What kind of guy inhabits this poem?

Speaking for myself, the questions which interest me most when reading a poem are two. The first is technical: “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?” The second is, in the broadest sense, moral: “What kind of a guy inhabits this poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? His notion of the Evil One? What does he conceal from the reader? What does he conceal even from himself?”  –from W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand

Auden, in another essay says that the critic or reviewer aught to reveal something of his moral universe to the reader before he sets to work on a piece of art; let the reader know what his version of Eden might be–what the landscape would be for him, for example.

I find Auden’s inquiry above as to “what kind of guy inhabits this poem?” a useful question to ask of any person who represents to us the maker of the “made thing.”

In fact, I find it the most important question and the one most of us forget to ask; a corollary might be “what kind of guy interprets this poem?”  If we are to ask about the moral universe of others, we had better come clean with ourselves in the first instance as well.

One might think to apply this test to all of one’s actions in life, especially those that affect more folks than oneself.  But more importantly, to be critical of the world as it is made around us, not necessarily to our specifications, we must ask these questions in order to discover exactly in whose world we’re living, breathing, sleeping, acting.  It is often not our own, often does not resemble, our vision in the least.

This is the faculty, though, that most of us clearly lack, and more often than not we cannot even understand that there are other visions of the world, and if we acknowledge there are we are still sure they are very wrong

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A favorite poem by Auden:  “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”


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.

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.

What instruments we have 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 making where executives
     Would never want to tamper, flows on 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.

          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.

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1 Comment

  1. focus May 14, 2012 at 9:56 am

    I like this. I like the poem. I have not read much Auden. I see I need to remedy that. I like his thought process about reading an author’s work. It digs deeper than I usually do when reading.


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