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On This Date in 1939: The Death of Yeats

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January 28, 2017

On this date in 1939 William Butler Yeats died in France. One of the most famous elegies in English was written by W. H. Auden:

In Memory of W. B. Yeats

By W. H. Auden
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumors;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
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.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
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,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: 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; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Earth, receive an honored guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

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

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

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

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

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise

Read this poem slowly and carefully. Let the profound gravity of the moment rest upon you this cold winter morning and look back to another winter morning in 1939 when the voice of a nation became silent evermore.

The elegy is composed of three sections:

  • a free verse section describing the event of Yeats’ death in its contemporary setting,
  • a section of hexameters about the significance of Yeats’ death, and
  • a section of six tetrameter quatrains which constitute a sort of prayer and exhortation for the things Yeats’ spirit will always stand for.

In section 1, Auden notes that it was winter when Yeats died, and the world that received his bequest of ideas on that day was unconcerned with his death.

In section 2, he declares that Yeats’ poetry will survive—it may make nothing happen directly but it will survive as a standing judgment of a world which it does not enter into.

In section 3 Auden prays that Yeats’ spirit will still “persuade us to rejoice” even in the midst of national hate and impending holocaust:

In the desert of the heart/ Let the healing fountain start/ In the prison of his days/ Teach the free man how to praise.

One more thing. When the speaker says of Yeats, “Now he is scattered among a hundred cities. . .” (l. 18) at the beginning of the stanza he probably is suggesting that the poet will survive through the words of his poems which are “modified in the guts of the living” (l.23). Line 18 evokes an image of Yeats’s poems being dispersed like the ashes of a cremated body; they become part of all they touch, but they are also transformed by the host on which they come to rest.

Yeats’s epitaph is from his poem “Under Ben Bulben.”


W. B. Yeats’s Grave (from U. of Texas)



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