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In Memory of W.B. Yeats

In Memory of W.B. Yeats


by W.H. Auden

Section I, Stanza 5 Summary

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

Lines 24-27

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,

  • So the human world is going on as usual. The stockbrokers are back to their stockbroking (the Bourse is Paris's version of Wall Street), and the bums on the street are back to their bumming. Everything's great, right?
  • Well, not exactly. The speaker isn't exactly thrilled about the world as it currently is. People locked in the "cell[s]" of themselves? That's a far cry from gathering hands and singing "Kumbaya."
  • Even Yeats wasn't immune from this sort of isolation. Remember how his death was described as the shutting down of a self-enclosed city? That's pretty darn similar to the "cell" Auden describes here.
  • Why point out the similarity? Well, for one thing, Auden seems to be struggling with the difficulty of conveying how Yeats is both a man (like any other) and an absolutely unique and irreplaceable poet. See the problem? They're diametrically opposed ideas – which makes it a wee bit difficult to cram both into one poem. Instead of ignoring that tension, however, Auden exploits it, allowing us to see just how difficult it is to navigate between Yeats the man and Yeats the poet.

Lines 28-29

A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

  • So the news of Yeats's death doesn't really outlive the evening news, huh? It's a ripple on the water, something that makes us frown slightly before turning back to our Ramen noodles.
  • "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," by the way, is a far cry from traditional elegies (poems written in memory of a dead person), which tend to claim that the world will change forever after "X" dies and millions of people from hundreds of countries will spend thousands of years wailing and sobbing. Don't get us wrong, it's a nice thought – but we're betting that Auden's is the more realistic of the two descriptions.

Lines 30-31

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

  • The last two lines of the first stanza become a refrain now – they're repeated as the final two lines of the first section.
  • We heartily concur with what we said the first time around: these lines seem to suggest that there's a certain limitation to what humans are able to express in times like this. Sure, the day is "dark" and "cold." But it's also much, much more than that.
  • Repeating the exact same lines at the end of this section only underscores just how few tools we have to tackle a topic as strange and unwieldy as death.
  • Plus, after the last few lines, the understatement that characterizes this first section begins to seem strained or even ironic. Perhaps it's not our thermometer that fails us – perhaps it's more our inability to experience the passing of a poet like Yeats with the intensity that our speaker seems to.

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