In Memory of W.B. Yeats
by W.H. Auden
Section I, Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
- Wait a second here. Wasn't this poem supposed to be in "memory" of Yeats? Doesn't that mean that he's dead? So why would our speaker describe him as if he'd just disappeared?
- It's an interesting question, for sure. And we're not about to get any answers soon. But keep reading…
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
- Sounds like a scene from the movie Fargo. A snowstorm and an empty downtown? Check. No way to get out? Check.
- Frankly, folks, it's got all the makings of a thriller. Especially the last line. Notice how the day has a "mouth" and is "dying"? Poets dig describing nature in human terms. Any time a poet starts talking about inanimate objects or stuff like days dying, start scanning the scene for bodies.
- Plus, winter is sort of the perfect time to talk about death. After all, it's the time of the year when everything is, well, dead.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
- Wait – so the guy who "disappeared" in line 1 really is dead? But then why would the speaker say that he just "disappeared"? (Hold onto that thought. We'll get back to it in a few stanzas, we promise.) We don't want to give anything away too soon, but since this poem is entitled "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," it's a fair bet that Auden is describing Yeats's death here. In fact, we'll just go ahead and assert that that's what's going on. You heard it from us first.
- Now let's get to the actual language of these lines, shall we?
- Notice how the speaker's syntax in line 5 seems to suggest that there might be other instruments out there that could calculate the day differently? As in, "what instruments we have agree...but there may be lots of other fancy time-and-temperature-measuring gadgets somewhere that could tell us differently."
- Maybe it's just us, but it almost sounds like the speaker is wishing he could describe the day of Yeats's death differently.
- Or maybe he's just wishing there was a better way to gauge and measure the end of a life. After all, that's what this poem is about.
- Auden seems to be expressing doubts about the adequacy of human tools to measure or reflect upon the actual death of a man. And if recording the death of the body is hard, imagine how much more difficult it would be to commemorate the life of his mind and soul in, say, a poem. Like the one that we're reading right now. Get it?