If you were to draw up a list of the Great Poets of the English Language, chances are it would include Milton, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, and maybe Wordsworth and Tennyson. Oh, yeah, and W.B. Yeats. Definitely Yeats. After all, the man dominated the 20th-century literary scene for almost forty years…right up until his death in 1939. And that's not even including his work in the 19th century.
When a great poet dies, it's only expected that someone will write something about his life and work. Heck, there's probably an entire department at the New York Times dedicated to the lives of famous artists and thinkers. What's so special, then, about a poem written in Yeats's memory?
We're so glad you asked. For one thing, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" happens to be written by another formidable figure of the 20th-century literary scene, W.H. Auden. And for another, the poem breaks the mold of traditional elegies, choosing instead to roam over the vast territory of Yeats's life and work – with a healthy dose of meditation on the lives and works of the rest of us thrown in for good measure.
There's a particular edge to this poem, though, which helps explain the urgency with which Auden approaches his topic. Like Yeats, Auden senses the coming of World War II. There's something almost prophetic about his observation that people, too locked in their own daily routines to notice what's happening right next to them, will ignore the suffering and pain of others. Does that sound pretty much like everything you ever learned about WWII? Yep, we thought so.
Part elegy. Part philosophy. Part social criticism. Part art theory. That's a whole lot of parts for one poem to fit together. Luckily for us, Auden is able to do it with style.
You've probably lost something in your life. Maybe it was your pet dog or cat or goldfish. Maybe it was just a pair of nifty socks. But chances are that you've experienced sadness and loss that might be a bit more long-lasting and serious than that. It's likely that there have been at least a few days in your life when the world was ripped apart at its seams. Remember when Michael Jackson died? No matter where you were – even if you weren't even alive when "Thriller" hit the airwaves – you probably stopped and thought about what it means to lose a great artist. And that was someone you didn't even know.
For Auden, the best way to sort through the confusing jumble of emotions that resulted from the death of his fellow poet Yeats was to pen an elegy ("elegy" is just a word for a poem written about a person who has died).
"In Memory of W.B. Yeats" isn't neat. Sometimes it's not even pretty. But in the middle of all that formal shifting and even criticism of Yeats's life, Auden attempts to approach something like an honest appraisal of a man's life and work.
Reading this poem, you may feel like you're riding on a train that has jumped off the tracks. It's going too many places too fast – the emotional charge behind Auden's words just doesn't let up. But hey, isn't that what mourning is all about? It's not neat or perfect or clear-cut. And maybe this poem can help you think through what it is that a person (or a poem) can contribute to a world full of anger and sadness and, well, other people. After all, that's what it does for Auden.