It must be remembered that WB Yeats is arguably the greatest poet of the twentieth century. This reputation had already been acquired at the time of his death. The very fact that Auden would to this tried and tested format and attempt the pastoral elegy is evidence of this reputation. While Auden may not have liked the perspectives and preoccupations of Yeats’ art, he certainly understood its eminence in the English literary canon. The line “Now he is scattered among a hundred cities/ And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections” (18-19) indicates how Yeats’ persona had surpassed his art. It is a characteristic public response when faced with the death of a well-loved public figure. To the extent that Auden’s lines recognize this sentiment the work satisfies as an elegiac poem. And Auden further acknowledges Yeats’ own influence on him by offering a poem in a mode that Yeats himself had redefined. This implicit grant of continuing guidance is gleaned from the lines “With your unconstraining voice, / Still persuade us to rejoice … / In the prison of his days, / Teach the free man how to praise” (2, 46–47].
To fully comprehend what the elegy to Yeats meant for Auden, one has to consider the kind of poetic response that Auden’s own death elicited. The occasion of Auden’s own death on September 29, 1973 prompted
“an enormous range of poetic responses from younger American poets, many of them following Auden’s example as Auden had followed Yeats, both in using the poet’s own language in their memorials for him and in turning the moment, and their readings of the meaning of Auden’s life and work, toward their own individual artistic arguments and purposes. Indeed, no twentieth-century poet has spawned as many elegies, eulogies, and remembrances from as wide a range of practicing poets as Auden.” (Wasley, 2011, p. 176)
To complete our probe into the degree of conformism to the elegiac tradition, a study of the poem’s metaphors is useful. Auden’s metaphors are rich and unique, yet when placed in the context of the elegy they are not out of place. In other words, while keeping the sombre elegiac tone required by the subject matter, Auden performs interesting language experiments with his metaphors. Nowhere is this approach more evident than in the lines “By mourning tongues / The death of the poet -was kept from his poems” (11) where Auden makes “a gesture, endowing Yeats’s poems with their own life and agency. Absent their maker these poems scatter across the world, take on new interpretation, are internalized and digested by new readers.” (Townsend, 2007)
In sum, In Memory of WB Yeats by WH Auden adheres to the poetic elegy form in terms of structure and arrangement. But it takes many liberties with its content, theme, tone and comment.
* Auden, W. H. (1995). In Solitude, for Company: W.H. Auden after 1940, Unpublished Prose and Recent Criticism (K. Bucknell & N. Jenkins, Eds.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
* Auden, W.H. (1940). In Memory of W.B. Yeats, retrieved from < http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15544> on 18th March, 2014
* Townsend, A. (2007). A Mind for Metaphors. The Virginia Quarterly Review, 83(1), 223+.
* Wasley, A. (2011). The Age of Auden: Postwar Poetry and the American Scene. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.