Auden gets the first words:
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.
He was writing, of course, on the occasion of the death of that fool William Butler Yeats. And you know what? Yeats was a fool. He was thrown out of the Theosophical Society for trying to raise the soul of a dead flower. He was unspeakably cruel to his devoted wife (Read A Vision to see how the cruelty and folly sometimes mixed.)
His folly hurt his poetry: there are passages that are almost incomprehensible without knowing his bonzo philosophy of interlocking spirals of incarnation. And yet, and yet:
somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(from "The Second Coming")
I wish I knew how to cultivate an ear like that, a sense of cultural resonance like that. (Note to self: memorize, recite, read, write, repeat forever) But despite passing the Housman and Dickinson tests, it's still a lesser piece of work than even a relatively minor Milton poem such as "When I Consider How My Light is Spent," and utterly negligible beside Paradise Lost. I thought you'd never ask why.
They're both (the poems and the poets) utterly wrong about the nature of the world and the nature of humanity. Genesis is no more true, as history, than Yeats's potty Vision, and it's only marginally better as psychology. But how Milton and Yeats came to be wrong matters. Milton was familiar with and used the best thinking of his time, which, being pre-scientific, had only a passing shot at being right; Yeats was a (magnificent) crank. For Milton and for his readers, Raphael's conversation with Adam sprang from deep and widely held convictions about our place in the world, and those convictions included the knowability of the world. Milton and his culture believed that we shared in nature of the Creator ("Let us make man in our image"), and therefore could know His creation, even if not completely, by virtue of our essential nature, including the fact of our incarnation. After all, God Himself had become incarnate in Jesus. For Yeats, such knowledge was available only through denial of our illusory physical nature and the equally illusory physical world.
Where to go from here? I give Yeats has the last words for now:
A Stick of Incense
Whence did all that fury come?
From empty tomb or Virgin womb?
Saint Joseph thought the world would melt
But liked the way his finger smelt.