How can we compare W. H. Auden's poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" and Agha Ali Shahid's poem "In Memory of Begum Akhtar"?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In the poems "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" and "In Memory of Begum Akhtar," while poets W. H. Auden and Agha Shahid Ali show grief over the poets they mourn, one substantial difference between the two is that Auden also mourns the fact that Yeats's survivors will now artificially understand and even change the meaning of his poems.

Auden points out a significant truth about interpretation: words put down on a piece of paper do not necessarily maintain the same meaning as the writer intended because the words are always subjected to the interpretation of the reader. As time passes, new moments in history, changes in culture, and other changes influence how words are translated. Hence, the greatest point of sorrow that Auden expresses in his poem mourning the death of Yeats is the fact that now Yeats is dead, the meaning of his poems will be lost because the living will continue on to view the words in a different light.

The first place Auden expresses his sorrow over the lost meaning of Yeats's poems is in the beginning of the fourth stanza when he observes the following truth: "The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living." He further describes in this stanza that Yeats's words will be "scattered among a hundred cities" where people who were previously unfamiliar with his words will develop "unfamiliar affection for them," but his words will also "be punished under a foreign code of conscience." In other words, since his readers will have drastically different perspectives, they will interpret his words differently from what he intended.

In contrast, Shahid Ali does not speak of the poet Begum Akhtar's words being altered through interpretation but rather speaks of Akhtar's words as living on as testimony of the poet's life, as we see in the lines, "... but I've taken the circumstantial evidence, your records, pictures, tapes, and offered a careless testimony." Shahid Ali further speaks of the world continuing on around Akhtar's grave as the silent rain falls and the earth and air meet together "in a season of grief."

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