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The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day

While on the one hand I welcome the new biography of Steve Jobs, on the other I cringe at the stories of his life coming out of the mouths of his admirers. As the narrator of one’s own life, one has the option of zigging while the world expects a zag. Now the language appears to be definitive, like a spreadsheet that reports a trend without the possibility of a reversal. A chorus of voices now crowd out the man they claim to speak for. It’ll be some time before his voice, as his voice, will be audible again.

On the death of the poet William Butler Yeats, the poet W.H. Auden wrote an elegy. There’s something different about the passing of a poet. There are two bodies that become separated. The body of work, the poetry, is left behind and in some sense changed. Auden writes of Yeats, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” I have this same sense about Steve Jobs, the circumstances of his birth and childhood hurt him into poetry. And in the end, it’s not the technology, so much as the poetry that touches us.

In Memory of W. B. Yeats
by Wystan Hugh Auden

I

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

II

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

III

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 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

Comments

  1. Nonprofit Technology and Marketing | Benjamin Phillips | October 22nd, 2011 | 2:10 pm

    [...] The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day [...]