The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 708 words.)