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In Memory of W.B. Yeats

In Memory of W.B. Yeats


by W.H. Auden

Section I, Stanza 3 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 12-13

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;

  • Now we're back in the world of hospitals and nurses and all that other stuff that we don't tend to think about when mourning the passing of a national figure.
  • Auden is emphasizing Yeats's humanness here: his death is just as depressing and solitary as any other death. Moreover, it's something that we can't share. If anything, an attempt to describe the minutia of Yeats's last minutes would only redouble the "rumours" which the speaker describes here.
  • This is a good time to point out that Auden's language in this poem is incredibly sparse. Other than those few sneaky adjectives we discussed earlier, this poem sounds almost like someone talking right in our ear. No fancy language or well-turned rhymes. No rhymes at all, in fact – at least not yet. And no long, complicated metaphors. It's almost as if Auden is determined to depict Yeats's death with a restraint that he himself doesn't feel.

Lines 14-16

The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,

  • Once again, Auden turns to geographic and architectural language to describe human conditions. (See what we had to say about the waters just a few lines ago.)
  • Referring to a person's body as his "country" or "kingdom" is a fairly traditional poetic trick, but Auden takes it a step further here: Yeats's body is described as a city at war with itself – a war it eventually loses.
  • This is our first extended metaphor, so be sure to check out what we have to say about it in our "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay" section.
  • For now, though, let's just say that the decision to make this metaphor about a city, complete with suburbs, is pretty interesting...if only because cities aren't exactly natural. After all, people had to create those cities. They didn't just appear – unlike the wolves or rivers that the speaker refers to earlier. What's with the unnaturalness of the metaphor? Like we said, check out our analysis.

Line 17

The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

  • Now we're back to water images. Keep track of those – it'll pay off, we promise.
  • Once again, our speaker turns conventional phrases into lines that seem...well, just a little bit off. You've heard that the dead are kept alive in the memory of the living, right? That's sort of what's going on here, but it's a little bit more painful. After all, who wouldn't rather have Yeats around than a whole bunch of his admirers? The conventional sayings just don't seem to have much to offer in terms of consolation here.
  • Maybe that's the way our speaker wants it. He wants us to experience the awful strangeness and emptiness of Yeats's death as a very real and unnerving kind of loss.

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