Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 January 2007
When Yeats died in January 1939, he quickly became the ghost that haunted Modernism. First to register the shade's presence was W. H. Auden, who wrote his famous elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” in February 1939:
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections . . .
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living. . . .
For Auden, Yeats is a distasteful Orpheus, whose corpse dismembers into the scattered leaves of his volumes of poetry, undergoing a queasy process of digestion in the guts of his readers. Auden gives the distinct impression that Yeats might have been a much more satisfactory meal:
You were silly like us . . .
[Time] Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons them for writing well.