Study Guide

In Memory of W.B. Yeats Quotes

By W.H. Auden

  • Death

    What instruments we have agree
    The day of his death was a dark cold day. (5-6, 30-31)

    Auden's language here seems to suggest all of the minor traditions and procedures that we use to measure someone's passing: the time, heartbeat, and other small significant details that we <em>can</em> determine. Latent in his phrasing, however, is the sense that there are things that <em>can't</em> be determined by our reason or technologies.

    The provinces of his body revolted,
    The squares of his mind were empty, (14-15)

    Yeats's body becomes its own city in this metaphor – a suddenly vacant space that seems, well, just a little bit eerie. Perhaps that helps convey the strangeness and suddenness of his passing. After all, empty cities don't appear all that often, do they?

    The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers. (17)

    This poem consistently separates Yeats the man from Yeats's poetic work: the one ends, but the other survives and modifies with each new reader.

    The words of a dead man
    Are modified in the guts of the living. (22-23)

    Auden calculates the changes that Yeats's work will undergo during this transformation. Ironically, it's a very physical description. And taken in context of Yeats's disembodied (or, well, dead) state, the image becomes all the stranger.

    A few thousand will think of this day
    As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual. (28-29)

    Immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be, huh? Auden takes a wry look at the way the dead are truly remembered. Even someone as famous and inspirational as Yeats only gets a passing glance from most of the world.

    Earth, receive an honoured guest:
    William Yeats is laid to rest. (42-43)

    Ah, tradition.  In the last section of this poem, Auden reverts to a phrasing that just about everyone has heard at some time or another. Tradition is around for a reason. It's soothing, and it helps us remember that these terrible, seemingly unprecedented losses have happened before.  Other people have died, and we've found ways to mourn them – just like we'll find ways to mourn Yeats.

  • Art and Culture

    By mourning tongues
    The death of the poet was kept from his poems. (10-11)

    Poetry, unlike individual human beings, persists as long as there are readers and thinkers around.  It doesn't change.  And, unlike humans, it can take whatever shape its readers want it to.

    You were silly like us; your gift survived it all: (33)

    Auden balances Yeats's humanity (read: mistakes) against his "gift," his writing.  Notice how the word "gift" invokes a very traditional sense of poetic genius. Wordsworth and Byron had it; Yeats has it too. In one stroke, Auden discusses Yeats's downfalls and aligns him with the greats of the poetry world. Not bad, eh?

    Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
    Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
    For poetry makes nothing happen: (35-37)

    If you remember one thing from this poem, it'll be line 37. Believe us, you'll hear it again.  What does poetry make? Nothing.  But is that "poetry doesn't make anything"? Or is it that poetry carves out a space (a "no-thing") that no other form of communication can express? Hmm. Deep thoughts, folks.

    […] it survives,
    A way of happening, a mouth. (40-41)

    When everything else in the world is isolating and frozen and uncaring, poetry seems to have a way of moving between people and things and unlocking feelings. But can one little poem really do all that work? Auden sure thinks it can.  Poetry seems to have its own energy in this passage, a motion that's inherent in its form.

    With the farming of a verse
    Make a vineyard of the curse,
    Sing of human unsuccess
    In a rapture of distress; (58-61)

    What makes a good poem? Well, for one thing, a grounding in reality. This isn't a time for sunshine and flowers. It's an unhappy time – and this poem (like Yeats's) takes stock of that. But it also manages to transform barrenness into something fruitful (that's the whole "vineyard of the curse" thing).

    In the deserts of the heart
    Let the healing fountain start, (62-63)

    As this poem grows, poetry's power seems to crescendo as well. We admit that sounds a little Power Ranger-y. But fountains of knowledge and verse? That can't be all bad.

  • Admiration

    You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
    The parish of rich women, physical decay,
    Yourself […]  (33-35)

    Yeats had one heck of an interesting life. Auden doesn't want us to forget that amidst all the brilliance was a great deal of human screwing up too.  How often do you hear great men described as "silly"?  It's just not a word that tends to make it into the history books. But Auden wants to validate Yeats as the man that he was, not some larger-than-life hero.

    Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
    And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections (18-19)

    There's a mix of emotions in these lines. It's pretty customary to speak of poets gaining "immortality" through their poetry. But Auden wants us to think more deeply about what this afterlife entails. It's almost like Yeats's ashes are being thrown out to an anonymous crowd. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Perhaps it's a little of both. 

    Earth, receive an honoured guest:
    William Yeats is laid to rest. (42-43)

    As we've mentioned before, section III takes on the form of a traditional elegy. Reverting to tradition allows Auden to place Yeats within the great elegiac tradition while still claiming a unique viewpoint on his life and legacy.

    Follow, poet, follow right
    To the bottom of the night,
    With your unconstraining voice
    Still persuade us to rejoice; (54-57)

    If Auden admires Yeats for anything, it's his tenacity. Yeats was dogged in pursuing his own visions, no matter how obscure they might have seemed to other people. In these lines, Auden seems to suggest that perhaps it wasn't Yeats's language that was obscure; maybe it was the darkness of time in which he was living.

    In the prison of his days
    Teach the free man how to praise. (64-65)

    The last lines of this poem are a whole bundle of contradictions.  Man is both imprisoned and free. He's limited by his "days" (everyone dies sometime), but he's able to learn and grow and, well, praise.  If anything, these lines demonstrate just how difficult the task Yeats undertook actually was.  "Praise" sure isn't the first thing that would be on our minds. And, as far as this poem is concerned, it's that struggle against the impossible that best characterizes Yeats's work.

  • Isolation

    But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
    An afternoon of nurses and rumours; (12-13)

    You've probably heard it said that everyone dies alone. In Auden's poem, that includes Yeats.  These lines make it clear that death is never something anyone can share with you. It's a private, isolated and isolating experience, and Yeats goes through it on his own.

    And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom (27)

    Wow, talk about a damning critique of society. Not only is everyone locked in their own "cell" of isolation, but even worse, everyone is convinced that his or her isolation is actually a form of freedom. It's not exactly what you want to hear about yourself, is it?

    From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
    Raw towns that we believe and die in; […] (39-40)

    The landscape of human life seems especially bleak in these lines, which suggest that our busy days and constant occupations are actually small and insignificant.  Wondering what this has to do with Yeats? Well, we're guessing it has something to do with the task the Yeats set for himself: depicting the possibilities latent within this horrible, soulless life.

    And the living nations wait,
    Each sequestered in its hate; (48-49)

    War is on the horizon, and Auden is staring it straight in the face. These lines seem to be calling out the poem's readers. Yeats could see it. Auden sees it. What's keeping the rest of the world from realizing how screwed up their current situation is?

    Intellectual disgrace
    Stares from every human face,
    And the seas of pity lie
    Locked and frozen in each eye. (51-54)

    There's no grand transformation at the end of this poem. Yeats doesn't work wonders and magically change the world into a shiny, happy place.  Things are pretty much as bleak as when Yeats began to write. But that doesn't mean his work wasn't valuable, as the end of the poem suggests.

    In the prison of his days
    Teach the free man how to praise. (64-65)

    See? There's still hope out there. Even after Yeats's death, his poems can continue to influence new readers. That's a version of immortality, even if it's a conditional one.