Fantastic Poem Breakdown: “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” by W.H. Auden

Taking a break from the Terrible Poem Breakdown series this week. Instead, we’re focused on Nina Martyris’s wonderful look at a classic poem by the great W.H. Auden. More than just a close read, Martyris’s essay provides what amounts to a biography of the poem in the hands of multiple poets:

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.

I’ve been hard on terrible poets for their overreliance on Death. But in the hands of the able, the results can be stunning. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I prefer poems that are focused on the dead rather than death itself (elegiac vs. thanatopic).


No, I think it’s just the difference between a great poet and a terrible one.

Now go read the essay – it’s worth your precious limited time!

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