By now it is probably obvious that Yeats and Auden are two of my favorite poets; I assign them often and have published on both. A poem like “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” which is so explicitly an elegy of one poet by another, requires so much context about the departed that it may seem a curious choice in an introductory course. It’s a different matter when I teach this poem in upper-level courses. Yeats was a public artist, intellectual, and politician involved with promoting and sustaining the independent Irish state; he wrote impassioned love poems and political poems; later in his career he grew crotchety and even flirted briefly with affiliating with fascism during the post-WWI depression. I think that’s what the speaker means by “you were silly like us” in part two, although Auden himself was a communist during the same time period and so that’s a bit of a stretch.
But it’s possible to read the poem without all of that extra baggage and appreciate it for what it does beyond its historical referentiality: that it is a poem by a poet saying good-bye to another poet, trying to extricate what it finds valuable about the departed from the wreckage of what it would rather not have to deal with. This is similar to the act of eulogizing someone whose… funeral description was significantly edited from the actual day-to-day events and actions of that person –some of you may already understand this quite well. If the speaker wishes to grant a benediction on an influential poet without making it seem as though he supported everything about the earlier poet’s life, there would need to be some delicate maneuvering and negotiation in order to finds the words that would suffice for the task. This poem takes a pretty novel approach by recasting both poet and poetry as spatial landscapes not necessarily having any relationship to Yeats’s homeland of “Mad Ireland.”
After an initial image of the “dark, cold day” of Yeats’s death, the first section begins to draw a distinction between Yeats’s failing body and how life continues elsewhere:
Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays
Only this is sort of an unusual depiction of life outside of a deathbed watch; I suppose the “evergreen” forest stands in distinction to the decay of the elderly poet (consider how much different this line would be if the trees mirrored Yeats’s decline [eg, if the forest were deciduous in winter]), but why “wolves”? and why, why draw a contrast between the “fashionable quays” of commerce in a bustling harbor and the “peasant river,” apparently poor enough to need a justification for why it is “untempted” by the wealth of the quays. I suppose the same impulse links these lines to this couplet later on:
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed
Once again, poverty coexisting uneasily with extreme wealth, with the implication that the wealthy are “beasts” like wolves, preying on the poor peasants. As the evergreens are always green, so too will there always be wolves (bankers), and if Yeats had wished to alleviate the suffering of the poor he failed in his charge.
Oddly, this irresponsible (or ineffectual) version of Yeats is, like the peasant river, identified with a countryside that makes clear the entire metaphor was designed to draw contradictory impulses within the life and poetry of Yeats himself:
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood.
For someone who played a part in the revolt of the Irish against the British Empire, saying of Yeats that “the provinces of his body revolted” also suggests that there was something in Yeats that, by dying, his body wished to overthrow, and that is fairly damning. Yeats’s physical self is alternately described as a political entity (“provinces”), an urban landscape (“squares”), outer residential settlements (“suburbs”), a river like the peasant river earlier on, and then it appears his existence stops being his own, and after his death he will live on only in the memories and experiences of those who still read his work.
The speaker of this elegy soothes the homicidal impulse of Yeats’s body by creating a new homeland for the poet in the minds of his “admirers” which reveals that Yeats’s actual mistake (according to this poem, anyway) was not in the causes he championed, but in believing that poetry should or even could champion causes with any sort of efficacy. It is as if, by writing a poem, I believed I could accomplish something practical like dig a ditch or build a house. I doubt Yeats had any such actual belief, but if we extend the concept of efficacy toward the notion of persuasion, his poems attest to a belief in the power of poetry to persuade readers to follow and enact causes: an independent Ireland, for example (this happened! but possibly not solely or even primarily because of Yeats’s poems), or for his beloved to finally love him back (this didn’t ever happen).
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
There there, Yeats (the poem seems to say). Calm down, you were only deluding yourself in thinking you had such superhuman powers. But of course, in gesturing toward poetic inefficacy (that it makes nothing happen), the speaker is also stipulating that his gesture of trying to soothe the departed poet is also going to be ineffectual, which is depressing. As this voice says good-bye to a poet that doubtless had some influence on his own poetry, it’s reasonable to see this as the speaker similarly saying good-bye to any belief in his own powers to persuade or enact real-world change with his own poems.
Anyway, because poetry makes nothing happen, it is a safe space to say whatever you’d like. Because “executives / Would never want to tamper” with the “valley of its making,” possibly because such executives are too busy executing to read poetry, it can attest to “busy griefs,” isolation,” “raw” emotion, belief, sorrow, and if you count “mouth” as a mode of speaking, a vehicle for identity. Curiously, this is all rendered as landscape — valleys. ranches, rivers, towns, and then the second meaning for the ambiguous “mouth” (the mouth of a river).
Why does poetry need to be spatial? Is it merely to replace the other landscape that the dying Yeats’s body constituted, and which his death overthrew? A gentler, kinder landscape for his spirit to inhabit in death? A reconstructed version of poetic selfhood and professional ambition? Because another question I have about the oft-quoted line “poetry makes nothing happen,” is that the poem almost immediately retracts that notion — by the end of the short second section poetry is “a way of happening,” which the speaker just told us it couldn’t make. Unless there is a huge distinction to be made between a poem “making something happen” and a poem representing a “way” of happening, it seems like a retraction to me. I would also point out that in the peppy third section, the speaker enumerates some very active verbs that poetry can set into motion: “persuade us to rejoice,” “make a vineyard of the curse,” “sing of human unsuccess,” “let the healing fountain start,” and “teach the free man how to praise.”
That’s a lot that poetry is making happen. In creating an alternate landscape for Yeats’s new consciousness, it’s possible that these verbs might only apply to the inhabitants of this other space — lovers of poetry, for one, since the speaker tells us in part one that “Yeats became [his] admirers,” quite a visceral apotheosis since he is modified by the “guts of the living” rather than our hearts or our minds. When guts revolt, the results aren’t pretty; but this is another way of saying Yeats can be thrown out of Poetry Valley if we all stop reading him, or if we can find no use for his poetry in terms of the more useful and less bloodthirsty purposes the inhabitants of that valley seek out in their poems. It’s not really that poetry makes nothing happen, but that we all have to be careful for what we wish for. Yeats desired to make something happen, and thankfully he was not as responsible for ill events as he suspected. But in desiring that responsibility he opened himself up to the judgment of those like the speaker of this poem. By focusing on the good Yeats had done, the speaker forgives him of his silliness while simultaneously abjuring others of pushing the boundaries of taste after Yeats’s fashion.