William Butler Yeats died in winter: the brooks were frozen, airports were all but empty, and statues were covered in snow. The thermometer and other instruments told us the day he died “was a dark cold day.”
While nature followed its course elsewhere, mourners kept his poems alive without letting the poet’s death interfere. Yet, for Yeats himself, mind and body failed, leaving no one to appreciate his life but his admirers. He lives through his poetry, scattered among cities and unfamiliar readers and critics, who modify his life and poetry through their own understandings. While the rest of civilization moves on, “a few thousand” will remember the day of his death as special.
In the second section of the poem, Yeats is called “silly like us.” It was “Mad Ireland” that caused Yeats the suffering he turned into poetry. Poetry survives and gives voice to survival in a space of isolation.
In the third, final section of the poem, the poet asks the Earth to receive Yeats as “an honoured guest.” The body, “emptied of its poetry,” lies there. Meanwhile, “the dogs of Europe bark” and humans continue their “intellectual disgrace.” But the poet is to “follow right / To the bottom of the night,” despite the dark side of humanity somehow persuading others to rejoice in existence. Despite “human unsuccess,” the poet can sing out through the “curse” and “distress.” Thus one’s poetry is a “healing fountain” that, although life is a “prison,” can “teach the free man how to praise” life anyway.
Along with his piece on the death of Sigmund Freud, Auden's tribute to the poet William Butler Yeats is a most memorable elegy on the death of a public figure. Written in 1940, it commemorates the death of the poet in 1939, a critical year for Auden personally as well as for the world at large. This was the year he moved to New York and the year the world catapulted itself into the Second World War.
Yeats was born in Ireland 1856 and embraced poetry very early in his life. He never abandoned the traditional verse format of English poetry but embraced some of the tenets of modernism, especially the modernism practiced by Ezra Pound. He was politically active, mystical, and often deeply pessimistic, but his work also evinces intense lyrical beauty and fervent exaltation in Nature. He is easily considered one of the most important poets of the 20th century, and Auden recognized it at the time.
The poem is organized into three sections and is a commentary on the nature of a great poet’s art and its role during a time of great calamity—as well as the ordinary time of life’s struggles.
The first, mournful section describes the coldness of death, repeating that “The day of his death was a dark cold day.” The environment reflects the coldness of death: rivers are too frozen to run; hardly anyone travels by air; statues of public figures are desecrated by snow. These conditions symbolize the loss of activity and energy in Yeats’ death.
At the same time, far away, wolves run and “the peasant river” flows outside of the rest of civilization (“untempted by the fashionable quays”), keeping the poetry alive. The implication is that the poems live even though the man may be dead. The difficulty with this situation, however, is that the man can no longer speak for himself; “he became his admirers.” His poems, like ashes, are “scattered” everywhere and are misinterpreted (“unfamiliar affections” are brought into the poems). The ugly fact of bad digestion modifies the poems as “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.”
Furthermore, as in “Funeral Blues” and “Musée des Beaux Arts,” the events of the average day go on—a trader yells on the floor, the poor suffer—for most people, the day goes unmarked. It takes a special soul to mark the importance of the day of the death of a great poet, and only “a few thousand” have such a soul. As scholar James Persoon writes, “These two elements—the poet's death as national and natural crisis and the poet’s death as almost completely insignificant—describe a tension within which Auden explores the life of the work after the death of the author.” Thus, in addition to the thermometer telling us so, the speaker of the poem tells us that it is a “dark cold day” with respect to the popular reception of Yeats’ poetry.
In the second section the speaker briefly reflects on the generative power behind Yeats’ poetry. It was “Mad Ireland” that “hurt” him and inspired his poetry as a form of survival. For Yeats, “silly” like other poets or, more broadly, like other Irishmen or humans, poetry was a “gift” that survived everything other than itself—even Yeats’ own physical degeneration, the misinterpretations of “rich women,” and Yeats’ own failings. Poetry itself, from this perspective, survives in the midst of everything, not causing anything, but flowing out from isolated safety (perhaps the Freudian subconscious) and providing voice (metaphorically a “mouth”) to that deep level of raw and unassailable humanity.
The third and final part brings the reader back into more familiar territory, with six stanzas of AABB verse, every line in seven-syllable trochaic verse (three long-short feet followed by a seventh stressed syllable).
The body of Yeats (“the Irish vessel”) rests in the ground, the warring nations fight (metaphorically, the “dogs of Europe bark”), people misinterpret his work (“intellectual disgraces”), yet somehow, his poetry retains a place somewhere. The true poet, like Yeats himself, will “follow right / To the bottom of the night” (to the primordial humanity expressed in Yeats’ poetry), to that fundamental human freedom where an “unconstraining voice” can “persuade us to rejoice” in our existence.
True enough, the human “curse” (evoking the Fall of Man in Genesis) remains; death awaits. This is all too true in a time of war. But the poet can turn the curse into a “vineyard” where sweet poetic drink can form. On the one hand there are “deserts of the heart” and human distress, yet on the other hand, with this wine a “healing fountain” can release a man from “the prison of his [mortal] days.” A poet like Yeats, despite everything, can “teach the free man how to praise” that fundamental spark of existence that survives in one’s poetry.