one of the masters of twentieth-century English poetry, a thoughtful, seriously playful poet whom more than one critic has compared with Dryden in his combination of lively intelligence and immense craftsmanship.
- Edward Callan, "Disenchantment with Yeats: From Singing Master to Ogre."
- Lucy McDiarmid, "The Treason of the Clerks."
- Anthony Hecht, from The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W. H. Auden.