In Memory of W. B. Yeats

by W. H. Auden

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Themes and Meanings

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Auden seeks to immortalize W. B. Yeats by writing a poem about his memory and its value. He celebrates the immortality of Yeats’s great poetry instead of mourning the man’s demise. One of Auden’s main points is that once an artist creates his art, the art develops its own autonomy and life and is not limited by the artist or his intentions. To Auden, as he makes clear in part 3 of the poem, poetry needs to teach humankind to rejoice and to endure the hideous times of life. Poets, following Yeats’s example, must create great eternal art from the disasters of their times as they “farm” and perfect their verse. Writing poetry about painful experiences can be healing both for the poet who writes and for the reader who reads. Yeats presumably did write painful and healing verse in his own “unconstraining voice.” He transmuted disasters in Ireland, such as the violently repressed Irish rebellion against the British during Easter, 1916, into poems of great beauty and dignity. Auden seeks to follow that example in this ode. The disaster that Auden comes to “celebrate” is the death of the greatest living English poet, W. B. Yeats. In his memorial ode, Auden tries to transform the “curse” of Yeats’s physical death into an occasion for rejoicing. Yeats’s personal death ends his production of new poems and permanently closes his “mouth,” but, paradoxically, the poet does not die. Yeats lives through his monumental poems and takes his place with the other immortals. By reminding readers of the paradox of death not being final for a poet, Auden implies that one should not be sad at Yeats’s passing. The poet lives forever in and through his poetry. Art is eternal, and that is an encouraging thought even in the darkest of day.

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