Poetry Friday: 1939

Ah, 1939—a year full of poems to choose from, and in that regard a much better year than 1938.  Of course, it is not a good year in many other respects, the invasion of Poland being high on the list of reasons why, and I’ll be selecting a poem or two eventually (I expect) that deal with the violence of the year.  But to kick us off, I have to start with one of the first poems I learned to love: in fact, it captured me enough that I loved it even though I didn’t understand what it was about.  It was early in a battered red paperback anthology simply entitled “Poetry”, the book I’d picked up (at a Value Village, maybe?) when I decided that a guy who was going to be an English major should read poems more often.  I didn’t know who this “Wystan Hugh Auden” was, or why he would be moved to write a poem about the death of somebody named “William Butler Yeats“, except that, from context, I figured Yeats must be a poet too.  The poem itself is in three very different parts, all of them lovely in their way, but for today I’m only going to handle the section that first won me over, and still is critical to the archetype called “poem” that lives in my head.  This is the final section of a poem entitled “In Memory of W. B. Yeats (d. Jan. 1939)” by W. H. Auden:

“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 fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.”

Auden’s verse here is an attempt to do what the poem’s first two sections (available here, if you’re interested) have not yet done, which is to embrace the old-fashioned way in which English poetry used to act—short phrases, often end-stopped, with perfectly consonant rhymes (none of that “slant” rhyming in this section).  A style that can definitely seem trite and sing-songy in the hands of lesser poets, and which Auden himself loses hold of in other works, captures here that magical incantation-like power that modern poetry sometimes forgets it can wield.

The section for me is built in two even parts.  The first three stanzas are an address to the Earth.  What is at first an elegant instruction to the Earth as to a servant or heir—“receive an honoured guest”—becomes a meditation on the Earth as a space inhabited by violence.  The dead body lies emptied of its art, and beyond it stretch the battalions of the nations, all of them ready to rain down destruction upon one another.  This is a place characterized by chaos—the darkness of nightmares, the cacophony of angry dogs—and hate, which has become a rigid wall that locks out the rest of humanity.  Whatever was noble or praiseworthy in the human condition, we have in some way lost access to it, in Auden’s eyes: the Earth seems beyond saving.

William Butler Yeats, Irish poet

William Butler Yeats, whom “Mad Ireland hurt into poetry”, according to Auden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But then the final three stanzas push back against this vision by an appeal to the poet, who, standing outside the Earth and its physical cares and limitations, still has the power to redeem us by means of art.  Rather than sending Yeats off with a “thank goodness you got out when you did”, Auden draws him back to us, and sends him down to the bottom of the dark, into the nightmare-space already invoked—not to compel, but to persuade.  By means of his art, Yeats can still call forth joy within us.  More than that, art can remake the world—Auden alludes to Genesis and the fallen Adam in the idea that humanity’s curses can be “farmed” into fruitful ground.  This isn’t a withdrawal from the world’s problems into some airy-fairy happyland of poetry: he specifically names “human unsuccess” as one of the topics for singing.  In making these extravagant claims, Auden is explicitly rejecting his own words from the poem’s second section, where he semi-famously remarks that “poetry makes nothing happen”—here he envisions poetry as a means of making sense of the dark side of humanity, of giving us a stairway out of the caverns into which we fall.

And culminates the vision in that final stanza that is still, to me, close to perfection—the vision of a redeemed world where the gladness arises directly out of sorrow.  It is not that waters will flow outwards from some lush, green place, or that the free men will unchain the bound.  No, in the very deserts we inhabit there are wells waiting to spring up, and our liberty and joy emerges from that evocative “prison of [our] days”.

Poetry can teach us what this means—how to look for it, and where to find it.  In January 1939, Auden sees a world on the brink of self-annihilation, and mourns a fallen comrade whose strength he had relied on.  But the wonder of writing, of course, is that it can endure, and that Yeats had a part still to play on Earth long after his body returned to dust.  I don’t know if this poem works on you the way it works on me, or if my odes to it seem excessive to you.  It may be that poetry is nowhere near as powerful as I’m claiming it can be, or as I see Auden claiming it to be.  But I personally am convinced that artistry is at the vital heart of what it means to be human, and art (whether poetry or song or sculpture, or what have you) is in fact a critical factor when we consider the question of whether we can learn to live at peace with one another.  This question has always plagued us, and 1939 made it more urgent, of course.  It keeps me thinking, and I’m glad I have Auden as one of my muses when I do.

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