Analysis of the Elegy, In Memory of W.B. Yeats

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In his elegy, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” written in 1939, English poet W.H. Auden

asserted that “poetry makes nothing happen.” He went on: “it survives / In the valley of

its saying where executives / Would never want to tamper …” The studied ambiguity of

Auden’s lines makes it possible to read his meaning in a variety of ways. Mourning the

death of a fellow poet, Auden may be lamenting the ultimate futility of Yeats’ life and art

(and by implication his own). What could be less relevant to the world of “executives”

and meaningful action or social change than poetry? If it merely “survives” in isolation,

within its own limited “valley” of written or spoken art, how important could it really be

to the larger world? But the idea that “poetry makes nothing happen” can be understood

in a quite different way. The power of art is that it creates something, some kind of

happening, out of an apparent void. Art makes happen what once was nothing. Moreover,

precisely because “executives / Would never want to tamper” with its saying, it operates

from a privileged position, less likely than other forms of expression to be co-opted or

compromised by commercial profit or political gain or other extrinsic considerations that

executives might bring to their decision-making.

Taking “poetry” to stand in for any/all creative arts, how would you understand

Auden’s provocative statement?

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The line of W. H. Auden’s, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” which we find in “In

Memory of W.B. Yeats,” is without a doubt both an important statement about modern

poetry and one of the greatest lines to be found within modern poetry. It not only appears

to denounce poetry as an agent of social consequence, but, upon closer inspection, ...

... middle of paper ...

...s monumentally significant.

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Bibliography:

Auden, W.H. The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. New York: Random House, 1962

Jacobs, Alan. “Auden and the Limits of Poetry”, First Things Aug/Sept2001, Issue 115,

Jstor. Online. 10 Dec 2007

Rosenheim Jr. “The Elegiac Act: Auden’s ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’”, College English,

Feb. 1966, Vol. 27, No. 5. Jstor. Online. 10 Dec 2007

Shakespeare, William. AMidsummer Night’s Dream. The Complete Works of William

Shakespeare. New York: Avenel, 1975. 153-174

Works Consulted

Auden W.H. The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Prose, Volume II, 1838-1948.

“Yeats: Master of Diction”, “Yeats as an Example”. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 2002. 394-389, 61-62

Riggs, Erica. “W.H. Auden as Seriocomic Critic”, Twentieth Century Literature,

Summer, 1991, Vol. 37, No. 2. Jstor. Online. 10 Dec. 2007

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