In what ways is WH Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats typical of the tradition of elegy, and in what ways is it distinctive?

WH Auden’s classic elegy of his contemporary WB Yeats has withstood the test of time. Even after five decades of its first publication, the poem is fresh in its invocation of feelings of loss and suffering. The loss and suffering are so much at the deceased artist and the cessation of his work, but more pointedly at the larger lamentation of the futility of poetry as an instrument of social change. This is one area where Auden transgresses the traditional elegy form.

Auden’s work is atypical of the elegy genre in many other ways. Firstly, he makes no attempt to praise the object of his attention. Nor does he overtly express a sensation of loss at the demise of the artist. Instead, Auden uses the scaffolding of the three part elegy form in putting forth his observations on the nature of poetry. Although it is a fairly pessimistic viewpoint it does not lack in merit. Using the imagery in a redemptive fashion, the elegy

“begins in a frozen landscape, as Yeats died ‘in the dead of winter’ and ends with images of cultivation, growth, and flowing water. The idea of the ice splinter informs the lines ‘And the seas of pity lie | Locked and frozen in each eye,’ and Auden calls upon the poet, with his voice and verse, to release these tears” (Bucknell, 1995, p. 157)

Despite the apparent disaffection toward the object of the elegy, one cannot help read veiled praise between the lines. When Auden criticises Yeats’ poetry of having changed nothing in the world, is it really a negative remark? After all, poetry is not the principal medium of social change. It would be politics and culture upon which mass social movements come to be. Poetry and other art forms can be supplementary to the effort. They can even offer inspiration and the initial spark but are seldom the conduits of revolution. Read in this context, Auden’s apparent criticism is actually a token of appreciation. Auden must have held Yeats in the highest esteem that he actually expected the latter’s life and work to change the order of society. The express disappointment in the poem is an indication of the author’s own high expectations rather than a balanced measurement of the departed poet. Further, Auden rewrites the rules of the modern elegy while

“announcing his own farewell to the poetic career he left behind in England. But even as his elegy refuses to obey the conventional expectations of praising the dead or suggesting that the world joins him in mourning the great poet’s loss, it does end on a note of admiration for Yeats and his art, looking to the poems he leaves behind for continuing guidance” (Wasley, 2011, p. 175)

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