Comments on “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”

by Brian Reece and Jessica Rodman

“By mourning tongues / The death of the poet was kept from his poems” — One way to interpret these lines would be that the “mourning tongues” are those who remember and recite the poetry of Yeats. Though the poet dies, his poetry survives, the theme explored by the second section of this poem. This speaks greatly to the idea of the mortality of man and his endeavors to somehow become immortal. Artists are perhaps the most successful at these attempts, for their can works long outlive them. Through this commemorative act of remembering Yeats through his poetry, it is almost as if we bring him back from the dead.

“he became his admirers. / Now he is scattered among a hundred cities” — In this line, we see a direct connection between poet and poetry, as referenced in the lines before. Not only does poetry live on beyond the poet, transcending the threshold of mortality created by the fragility of human life, but poetry can do something beyond merely surviving. Although this idea will be contradicted in the second section, overall, it is the message of the poem. Yeats’s poetry, through its survival, can infect its readers with Yeats’s spirit, and through this process, Yeats becomes his readers and his readers become him. Although it is merely a figurative ideal, we can see the validity in the statement–by reading Yeats’s works, we incorporate a little bit of his philosophies, ideals, and thoughts into our own beings.

“The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living” — Building on the previous idea, we see that not only is the poetry incorporated into us, but it is modified. What could he mean by this? Perhaps he is referring to our innate ability to interpret even a single line of poetry each in our own way because of our unique experiences. Thus, we each have our own unique encounters with Yeats himself, which will cause each of us to incorporate his words in different ways.

“your gift survived it all” — I think that there may be two ways to look at this verse. First, we may consider that the gift Auden refers to is Yeats’s innate ability to write poetry, which, despite his hardships and troubles, survived them and made it onto paper. Another possible interpretation is that the gift is the poetry itself, which, in spite of the hardships of life, still survives. Of course, Auden may have also meant to imply both meanings, which gives a more complete meaning behind the verse and relates directly to this section’s overall message–poetry does nothing but survive.

“Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. / Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, / For poetry makes nothing happen” — Here, Auden attributes Yeats’s poetic inspiration to the “madness” of Yeats’s country of birth–that some sort of pain he felt in Ireland caused him to write his poetry. In this stanza however, we feel Auden’s pessimism, and he goes on to say that though Ireland gave Yeats his poetry, the poetry did nothing for Ireland. In other words, Ireland is still causing others the same kind of pain that it caused Yeats.

“ranches of isolation” — Since this is of a poem written in a time of grief, Auden is clearly pointing out the loneliness of death. I would imagine that not only does he refer to the isolation of the dead–for they end up buried alone six feet beneath the surface of the earth–but I think he also refers to the loneliness of those who knew and loved the deceased one. Here, Auden comments on both his own emotional loneliness due to the loss of such a great figure, but also to the loneliness of Yeats in his grave. Perhaps, also, this can relate to the previously mentioned idea of “your gift survived it all”–while Yeats is dead and will lie forever lonely in his grave, Auden has Yeats’s poetry to keep him company. Poetry, through its immortality, survives the poet and comforts its audience.

“busy griefs” — This is an interesting pair of words to put together. Auden could have expected at least two interpretation of this: that we grieve over too many things and, therefore, our grief itself is busy, or we ourselves are busy despite our grief. In both cases, we cannot pay enough attention to the grief because of the business of humanity. We move on at the same time that we grieve over the loss of an idol, a friend, even a loved one. I think this could be an interesting allusion to another poem by Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts.” In this poem, Auden writes of Icarus, who falls to his death after ignoring the advice of his father not to fly too close to the sun with his wings made of wax. As the Norton Anthology points out, this poem specifically refers to a painting by Pieter Brueghel, in which Icarus’s legs are seen “disappearing into the sea in one corner of the picture, the rest of which has nothing to do with him” (Abrams 2505). In other words, people are too busy with their every day lives to care enough about others. We may notice that they are gone, but do we really grieve as much as we should or would like?

“Raw towns that we believe and die in” — The most important word of this verse is “raw,” which I think puts the rest of it into perspective. That which we believe in is raw, unfinished. We spend our lives trying to complete the picture, solve the mystery, figure out what life is really about, and in the midst of working on solving the puzzle, which we never seem to complete, we die. I don’t know whether Auden thinks it a pointless endeavor, but we devote our lives to uncovering the secrets of the mysteries of life that are perhaps never meant to be uncovered, so we spend a lifetime working toward something that, in the end, cannot be achieved. Perhaps, though, these futile attempts, are what make life worth living. In fact, it is this, our useless attempts to explain the unexplainable, that creates art, including poetry. One could say that it creates immortality because poetry survives when we cannot.

“Let the Irish vessel lie. / emptied of its poetry” — An Irish vessel is referenced because Yeat’s was of Irish nationality. The word “vessel” is not referring to an actual vessel but the concept of the flow of poetry into the world. This quote relates back to the “mourning tongues,” which will carry on all the honorable poetry that Yeats has written.

“With your unconstraining voice / Still persuade us to rejoice” — These lines are written with direct attention to the poet, W. B. Yeats. The narrator is advising that no limits are to be set in poetry. The words written by poets can continue to live and therfore poetry is immortal. Poetry will affect us and enlighten readers even after the writer has passed. Time allows for poetry to flourish and in Auden’s opinion poems may not enforce change but well written poems will be remembered.

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1. Auden, W. H. “Musée des Beaux Arts” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th Edition. Vol. 2. Ed. M. H. Abrams.New York: Norton, 2000. 2506.