Remember how you used to write those love letters to that cute girl (or guy) who sat across from you in fifth grade? (Don't worry, we won't tell.) It probably took you at least seventeen drafts before you got around to writing something that even remotely approximated what you felt about her (or him).
We're not saying that this poem is like your fifth-grade crush. And we're sure not saying that Auden writes like a fifth grader. (Then again, maybe you were a really talented fifth grader. Who are we to judge?) What we are saying is that this poem's variations in form convey the same mixture of urgency and hesitation that probably made you crumple up version after version of crappy love sonnets.
Auden is keenly aware that he's going to be writing for a massive audience, and that he's got a nearly impossible task in front of him. How do you chronicle the life of the most famous poet of your age? More important, how do you do so in a way that feels meaningful to you?
That tension is what gives this poem its sonic variants. Auden maintains a simple, restrained tone throughout the first section, laying out what we are able to tell about a man who died far, far away from our daily routines. It's akin to what you'd hear on the radio as you're brushing your teeth in the morning. A famous person died. We remember him.
But then the landscape shifts, and suddenly Auden is addressing Yeats directly, friend to friend. And that's where the language starts to get more impassioned and the metaphors begin to build.
And then, suddenly, as if the emotion was too much to handle, another form takes over. It's almost as if the personal address has become too emotional for our speaker, and so he reverts to tried-and-true forms like rhyme and elegy, in the lines "Earth, receive an honoured guest:/ William Yeats is laid to rest" (42-43).
The changes are lightning-fast; after all, the entire poem only takes up about seventy lines. And believe us, Auden packs a lot of emotion into those few stanzas. But then again, grief is temperamental and, well, hard to contain. Perhaps the chaos of this poem helps convey that sense of swimming without moorings that so often follows loss.
Well, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" is about as traditional as an elegiac title can be (and this is an elegy, a poem written in memory of a deceased person). It brings to mind another uber-famous (and uber-long) elegy called In Memoriam, A.H.H., written by Tennyson about his friend who passed away.
If you've read what we have to say in our "Summary" section, you'll immediately see the irony in this move: Auden's title may be traditional, but his poem is anything but. He's shaking things up stylistically, which is perhaps why he chooses to ground us right away by directing our attention to the object of the poem, William Butler Yeats. Yeats was a poet, playwright, and important political figure in the late 19th and early 20th century. If you're interested, you can find out more about him by checking out our guides on his poetry. Here are a few:
Technically, Yeats died in a hospital. We know this because, well, the first section spends a good bit of time talking about the mundane details of dying in a hospital. But that's really the boring part of this poem – and intentionally so. Auden's language makes it clear to us that death is often mundane and boring and, well, full of hospitals and other not-so-fun stuff.
But that's only the beginning. See, the imaginative scope of the poem takes in a whole lot more than just the setting of Yeats's actual death. It pans out to rove over the whole landscape of his life, including his deep love for his home country, Ireland. Remember the bit where the speaker announces that "Mad Ireland hurt" Yeats into poetry? OK, so the poem is not "set" in Ireland in the traditional sense. We don't get descriptions of rolling hills and leprechauns. But it is the emotional heart of the poem, which, in our book, is every bit as interesting.
Panning out even further, the setting expands to include the events that were going on in the world in 1939. Auden manages to paint a vivid picture of a world built of isolationists. (Hmm...sounds like the foreign-policy agenda of the US at the time.) Oh, and don't forget the nightmarish oncoming of World War II.
Combine all three settings and you've got a poem that can talk about the nitty-gritty, mundane details of life at the same time as it philosophizes on the state of world affairs. Pretty impressive, huh?
Quite frankly, our speaker has a whole lot in common with the poet himself. (Auden, we mean, not Yeats.) Like Auden, our speaker is very invested in Yeats's poetry. Like Auden, he's a little bit skeptical of Yeats's life choices. But like Auden, he's pretty willing to be pragmatic about the foibles and outright faults of a man who was, in fact, very human.
Of course, it's never fair to assume that the speaker and the poet are identical. They usually aren't. But in this case, they're pretty darn close. Here's what we know about our speaker:
He's a lover of language and poetry. In fact, he seems to revel in his ability to carry out shifts of tone and voice, which he continually showcases in the poem.
Also, he feels a deep personal connection to Yeats – enough so that he can call one of the greatest poets of the age "silly" and still feel OK with himself. Believe us, it's a ballsy move.
Our speaker is a fan of straight-talkin'. He's not about to praise Yeats to the skies just because the man passed away. He looks Yeats's history straight in the eye – and even if it's not always pretty, he calls things like he sees them. Sure, he may not be the friendliest guy to have sitting next to you in a bar, but a little bit of truth-telling isn't such a bad thing.
To make this poem easy, you only need to know two key things: 1) William Butler Yeats was a super-amazing poet; and 2), there's a long tradition of writing poems (called elegies) about famous dead people. Combine those two little facts and suddenly this poem isn't so bad. It's an elegy written to commemorate the death of William Butler Yeats. See? That wasn't so hard.
Rhyming? No problem. Perfect metrical patterns? Check. Free-wheelin', easy-on-the-tongue formlessness? Got that, too. In case you were wondering, Auden was a master of form. Yeats had that market cornered for several decades, and Auden's poetic tribute to him alludes to Yeats's technical skill by pulling out all the formal stops.
This poem is all about free styling. No, wait. It's actually all about unrhymed hexameter. Or, um, maybe rhyming couplets?
OK, we're just messing with you. Our poet is just really ambitious. You've probably already noticed that the poem is divided into three different sections. The interesting thing is that each of these sections has utterly unique formal characteristics. We'll go into the nitty-gritty details in just a minute, but first we want to think a little bit about the big-picture implications of this move.
What's the deal with this display of formal prowess? After all, this short poem's got three different styles. Three! Well, we've got a few theories. (Hey, that's why you pay us the big bucks, right?) Here we go:
Idea 1: Auden wants to prove that he can do it all: traditional elegy, simple rhyming couplets, or the clarity of free form. And he does.
Idea 2: Auden is taking a little walk in Yeats's shoes. See, Yeats himself was a master of form. He played around with everything from traditional Irish limericks and lyrics, to epics, to, well, everything in between. If Auden wanted to create a little bit of Yeats's world in this poem, perhaps showcasing the variety within Yeats's own work would be the best way to do that.
Idea 3: Auden was serious about the difficulties he encountered when trying to sum up Yeats's life in one teeny tiny poem. Remember all that stuff about the "instruments we have"? Instead of just bewailing his inadequacy, however, Auden performs it: he offers us three different takes on the way that one poet can remember and celebrate another.
We're not sure which of these explains the multiple forms of this poem. Maybe it's a little of all three. Whatever the explanation, though, the combination of forms keeps this poem moving, constantly surprising and changing our vision of Yeats. Don't get too comfortable, folks. You never know what's going to come up next.
Oh...you wanted to know about the form of each section? All right, all right. Here it is:
I: Free form. No rhymes. No metrical pattern. It's free, free, free.
II: Unrhymed hexameter. Each line has twelve beats, but they don't rhyme.
III: Rhymed eight-beat couplets. There are seven beats (or syllables) per line. And each line rhymes with the one next to it.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
Moving and flowing and churning things up, water is the quintessential symbolic image for motion and change. That's a good thing, folks. Change can be difficult, but it's natural, just like water. It's immobility that's actually strange and uncomfortable. Auden builds up a dense network of water metaphors to help him describe the way poetry can function in our sad, sorry lives.
If water's all about motion, then people are all about anti-motion. In this poem, at least, people are stiff and lonely and locked in their own worlds and delusions. Even Yeats is no exception to the rule. There doesn't seem to be any immediate way out of this fix, especially in 1939, when everybody with two brain cells to rub together knows that war is on the horizon (World War II, in fact). Ever feel helpless in the face of seemingly unchangeable world events? That's what the speaker feels...and he's pretty sure that others feel the same way.
Death. Destruction. Doom. What else would you expect from an elegy? After all, the very fact that it's an elegy means somebody has died. But that's not the only dark and nasty thing lurking around the corner. As it turns out, the whole world is about to implode. Or explode. This poem is as acutely aware of the future as it is of the past – and frankly, neither is looking all that great at the moment.
C'mon, folks, have some respect for the dead! OK, Yeats did indeed have a pretty intense love life, and we do hear about the parishes of pretty women that surround him. But that's another story for another time, friends. (Read up on it in "No Second Troy.")