Study Guide

In Memory of W.B. Yeats Summary

By W.H. Auden

In Memory of W.B. Yeats Summary

Our speaker embarks on a rather epic journey: he plans to offer us three variations on a traditional elegy, all of which commemorate the life and work of the poet William Butler Yeats (the W.B. Yeats of the title). Things start off simply enough: the speaker imagines what it must have been like for Yeats on the last day of his life, and the speaker begins the difficult process of imaging a world in which Yeats's poems will still exist even though their author is gone.

Abruptly, the tone of the poem shifts. Suddenly our speaker is addressing Yeats himself, chiding him for all of his mistakes, but also admiring Yeats's poetry.

Finally, the poem lapses into an oh-so-traditional elegiac form. This doesn't last for long, though – soon the speaker is off and running again, thinking about the problems of the here and now. It's 1939 and the world is on the brink of war (World War II, to be exact). In other words, things aren't so happy right now, and the speaker isn't silly enough to think that poetry can bring world peace. But that doesn't mean he thinks poetry isn't valuable. In fact, it's all the more valuable in desperate times, as Yeats's work demonstrates.

  • Section I, Stanza 1

    Line 1

    He disappeared in the dead of winter:

    • Wait a second here. Wasn't this poem supposed to be in "memory" of Yeats? Doesn't that mean that he's dead? So why would our speaker describe him as if he'd just disappeared?
    • It's an interesting question, for sure. And we're not about to get any answers soon. But keep reading…

    Lines 2-4

    The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
    And snow disfigured the public statues;
    The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.

    • Sounds like a scene from the movie Fargo. A snowstorm and an empty downtown? Check. No way to get out? Check.
    • Frankly, folks, it's got all the makings of a thriller. Especially the last line. Notice how the day has a "mouth" and is "dying"? Poets dig describing nature in human terms. Any time a poet starts talking about inanimate objects or stuff like days dying, start scanning the scene for bodies.
    • Plus, winter is sort of the perfect time to talk about death. After all, it's the time of the year when everything is, well, dead.

    Lines 5-6

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

    • Wait – so the guy who "disappeared" in line 1 really is dead? But then why would the speaker say that he just "disappeared"? (Hold onto that thought. We'll get back to it in a few stanzas, we promise.) We don't want to give anything away too soon, but since this poem is entitled "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," it's a fair bet that Auden is describing Yeats's death here. In fact, we'll just go ahead and assert that that's what's going on. You heard it from us first.
    • Now let's get to the actual language of these lines, shall we?
    • Notice how the speaker's syntax in line 5 seems to suggest that there might be other instruments out there that could calculate the day differently? As in, "what instruments we have agree...but there may be lots of other fancy time-and-temperature-measuring gadgets somewhere that could tell us differently."
    • Maybe it's just us, but it almost sounds like the speaker is wishing he could describe the day of Yeats's death differently.
    • Or maybe he's just wishing there was a better way to gauge and measure the end of a life. After all, that's what this poem is about.
    • Auden seems to be expressing doubts about the adequacy of human tools to measure or reflect upon the actual death of a man. And if recording the death of the body is hard, imagine how much more difficult it would be to commemorate the life of his mind and soul in, say, a poem. Like the one that we're reading right now. Get it?
  • Section I, Stanza 2

    Lines 7-9

    Far from his illness
    The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
    The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;

    • A man is dead, but life goes on. Nature does all the things it's supposed to do, even when life-changing events are taking place in the human world.
    • Auden is actually being sneaky here. He seems to be writing about innocuous things like wolves and rivers, but check out the adjectives these lines put into play. Do you usually think of water as being "peasant" or quays (that means wharfs, or loading docks for ships) "fashionable"? Nope. These adjectives usually describe people. As Auden ostensibly describes the rivers, he also manages to sneak in a little allusion to the human world.
    • What's the human world up to? Well, right now it seems to be operating in the same way as the natural world. Everything's ordered just as it should be. Which is a bit weird, right? After all, when someone important to you dies, it seems like the world should be ending. It seems like everyone around you should stop and scream just as loudly as you want to be screaming.
    • There's an eeriness to this description. Sure, it's natural, but, in a very real way, it's also unnatural, at least as far as the speaker is concerned.

    Lines 10-11

    By mourning tongues
    The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

    • The speaker is describing the reaction to Yeats's passing by insisting on the ways that readers of his poems will encounter his poetry. It's almost like these lines bypass Yeats's death entirely. After all, Auden deliberately chooses to refer to Yeats as "the poet," making him an anonymous figure rather than a specific man. Even the mourners are abstracted into "mourning tongues," not specific people (like, say, the speaker).
    • In fact, in the absence of specific people in these lines, Yeats's poems themselves seem to take on a life of their own. The speaker says that Yeats's poems are unaware of Yeats's death. That description makes the poems sound like living, breathing beings.
    • Another way to look at line 11 is that the death of the poet is being kept out of the poems. In other words, the poems endure after the poet's death.
  • Section I, Stanza 3

    Lines 12-13

    But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
    An afternoon of nurses and rumours;

    • Now we're back in the world of hospitals and nurses and all that other stuff that we don't tend to think about when mourning the passing of a national figure.
    • Auden is emphasizing Yeats's humanness here: his death is just as depressing and solitary as any other death. Moreover, it's something that we can't share. If anything, an attempt to describe the minutia of Yeats's last minutes would only redouble the "rumours" which the speaker describes here.
    • This is a good time to point out that Auden's language in this poem is incredibly sparse. Other than those few sneaky adjectives we discussed earlier, this poem sounds almost like someone talking right in our ear. No fancy language or well-turned rhymes. No rhymes at all, in fact – at least not yet. And no long, complicated metaphors. It's almost as if Auden is determined to depict Yeats's death with a restraint that he himself doesn't feel.

    Lines 14-16

    The provinces of his body revolted,
    The squares of his mind were empty,
    Silence invaded the suburbs,

    • Once again, Auden turns to geographic and architectural language to describe human conditions. (See what we had to say about the waters just a few lines ago.)
    • Referring to a person's body as his "country" or "kingdom" is a fairly traditional poetic trick, but Auden takes it a step further here: Yeats's body is described as a city at war with itself – a war it eventually loses.
    • This is our first extended metaphor, so be sure to check out what we have to say about it in our "Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay" section.
    • For now, though, let's just say that the decision to make this metaphor about a city, complete with suburbs, is pretty interesting...if only because cities aren't exactly natural. After all, people had to create those cities. They didn't just appear – unlike the wolves or rivers that the speaker refers to earlier. What's with the unnaturalness of the metaphor? Like we said, check out our analysis.

    Line 17

    The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

    • Now we're back to water images. Keep track of those – it'll pay off, we promise.
    • Once again, our speaker turns conventional phrases into lines that seem...well, just a little bit off. You've heard that the dead are kept alive in the memory of the living, right? That's sort of what's going on here, but it's a little bit more painful. After all, who wouldn't rather have Yeats around than a whole bunch of his admirers? The conventional sayings just don't seem to have much to offer in terms of consolation here.
    • Maybe that's the way our speaker wants it. He wants us to experience the awful strangeness and emptiness of Yeats's death as a very real and unnerving kind of loss.
  • Section I, Stanza 4

    Lines 18-21

    Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
    And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
    To find his happiness in another kind of wood
    And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.

    • It's almost like Yeats is being devoured by a whole bunch of strangers, right? His "life" becomes the topic of dinner conversations around the world on the night that he dies, and our speaker imagines just how strange it would be for Yeats himself to inhabit those bodies and those conversations. Without the man himself around to speak up for his own life, all that's left are the interpretations of his life and work that will suddenly pop up on TV (or, well, radio) around the world.
    • There's a strange tension between the assertion of Yeats's death and the imagery at work here, which seems to suggest that the poet is still alive in some ways. It's precisely that tension that Auden wants to highlight – to point out all the ways the idea that "life goes on" seems unnatural.
    • It's pretty common to talk about people who've just died in the present tense. Maybe that's because people are just used to talking about Irma or Bobbie as if they were in the next room. Maybe its' just too hard to face the fact of their death. Or maybe, as here, the speaker is interested in the ways that a poet's legacy will survive. He'll be a thirty-second clip on the nightly news, and people will come up with a sound byte to describe his lifetime of achievements. That's what happens when you die...right?

    Lines 22-23

    The words of a dead man
    Are modified in the guts of the living.

    • Even Yeats's poems change. They can no longer emerge from the poet's own mouth. Instead, they get chewed up and spat out by new voices and new bellies. Tasty, huh?
    • Our speaker seems to withdraw even further from Yeats's death in these lines, becoming almost philosophical as he describes "a dead man." It's no longer Yeats; it's not even a poet – it's just a dead man.
  • Section I, Stanza 5

    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.
  • Section II

    Lines 32-34

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

    • 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.

    Lines 34-36

    […] 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.

    Lines 40-41

    […] 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?
  • Section III, Stanza 1

    Lines 42-43

    Earth, receive an honoured guest:
    William Yeats is laid to rest.

    • Ah, now we're in true elegy territory. Auden's delving deep into tradition with the last section of this poem (and believe us, we'll have a whole bunch to say about that in "Form and Meter").
    • We can't help but notice that this is the first time Yeats is referred to by name in the poem, other than the title. Explaining just who it is that you're mourning is usually one of the first things that an elegy sets out to do – something this final, formal section makes very clear.
    • But placing this version of the elegy last in the lineup shakes up the way we receive it. Could it mean that Auden places less emphasis on the man than on his poetry? Could it mean that he just doesn't like all the stuffy formalness of traditional elegiac forms? Could he just want the familiarity of addressing Yeats himself instead of a crowd of readers?
    • Well, we don't have any good answers for you, but it's something to think about.
    • Speaking of tradition, let's take a second to point out how ridiculously traditional phrases like the address to the Earth or the laying of Yeats to rest are. They roll right off the tongue as if they've been there before...probably because they have.

    Lines 44-45

    Let the Irish vessel lie
    Emptied of its poetry.

    • Does this sound any different to you than earlier descriptions of Yeats's death? It does to us.
    • Each previous section has some reference to the poet's body ending and his work continuing on. But now Yeats is referred to as an "Irish vessel," a body meant to carry only poetry (and not, say, the problems the speaker brought up at the beginning of Section II).
    • It's almost as if the poem itself goes through a purifying process: as Auden recycles certain ideas about Yeats's death, he figures out new ways to approach a subject that is admittedly pretty difficult.
    • Notice now that even the formal reference to William Yeats seems strangely impersonal – after all, the Irish vessel is an "it."
  • Section III, Stanza 2

    Lines 46-49

    In the nightmare of the dark
    All the dogs of Europe bark,
    And the living nations wait,
    Each sequestered in its hate;

    • Auden may be drawing on age-old traditions in the first stanza of this section, but he's not about to let his readers forget some of the specifics of Yeats death, particularly the time of his death.
    • Yeats died in 1939, just as the world was gearing up for World War II. Yeats and Auden shared the sentiments of many of their fellow artists and intellectuals, who were dismayed at the thought of another world war. They'd lived through the horror of World War I, and they weren't excited to plunge right back in to all that bloodshed and death.
    • Notice how the speaker paints the impending war as a sort of nightmarish unreality. That's a common tone in works written during this time. There was a general sense of incredulity and horrible fascination with a world that seemed to be heading straight to hell in a hand basket…again.
    • We're pretty convinced that the rhyme scheme of this last section helps reinforce that sense of impending doom. Read a few lines aloud and you'll see what we mean. The regularity of the rhyme scheme and the meter could be soothing. But once it's in motion, it's hard to make it stop. Kind of like a global war, huh?
    • We're actually pretty struck by the similarity between nations and individual people in this poem. Check out how similar the descriptions of "sequestered" nations are to the isolated cells of human beings in section I.
    • There is a tiny, tiny bit of hope, though: the nations are "living," even if they can't seem to get out of the nightmare of their current situation. Small consolation? Yup. We think so, too.
  • Section III, Stanza 3

    Lines 50-53

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

    • Remember those currents of feeling and poetry? Well, they don't seem to be faring so well here. All that locking and freezing don't seem to lead to much sharing or caring. These, folks, are not warm and fuzzy times.
    • But wait – isn't this poem supposed to be about Yeats? This is the second stanza in a row now that doesn't seem to have anything to do with the man himself. What gives?
    • That's a good question. And like most good questions, it doesn't have an easy answer. Here's our guess, though: sometimes the best way to pay homage to someone is to spend some time thinking about their worldview, and the world in which they lived. Yeats, remember, was deeply connected to his nation and to political and social movements. If you read Yeats's poetry, you'll see how deeply he worries about human connections. You could think of these stanzas as a way for Auden to spend a little bit of time in another poet's head. He is almost writing here as Yeats.
  • Section III, Stanza 4

    Lines 54-57

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

    • OK, so the world is not a happy place. But our speaker seems to value Yeats's ability to accept that. He admires how Yeats combines realism (a recognition of "night") with rejoicing...even when celebration might not be the first thing on everybody's mind. There's something brave about that. After all, it would be easy to escape into fantasy, or just to mope about how bad things are. (Think of your whiny poems from the seventh grade. We know all about them.)
    • One quick technical point: the speaker switches to the present tense in this stanza. He's no longer addressing us or an outside audience; he's talking to the "poet," someone who continues to exist in the present, even after Yeats himself has died.
    • Don't worry, Auden doesn't believe in ghosts. Or maybe he does; we don't really know. Either way, the point is that this "poet" is a figure that lives on through Yeats's poetry and isn't necessarily attached to Yeats, the human man.
  • Section III, Stanza 5

    Lines 58-61

    With the farming of a verse
    Make a vineyard of the curse,
    Sing of human unsuccess
    In a rapture of distress;

    • Wow. No shiny, pretty, happy things here. In fact, not a lot of hope at all.
    • What might a "rapture of distress" look like on the page? We're guessing not too pretty.
  • Section III, Stanza 6

    Lines 62-63

    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.

    Lines 64-65

    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?