Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
- Notice how all of a sudden the speaker directs his words towards a "you" who seems to be Yeats?
- The tone of the poem doesn't get any more reverent, though. If anything, it's a bit more familiar – almost as if the speaker were talking to a good friend. And you'd have to be a good friend to take the criticisms of line 33 without punching the speaker in the face.
- Once again, the speaker does the delicate work of separating out Yeats-the-poet's brilliance from all the stuff that made him human: old age, philandering, and his own desires. Instead of just showing us the honorable and good stuff, he makes sure we understand that Yeats's "gift" emerges in spite of (or perhaps because of) all these complications.
[…] Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: […]
- We've got to confess, these lines take our breath away, like a punch straight to the gut. They're absolutely sparse, with no excess language, but they sure do pack a wallop.
- Here's the quick-and-dirty background:
- Yeats was deeply involved in (and occasionally critical of) the Irish independence movement of his time. Some of his most remembered poems (for example, "Easter 1916") emerge from his engagement with independence struggles.
- Yeats often got frustrated with Irish nationalists – especially the generation emerging right around the time of World War I. He cared passionately about Ireland, but his political positions were often complicated.
- The speaker says that Ireland hasn't changed one bit because of Yeats's poetry. But that's only because poetry isn't meant to be a political tool. Yeats's poetry wasn't, at least. That's what our speaker means when he asserts that poetry makes "nothing" happen.
- The speaker isn't saying that poetry is worthless. (After all, he's speaking in a poem himself.) He is, however, asserting that the "work" poetry can do is very different from other sorts of work. It "makes" nothing; it "does" nothing. But it also is able to make "nothing" happen in a way that, say, politics isn't able to do.
- Confused? Don't worry. It's a complicated line.
- We're betting, though, that Auden finds a definite value in the fact that poetry can't be or do specific things in the way that a political speech or a conversation can. Poems will always be both more and less complicated than that. They present a world that's both real and far removed from our own – and they do so on their own terms. When you're done reading a poem, you don't have anything tangible to keep from the experience, no souvenir. It's not like you just climbed the Empire State Building. It's just a poem. But it's also allowing you to think things that, say, climbing the Empire State Building couldn't.
Lines 36 - 40
[…] it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in.
- So what is poetry, exactly? Well, according to our speaker, it's something that flows...sort of like the currents of Yeats's feelings flowed earlier in the poem.
- If life is stagnant, caged, and isolating, then poetry is what flows between the cracks of our isolated cells. It remains untouched by all of the busy activities of the rest of the world, which, after the descriptions we've had earlier, is probably a good thing.
[…] it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
- In case you still didn't get it, our speaker clarifies even further. Poetry isn't a thing. It's a mode of doing something, "a way of happening."
- Notice how the speaker seems to insist on the mobility and vitality of poetry: amidst all the freezing and fixing of the rest of the world, poetry is an active instrument. That's something, isn't it?