In Memory of W.B. Yeats
by W.H. Auden
Section I, Stanza 4 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
- It's almost like Yeats is being devoured by a whole bunch of strangers, right? His "life" becomes the topic of dinner conversations around the world on the night that he dies, and our speaker imagines just how strange it would be for Yeats himself to inhabit those bodies and those conversations. Without the man himself around to speak up for his own life, all that's left are the interpretations of his life and work that will suddenly pop up on TV (or, well, radio) around the world.
- There's a strange tension between the assertion of Yeats's death and the imagery at work here, which seems to suggest that the poet is still alive in some ways. It's precisely that tension that Auden wants to highlight – to point out all the ways the idea that "life goes on" seems unnatural.
- It's pretty common to talk about people who've just died in the present tense. Maybe that's because people are just used to talking about Irma or Bobbie as if they were in the next room. Maybe its' just too hard to face the fact of their death. Or maybe, as here, the speaker is interested in the ways that a poet's legacy will survive. He'll be a thirty-second clip on the nightly news, and people will come up with a sound byte to describe his lifetime of achievements. That's what happens when you die...right?
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
- Even Yeats's poems change. They can no longer emerge from the poet's own mouth. Instead, they get chewed up and spat out by new voices and new bellies. Tasty, huh?
- Our speaker seems to withdraw even further from Yeats's death in these lines, becoming almost philosophical as he describes "a dead man." It's no longer Yeats; it's not even a poet – it's just a dead man.