Mourning Tongues: How Auden Was Modified in the Guts of the Living

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Nina Martyris in the LA Review of Books:

ON THIS DAY 75 years ago — January 28, 1939 — “something slightly unusual” occurred in the annals of English poetry. William Butler Yeats died, and his death gave birth to a poem that set off one of the most extraordinary elegiac conversations of our time.

The poem was W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” and this is the story of its astonishing afterlife — how three separate elegies in three different countries were modeled on it; how Auden’s words were quite literally, in Auden’s line from the poem, “modified in the guts of the living,” and how, in a feat that even someone as reputedly self-anointing as Auden could not possibly have foreseen, it went on to link a multicultural pantheon of greats: Yeats, Auden, T. S. Eliot, Joseph Brodsky, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney.

Auden was a natural master of the elegy. His pen was ready, generous, candid, and quick to rhyme. He shot off elegies on Freud, Henry James, Ernst Toller, Louis MacNeice, and JFK, and his “Funeral Blues,” a fine example of the coherence of grief, has become part of crematoria cool after it was sentimentalized by Hollywood. But of all his requiem compositions, it is his magnificent and measured elegy for Yeats that has a seminal place in the canon.

More here.

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