ON THIS DAY 75 years ago — January 28, 1939 — “something slightly unusual” occurred in the annals of English poetry. William Butler Yeats died, and his death gave birth to a poem that set off one of the most extraordinary elegiac conversations of our time.
The poem was W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” and this is the story of its astonishing afterlife — how three separate elegies in three different countries were modeled on it; how Auden’s words were quite literally, in Auden’s line from the poem, “modified in the guts of the living,” and how, in a feat that even someone as reputedly self-anointing as Auden could not possibly have foreseen, it went on to link a multicultural pantheon of greats: Yeats, Auden, T. S. Eliot, Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney.
Auden was a natural master of the elegy. His pen was ready, generous, candid, and quick to rhyme. He shot off elegies on Freud, Henry James, Ernst Toller, Louis MacNeice, and JFK, and his “Funeral Blues,” a fine example of the coherence of grief, has become part of crematoria cool after it was sentimentalized by Hollywood. But of all his requiem compositions, it is his magnificent and measured elegy for Yeats that has a seminal place in the canon.
It opens unceremoniously, with a brisk, almost businesslike stab — but already by the end of the first stanza, a blackness has begun to thicken:
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
Auden wrote these lines within days of landing in America, his new adoptive country, along with his friend Christopher Isherwood. It was a chilly time in the world, with the clouds of war massing over Europe; wrote Auden: “the living nations wait / Each sequestered in its hate.” Clearly, he was preoccupied with much more than the death of Yeats. Which is why the line, “The day of his death was a dark cold day,” resonates with the same premonitory dread of Poe’s opening in “The Fall of the House of Usher” — “During the whole of a dull, dark and soundless day [...]” — while the shivery beauty of “The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day” is occasioned by the surprising but stunning inclusion of the word “mouth.” Something bad is going to happen, and it does, as we all too plainly know.
Auden and Isherwood, both gay, both conscientious objectors, both in search of freer frontiers, had emigrated together, and their leaving England was seen by many as a desertion of their homeland at a time of peril. Auden was going through a rather daunting crisis of faith — his recent foray into political poetry (about the Spanish Civil War) had left him feeling disillusioned and useless, and forced him to agonize afresh on the role of the poet in a violent world. Complicating things further was his cooling toward Yeats. He was riven with all the guilt and resentments of a former devotee. Not only had he outgrown the influence, but he also had serious problems with Yeats’s pretentious casting of the poet as an oracular being, his fondness for wealthy patronesses, his obsession with the occult, and his disturbing flirtations with fascist thought. “You were silly like us,” he snaps irritably in the elegy. “Your gift survived it all / The parish of rich women, physical decay / Yourself.” And though Auden knew he was profoundly indebted to Yeats in ways he could never repay, he then really drives the boot in. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” he declares, in what his friend Joseph Brodsky would later call “the statement of the era.”
This nervous stew of concerns — the anxiety of influence, the anxiety of war, the anxiety of poetry’s role — is what turns a straightforward song of praise into an ironic and strikingly modern three-part elegy. It owes a clear debt of influence to Milton’s Lycidas and to Yeats’s own elegies. The first section memorializes Yeats, the second tears into him for his silliness, and the third ends with a jubilant reaffirmation of the poet as visionary and healer. Having seemingly worked out his conflicts through the first two sections, Auden, in lyrical tetrameter, ends by exhorting poets everywhere to use their “unconstraining voice” to break through the “seas of pity” that lie “locked and frozen” in each human eye so that:
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
Incantatory and articulate.
So articulate it is no wonder that the young Russian poet who stumbled on the elegy two decades later had no need to crack open his Russian-English dictionary to be fired by its evangelical steel. The poet, Joseph Brodsky, had been declared a “social parasite” of the Soviet state and exiled to hard labor. He happened to open a book of English verse a friend had lent him, and when it fell open to the page on which the Yeats elegy was printed, he had an epiphany: “I remember sitting there in a small wooden shack,” he wrote in an essay many years later,
peering through the square porthole-size window at the wet, muddy dirt road with a few, stray chickens on it, half believing what I’d just read, half wondering whether my grasp of English wasn’t playing tricks on me.
The two stanzas that shook him so deeply were about the absolute sovereignty of language; how Time, arrogant and immune to all else, forgives a person his sins if he can write well.
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent
And is indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
All those by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honors at their feet.
“Short and horizontal as those lines were, they seemed to me incredibly vertical,” Brodsky wrote.
They were also very much offhand, almost chatty: metaphysics disguised as common sense, common sense disguised as nursery-rhyme couplets. These layers of disguise alone were telling me what language is, and I realized that I was reading a poet who spoke the truth — or through whom the truth made itself audible.
Ironically, however, these eight lines that so moved Brodsky were precisely those that Auden, a notorious reviser, chose to strike out. But their impact was indelible. The triumph of language in the face of death was to form the core of Brodsky’s credo, and his devotion to his craft, in the words of his friend Derek Walcott, was “almost medieval.” As Brodsky told the Paris Review, poetry is the “supreme linguistic operation.” To speak is the highest expression of the human spirit, which is why Auden’s ogre can do many impossible things, but he simply “cannot master speech.”
Shortly afterward, in January 1965, Brodsky learned through Western radio broadcasts of the death of T. S. Eliot. He had recently read Eliot’s poetry, and with Auden’s words “trundling” inside him, he sat down and wrote a three-part elegy for Eliot “aped from Auden’s structure.” He wrote it by night because “parasites” were expected to work the farm by day. Called “Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot,” the fact that this poem was written at all is remarkable, more so, because as Czesław Miłosz noted, no Western poet commemorated Eliot’s passing in verse. Since Eliot had died, conveniently, in January, Brodsky was able to repeat the wintry context of the original, even opening with: “He died in January, the beginning of the year,” a slacker version that misses the crack of “He disappeared in the dead of winter.” On the whole, his poem is uneven, but parts of it are beautiful, ice-lit with sensuous images that mine the melancholy of an imagined, post-Christmas London: a city “flinched in frost,” shrinking behind “black windowpanes,” puddles “stiffened into ice.” Having escaped this detritus, Eliot has become a star in a “vast and hidden room,” but more touching than this rather clichéd cosmic analogy of transcendence is the fragile beauty of: “He latched his door on the thin chain of years.”
The use of “thin” transforms the line, giving it a pathetic, brittle humanity. It evokes the image of an old man, fastidious to the end, padding downstairs to chain his door against death, against the eternal footman waiting patiently with his coat and snicker: it’s time.
In 1973, Auden died of a heart attack in a hotel room in Vienna after a poetry reading. Sadly for this “tough old tree” who had written with such exquisite feeling about love, the last years were lonely, alcoholic ones, his lifelong companion, Chester Kallman, mostly away in Athens, occupied with younger lovers. Auden was buried in the Austrian village of Kirchstetten where he owned a cottage, and a couplet from the Yeats elegy was inscribed on the tombstone. (In the prison of his days, / Teach the free man how to praise.) While it does seem odd to appropriate words written for another poet, the inscription captured the quintessence of Auden’s philosophy of the role of the poet in society. To the end, he held on to the conviction that though poetry was utterly useless in a practical way and made nothing happen (all the verse I wrote in the ’30s did not save a single Jew, he often said), poets were the ultimate custodians of language, its sentinels against corruption, and thus served a higher calling. Kirchstetten, incidentally, was where Brodsky first met Auden, “a stocky, heavily perspiring man in a red shirt and broad suspenders,” and the Russian would no doubt have wholeheartedly approved of the inscription.
There is a metrical kinship, too, between Auden’s and Yeats’s epitaphs, since Auden modeled the last part of his elegy on Yeats’s poem “Under Ben Bulben” — whose closing lines make up Yeats’s epitaph:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
For Brodsky, the death of Auden was a real blow. Auden had been instrumental in helping him get to America after he was expelled by the Soviet Union, and had shown him many acts of kindness. The two men knew each other for less than a year but had become friends. So, on the 10th anniversary of Auden’s death, Brodsky requested — bamboozled, actually — his friend Derek Walcott to write up something for a memorial service that he organized at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Acutely aware of how much Auden had meant to Brodsky as friend and literary hero, Walcott knew that to be chosen by him “to do justice to Auden’s memory was a tremendous burden,” as he told William Baer. “And a tremendous honor.”
In a courteous gesture that enfolded both Auden and Brodsky, he too chose, as a model, Auden’s tribute to Yeats. Before an assemblage of friends and poets Walcott read out his “Eulogy for W. H. Auden” from the high pulpit of the Gothic cathedral. In the memorable words of the Walcott scholar Robert D. Hamner:
What could have been a greater study in contrasts — a powerfully knit black poet from the Caribbean declaiming lines to honor the whey-faced and rumpled don of English-language letters? And what could have been more appropriate?
Walcott’s tribute opened on a light affectionate note with a prosodic lilt and diction that mimicked Auden’s with comic exactness. Auden, he said, would have cringed at all the memorial flummery:
Assuredly, that runnelled face,
is wincing deeply, and must loathe
our solemn rubbish
frown on this canonizing farce
as self-enhancing, in lines both
devout and snobbish.
Walcott’s personal interaction with that “runnelled face” was limited to a single nod — a single gracious nod — outside an elevator, but his relationship with its poetry was an old and loving one. His elegy is enriched with allusions to Auden’s poems, notably the wonderful “In Praise of Limestone,” and he does not shy away from enlisting the century’s brutal political crimes that had so tormented Auden:
crammed in your lines, the doomed cattle-cars
hurtling like stanzas into guilty echoes.
He closed on a high “seraphic” note with the stately Arthurian image of a barge caked with rust — recalling the ash-stained, crumpled, shambling, slippered ruin of Auden — making its way down the East River. But the most touching element that he inserted was his own memory of the elation and confusion of discovering Auden as a child in the Caribbean caught between histories and cultures:
in treachery and in union,
despite your Empire’s wrong,
I made my first communion
there, with the English tongue.
It was such dispossession
that made possession joy,
when, strict as Psalm or Lesson,
I learnt your poetry.
Thirteen years later, in 1996, another memorial service, attended by hundreds of mourners, was held in the same soaring Manhattan cathedral. This time it was for Brodsky. Although Brodsky was Jewish, the cathedral was a perfect venue for a craftsman whose poems, said his friend Walcott, “are designed like cathedral interiors, the font, the arches, the whole thing the whole concept of the poem as cathedral.”
In an uncanny coincidence, Brodsky had died on the same date as Yeats, January 28. He was only 55. This date had had such a powerful impact on his life, poetically, that it seemed almost inevitable that he would, at some point, be honored by a reprisal of the elegy that had hit him with such transformative force, on a freezing swampy farm in Arkhangelsk all those years ago. And indeed he was. In a twinkling hip piece of verse called “Audenesque” that had the ironic and buoyant inflections of the East Village, his friend Seamus Heaney wrote:
Joseph, yes, you know the beat.
Wystan Auden’s metric feet
Marched to it, unstressed and stressed,
Laying William Yeats to rest.
Therefore, Joseph, on this day,
(Double-crossed and death-marched date,
This was the third avatar of Auden’s poem and by far the most personal: after all, Auden barely knew Yeats, Brodsky had never met Eliot, and Walcott had only barely met Auden. But Heaney and Brodsky were mates. They had first met in London in 1972 (this time, in another charming if irrelevant coincidence, it was Brodsky who was wearing a red shirt), visited each other’s homes in New York and Dublin, and traveled together to Finland; Heaney had translated Brodsky into English, and their friendship had, in his words, “fortified poetry.” The verses are warmed through with an accrual of memories, and although Heaney determinedly keeps the mood light by making irreverent jokes about Brodsky’s impresario ways and bad habits (Everything against the grain, / Drinking, smoking like a train), his admiration for his friend’s intellect and values, and his grief at this very personal loss shine through:
Ice of Archangelic strength,
Ice of this hard two-faced month,
Ice like Dante’s in deep hell
Makes your heart a frozen well.
Pepper vodka you produced
Once in Western Massachusetts
With the reading due to start
Warmed my spirits and my heart
But no vodka, cold or hot,
Aquavit or uisquebaugh,
Brings the blood back to your cheeks
Or the colour to your jokes, [...]
“Archangelic” refers to Arkhangelsk, where Brodsky was exiled to hard labor. Heaney ends by urging his sociable friend to join the fellowship of poets who have gone before him. Auden had famously said, “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead,” and so Seamus tells Joseph:
Do again what Auden said
Good poets do: bite, break their bread.
(Among the many fascinating aspects to this conversation is the way Kafka slips through it. When Auden is mourning the state of Europe and urging the poet to use his gift to break through the “seas of pity” that lie “locked and frozen in each eye,” he was no doubt invoking those famous words of Kafka, whom he greatly admired: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Heaney, too, was almost certainly alluding to both Kafka and Auden when he compared death to an “Ice no axe or book will break.” “Ice” is repeated four times, and each repetition serves to reinforce the “rigor mortis in your breast.” Brodsky would have been delighted at Kafka’s presence — he learnt Polish in order to read Kafka and Camus in translation, because Polish magazines were freely available in the USSR. And since he had overnight metamorphosed from human being to parasite, he was a nonfictional Gregor Samsa.)
Finally, when Heaney died last year, and his body was lowered into the ground of his beloved County Derry, more than one tearful devotee recalled that most stately and sonorous quartet from Auden’s Yeats elegy, in which Heaney’s name could so easily, and worthily, replace Yeats’s to read:
Earth, receive an honored guest;
Seamus Heaney is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
“Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” wrote Auden about Yeats, and how fully the sentiment applies to Heaney, who lived through the Troubles of Northern Ireland and never let anyone forget that his passport was green. Fitting, too, that an elegiac cycle that started out as a tribute to an Irishman should end with another Irishman.
And so there you have it: Yeats, Auden, Brodsky, Eliot, Walcott, and Heaney. Each a cultural giant in his own right; four émigré poets; all winners of the Nobel Prize except, ironically enough, for Auden himself; all bound by this poem into a breaking of bread that embraces the traditions of Ireland, England, America, Russia, and the Caribbean. That is without including Milton, Blake, Donne, Horace, Kafka, and innumerable other legends whose works shaped these verses. Again, Auden wrote in that great elegy:
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
Brodsky’s lifelong admiration of Auden is central to this chain. By impulsively writing that tribute for Eliot in 1965, he unintentionally linked Yeats, Eliot, and Auden — each considered heir to the other — and it was his friendship with Walcott and Heaney that made them write their Auden-inflected tributes. Brodsky called Auden the greatest English poet of the 20th century — how strange and wonderful that the foundation of that friendship should be a chance reading among chickens.
Nina Martyris has written for several publications including The Times of India, The Guardian, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, and The Millions.