The Irishman William Butler Yeats was the most famous and important poet writing in English at the time of his death in January, 1939, and W. H. Auden sought to make a living memorial to Yeats through this ode. The ode form is traditionally reserved for important and serious subjects and is written in an elevated style, so Auden gave Yeats great value and dignity by using this genre. The poem was written within one month of Yeats’s death and published shortly thereafter. It has three distinct parts; Auden radically revised the third part by eliminating three entire stanzas which were part of the original when he included it twenty-seven years later in his Collected Shorter Poems, 1927-1957 in 1966.
In part 1, Auden paints a dark, frozen, wintry landscape as the backdrop for Yeats’s death; it is almost as if the earth mourns his loss. The animals in the forest and rivers, however, run their usual courses unaware of the magnitude of the loss. Yeats’s poems are treated as being human, like part of his family; the news of his death is withheld from his poems, which live on. On his last afternoon, his whole being, like a city under siege, is invaded by death. His body revolts, his mind is emptied, silence overcomes him, and he is stilled. After he is physically dead, Yeats’s poems still live and are scattered across the world; the dead poet loses control over their meanings and over the kinds of affection they will excite. The poems are “the words of a dead man,” which, after his death, are reinterpreted “in the guts of the living.” Auden repeats that one might try to measure the loss of Yeats with scientific “instruments,” but they only can tell one that “the day of his death was a dark cold day.” He implies that Yeats had a value much greater than any “instrument” can measure.
In part 2 of the ode, Auden switches to Yeats’s life and contrasts the man to his work: The man dies, but his poetry lives forever. Yeats’s poetry survives Yeats’s silliness and mysticism, his own physical decay, his insane country of Ireland, and even the damp and sometimes miserable Irish weather. Auden claims that poetry “makes nothing happen” in a practical sense but that it survives in the human imagination, far from the control of business executives. The poetry flows through imagination and unites humankind, which may be isolated, grief-stricken, and living in crude towns. Even though Yeats dies physically, he lives on in the imagination through his poetry.
Part 3 is beautifully formal and rhetorical. Auden begins by directly addressing the earth, into which Yeats will be placed. He instructs the earth to accept an “honored guest,” not a dead man; the section is decidedly celebratory rather than grim. In the later (1966) version of the poem, Auden eliminated three entire stanzas, which in the original followed the first stanza. In these stanzas, Auden explains that time, meaning history and chronological time, pardons poets and does not fully claim them, since it “worships language” and those who write it. Yeats was therefore to be pardoned any personal idiosyncrasy, and such a pardon by time presumably would make him one of the immortal poets. Auden’s speaker then compares the nightmarish days of 1939 immediately before World War II broke out with the ability of Yeats to create art and poetry out of disastrous times.
Yeats is looked up to as a role model for other poets, because he had an unconstrained voice which would tell the truth even during times of...
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“intellectual disgrace” when nations were barking at each other like threatening curs. Even in dark times such as those of 1939, when human pity seems “frozen,” Auden asks the spirit of Yeats to “Still persuade us to rejoice.” He wants the “poet,” either Yeats or himself, to make something fruitful (a “vineyard”) from the distressing period by “farming” it in his poetry. In the last stanza, he wants poets to help start the “healing fountain” which will teach free men to endure even in hateful and evil days and will teach them again “how to praise.” Poetry needs to give life and hope even in the darkest days.
Auden begins this ode with an archetypal image cluster that links winter and death. The setting is desolate and filled with winter, death, and negative words, which often are linked by alliteration of d sounds. Alliterating negative words and phrases include: “disappeared” and “dead” (line 1), “deserted” (line 2), “disfigured” (line 3), “dying day” (line 4), and “day,” “death,” and “dark,” (line 6). This repetitive cluster of alliterating negative words in conjunction with the frozen, wintry words creates a powerful scene of desolation in which the world’s dead time seems to mirror the poet Yeats’s death. In an extended form of personification, the wintering earth itself seems to mourn the loss of the poet.
In addition, Auden makes good use of other extended metaphors by establishing a different central metaphor for almost each stanza in part 1. He compares death to an invading army that takes over Yeats’s whole being in stanza 4. The “invasion” is preceded by “rumours,” then “revolt” in the provinces of his body; then the “squares of his mind” are emptied, silence pervades the “suburbs” of his existence, and lights go out when the “current of his feeling failed.” Auden uses a cluster of geographic terms (provinces, squares, and suburbs) to illustrate the personal world of Yeats being shut down. These linked geographical comparisons metaphorically make Yeats a whole country unto himself, which magnifies the gravity of the loss.
Auden also uses individual metaphors with great cleverness. One example is his use of “mouth” at the end of part 2 to talk about poetry and the poet simultaneously. Poetry is a “mouth” in that it metaphorically speaks to the reader. Since the “mouth” is also the organ of speech, the word is used as a form of metonomy to refer to the poet himself. Like a mouth, poetry is an open potential from which words can issue. Mouths, like poems, are eternal features of humankind—one, the mouth, is a permanent physical feature, while the other, the poem, is an imaginative creation that endures beyond the poet’s death.