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)
The poem faithfully adheres to the structure of a pastoral elegy. It has three parts, the first of which is supposed to be an invocation, the second is devoted to the expression of anguish and the final part is for finding resolution and consolation. While the poem follows this elementary composition of the pastoral elegy, it takes the actual content into a new direction. It is a clever ploy on part of Auden to experiment with the genre in this fashion. It seldom occurs that the pastoral elegy, which is given to excess of sentimentality and hyperbolic veneration of the good qualities of the deceased, is actually employed to make a broad comment on the art form itself. So acute in observation and lyrical in words is Auden that one is given to momentarily forgetting that the poem is actually an elegy. The choice and unusual metaphors used accentuate this effect. In these respects the poem deviates from conventional elegies.
We see further deviations from the elegiac form when we look at the technical features of the stanzas. While six-line stanza is the most preferred for the first part, Auden doesn’t strictly follow this rule. Since the tone is reflective and conversational, a degree of leeway helps the author’s cause. In the conventional elegiac form, the three sections progress from descriptive to reflective to resolution. While loosely following this pastoral elegiac structure, Auden takes several liberties within each section. What is most distinct in the work is its lack of mourning for the loss of the person (object). Some amount of this personal apathy can be attributed to the divergent politics of Auden and Yeats. Auden, at least in the early part of his career, was seen to be left-leaning in his political views. Yeats, on the other hand, is generally perceived to be more conservative in this regard. Even on the few occasions when the two great authors met, they did not strike a great rapport. So it is quite natural that Auden does not lament for the passing away of his esteemed contemporary. The poem’s concern is not about the loss incurred by the art, but to the limited power of the art itself. Yeats and the tragedy of his death are merely backdrops in expressing Auden’s broader comment. In the elegy, Auden
“builds on Yeats’s advance, turning the “occasion” of Yeats’s death itself into an opportunity for reflection on issues of personal and public interest, with an ironic twist: The “symbolic public significance” Yeats’s death acquires in Auden’s poem is that the world doesn’t really care about dead poets.” (Wasley, 2011, p. 176)
A point clearly alluded to in the elegy is how the work of a poet outlives his life. In this way, the death of the author is a new beginning in the journey of the work. The author no longer has any say on the ways in which his work will be interpreted, projected and portrayed. With the personal reputation and the living voice of the author ceasing to exist, the work will have to survive on its own inherent merits. The death of the author thus kick starts the legacy formation of the surviving work. This is a very profound statement on part of Auden. It is usual that it is conveyed through the format of the elegy. Here the poet’s body is changed, as Auden lays out an electrified country that zone by zone fades and loses power. He underscores how the body shuts down even while Yeats’s poems live: “But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,/ An afternoon of nurses and rumours;/ The provinces of his body revolted,/ The squares of his mind were empty,/ Silence invaded the suburbs,/ The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.” (12-17) Auden further proposes, in terms that resonated through post-war American poetry, “poetry makes nothing happen” yet can still be “a way of happening, a mouth.” He also alludes to how “in death, Yeats “became his admirers” (37-38) by having only his words—all that remains of him—”modified in the guts of the living” (23) who continue to read him.