In Memory of W. B. Yeats

by W. H. Auden

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How does “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” reflect Modernism?

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Auden's elegy to Yeats reflects modernism by depicting a bleak, pessimistic view of the modern world. This becomes most clear near the end of the poem, though it is threaded throughout the verses.

Yeats, who is often taken to have prophesied the rise of Hitler and fascism in his poem "The Second Coming," died in January, 1939, on the eve of World War II. Auden picks up on Yeats' theme of the twentieth century as a dark, frightening, and dire time in lines such as the following:

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate

The lines above reflect modernism's deep distress at the turn to darkness European civilization started to make beginning at the time of its entry into World War I. That bloodbath, which seemed such a horrible mistake to so many people, traumatized the modernists (as it did much of European society), who lost faith in progress and often became deeply pessimistic. The events of the 1930s and the inevitability of another war cemented this grim view of the world.

The modernists, deeply disillusioned, turned away from earlier, nineteenth century idealizations of their society or their art. We can see this in such lines in the poem as "You were silly like us" and

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face

Poetry no longer seemed invested with the power to change the world, as it might have in Romantic period. As Auden's speaker states:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper ...

The poem ends on a hopeful note in the final stanza, but the modernism emerges in the many dark images and disillusioned statements Auden makes about the state of the world and the lack of power in the arts to change it in significant ways.

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