Saturday, 31 October 2015

In Memory of W.B. Yeats (an elegy on W.B.Yeats) by W.H. Auden

In Memory of W.B. Yeats                                            W.H. Auden

In Memory of W.B. Yeats is an elegy written by W.H. Auden on the death of W.B. Yeats, whom Auden admired and also deeply influenced by him. The poem is in three sections. In the first section, Auden speaks about the death of the poet and in the second is his personal and compassionate address to the poet and accepts the irreparable loss of the poet. In the final section, Auden sums up the great achievements of Yeats although he had a lot of weaknesses. Time has forgiven him all his weaknesses and failures. Thus “In Memory of W.B.Yeats” is quite different from all other elegies. We cannot see any artificial or laboured in the grief of the poem as in the conventional pastoral elegies. It has all the quality of a modern civilized man’s expression of grief at the loss of a dear one. Instead Auden skillfully restrains his sorrow and gives a detached account of Yeats’ death when entire Europe was in the grip of cold winter and there was a political paralysis all over the world. The elegiac convention of universal mourning is brought in with political and humanistic overtones quite in keeping with the style of Auden. Thus the expression of grief has a certain majesty, power and dignity about it. The grief is poignant, inevitable and genuine. Auden is a great poet second only to T.S.Eliot of twentieth century. Auden’s poem “Unknown Citizen” is a trend setter of this century. His poem “In Memory of W.B.Yeats” is a dignified and powerful tribute to the memory of Yeats.  Auden skillfully creates a Yeatsian effect by using conversational idiom. “What instruments we have agree. The day of his death was a dark cold day”, poetry makes nothing happen; he became his admirers;  A way of happening, a mouth” are all typical Yeatsian style.

The poem opens with a detached account of the circumstances and setting of the poet’s death.  The frozen state of the physical world in the cold winter and the dead cold of the poet’s body are set side by side.  Many rural and urban images are introduced to show the paralysis of the European politics just before the world war. “The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day” and “snow disfigured the public statues” the frozen brooks and the deserted airports suggest that the day of Yeat’s death was a dark cold day for the entire world. The elegiac concept of universal mourning is implied by these powerful images.

The poet is dead but his poetry survives his mortal body and all its limitations, weaknesses and failures. It is passed on to the future generations after generations and it will have an independent existence, apart from his personal history, dreams and thoughts. It may even undergo modifications or interpretations by the living. But his poetry will be everlasting. The death of the poet does not affect the day to day life of the world. It goes on with its usual business and pursuits.  The poor will continue to suffer and will accept their sufferings without question. Human liberty will continue to be in danger and people will continue to speak of liberty, equality and democracy. But in the midst of all this, a few people will remember the poet and his masterpieces. They also think of the loss due to the death of the poet. The day of his death was indeed a dark cold day for all sensitive people. The inevitability of death and the continuance of life is juxtaposed in the true elegiac fashion.

In the second section there is an intensely personal and compassionate address to the dead poet.  The man Yeats was silly like all poets and suffered like all sensitive and silly people. But his poetry survived all his weaknesses. Yeats spent a lot of time and energy for Irish nationalism.  But Ireland still remains the same. Auden painfully thinks that great poetry cannot correct the course of history. The futility of poetry in the material world is very clear. Poetry belongs to the spiritual world. It has nothing to do with the material world. But great poetry survives and continues to inspire because it comes out of the sufferings of the poet.

The poem concludes with an impressive summing up of Yeats’s achievement. It is the funeral and the author invokes the Earth to receive the body of William Butler Yeats and laments that Ireland is empty of its poetry.  Time is  villain who destroys the brave, the innocent and the beautiful but loves the poet and Time forgives all the weaknesses, drawbacks and failures of the poet. Time has pardoned Rudyard Kipling or will pardon Paul Claudel and certainly will pardon all the political and private weaknesses of Yeats and glorify his poetic achievement. Yeats’s memory will be installed in the minds of generations of readers in future. Yeats is bacon of light in the dark world of Europe and his poetry will transform the curse of fallen humanity into a vineyard of human liberty. Let his poetry enlarge our sensibility and enable us to live better lives. Thus the poem ends in an optimistic note that Yeat’s life has not been lived in vain and that poetry is all powerful in the world of spirit.
Essay questions:
1)      The poem “In Memory of W.B.Yeats” is an elegy – discuss
2)      Yeats’s achievements as revealed in the poem
3)      “Poetry makes nothing happen” – discuss.

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