In Memory of W. B. Yeats

by W. H. Auden
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What are the prophetic aspects of the poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”?

The prophetic aspects of the poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” relate to the speaker's contention that poetry makes nothing happen. That being the case, one can reasonably assume that the same will apply to Auden's own poems.

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Although Auden is generous in his praise of the recently departed titan of poetry, William Butler Yeats, he nonetheless remains skeptical of the ability of his, or anyone else's poems, to change anything. In the second part of “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden is explicit:

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Although Auden is generous in his praise of the recently departed titan of poetry, William Butler Yeats, he nonetheless remains skeptical of the ability of his, or anyone else's poems, to change anything. In the second part of “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” Auden is explicit:

For poetry makes nothing happen.

Great though Yeats's poetry was, it didn't really change the world. This bald assertion provides a comprehensive answer to the rhetorical question posed by Yeats in “Man and the Echo”:

Did that play of mine send out

Certain men the English shot?

Although Yeats is referring to a play rather than a poem, the answer, from Auden's perspective, is the same in relation to both his poetry and his drama: a firm, resounding no. None of Yeats's words changed anything. But the same could apply, and indeed does apply, to Auden's own work. In dismissing the capacity of poetry to change the world, Auden is making a prophecy about the reception of his voluminous body of poetry, much of which was concerned with the here and now and therefore quickly became dated.

What Auden says about Yeats, that upon his death, earth has received an honored guest, equally applies to himself. Once Auden, too, has shuffled off this mortal coil, the living nations will still be cut off from each other in their hate. To be sure, Auden is fairly certain that his poetry, like Yeats's, will live on after his death. But what it won't do is change anything.

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