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 fanning 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.
W.H.Auden's, 'In Memory of W.B.Yeats' is as much about the stylistic revolutions of the previous half century as it is about Yeats's life. It is effectively a distilled history of nineteenth-twentieth-century poetic form, played backwards. Section I is governed chiefly by the conventions of 1, section II deploys 4, and makes concessions to 3 and section III returns us to the trochaic, ballad form of Blake's Songs. But Auden offers us more than simply a display of technical skill. Pay particular attention to how the relation between the metonymic-syntagmatic and metaphoric-paradigmatic poles (crucial to Jakobson's distinction between the prosaic and the poetic) responds to or perhaps controls the shifts in metrical pattern. Most of section I involves a kind of double metonym: the parts of a landscape, perhaps a nation, ('forests', 'rivers', 'squares', 'cities', 'provinces') are listed rather than juxtaposed, and this discursive progress is paralleled by a similar part-whole synecdoche in which the physical and cultural elements of Yeats's presence ('his illness', 'his body', 'his mind', 'the words') are enumerated. The progressive, combinative nature of the syntagm seems to dominate both elements of the double pattern—the discourse is consecutive, prosaic, and syntax controls the duration and positioning of the unmetrical lines. In section II we encounter both an irregular off-rhyme scheme and an iambic undertow, and we also find that the adventurous illogic of paradigmatic similarity and selection begins to replace the contiguous logic of the first section. The relation between poet, poetry, landscape and nation is maintained but now, as Jakobson put it, 'metaphor' not 'metonymy is the line of least resistance'. Poetry is actually part of 'the valley of its saying' and like the river 'it flows' and 'survives', 'A way of happening, a mouth' (mouth of poet, mouth of river). Think back to the poetry-prose relationship in Measure for Measure. Prose tends to be organised according to some perceived relation between text, external events and circumstances while poetry gathers these into an enclosed field in which there is a constant interplay between the material elements of the double pattern and its referential function. Something similar happens between parts I and II. The speaking presence in II is effectively recuperating the facts of I as elements of a self-determined artefact. Jakobson: The principle of similarity underlies poetry; metrical parallelism of lines, or phonic equivalence of rhyming words prompts the question of semantic similarity or contrast'. By section III the uncertain patterns of metrical and phonic equivalence of II have become fully synchronised with the metaphoric excursions. Yeats is both an object (vessel) and a poet, time is a person, the night is a physical as well as a temporal dimension, verses are farmed, the heart is a desert, temporal existence is a prison. Again the relation between external and existential conditions is maintained but they have now become interwoven with the text; no referential or ideational concept remains immune from the insistent parallelism of rhyme and metrical regularity. Auden would seem to have preempted Jakobson's 1950s thesis that there is a predictable causal relationship between the metrical and phonic density of the text and poetic or non-poetic deployments of syntax and metaphor: roughly summarised, free verse (part I, metonymic) is more prosaic than regular verse (part III, metaphoric). One could argue that the three sections of this poem represent the same text at different stages of composition; as the poem proceeds the tentative, discursive pattern is gradually enclosed within an autonomous self-determined condition of textuality. But it would be wrong to interpret this simply as an anti-modernist, revisionist gesture. To properly understand its significance we need to consider the broader historical and aesthetic context of modernist poetics.
Auden produced his best known early poems during the 1930s. The Imagist revolution had occurred two decades earlier, and figures such as Eliot, Pound and Williams had in various ways been transformed from iconoclasts to icons. In British poetry this period has come to be known as that of the Auden generation, whose most celebrated members were Auden's contemporaries at Oxford— Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender and C.Day Lewis (see Tolley, 1975). To generalise further would be to obscure the rich complexities of this 'next stage' of modernism, but two issues should hold our attention. Firstly, the poets who began writing in the late 1920s and 1930s were the inheritors of a literary tradition that included modernism, and as a consequence they felt able to draw both upon the stylistic innovation of their immediate predecessors and upon pre-modernist conventions. Secondly, the poets of this period initiated a change in the functional conditions of post-1900 poetry. Early modernist writing, particularly poetry, centred upon the individual consciousness as a means of perceiving, recording and communicating experience while remaining largely immune from the imperatives of order, judgement, classification or rational objectivity. The poetry of the thirties began to forge more tangible links between the individuality of the speaking subject and the broader social, political and existential conditions that the speaker shared with the implied reader—consider how Auden's 'In Memory.' uses deictic clues to situate the condition of speaker and hearer as inhabitants of a continent on the brink of war. These two factors— stylistic eclecticism and a desire to reestablish poetry as a platform for social and political comment—resulted in compositional pressures that have effectively dominated British poetry between the 1930s and the 1980s. In short, how can the poet balance the availability of a rich and diverse repertoire of patterns, techniques and stylistic devices against the attractions of unfettered individuality? Is it the duty of the poet to set aside the drive toward innovation in favour of a new and specifically modern form of accessibility and relevance? The two poets who represent the most divergent engagements to these questions are Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas.
Consider the opening stanza of Thomas's 'When, Like a Running Grave':
When, like a running grave, time tracks you down,
Your calm and cuddled is a scythe of hairs,
Love in her gear is slowly through the house,
Up naked stairs, a turtle in a hearse,
Hauled to the dome,
The relative adverb 'When' introduces the complex explanatory clause of the first line, and we are uncertain if the unfolding situation will involve the specific circumstances of when time will track you down like a running grave or whether time will always track you down like a running grave. This uncertainty is not resolved; rather it is further complicated by a montage of syntactic and semantic discontinuities. What exactly is your 'calm and cuddled'? The semantic pattern of a 'scythe of hairs', 'Love in her gear', 'naked', 'hearse', suggests perhaps a tension between sensual, physical images and death. Perhaps. The poem extends
Eliot's precedent in 'Prufrock', and extends it beyond any acceptable balance between intrinsic and imposed coherence. Read the rest of the poem and if you can disclose a pattern of syntactic and referential continuity you are, I believe, deceiving yourself. The potential for self-deceit is provided by a complex and admirably precise formal pattern. Each stanza consists of four roughly iambic decasyllabic lines, followed by a quattro-syllabic coda. These are held together by a system of alliterative/ assonantal off-rhymes, binding each stanza into a discernable pattern of a bbb a. Without this concession to regularity the poem would be meaningless. The reader is literally bounced from one point of metrical and phonic foregrounding to the next and this is the only formal pattern upon which an attempt at naturalisation can be based: the conventional has effectively replaced and overridden the cognitive dimension of the double pattern. Read 'After the Funeral', 'Fern Hill' and 'Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night' and consider how Thomas's method of 'baring the device' of versification (category 4) operates as a replacement for the ordinary functions of syntactic and semantic coherence.
Thomas was not the only British poet to make extravagant use of Eliot's early precedent—see also the work of W.R.Rodgers— but by the late 1940s he had become the most conspicuous target for a new generation of British anti-modernists. Novelists, poets and critics such as Amis, Wain, Larkin, Enright, Davie and Conquest would eventually come to be classified by literary historians as members of The Movement' (see Blake Morrison's study, 1980). These writers were a more determined and more confident manifestation of the Auden generation. In 1955 Donald Davie published Articulate Energy. An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry, and this could stand as a disguised and sophisticated manifesto for the Movement poets: 'In free verse and in Dylan Thomas's complicated metrical stanzas the articulation and spacing of images is done by rhythm instead of syntax' (126-7). What was needed, Davie implied, was poetry that restored the syntagm as the anchor, the thread of stability against which metrical and referential excursions could be counterpointed. This would not necessarily involve the outright rejection of categories 1-4—free verse and experiment were still permissible—but the syntagm was the vital channel through which the poetic might communicate with the non-poetic world of ordinary language and experience.
The following is Philip Larkin's 'An Arundel Tomb':
Side by side, their faces blurred, The earl and countess lie in stone, Their proper habits vaguely shown As jointed armour, stiffened pleat, And that faint hint of the absurd— The little dogs under their feet.
Such plainness of the pre-baroque Hardly involves the eye, until It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still Clasped empty in the other; and One sees, with a sharp tender shock, His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
They would not think to lie so long,
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.
They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they
Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light Each summer thronged the glass. A bright Litter of birdcalls strewed the same Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths The endless altered people came,
Washing at their identity. Now, helpless in the hollow of An unarmorial age, a trough Of smoke in slow suspended skeins Above their scrap of history, Only an attitude remains: Time has transfigured them into Untruth. The stone fidelity They hardly meant has come to be Their final blazon, and to prove Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love.
The poem adheres to the complex stanzaic formula of iambic, octosyllabic lines, rhyming a bb c a c, but the syntax maintains the unforced yet consistently ordered pattern of detail and reflection that one would expect from the prose of a literary journal. How do these two elements of the double pattern intersect? The first three stanzas are dominated by the speaker's description of the details of the tomb. Note how the enjambments operate as a form of metasyntax, and cause a subtle tension between what Benveniste calls histoire (an impartial account) and discours (the intervention of the speaker). In stanza 2 the 'eye' of the experiencer and the ideational 'eye' of the reader are 'hardly involved' by the plainness of the monument: does this mean that the perceived image demands neither intellectual nor emotional involvement? This uncertainty intensifies as we encounter 'still'. The gauntlet is both 'still' (static) and is 'still/Clasped' (temporal). In the next line 'and' would at first seem to continue the listing of the parts of the object, but after the line break 'histoire' is merged with 'discours'. Is the 'sharp tender shock' ours, or is it something that we imagine might have inspired the original conception of the effigy?
At one level the dominant pattern is metonymic, the syntagm allowing the speaker to list each part of the perceived object, but when the syntagm makes tangible contact with versification, the sense of language as in some way affecting and modifying the impartiality of the visual register (the beginnings of metaphor) becomes evident. In stanzas 4-7 the perceptual focus shifts from the object to the reflections of the speaker, and crucially the same subtle interface between the referential and the purely poetic dimensions of the text is maintained. In the closing stanza the verb phrases disclose on one level a decisive, factual certainty that echoes the earlier listing of visual objects: Time has transfigured them into untruth', The stone fidelity. has come to be their final blazon', 'What will survive of us is love'. But there are also echoes of the ways in which effects which register as elements of the linguistic and emotional presence of the speaker can interfere with the impersonal progress of the syntagm. What they are 'transfigured into', what they have 'come to be', what they 'prove' are all qualified by a pattern of hesitations and uncertainties foregrounded by the tension between syntagmatic progression and the line.
It would be wrong to categorise this poem as simply a return to pre-modernist convention. In various ways it involves all four categories of syntax-line interaction. Its syntactic excursions recall Thribb and Williams's This Is Just To Say' (1), while the subtle shifts between progress and stasis recall 'Spring and All'
(3). Its metrical regularity is as persistent as in Eliot's 'Whispers'
(4). We can also discern echoes of Pound's 'In a Station' (2), as single, isolated lines and images assimilate and modify preceding and succeeding statements (note the closing lines of stanzas 6 and 7). It is the archetypal postmodernist poem. The syntax embodies the informal progress of the free verse poem and foregrounds the specificity of the speech act and the presence of the experiencer, while the persistent regularity of the stanza distances this particular speech act from non-poetic discourse.
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