In Memory of W.B. Yeats
by W.H. Auden
Section I, Stanza 2 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
- A man is dead, but life goes on. Nature does all the things it's supposed to do, even when life-changing events are taking place in the human world.
- Auden is actually being sneaky here. He seems to be writing about innocuous things like wolves and rivers, but check out the adjectives these lines put into play. Do you usually think of water as being "peasant" or quays (that means wharfs, or loading docks for ships) "fashionable"? Nope. These adjectives usually describe people. As Auden ostensibly describes the rivers, he also manages to sneak in a little allusion to the human world.
- What's the human world up to? Well, right now it seems to be operating in the same way as the natural world. Everything's ordered just as it should be. Which is a bit weird, right? After all, when someone important to you dies, it seems like the world should be ending. It seems like everyone around you should stop and scream just as loudly as you want to be screaming.
- There's an eeriness to this description. Sure, it's natural, but, in a very real way, it's also unnatural, at least as far as the speaker is concerned.
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
- The speaker is describing the reaction to Yeats's passing by insisting on the ways that readers of his poems will encounter his poetry. It's almost like these lines bypass Yeats's death entirely. After all, Auden deliberately chooses to refer to Yeats as "the poet," making him an anonymous figure rather than a specific man. Even the mourners are abstracted into "mourning tongues," not specific people (like, say, the speaker).
- In fact, in the absence of specific people in these lines, Yeats's poems themselves seem to take on a life of their own. The speaker says that Yeats's poems are unaware of Yeats's death. That description makes the poems sound like living, breathing beings.
- Another way to look at line 11 is that the death of the poet is being kept out of the poems. In other words, the poems endure after the poet's death.