Saturday, October 12, 2013

Revisiting Auden's "In Memory of W.B.Yeats" and not liking the experience..



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.

11 comments:

David DeMatteo said...

I should probably say before I write this that, like you, I think Yeats' poetry is immensely superior to that of Auden. Most of what Auden is trying to say I don't agree with; however, I don't think a poem can be judged by how well it makes an intellectual argument, but instead by its overall unity. (Which, I think, is something Yeats' would have agreed with.)

So here we go. I think its important to understand what perspective Auden's coming in here from. He's a poet that's politically aware - and he also doesn't really believe in the separation between poetics and politics. This poem is trying to reconcile Auden's belief that Yeats' poetry is strong & valuable with his disgust of Yeats' politics and other aspects of the man.

So, to begin: “You were ‘silly’ like the rest of us.” This line is about, specifically, Yeats’ aristocratic poses, which were meant to be taken SERIOUSLY. Yeats’ is someone that was self-consciously mythological - who saw himself as the ‘bard of Ireland’. This is part of what’s ‘silly’ about him. But Auden qualifies this statement by saying that he’s ‘silly like the rest of us’ - all poets make these mistakes.

I have to personally say I disagree with ‘physical decay’. If anything, that led to Yeats’ poetry becoming stronger. But a case could certainly be made that his frequent idealizing of women weakened his poetry. And as for ‘himself’? I believe Auden wrote a prose-piece about why his political tendencies, when they did infest his poems, tended to weaken them. It also led him to produce some poems that probably weren’t so top-rate. Look at something like this:

“Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:
'Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone”

Is this really the best of Yeats? This is why Yeats can ‘hurt his own’ poetry

Why Mad Ireland? How was Ireland any more mad than England or Germany in the same period.

I think Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’ should be sufficient proof of Ireland’s ‘madness’, especially in the way it’s used in Auden’s poem.

“I don't think Yeats ever thought poetry could change the weather”

Well, Yeats’ was part of a movement which specifically intended to return Ireland to a more ‘gaelic’ past. The whole celtic revival movement was explicitly linked to changing the national character (or bringing it back to its -true- national character) by bringing back old myths. Now, the older Yeats’ was much different, but at one point he certainly believed that poetry could ‘change the weather’ (and this is, of course, a metaphor).

And the fact that he took the occult seriously is all the more reason for his ‘silliness’, at least in Auden’s eyes. (Mind you, I completely disagree with him on most of these counts, but the intellectual argument a poet makes isn’t intrinsically tied to its worth. Yeats’ wrote great poems from a perspective that most of us would find repulsive.)

Liam Guilar said...

So do you think that if the poem offers a judgement, the value of the judgement is not part of the value of the poem? I'd argue for a distinction and wonder if you'd buy it; where the poem comes from in terms of the writer's politics is irrelevant to the quality of the poem; all that matters once it's published is the words on the page. But when the poem offers a judgement, as this one surely does, then I would argue the intellectual argument is not just tied to its worth as something added on and whcih can be disregarded, but is an integral part of the poem and therefore it does matter if the judgement is awry.
I don't think Yeats' stance as the "bard of Ireland" was silly. There was a political agenda in his work from the beginning, and yes, some of those marching songs weren't good, but there are political poems which stand up as poems. The women didn't damage his gift, he himself wondered if Maud G had accepted him, whether he'd have been able to write poems at all.
I don't see Easter 1916 as "mad. In what way is the rising of small nations for their freedom 'mad'? Auden's just playing the "Irish" card for cheap effects, same way Woolf played it with Joyce. And I don't think "weather" here in Auden's usage has any kind of metaphorical sense in the poem, given the references to the actual weather earlier on. Is there anything in the text to signal the shift?

A.E.M. Baumann said...

Let me try. I am not sure how this will look in the reply box, with all the quotations, though. Also, this is very much an informed exploration, but still an exploration. It has been years since I have looked at this poem, and I do not claim myself "knowledged" in Auden. Because of the length, I have to split it up.

I'll start at the start of 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."

For me the difficulty is how to deal with the punctuation: the use of colon and semi-colons is not standard (or, perhaps, not easily untangled). So I went looking elsewhere, and luckily didn't have to go far (two pages in the Selected) to get to "Musée de Beaux Arts". The punctuation appears in the final stanza (though, I add the opening phrase of the poem to give reference for the "for instance"):

"About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters[.]
[. . .]
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."

Now, normally colons work to either mark a phrase that in some way explains what is on the other side of the colon, or introduce a list (which is really the same thing only turned around). Semi-colons are used to separate elements in a list. And, that does seem to be the point of them in the "Musée" lines. Except the first and second elements of the list are not parallel:

"how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster"

and

"the ploughman may / Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry . . ."

The third and fourth elements are of the nature of the second as being facts in a list. The first element, however, with that "how," is itself also a description for the list of elements two through four:

"In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away"
"In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: the ploughman may / Have heard the splash [. . .]"
"In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: the sun shone / As it had to on the white legs [. . .]"

but also:

"everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster[:] the ploughman may / Have heard [. . .]"
"everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster[:] the sun shone / As it had to [. . .]"

The first element of the primary list serves as both the phrase giving explication to the other side of the colon, and as a phrase that gives definition to the remainder of the list, both at the same time. A similar (but recursive) construction is seen in "In Memory":

"You were silly like us: your gift survived it all;"
"You were silly like us: The parish of rich women, physical decay, /Yourself;"
"You were silly like us: mad Ireland hurt you into poetry."

and

"your gift survived it all[:] The parish of rich women, physical decay, / Yourself"
"your gift survived it all[:] mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.

A.E.M. Baumann said...

[part 2:]

So at the same time, Auden is listing items that both Yeats survived and that Yeats approached in a silly way. Thus, Yeats -- and by extension "us [poets] all" -- both survived and was silly with the parish of rich women, physical decay, and mad Ireland (or, politics). I read "parish" of women as playing with the idea of religion: it is an old saying that there is no greater threat to an artist than falling in love with and becoming spiritually obsessed with -- i.e., entrenching oneself in the parish of -- a woman. "Rich" I want to take as a broad sense: rich with all the things -- body, beauty, stature, even wealth -- that make a woman both something to be silly about and something that an artist must survive.

What about "silly" specifically? I have no difficulty with it then being the fifth definition offered: "Lacking in judgment or common sense, foolish, senseless, empty headed." Remember, the word is not only a description of Yeats, it is a description of Auden and all other poets for all the silly things that they do (and make). It is not, then, a derogative term per se, but a descriptive one.

Actually, "silly" is central to the poem. Indeed, I would say it is the center of the poem, carrying both a positive and negative aspect in ironic -- if not paradoxical -- tangle: a tangle evident in the list of the opening lines of part II. What is that paradoxical nature that Auden in describe (where poets both must survive and will be silly with the world?)

The key lines of part I are obviously the repeated lines:

"O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark and cold day."

Key word: instruments. For the all the description of the day of the death of Yeats in part I, Auden is contextualizing that description as being material: of the world, of the mundane, measurable with instruments. This idea is re-emphasized in the opening of part III:

"Let the Irish vessel lie
Empty of his poetry."

With his death Yeats himself has now entered the mundane, material world. His body is now a subject for instruments: because it is empty of poetry. Look to what is maybe the most lamentative moment in the poem:

"With your unconstraining voice
Still pursuade us to rejoice."

Notice the word "unconstraining": the opposite of the materiality that is limited and defined by instruments. And here we come back to "silly": lacking in judgment and common sense; in other words, unconstrained by the the definitions and rules and restrictions of instrumental mundanity. Thus, the earlier lines can also be understood as

"Let the Irish vessel lie
Empty of his silliness"

which is the silliness that is shared by all poets. Go back to 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."

Remember, there is an irony within the elements: each is boththat which makes a poet silly, and that which a poet has to survive: surviving the mundane politics of "mad Ireland," but also silly (irrationally impassioned) about mad Ireland; surviving physical decay, but silly about it as well (how many poems does Yeats write that carries within it the sillines of the aged and addled?!); surviving women, and silly about them; surviving, and silly about, even, his gift.

A.E.M. Baumann said...

[part 3:]

But it is not an either or: Yeats was a poet -- as is Auden. They are inherently silly (insofar as they continue as poets). Thus, silliness itself carries the irony. Look to the last lines:

"In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise."

In the mundane, materiality of the prison of life, poetry -- silliness -- has no ability to change anything in that mundanity -- "for poetry makes nothing happen" -- but it does have the ability to teach the free man how to praise: something, by the word teach, that the free man is unable to do without the silliness of poetry and poets.

"Now Ireland has her madness and her weaher still,"

Because, in the end, nothing changes the brute reality of the world. Yeats is dead; he has become material, empty of his poem. Ireland is unchanged: for the mundanity of Ireland, the constancy of the mundane (which can always be measured by instruments) is outside the world of poetry (or, poetry is outside the world of the mundane), which is why no executive would ever want to tamper with it (what material gain is to be had?), and why poetry comes out of ranches (an expansive word) of isolation; and why poetry comes from "raw towns that we believe and die in:" ("we must love each other or die"); and why "it survives."

I made mention within the FB conversation of The Sea and the Mirror: I cannot help but here see how the same dichotomy between Ariel and Caliban is at play (here and in "Musée"). Rather than try to explain what it a seems a broad issue with many faces within Auden (and which I do not belive myself able to explain on my own with much work), I will (in closing) give a long quotation from the Introduction to the Princeton edition, written by Arthur Kirsch (pgs xiv-xv). (I have to back up and give it a running start):

"In 1939 in his unfinished prose work The Prolific and the Devourer, as well as in The Double Man in 1941, he explored the 'dualistic division between either The WHole and its parts, or one part of the whole and another' that characerizes 'the false philosophy,' and in both works he made distinctions that were essentially the same as those he later used in his criticism of the Manicheaism of The Tempest. Auden't hope of transcending such dualities informed his religious epistemology -- 'credo ut intelligam,' he said, quoting Saint Anselm, 'I believe in order that I may understand' -- but dualistic dichotomies nonetheless abided in his thought. In one of his introductions to his five-volume Poets of the English Language in 1950, he wrote that 'the dualism inaugurated by Luther, Machiabelli and Descartes has brought us to the end of our tether and we know that either we must discover a unity which can repair the fissures that separate the individual from society, feeling from intellect, and conscience from both , or we shall surely die by spiritual despair and physical annihilation.' In a celebrated line in 'September 1, 1939,' he had said more simply, but analogously, 'We must love one another or die.'"

(Note the use of the word believe in the quotation and in "In Memory.")

Liam Guilar said...

I do like your version of this poem, it’s far more subtle than Auden’s.
I don’t think the re-punctuation works. The quote you use as an example works quite logically.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
quite leisurely from the disaster: Followed by two examples.
a) The ploughman may
have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
but for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
as it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
water. [and]
b) The expensive delicate ship that must have seen
 something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The syntax is perfectly sensible. And when you cut it up it’s still syntactically coherent and it works within the overall argument of the poem. Suffering occurs, shit happens, people went on with their lives.
But in the elegy even if the punctuation is odd the syntax reads logically as anyone would normally read it and all your splitting seems to return the meaning to where it started. There’s no reason for the first colon. It would work perfectly well with a full stop.

"You were silly like us. “ Statement.
Your gift survived it all;
 Statement
The semi colon introduces a list by way of qualification of the all his gift survived:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
yourself;

And then the last line tacked on.

mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.



It’s badly punctuated but the way you want to split it doesn’t change the meaning. Nor does it alter the judgment on offer which I maintain, with all due respects, is false.


Your reading of Silly condemns Auden firstly for generalizing. All poets aren’t the same? All poets aren’t silly? Are they? This is supposed to be a specific elegy for a specific poet and Yeats was as near to being unique as poet in the 20th century got. If it isn’t a specific elegy then Auden is even more guilty of using a man’s death to flaunt his own vapid eloquence.

So you want to take the fifth version of silly. In what way could Yeats be called “lacking in judgment” as a poet? Or as a person? Empty headed? Read the letters. He was a hard headed organizer and runner of committees? He fell in love with women. So what? Did it damage his poetry? I still maintain that neither Kathleen Tynan, Olivia Shakespeare, nor Maud Gonne nor Lady Gregory, in any way ‘threatened’ his gift as a poet. Read the letters to Dorothy Wellesley, especially where he’s editing her verse, he might have over praised her work in public but in private he takes her poems apart and shows her exactly what’s wrong with them.

“Mad Ireland” (and I still don’t think that Mad is acceptable) didn’t hurt Yeats into Poetry. His father might have. Or the pre-Raphaelites. Writing plays and dealing with the Abbey Theatre audiences may have been instrumental in helping him hone his style, but so was Ezra Pound and so was reading Ben Johnson.

If this is a specific elegy for a specific poet than Auden’s judgment is suspect. He is wrong, he is guilty of generalizing, and his poem is incoherent.

In your reading you firstly say take the fifth definition of silly, and read it a compliment. I’m not sure I’d want to be called any of those things. But if you read it as the fifth definition, it invalidates your attempt to swing it round at the end of the piece to being a paradoxical compliment. Though your last paragraph in the second post reads so well I want to believe it.

I think what you’ve proven, emphatically, is that this is an incoherent and badly written poem which, like a lot of Auden, sounds good and appears to be intelligent and falls apart under scrutiny. But as I said, I think your version of the Elegy is much more interesting than Auden’s.

David DeMatteo said...

I think your whole interpretation made me despise W.H Auden even more, Andrew. The guy was a baseborn product of base beds!

I think the only proper response for his whole 'aesthetic' (if you can even call it that) is another of Yeats' poems.

"Come let us mock at the great
That had such burdens on the mind
And toiled so hard and late
To leave some monument behind,
Nor thought of the levelling wind."

stockholm slender said...

Well, I would say that Yeats was absolutely the silliest of the great modernist poets - he believed in astrology for God's sake... I think this is one of the best poems by Auden, and he does have some great ones.

Liam Guilar said...

I wouldn't insult someone because they believed in something i didn't. I don't share Eliot's Anglicanism, which is just another form of spiritualism, but I don't think it defines him as silly. And if you're going to damn everyone for believing in astrology and/or spiritualism, you're going to have lots of candidates round the turn of the last century.
It's a personal opinion, admittedly, but if this is one of Auden's best poems then he wasn't very good.

David DeMatteo said...

C'mon, man. Look, I love Yeats very much, but there's no denying some of the aristocratic poses he took could be considered downright SILLY. The guy was a staunchly anti-modern and self-conscious reactionary in many respects - and that's true, no matter how anti-imperialist he may have been in regards to Ireland. This is the guy who wrote "God took the spinning jenny out of his side."

David X. Novak said...

Sounds like a description of Gandhi. He was a little silly, yearning for all that homespun, would you say? (Maybe they both drank from the same anti-imperialist waters?)

Perhaps I'm blessed in knowing little of Yeats' biography; any human life will contain its share of silliness - and then there is that sense in which any poet is to be considered silly (or traditionally, a fool) - but I don't think that accounts for the greater sweep of his life. I like the phrase, "I wouldn't insult someone because they believed in something I didn't..." We have the benefit of hindsight; maybe it should temper our judgements both of Yeats and of Auden.