“I have only once encountered pure evil in a person”: Auden on Yeats

Auden’s “In Memory of W B Yeats” is a great tribute poem, especially the closing lines:

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.

Reading the poem, one may or may not be surprised to read of Auden’s ambivalence about Yeats, in this fascinating talk by Mike Douse to the Yeats Society in Sligo:

I sum up the complex and often contradictory nature of Auden’s perception of Yeats in the term, ‘vehement ambiguity’. This is an extreme example of a love/hate relationship, a more intense variety of the equivocal and fluctuating interactions that often exist between artists. WH’s feelings towards WB were complex, confusing, and contradictory. The elegy, which we shall shortly focus upon, contrasts sharply with many of WH’s expressed opinions of WB, such as: “Yeats spent the first part of his life as a minor poet, and the second part writing major poems about what it had been like to be a minor poet”; or his considered view that the version of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse edited by Yeats was “the most deplorable volume ever issued”; or, even more pointedly, “I have only once encountered pure evil in a person, and that was when I met Yeats”.

And yet Auden praised Yeats as the saviour of English lyric poetry and noted in a 1948 essay entitled ‘Yeats as an Example’ that he “… accepted the modern necessity of having to make a lonely and deliberate choice of the principles and presuppositions in terms of which [he made] sense of his experience.” Auden assigned Yeats the high praise of having written “some of the most beautiful poetry” of modern times. In that article he credited Yeats with transforming the occasional poem in English from an official performance of impersonal virtuosity, such as Tennyson’s “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington,” into a serious reflective poem having at once personal and public interest; and he identified Yeats’s elegy for Robert Gregory as “something new and important in the history of English poetry…”.

But as the thirties wore on, Auden’s admiration for Yeats as poet was tempered by his dislike for his perception of Yeats’s fondness for the trappings of aristocracy and his flirtation with O’Duffy’s Blueshirts. In the second half of his life Auden developed an almost obsessive fear of the danger of Yeats’s kind of outlook, and much of the story of Auden’s development as a poet after 1940 is also the story of his struggle to exorcise the persistent spirit of Yeats: his hardening of the conviction that the greatest threats to individual freedom in the modern world were a direct legacy of the Romantic outlook upon which Yeats prided himself.

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