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Lions Roar : November 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2006 128 About a Poem: Peter Conradi on “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” by W.H. Auden Part II You were silly like us; your gift survived it all: The parish of rich women, physical decay, Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still, 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. Part III Earth, receive an honoured guest: William Yeats is laid to rest. Let the Irish vessel lie Emptied of its poetry. In the nightmare of the dark All the dogs of Europe bark, And the living nations wait, Each sequestered in its hate; Intellectual disgrace Stares from every human face, And the seas of pity lie Locked and frozen in each eye. Follow, poet, follow right To the bottom of the night, With your unconstraining voice Still persuade us to rejoice. With the farming of a verse Make a vineyard of the curse, Sing of human unsuccess In a rapture of distress. In the deserts of the heart Let the healing fountains start, In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise. W. H. AUDEN’S “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” concerns the strange powers of poetry, a spiritual resource that cannot entirely heal us but can help us nonetheless. Yeats, a Protestant Irishman who remains among the greatest of all poets to have written in English, died in the winter of 1939, aged 73. Auden, a young Englishman recently transplanted to New York to avoid the coming conflict of the Second World War, wished to honor Yeats’ passing and to name himself, by implication, Yeats’ poetic heir. Too long to quote in full, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” consists of three very different parts. The first places Yeats’ death within a public place and time. The second contemplates the mysterious- ness of Yeats’ genius in the beautiful phrase “hurt into poetry” (by the political madnesses of his country). Thousands had died in the 1922 Irish civil war that followed its independence. Auden ac- knowledges Yeats’ silliness (Yeats had weird esoteric beliefs) but sees his genius as far greater than his frailties. Auden hesitates here to claim too much for poetry. In his superb third part, Auden celebrates the authority of poetry itself and also the role of the poet as shaman or healer. He builds short lines from the simplest words. This section has the quality of a simple incantation or spell. Here Auden sees the poet as a magi- cian, capable of the unique vision that turns all circumstances to auspiciousness. His poet makes fertile vineyards out of sterile curses, finds joy despite the coming nighttime of civilization, and composes a beautiful song in the teeth of the cruelties and disappointments of life. Most significantly, the poet moves us to healing tears (In the deserts of the heart / Let the healing fountains start). Great poems are moving. They open us up. They act, as Kafka wrote in an unforget- table phrase, “as an axe to the frozen seas inside us.” “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” is precisely such an axe. ♦ PETER CONRADI’s most recent books are Iris Murdoch: A Life and Going Buddhist: Panic and Emptiness, the Buddha and Me. Auden Yeats ILLUSTRATIONBYTONYMATTHEWS