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“The Old Moon-Phaser”: Yeats, Auden, and MacNeice

Jonathan Allison
Affiliation:
University of Kentucky
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Summary

“The old moon-phaser” was MacNeice's off hand description of W. B. Yeats, coined in a letter he wrote while completing his book on Yeats in 1939. Its import is clear enough, suggesting both a certain grudging respect for an eccentric elder statesman and a degree of irritation with what Auden called the “Southern Californian side” of Yeats, with his theory of the lunar phases, as conveyed in “The Phases of the Moon” and elsewhere. A similar sentiment emerges in “Auden and MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament” published in Letters from Iceland (1938) in which the authors bestow gifts of various kinds upon many of their friends and acquaintances: “Leave the phases of the moon / To Mr. Yeats to rock his bardic sleep.” (CP 2007, 735). One is reminded of Auden's comic squib, in which he lampooned Yeats's poems of the 1930s:

To get the last poems of Yeats

You need not mug up on dates;

All a reader requires

Is some knowledge of gyres

And the sort of people he hates.

(Auden, “Academic Graffitti”)

Despite comic moments such as these, MacNeice and Auden in fact took Yeats very seriously, and whatever misgivings they felt about aspects of his work, admired him deeply. Auden would later reject this attitude of admiration, of course, but MacNeice did not. Echoing the sentiments of T. S. Eliot (in his essay on Yeats of 1940), Auden praised Yeats as a major poet who was always capable of developing as a poet by changing and remaking his style (“Yeats as an Example” English Auden 388). As Edward Mendelson has pointed out in Early Auden, Yeats replaced Eliot as Auden's chief influence in or around 1933, as Eliot had previously replaced Thomas Hardy as his chief influence, in or around 1926 (xix). Auden arrived in New York in late January 1939, two days before Yeats's death, which he read about in the New York papers on the 29th of January. Soon after, he wrote his elegy, “In Memory of W B Yeats” and his essay, “The Public v. the Later William Butler Yeats”: the essay was published in the spring 1939 issue of Partisan Review and the poem published elsewhere, but poem and essay are companion pieces, meditations on the nature of the poet's achievement, his limitations and his strengths.

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Writing Modern Ireland , pp. 174 - 186
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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