Chapter One: Demon or Gift
Two ideas of poetry contend against each other in "In Memory of W. B. Yeats." The opening section, with its solemn, meditative, unrhymed verse paragraphs, acknowledges that the most a poet can achieve in the world is to be remembered by his admirers. The closing section, with its drumbeat stanzas and soaring visionary rhetoric, celebrates poetic language as a force more powerful than time or death, and glorifies the poet as a source of sustenance, healing, and rejoicing. The closing argument wins this debate, but the ironies and doubts insinuated by the opening one remain unanswered.
The first published version of the poem drew an absolute contrast between the dying impotence of the poet and the reviving power of verse. This versionit appeared in The New Republic, 8 March 1939was not yet the poem familiar from Auden's books: the opening and closing sections had almost reached their final form, but the quietly discursive middle section, where "poetry makes nothing happen" and "Ireland has her madness and her weather still," had not yet been written.
The opening section transforms traditional elegy into a bleak new mode:
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The metaphors point to a world where facts may be counted or measured or reported in news bulletins, where neither poetry nor metaphor is any use. In English elegies, until Auden wrote this one, nature itself mourned the dead while an exclamatory "O" announced the personal grief of the elegist. In Milton's "Lycidas," for example:
O the heavy change, now thou art gone,
In Auden's elegy, nature takes no interest in Yeats's death; the day is dark and cold merely by coincidence; and the poet, with conscious irony, exclaims over the weather report:
O all the instruments agree
(Intent on getting his prosaic facts right, Auden wrote to his own publishers to ask for the exact time of Yeats's death. They didn't know the answer, so he asked elsewhere until he learned that Yeats had died during "his last afternoon as himself.")
Yeats's readers, Auden among them, are almost as indifferent to his death as nature is. The poem treats him as the subject of ingenious public metaphors rather than as a person. "The provinces of his body revolted, / The squares of his mind were empty, / Silence invaded the suburbs, / The current of his feeling failed ..." The city that was Yeats is conquered by his living readers. "By mourning tongues / The death of the poet was kept from his poems," but the tongues that recite the dead man's poems also swallow them: "The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living." Yeats "became his admirers." Soon his death will become an interesting event in their private memories and "A few thousand will think of this day / As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual."
The transforming miracles at the end of traditional elegies occur also at the end of Auden's poem, but while the dead poet traditionally participated in those miracles, Yeats is excluded from them. Poetry, not Yeats, lives on in triumph. Language, worshipped by time, ascends beyond the mere mortality of poets and their mistaken politics, their cowardice and conceit. Elegies always looked away from the dead and turned toward tomorrow, to fresh woods and pastures new; but they usually were decorous enough to put off their departure until the final lines. Yeats is buried in the middle of Auden's elegy and forgotten long before the end. Like "the expensive delicate ship that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky," in "Musée des Beaux Arts," written a few weeks earlier, Auden, and the rest of Yeats's indifferent admirers, "Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."
Nothing that matters has been changed by Yeats's death. The opening section expects nothing better than
the importance and noise of tomorrow
But in the closing section the poem transforms itself. The irregular verse of the opening is replaced by rhymed, rhythmical stanzas, and the familiar world is illuminated by myth. Yeats is sent forth amid ritual and allegory:
Earth, receive an honoured guest;
No ceremony can end the chaos and imprisonment described in the opening section, but they are perceived now in subtly different ways:
In the nightmare of the dark
A nightmare implies waking; frozen seas can melt; eyes can meet. Instruments have been replaced by human faces, and the poem immediately calls forth their knight of deliverance, an unnamed mythical "poet" composed from the virtues of pilgrim, farmer, healer, singer, and teacher, an Orphic and messianic hero who can descend into the realms of death and release the waters of life. Yeats will remain earth's guest until the end of time, but the living poet can follow and return:
Follow, poet, follow right
With the farming of a verse
The poem prays to the poet for miracles of transfiguration and cure. His power alone can teach the barking dogs of Europe and the staring intellectual disgrace, despite themselves, to sing:
In the deserts of the heart
"Praise," in Auden's work in 1938 and 1939, was an explicit echo of Rilke's dennoch preisen. Auden used the word with the same troubled ambivalence he felt about Rilke, who stood for the kind of poetic vocation Auden simultaneously treasured and mistrusted. He honored Rilke's ecstatic visionary freedom while he recognized its indifference to suffering and injustice. Two months before Auden wrote "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," he had, in effect, written an anticipatory reply to the words with which he closed his elegy. "Certainly praise" began one of the sonnets he had written for "In Time of War": "let the song mount again and again." Then, after three lines, the sonnet changed its tone: "But hear the morning's injured weeping, and know why: / Cities and men have fallen; the will of the Unjust / Has never lost its power." The elegy for Yeats urges the living poet to sing rapturously of human unsuccess. But, as the sonnet knew, "History opposes its grief to our buoyant song."
In Auden's triumphant mood in his first days in New York, the doubts that had concluded his sonnet were pushed back to the first section of his elegy, and the poet of the closing section marched over the grave of more than one dead master. His elegy for Yeats was the first (and, for another quarter century, only) poem in which he responded to Milton; in it he made larger claims for poetry than Milton had dared to make in "Lycidas," and he did so by adopting as his own the vastly ambitious claims Milton had made in Paradise Lost. As Auden wrote in an essay ten years later, Milton was
the first poet in English literature whose attitude toward his art is neither professional like that of Ben Jonson and Dryden nor amateur like that of Wyatt, but priestly or prophetic. Poetry to him was neither an amusing activity nor the job for which he happened to be qualified, but the most sacred of all human activities. To become a great poet was to become not only superior to other poets but superior to all other men.
Auden's elegy commandeers Milton's baroque manner and metaphors and makes them speak for the conflicting interests of romantic aspiration and modern irony. It omits the shepherds of Milton's pastoral elegy but retains the wolf that was the shepherds' bane: in 1939 "The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests," where in 1637, among the evergreen ivy "never sere," ran "The grim wolf with privy paws." Auden's iconography is medical and scientific"The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day"but his descent of Mercury imitates the descent of the sun in "Lycidas": "So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed." Auden's poet descends "To the bottom of the night" in the same way Milton's poet visits "the bottom of the monstrous world." But the two rise again with the help of different powers. The poet of "Lycidas" is lifted up by "The dear might of him that walked the wave," and the singing of the saints wipes the tears from his eyes. Auden's poet ascends on his own, and the tears frozen in the eyes of others are released by his song.
About a year before Auden left England, he wrote a ballad, "As I walked out one evening," in which Time is a destroyer as undiscriminating and implacable as death. "You cannot conquer Time," an unheeding lover is warned by the clocks of the city. "Time breaks the threaded dances / And the diver's brilliant bow." Now, in the closing section of Auden's elegy, Time makes an exception, and acknowledges a greater power:
Time that is intolerant
Worships language and forgives
The power by which the poet conquers time has a deceptively simple name: it is his gift. Auden began using "gift" in the special sense of an artist's power only in the last weeks of 1938, when he was preparing to leave for the United States and was beginning his conscious revolt from political causes. In the name of his gift, he rebelled briefly and sharply against every form of group and collective identitypolitical movements, his family, Englandbecause he could imagine no other way to escape from false and constraining loyalties. As he had written in 1936 about the psychological prison of a schoolroom, "The bars of love are so strong."
The gift was the special form taken by larger and more mysterious powers when they made themselves incarnate in an artist. These daemonic, unnameable powers had made shadowy appearances in Auden's work since the early 1930s, but until he broke away from England he never imagined them to be in his own keeping. The knowing and ironic surface of his earlier poems kept his belief in their existence largely hidden from his readers, and perhaps partly hidden from himself. His belief broke through intermittently, however, sometimes disguised as allegorical figures of power and law, sometimes concealed within deterministic ideas about historical change. In 1932 he had addressed a verse prayer to the "Lords of Limit," mythical powers who maintain the boundaries of all things and secure the individual from disintegrating into chaos; a few months afterward, in "O Love, the interest itself in thoughtless Heaven," he had imagined a transforming force uncurling out of the future toward "the virgin roadsteads of our hearts" as the civilizing magician Merlin, "tamer of horses," once sailed toward a virgin England. Later the same year he had written a poem evoking "The Witnesses," figures of the same power, now armed with apocalyptic force to derange minds and destroy cities. In June 1933, as he wrote later, "a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine," induced the experience he called a vision of Agape, when, briefly and for the first time, he loved his neighbor as himself. But he did not speak explicitly of these powers until, a few months after his elegy for Yeats, he wrote a partly autobiographical book in prose, The Prolific and the Devourer, in which he described his "conviction ... that life is ruled by mysterious forces." But he left the book unfinished, and never stated his conviction in print.
Auden recognized in himself and others that a belief in mysterious forces almost always accompanied a belief that a hero could be found who embodied them. In 1931, when he was twenty-four, Auden simultaneously indulged and renounced the temptations of hero worship in his book The Orators; then, amid the worsening social disorders of the time, he tried briefly to imagine Lawrence of Arabia and Lenin as embodiments of the future. His own sudden fame tempted him to imagine that he himself might become an agent of historical change. In 1933 he wrote a poem, "Friend, of the civil space by human love," in which he exhorted an unnamed friend to write the lines that would save his generation, and then proceeded, in the same poem, to write those lines himself. Auden never published it, and he kept his fantasy of himself as a leader and redeemer so well hidden that its only trace in his published work was his furious renunciation of it in 1936 in The Ascent of F6, a play in which the Lawrence-like hero, Michael Ransom, destroys himself and his friends in pursuit of his redemptive ambition. The hero of the play dies on a mountain that local legend says is haunted by a demon; in a final dream vision at the summit, the inner demon that haunts the hero is identified as a projection of his will to power, and when the veil covering its features falls it is revealed as the mother who had refused him the love she gave his brother.
The demon was another name for the mysterious forces Auden had invoked in earlier years. He wrote a compressed five-hundred-year history of them in a sonnet of 1936: they were the inner disorders that had once been projected outward as the imaginary shapes of giants and dragons perceived by superstition and legend. Then Baconian science banished them, or so it seemed:
The vanquished powers were glad
In the first days of 1937, as a four-year love affair was coming to an end, Auden invoked the mysterious forces on behalf of his lover. May "noons of dryness see you fed / By the involuntary powers," he wrote in "Lay your sleeping head, my love." During his next two, mostly loveless, years, demons and powers disappeared from his work, although he tried, for what seemed compelling political reasons, to believe in a socialist future that private acts and errors could postpone but not prevent. When he began to write about the artist's gift, in late 1938, he imagined it as something separate from the world of history. His sonnet "The Novelist" portrays a quasi-allegorical figure (an idealized Isherwood) who "Must struggle out of his boyish gift" into adult sympathy with his characters. "The Composer," based loosely on Benjamin Britten, praises the one kind of artist who can only forgive, never accuse, for music has no negative: "Only your song is an absolute gift." Then, in his first heady days after moving to "absolutely free America," when the rebellion that had brought him there had succeeded, the gift suddenly became a world-transforming force.
In the original two-part version of "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" the gift's power is abrupt and complete. The closing verse paragraphs of the first part portray in falling cadences the roaring brokers and suffering poor; then the few thousand who remember Yeats's death as an incident in their lives, not his; then Yeats himself, who is dismissed in a few words: "He was silly like us: His gift survived it all." Then the first part ends by repeating the exclamation made earlier in the poem: "O all the instruments agree / The day of his death was a dark cold day." The last part of the poem, "Earth, receive an honored guest," follows immediately, with its triumphant metrical celebration of the surviving gift.
Throughout 1939 Auden named the gift as the liberating source of identity and power. D. H. Lawrence, he wrote in a review, "owes his influence for good or evil to his gift." In The Prolific and the Devourer he answered the challenge made by politically minded critics to "ivory-tower" artists by insisting that the way to escape the ivory tower is not to abandon one's gift but to embrace it. The poets of the 1890s, he wrote, can justly be accused of ivory-towerism because they failed to accept their gift completely: "the portion of life which they saw as poets was such a tiny fragment. Politics and science, indeed, they saw as average men of their social position, education, and income." But, he continued, the only way to perceive the whole is to perceive from one's own special perspective: "first discover what manner of person you are, and then see everything through the lens of your gift. One destroys one's ivory tower only when one has learnt to see the whole universe as an artist, or as a scientists, or as a politician." The Prolific and the Devourer was composed in the form of pensées, and Auden paid tribute to the master of the pensée in his 1939 poem "Pascal":
Yet like a lucky orphan he had been discovered
When Auden reviewed a book about Shakespeare in October 1939, though he did not use the word "gift," he made the same point he had made about Pascal: "In the truest sense of the word `pure,' [Shakespeare] is the purest poet who ever lived; that is to say, he explored all life through a single medium, that of language." Auden entitled this review "The Dyer's Hand" after Sonnet III: "my nature is subdued / To what it works in like the dyer's hand." Many years later, when he had stopped defending the gift itself, he still saw the world through its lens, and again used the title "The Dyer's Hand" for a series of broadcasts about poetry in 1955 and a book of essays and lectures in 1962.
The gift survived personal death and public chaos, and could be destroyed only by a poet's rejection of it. In "Matthew Arnold," a poem Auden wrote shortly after "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," the gift willingly forgives Arnold's faults:
His gift knew what he wasa dark disordered city ...
But Arnold, obedient to his father's memory, chose to write essays of "clear denunciation" instead of poems of praise, and "thrust his gift in prison till it died." Auden insisted that the gift survived the poet, yet, in the end, the poet held the gift's life or death in his own power.
* * *
A few weeks after he wrote the two-part version of "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," Auden had second thoughts. He was now living in a hotel room in Manhattan with Isherwood, and had begun to settle into the life of a young literary celebrity, welcomed by patronesses in Park Avenue salons and offered more pay for reviews and lectures than he had ever hoped for in England. The daily temptations and straggles of his gift seemed less like the starkly heroic quest he had imagined when he stepped off the boat. In February or March he added a middle section between the two original sections of his poem. (This new version appeared in The London Mercury in April 1939 and in his next book of poems, Another Time, in 1940.) Here he addressed Yeats directly for the first time. The first line of the new section had originally been part of the opening section; Auden changed it from third person to second person when he reused it:
You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;
Poetry's survival was now its persistence as itself, its quiet refusal of temptations, rather than any heroic ascent from death to transfiguration as in the closing section of the poem:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
Poetry, which flows here like the river Alpheus in "Lycidas," flows through these lines from its source (mad Ireland hurt you into poetry) through upstream ranches and past downstream towns to issue, as all rivers do, at a mouth. Milton's "blind mouths" are in the background. The river seems as American as the Mississippi, flowing south past ranches and raw towns, in the country Auden had chosen partly because few of its citizens suffered from the delusion that poetry was something worth tampering with.
In the revised elegy, poetry remakes itself in two gradual steps instead of one abrupt leap from the unstructured verse at the start to the rhythmic assertions at the end. The dark cold day of the opening section recurs as Ireland's perennial weather in the middle section; and the middle section's flat statement that poetry makes nothing happen prepares for the final section's summons to poetry's unconstraining voice. The new section reads like a quiet transition between the original two, but it also casts doubt on the final claims of triumph by proposing a less theatrical idea of success. In the middle section, poetry seeks nothing but autonomous survival in the valley of its saying (which Auden later revised to "the valley of its making," or poesis), and the statement that "poetry makes nothing happen" simply means it has no effect on private or public acts. The closing section agrees that poetry has no power to enforce, but claims it has far greater powers to heal, soothe, teach, liberate, and triumph.
These two radically different visions of the power of art had surreptitiously opposed each other in Auden's work from the start. In the 1930s he had typically written a poem that argued one side of the question, then a second poem in which he answered the first. The public exhortations of "Spain," for example, were quietly refuted a few weeks later by the hermetic questionings of "Orpheus." Now the debate became explicit, and Auden repeatedly argued both sides in a single poem.
Arrayed on one side were his conscious wish for social justice, his didactic ethos, and all the deliberate choices of a poet's reflective will. On the other side were the irrational apolitical powers in every psyche, and the power special to those with a vocationtheir gift. Auden's argument with himself is generally interpreted as a political one, a dispute over whether poetry ought to serve public causes. But he recognized that this inner political debate was a special case of a deeper and more sustained argument between the logic of day and the impulse of night. In a later poem, "Under Which Lyre," he named these antagonists Apollo and Hermes. When he let one side of the argument dominate in a poem, the result was usually a dry or bombastic failure and he sooner or later dropped it from his collected works. His poems succeeded when they took their energy from the struggle between these inner antagonists, each with its allies in the world outside.
Almost every poem Auden wrote in the weeks before and after his arrival in New York portrayed the agon of an artist in combat with his gift. Among the sonnets composed just before he sailed were two miniature biographies with diametrically opposed endings. In "Rimbaud," the gift is defeated and the poet fails, as Rimbaud, estranged "from lyre and weakness," dreams of "a new self ... an engineer." (Auden glossed this a year later when he reviewed a biography of Rimbaud: "as a man of action he was a self-tortured failure, for no one can live by will alone.") In "Edward Lear," the poet succeeds when the gift triumphs. Lear wept when his "Terrible Demon arose / Over his shoulder," but he was "guided by tears" away from the world of will to an innocent paradise where "Words pushed him to the piano to sing comic songs" and "the demon's false nose made the table laugh." Then, after Auden settled in New York, he wrote about Yeats, whose gift survived it all; about Herman Melville, on whom, once he renounced the "intricate and false" world of willed novels like Moby-Dick for the simplicity of Billy Budd, "the words descended like the calm of mountains"; and about Matthew Arnold, who, unlike Melville, refused and imprisoned his gift.
But the most instructive and rebuking example was the subject of "Voltaire at Ferney," a poet who denied even the existence of the gift. In Auden's cool discursive verse portrait, written a few days or weeks after his elegy for Yeats, Voltaire acknowledges no power but his own; among the enlightened he has "only himself to count upon"; among the murderous and evil, "Only his verses / Perhaps could stop them." But if your goal, like Voltaire's, is to stop the "horrible nurses / Itching to boil their children," you have faint prospects of achieving it by writing verse, especially if you write it in a spirit of rational analytic pride. Poetry ought to be written, the poem implies in its closing lines, in an unconstraining voice that protests and promises nothing, in an idiom of pure praise beyond mere human powers: "Overhead / The uncomplaining stars composed their lucid song." In a review written around the same time, Auden portrayed Voltaire as a writer who indeed made something happennot through his poetry, which the review entirely ignored, but through his work in prose and his practical attempt to create at Ferney "a community of which the members would feel happy enough to allow the spirit of democracy to flower." Voltaire was "not only one of the greatest Europeans of all time, but, though he might be surprised to hear it, one of the greatest fighters for democracy, and one who should be as much a hero for us as Socrates or Jefferson"neither of whom furthered democracy by writing verses.
Auden did not yet seriously doubt the political principles he had been declaring in his prose for the past few years. He maintained his engaged commitment to the democratic cause threatened by Fascism, though he did not deceive himself into imagining that Fascism's enemies had achieved a fully realized democracy. Nineteenth-century liberal democracy had failed and deserved to fail; its hypocritical tolerance for social injustice had "created the most impersonal, the most mechanical and the most unequal civilization the world has ever seen ... a civilization torn apart by the opposing emotions born of economic injustice, the just envy of the poor and the selfish terror of the rich." He continued to believe that socialist democracy must replace liberal democracy. Before his elegy for Yeats soared above politics in its final stanzas, Auden took the trouble to score partisan points against the right-wing views of Rudyard Kipling, Paul Claudel, and Yeats himself, views that needed to be pardoned by time; his own left-wing views, implicitly, needed to be pardoned by no one. But he increasingly doubted that he served justice, rather than publicity, when his poems preached a partisan cause to a choir of the politically converted, and he began to believe that the answer to political failure must be found in personal beliefs, not in a further round of partisan politics. "For democracy is not a political system or party but an attitude of mind," he wrote in his review about Voltaire. "There is no such thing as the perfect democratic state, good for all time. What political form is most democratic at any given period depends on geography, economic development, educational level, and the like. But in any particular issue it is always possible to say where a democrat should stand, and to recognize one, whatever party label he may bear."
Auden questioned his own political poetry not because he disapproved of its politics but because he was unsure of its value as poetry. Like Voltaire's verse, he thought, it was the work of his will more than of his gift. Guiltily aware of his isolated literary vocation and upper-middle-class security, he was pressing his gift to serve causes in which it took no interest. Yet precisely because his gift was indifferent to fatal public disasters, he was not convinced that its autonomy deserved to be defended. Almost everything he wrote in 1939 was an attempt to clarify his mixed feelings about the rival claims of private gift and public good. When he set these two claims against each other in a poem, the gift generally had the advantage, for it was defending itself on its own ground; when he argued them in a prose essay or review, the gift sank under a lowering cloud of rebuke and often withdrew in shame.
"You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed." This line opened a sonnet, "To Germany," written by Charles Hamilton Sorley at the start of the 1914-18 war, and Auden adopted its rhythm and diction for the opening line of his apostrophe to Yeats, and "hurt" for "mad Ireland hurt you into poetry" two lines later. Sorley's sonnet looked forward to a time when today's enemies could grasp hands and laugh at old pain. Auden's elegy also looked forward to a future of forgiveness, but he doubted whether public forgiveness could be achieved by a poet's private acts. The dogs of Europe would not be silenced quite so easily. To debate the question on the fairest possible terms, Auden now devised a work that was something between a prose poem and an essay: a quietly unsettling dialogue in which the conflicting claims of both sides have an almost equal chance to prevail.
"The Public v. the Late Mr. W. B. Yeats" was written for Partisan Review, a quarterly in which advocacy for modernist writing maintained a détente with socialist politics. He sent in the manuscript on 18 March 1939, perhaps only a few days after adding the middle section to "In Memory of W. B. Yeats." In form it is a pair of speeches by a public prosecutor and a counsel for the defense; each argues his side of the case to a jury implicitly consisting of the individual reader. No verdict is announced, and the dialogue leaves the final judgment open. But the unspoken point is that it is not Yeats who is being weighed in the balance of justice but the jury.
For the jury to reach a just decision in the case against Yeatsand thereby vindicate itselfit must take notice of details that neither prosecution nor defense bothers to mention. The name of the caseThe Public v. the Late Mr. W. B. Yeatsis subtly different from the names of cases tried in English-speaking courts. Yeats is being accused not by the Crown or the People but by a category for which Auden never in his life had a good word, the Public, not a community or a nation or a society or even a crowd, all of which comprise individuals with human faces, however distorted. The public is an abstract chimera that exists in a void. (The "public statues" in the elegy for Yeats are "disfigured," deprived of figura or human form.) As Auden wrote later, "A man has a distinctive personal scent ... A crowd has a generalized stink. The public is odorless." And in "The Chimeras," a 1950 poem, he defined the public by its absences:
Absence of heartas in public buildings
The Public Prosecutor points to the damning evidence of Yeats's airs, affectations, feudal fantasies, and his "deplorable" Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Auden shared the Prosecutor's distaste for these things, but the Prosecutor cares little about such trivial though valid charges. He uses them only to convince a gullible juror of the truth of his most important accusationswhich a shrewd juror will recognize as lies.
The Prosecutor freely admits that Yeats was talented; he can hardly do otherwise. What he denies is "that he was a great poet, the greatest of his century writing in English." To deserve the epithet "great," he argues, a poet "is commonly required to convince us of three things. The first is a gift of a very high order for memorable language." He is on firm ground with this echo of Auden's statement in 1935 that the best definition of poetry is "memorable speech," but he stumbles when he challenges the jurors to ask themselves how many of Yeats's lines they remember; as the representative of a passive and indifferent public, he cannot imagine that readers who care enough to read a dialogue about Yeats also care enough to know his poems by heart....
© Copyright 1999 Edward Mendelson
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