The Kind of conversation you might dream of having, late at night, four people enthusiastically discussing why Yeats was so very very good. The conversation spinning out to Eliot and then to Auden.
It’s hard in such a context to defend my intuition, especially when I hold the people who were disagreeing with me in such high regard. It’s harder to insinuate the essential however, and support it from a memory running on empty so late in the evening.
But I don’t like Auden’s poetry. Never have. Perhaps it’s just residual social resentment. Perhaps he just reminds me of some privileged upper class twit who after his private school trotted off to rooms in Oxbridge where he felt empowered to pronounce on a working class he’d never met. Admittedly these are dumb reasons for not liking poetry.
But I don’t like his elegy for Yeats. So I came home and reread Yeats’ complete poems, one collection a day, and then reread Auden’s elegy. If it’s great it will sustain scrutiny at the level of word choices.
It’s the second part that’s hopelessly wrong..
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.
You were silly like the rest of us. A glib judgment which hides the grounds of the judgment. In what way was Yeats silly? The OED gives 6 meanings for Silly:
1 1) deserving of pity compassion or sympathy (Obs)
2 2) Weak feeble frail, insignificant , trifling
3 3) Unlearned , unsophisticated, simple, rustic , ignorant
4 4) Weak or deficient in Intellect , feeble minded, imbecile
5 5) Lacking in judgment or common sense, foolish, senseless, empty headed.
6 6) Stunned, stupefied, dazed as by a blow
So apart from the first one, which is now an obscure dialect usage, which of those terms apply to Yeats? Unless you are ignorant of the man’s life and writing the answer is NONE.
The same might be asked of the glib poeticizing of the second and third lines: The parish of rich women, physical decay/Yourself. These are offered as things his gift survived.
What does ’parish’ mean in that context and why ‘rich’ and why were they a threat to Yeats’ gift?
Did Lady Gregory jeopardize his poetry, or Maud Gonne, or Olivia Shakespeare? Did Yeats himself in some strange way jeopardize his gift as the poem states? Was there a poet who ever worked so hard at being a poet, and who’s collected poems, lined up chronologically, are a testament to his ability to go on getting better at what he did. Whatever gift Yeats had, he worked hard at perfecting it.
Why Mad Ireland? How was Ireland any more mad than England or Germany in the same period.
Auden is guilty not only of being glib but of padding his line. Metrically he may be very good but it’s too easy to find an adjective to keep the beat. Adjectives are the tools of the opinionated. They simultaneously judge and absolve the poet from giving the grounds of the judgment. A great poet would have chosen the adjectives carefully. Bunting would have simply left them out.
The same disease is evident in the lines: “Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still”…
It sounds good, if you feel comfortable with a country being personified as a mad woman…I don’t… but what could it possibly mean in this context. Poetry stops the rain? Or Yeats thought he could improve the weather and was wrong?
Auden may be metrically brilliant, but if I were as good as he was, I’d write something worth reading.