In Memory of W. B. Yeats

by W. H. Auden

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Analysis of the prophetic and poetic aspects of the poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats"


The poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" combines prophetic and poetic elements to honor Yeats' legacy. It reflects on the transformative power of poetry amidst societal turmoil, suggesting that Yeats' work will continue to inspire and endure. The poem's prophetic tone underscores the enduring relevance of Yeats' poetry, while its lyrical quality pays tribute to his artistic contributions.

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

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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What makes the poem "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" special from a poetic perspective?

Auden honors two traditions here: Yeats and the ode/elegy, and he tries to move the latter toward something new, expanded.  At traditional English ode is "typically a lyrical verse written in praise of, or dedicated to someone or something which captures the poet's interest or serves as an inspiration for the ode."

Auden says that Yeats' art lives on, as if it is an autonomous, living thing now detached from its host.

According to my Norton anthology:

Poems about death tend to be concerned not just with loss, but also with what remains after a man or a woman dies. Elizabethan sonnets, like those of Spenser or Shakespeare, often take this idea of something persisting after death and use it in the context of an imagined dialogue between lovers, rather than in relation to an actual death: the lover promises his beloved that even though she must die, she will live on forever in his verses. In the elegy, that living-on after death may be thought of in religious terms, or perhaps in terms of cherished memory, or it may make itself felt by changing those who remain, transforming despair into the resolve to go on with life. This last possibility is what Tennyson's poem, "Ulysses," is all about.

Auden's poem draws on all these traditions as it focuses just on that moment when the words of a poet must begin to live on after his death. The poem which Auden writes is the first step in preserving Yeats the poet. But most important, Auden understands this process of poetic after-life as taking place entirely within history.

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