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In Memory of W. B. Yeats

Last week, 77 years ago, William Butler Yeats died on January 28, 1939 at Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France. His later years remain controversial; he became more conservative as his anti-democratic sympathies grew, as well as his admiration of Mussolini, which was encouraged by Ezra Pound. At the same time, one may smile at his many dalliances with younger women, which kept, he claimed, his creative juices flowing. Whatever one’s going to say, Yeats wrote a handful of poems that are among the greatest ever written. Let the art and the artist be separated. The photo above of a younger more liberal Yeats was probably taken around the time he wrote my favorite, The Wild Swans at Coole, which I include below.

Auden wrote his in memoriam shortly after Yeats’ death. Soon after that, he left for the United States where he kept his apartment in the East Village where he could look north and see the skyscrapers form the every changing skyline of New York City. Though he kept his apartment there, he lived for a period in Italy (In Praise of Limestone) and then on to Kirkstatten, Austria, where he bought a house with the intention, expressly, of living out his days there, and did.

In Memory of W.B. Yeats by W.H. Auden


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.
Oh all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

Oh all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


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 saying where executives
Would never want to tamper, it flows 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.


Earth receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

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
Till 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.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

William Butler Yeats reads his poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree. It has been said that Yeats wrote like an angel but when he read his words he didn’t intone them so much as drone them. You be the judge. It’s hard to mess up a beautiful poem no matter how you say it.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

The Wild Swans at Coole

I think my favorite poem by Yeats is the Wild Swans at Coole. I had just returned from a trip to South America. I’d been away for awhile. I was in Philadelphia visiting a friend in South Philly who just happened to have a book of Yeats and a new album by David Bowie called Diamond Dogs, which is what I was listening to when I was reading Yeats. All my senses were going a mile a minute. Both Bowie and Yeats were beautiful. When I got to the Wild Swans, there was not one more word than there had to be, and the sound of the words with the images they were conjuring up exist completely together, meant to be, the liquids and the almost rhymes, the length of watery sounds. Diamond Dogs probably remains my favorite Bowie; same with Yeats and the Wild Swans.

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

W.H. Auden in 1939 W.H. Auden in 1939 by Carl Van Vechten


  1. lally

    great post Don, and I thank you for it, brought me back to my own youthful love of Yeats and his influence on my own early work…

  2. Teddy

    “The Second Coming,” as prescient as the day it was written is my favorite….

  3. Laura

    He didn’t live out his days in NY, though he kept his apartment there; NYC was followed by a period in Italy (In Praise of Limestone) and then on to Kirkstatten, Austria, where he bought a house with the intention, expressly, of living out his days there, and did.

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