WB Yeats, 1923
“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.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.”
So begins WH Auden’s elegy for the poet WB Yeats, who died on a late January day in 1939 in his room at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in the town of Menton on the French Riviera.
A great deal will be heard about Yeats this year, due to the Irish Government-funded commemoration Yeats2015 – a 12-month celebration of the poet’s life and work.
Not that the Yeats has faded from view in the 76 years since his death. Few poets command attention like he does.
This stretches beyond the poetry to the man himself and his life – the fairy-courting mysticism, the obsession with Maud Gonne, the Celtic Revival manifested in the Abbey Theatre.
And on: the nationalist politics, the automatic writing and spirit guides, the Nobel Prize and finally, the old man of later years. And – throughout all – the poetry.
WH Auden, 1939.
Pic: Library of Congress
Amidst the celebration of his life Yeats’ death, and its effects, may not attract much mention.
But the pure change that happened in that Riviera hotel room elicited one of the 20th century’s great elegies.
The loss was harvested by WH Auden, one at the few poets of the time who could – at his best – go stanza to stanza with the Irishman.
Like readers and writers, generations and governments since, Auden’s poem celebrates the man.
But as he casts Yeats as an fount, a culture and “a mouth”, he leaves a residue of something else – an observation of the mundanity of death.
“Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays…
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself”.
Two years earlier Auden had confronted the same subject, writing on Brueghel’s painting The Fall of Icarus.
‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’
Pieter Brueghel (1558)
Pic: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…”
And so no death is greater than any other, and most pass unnoticed.
Auden’s Icarus attempts something unknown, unbelievable, in trying to fly. As he fails:
“…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.”
But, if death is often unremarked, memory is not. So it was for WB Yeats.
Amidst the wide world’s daily drudge, in places where hearing of a poet’s passing is as momentous as walking dully along, a handful would remember.
“In the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.”
A dark, cold day.