Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
- Ah, now we're back to the flowing and running of poetry. Remember how we said it would come back to haunt us? Told you.
- Poetry, which was earlier described as a thing that can creep through the nooks and crannies of our stiff and frozen world, is now channeled into a single image: that of a healing fountain.
- So things can't be all that bad, huh? Our speaker holds out hope for the possibility of life and growth and, well, the future.
- All this wishing and hoping has led to language that tends to be a whole lot more metaphorical than, say, the first section of the poem. Healing fountains and desert-like hearts? Not exactly the stuff of hospitals and nurses and the minute details of death.
- Pay attention to the way Auden crafts these last lines: it's an invocation of Yeats's poetic powers. The verb "let" is an imperative, or a command. (It's very polite command, but you see what we're saying.) The speaker is hoping that things will happen – and that takes some doing.
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
- The last lines of the poem combine a downright depressing analysis of the human condition (life is a prison) with hope for the future (humans can learn how to "praise") – a hope that's built upon the possibilities that Yeats's poetry allows in the world. Sure, it's a pretty radical claim. But then again, Yeats was a radically amazing poet.
- Auden's final approach to this elegy is peculiar. He doesn't want Yeats to live forever. He doesn't even want his poems to be immortalized or written in gold on the top of spiffy buildings. Nope, he's interested in the here and now. He wants the people of his time (and let's face it, World War II was a pretty scary time) to read and think and maybe even be better people as a result of their interaction with Yeats's poems. That's not too much to ask, is it?