The essay examines Yeats’s highly self-conscious representation of the self in the light of his assertion in A General Introduction for My Work that, in a poem, the poet is remodelled as “something intended, complete.” It pays particular attention to a range of individual poems across his career, doing so in order to explore the idea that it is in the unfoldings of the poetry itself that we can encounter most closely and fruitfully the conflicting tensions associated with Yeats’s post-Romantic remodelling of the self. The poems are shown to derive much of their power and value from the ways in which they enact, work through, and dramatise the crisscrossing strains associated with the proposition quoted from A General Introduction.
Corps de l’article
My title comes from the opening of Yeats’s late essay, A General Introduction for my Work:
A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria. Dante and Milton had mythologies, Shakespeare the characters of English history or of traditional romance; even when the poet seems most himself, when he is Raleigh and gives potentates the lie, or Shelley “a nerve o’er which do creep the else unfelt oppressions of this earth,” or Byron when “the soul wears out the breast” as “the sword outwears its sheath,” he is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.
If this passage is the most “complete” formulation in Yeats of an evolved body of feelings and ideas about the self in poetry, it is so because of its secret, exultant refusal to philosophise. There is more than a touch of the wicked wild old man as the prose passes over from statement to enactment. The writing exults in its refusal to supply persuasive, signposting conjunctions. Yeats begins with what we might think we all know about poetry, should we be working with an expressivist, post-Romantic view of the matter: “A poet writes always of his personal life.” He then offers something rather more challenging: “… in his finest work out of its tragedy,” where “its” implies that every life has “its tragedy” and that poets at least are privileged to experience tragedy. His next move is to supply (without explanation) the antithetical but connected assertion: “he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria.” The use of “never” is haughtily uncompromising there, almost as though Yeats were insisting on a point of etiquette (“you must never speak directly …”). Yeats refers to “a phantasmagoria,” almost as one might say a “play” or a “scene”: a staging of some imagined, possibly visionary state. The word draws on three OED senses: “an apparatus for creating illusions;” “a rapidly transforming collection or series of imaginary forms;” and “a shifting and changing scene consisting of many elements.” Yeats’s poetic phantasmagorias are indeed “rapidly transforming” and “shifting;” their inner changes allow him not to be boxed in by the commitment to be and produce “something intended, complete.”
Arguably, this “phantasmagoria” allows the poet to be himself in a profounder way, the “being more intense” of which Byron speaks in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, canto 3, stanza 6, that permits poets to gain what they give,“The life we image”. Yeats, deeply schooled in Romantic poetry, especially that of Blake and Shelley, inherits from them a fascination with the representation of the self in poetry. But he brings to this fascination, as this essay will argue, an unprecedented degree of self-conscious lyrical attention. For Yeats, the poet, in his work, becomes his best or truest or most compelling or most tragic idea of himself, Shelley’s Maniac in Julian and Maddalo suffering in sympathy “the else unfelt oppressions of this earth” (450), for example. He has been saved from chaos; he is no longer “the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast,” phrasing that echoes and finds a way of finally rebutting the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume and his sceptical description of the self as a “bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement” (252).
This Humean model of the self is at once the spur to and antagonist of the Romantic, especially the Shelleyan sense of self. “The many change and pass,” Shelley’s phrase in Adonais, nods as much towards Hume as Plato; “The One remains” (460) is a consciously adopted fiction which he seeks to sing into some kind of being on account of its accord with what at the close of “Mont Blanc” is termed “the human mind’s imaginings” (143). Virginia Woolf is only one of many modernists haunted (and exhilarated) by a post-Humean sense of the self as made up of streaming, fugitive impressions. Yeats, influenced by Wilde’s notions of the mask and by ideas in Nietzsche, whom he started reading seriously in 1902, develops a strong interest in the will as resisting such mobility, in the self’s “struggle” as he puts it for “complete affirmation.” In Per Amica Silentia Lunae, he speaks of coming across in an old notebook the assertion: “Active virtue, as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a code, is ... theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask” (413-14). Yet “consciously dramatic” says it all and speaks to Yeats’s sense of his difference from Wordsworth, a poet attacked (and, arguably, traduced) in the same passage as “flat and heavy” because “his moral sense, being a discipline he had not created, a mere obedience, has no theatrical element” (414). In Yeats, what elsewhere he calls the “struggle for complete affirmation” is a “struggle.” Indeed, Yeats writes that “the struggle for complete affirmation may be, often must be, that art’s chief poignancy.” What Ellmann calls Yeats’s “affirmative capability,” distinguishing it from Keats’s “negative capability,” is just as much in touch with doubt and uncertainty as is Keats’s ideal. Above all we are conscious of Yeats’s conscious dramatising. Accident and incoherence are, in fact, central to the Yeatsian self, even as the poetry remodels them into a shaped design.
Geoffrey Hill speaks approvingly of “a fine ironic phrase of Nietzsche’s about ‘this delight in giving a form to oneself as a piece of difficult, refractory material’” (quoted in Haffenden 87), and Yeats’s “delight in giving a form to himself” is evident in the idea of the poet having “been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.” If “something intended, complete” points to the fragmentation experienced by the daily self, “reborn as an idea” draws on Yeats’s lifelong obsession, recorded in the ghostlier reaches of A Vision, with reincarnation and runs parallel to the other births and rebirths envisaged and addressed in the poetry: the “rough beast” (21), for example, in “The Second Coming,” that “Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” (22) in a last line which gives birth to the poem itself.
“The Second Coming” presents the poet as intruder on or aghast witness to his own poem. As critics have noticed, it has the form of an unrhymed sonnet, “reborn” out of its own beginnings as half a sonnet: that is, its first paragraph, an octave, is followed by a fourteen-line paragraph. The poem begins as impersonal prophecy; powerful metaphors (“The falcon cannot hear the falconer”) intermingle with incontestable statement (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”). This voice brooks no doubt; yet, as Yeats writes, in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, “we sing amid our uncertainty” (411), where the combination of doubting noun and clear-eyed, active verb is characteristic. And the “uncertainty” at work here has to do with the origins and significance of the poem’s vision. When the sonnet proper begins, we have, to the fore, the sonnet’s obsession with subjectivity; the poem grows metapoetic rather as Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” does when the word “forlorn” (70, 71), listened to, turns the poem into a drama at the centre of whose stage is the “sole self” (72) brooding over a word (and sentiment) it has just uttered:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in 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 Bethlelem to be born?
The poem hears itself repeat the sonorous, end-of-time words, “the Second Coming,” repeated in a tone that is hard to pin down: its constituent emotions blend the reinforcing, the frightened, the sardonic. “Hardly are those words out,” writes Yeats, as though “those words” (not “these words”) were not his possession, as though they had been uttered involuntarily spoken through him, “When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight,” when, that is, a process is beginning over which he has little control, as is suggested by the cunningly positioned “Troubles.”
The poem is a seance; the poet is the medium; the images are spirits conjured up out of “Spiritus Mundi.” Yeats sheds responsibility, therefore, for their eruption into the present-tense of the poem. All he can do is describe his “troubled” state. The “vast image” is beyond his control; if it is “something intended” it obeys a will other than the poet’s, the will of the gyres controlling history, and its “incompleteness” is what horrifies. Borrowing one of Shelley’s favourite words for the as yet to be defined, Yeats calls it “A shape with lion body and the head of a man.” Yet this “shape” is grotesquely shapeless; if it moves towards rebirth, some new completion, it does so through a question that supersedes the poet’s attempted “knowledge.” When he remarks, “but now I know,” Yeats asserts his knowledge of the way the gyres work as he charts the Christian era’s supposed movement from “rocking cradle” to “nightmare.” But the poem’s final question mingles a fearful imagining with lack of ultimate knowledge: “And what rough beast” captures this blend, “rough beast” verging on the tautologous, but suggestive of some disquieting attempt to discriminate among “beasts;” “Slouches” inhabits, through its forceful trochaic emphasis, the moving body of the “rough beast” as it stalks into the poem. It is the nature of Yeats’s prophetic vision that it should fish deeply in pools of doubt, indeterminacy, and unknowingness. Authority and anxiety coalesce in the conclusion.
Seamus Heaney asks the necessary question about the repudiation of the breakfast table: “Can we afford to disdain the life that goes on messily and cantankerously?” (100) The question prompts one to answer that Yeatsian disdain is a curious thing, itself a divided emotion, often consorting with a reluctant admission of alternatives. Later in A General Introduction for my Work, we get this: “Talk to me of originality and I will turn on you with rage. I am a crowd, I am a lonely man, I am nothing. Ancient salt is best packing” (387). Yeats’s point is that style is the medium through which the quotidian self is remodelled. Yet in his towering contempt for “originality” Yeats displays a power to arrest us through dramatising his sense of being multiple selves: “Ancient salt is best packing” because “all that is personal soon rots” (386), but the “ancient salt” is serving to give the savour of permanence to the personal. It is the sense, managed with great rhetorical skill, of the bundle of accident and incoherence needing the mask that moves us here.
“Reborn as an idea, something intended, complete”: many poems stage this remodelling in their workings, turning it into a process. The poet’s self is inseparable from the poem which mirrors its creator’s aspirations. In an early work, “The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart,” Yeats uses long lines that have an effect of chanted lyricism to describe a quarrel between “All things uncomely and broken” and his desire to “build them anew” in the “casket” of art:
All things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old,
The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart,
The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould,
Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.
The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made, like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.
The rhyme scheme is the same in the two quatrains, suggesting subtle connections between the stanzas. “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry” (411): Yeats’s axiom comes later, in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, but its relevance even to a seemingly Mallarméan piece such as this lyric is apparent. The celebratory lilt of the writing carries over to the very things said to “be wronging your image that blossoms a rose in my heart.” For one thing, the “cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart” are sounds that pierce the reader’s sensual ear: accidental, incoherent things that speak out of and on behalf of life; the ploughman’s steps, “splashing the wintry mould,” disfigure yet variegate the “mould” they have made, enacting, in so doing, how the self behaves in poems that would enshrine it. For another, they energise the poet’s aesthetic withdrawal if only by provoking it to react. The two verbs in line 4 are strongly and vividly in the present tense. The wronging and the blossoming seem interdependent. And if the rose and the image speak of symbolic transformations, the “deeps of my heart” refuse to be solely an aesthetic space. The heart will not quite be co-opted into the symbolic dream of turning “All things” into something intended, complete, since this dream is one of the heart’s longings, as is brought out in the surprisingly strong verb, “I hunger.”
“Whatever flames upon the night/ Man’s own resinous heart has fed” (“Two Songs from a Play,” 31-2); so a later Yeats will say, in one of his most starkly beautiful remodellings of the Coleridgean view (in Dejection: An Ode) that “we receive but what we give” (47). If those two lines speak of nourishing, “The Lover Tells of the Rose” speaks of hungering, but also of building anew, remaking. Yet the casket of gold will hold “my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.” The nouns, there, are all drifting and plunging into an ever-shelving, oneiric blur, but the word that unleashes the nominal landslide is “dreams.” The poem tells us of a self that longs to rebuild the real; it is a poem of longing and desire.
Yeats’s Instructors, summoned through sessions of automatic writing by his wife George, sought to “identify consciousness with conflict” (A Vision 214). Such a notion is exalted into a creative principle in poems such as “Ego Dominus Tuus,” where the dialogue form yields ultimately to Ille’s declaration, “By the help of an image/ I call to my own opposite” (7-8). We are in or close to the doctrinal realms of Yeats’s belief in the anti-self that, being summoned, helps to remodel the self into “something intended, complete.” Less often noticed is how this poem declines doctrine in favour of exploration: at the close, Ille restates his calling, yet this time not only to his opposite, but also to “the mysterious one who yet / Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream/ And look most like me, being indeed my double” (70-2). Indeed, the phrasing suggests that the “anti-self” (74) is always a double. Here everything is liminal in a solemn, slow-paced blank verse that walks the wet sands by the edge of the stream. More generally, Yeats’s poems often catch themselves in the process of calling to a “mysterious one” who is, in some sense, the self.
But what of external forces that remodel the poet, whatever he might wish, especially other people, contemporary history, time and ageing? Already, in the earlier “Adam’s Curse,” what Denis Donoghue calls “the acceptance of defeat” imparts poignancy to the verse (73). The poem is about poetry and about female beauty, the work involved in both. The “curse” of the title is the need for labour, yet the labour necessary for poetic achievement serves also as an imaginative blessing. Were symbolic triumphs easy, poetry would soon seem trite. Here the poet may not be at the breakfast table, but he sits together in a social group: “We sat together at one summer’s end,/ That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,/ And you and I, and talked of poetry” (1-3). T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock creates a quasi-Freudian frisson in his invitation to an evening stroll: “Let us go then, you and I,/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherised upon a table.” Even before the anaesthetised shock of the simile, “you and I,” perched at the end of the line, parodies the language of solicitous invitation as it prepares for a poetic journey that makes us wonder who “you and I” are. Craig Raine has recently restated the view that Eliot’s poems deal with “the buried life,” in Matthew Arnold’s phrase, with “occluded selves” (xx), and he recalls in doing so C. K. Stead’s subtle argument that when Eliot praises “the impersonal voice” he speaks of “the voice of the poet’s ‘soul,’ that part of his being which is unknowable, even to himself” (143). Eliot’s Prufrock is a medley of voices, one may feel, singing contrapuntal songs, one of which, the voice of the suddenly empowered and longing “id,” utters the lines, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
Less occluded, buried and multiple than Eliot’s, Yeats’s poetic selves are shaped consciously, then cunningly challenged. His “you and I” at the opening of “Adam’s Curse” seems altogether more conventional than Eliot’s, but the poem complicates the dialogue form by heading towards a voicing of unvoiced thought. It is a poem about models, supposedly right ways to conduct love:
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books.
This is love-making modelled on Castiglione’s The Courter—and Yeats is surely, if ever so slightly, sending up such lovers who “sigh and quote with learned looks/ Precedents out of beautiful old books.” But with an unspoken pang the poem turns to the “you,” who has not spoken:
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
Yeats is bidding farewell to an earlier poetic self, one that used the cosmos as grist to a symbolic mill; he and his beloved have fallen into an unapocalyptic wash of “days and years” (33). And yet this valediction accompanies a rediscovery of what motivated the earlier quasi-Petrarchan purpose in the first place. One notices the strength of “I strove / To love you in the old high way of love” (emphasis added), where the verb battles with the poeticised noun, breathing life into the living-by-precedents which has been ever so lightly mocked. Maud is “beautiful” in a way that lies beyond the assertion that we “must labour to be beautiful” (20) and the reference to “Precedents out of beautiful old books.” The “old high way of love” sought to respond to the disturbing reality of her beauty. If defeat is being spoken of here and almost embodied in the final, dissonant off-rhyme of “grown” and “moon,” the syntax tells us of the poet’s desperate need to stay in control even as he cedes failure and weary-heartedness. The last five lines make up the “thought for no one’s but your ears,” where an urgency of address shows itself in the deliberately inelegant elision. Disillusion joins hands with development; awareness of emotional failure is itself grounds for a secret society of two. The self both allows itself to be overborne by time and change, and retains a kind of poetic authority, albeit one grounded in a new knowledge of the challenges faced by poetic authority.
Accident and incoherence make themselves felt, then, though it is only fair to say that when they are allowed into the Yeatsian phantasmagoria there is a great deal of artful stage-management. In “The People” Yeats shapes and models a version of himself, one subsisting in a rhetorically charged blank verse and tired of “The daily spite of this unmannerly town” (3; the poem is quoted from Yeats’s Poems, ed. Jeffares). “Unmannerly” is the clue: he wishes to live in a culture of manners, among “unperturbed and courtly images” (11). All this is said to be a “longing” (7) and the poem’s artfulness shows itself in the way in which Yeats’s grievance-ridden rancour strikes a note far removed from the ideal of courtly urbanity that he proposes. In Renaissance Urbino, with which he contrasts contemporary Dublin, he might have known, he claims, people who could “mix/ Courtesy and passion” (16-17). At which point his “phoenix” (22), as he calls Maud Gonne (with a tinge of self-mockery at his own affectedness), puts him, rather majestically, in his place:
Thereon my phoenix answered in reproof,
“The drunkards, pilferers of public funds,
All the dishonest crowd I had driven away,
When my luck changed and they dared meet my face,
Crawled from obscurity, and set upon me
Those I had served and some that I had fed;
Yet never have I, now nor any time,
Complained of the people.”
Maud, as ventriloquised by Yeats, has, it might be noted, every inch as much contempt for the “dishonest crowd” as he has already shown; “Crawled from obscurity” is spoken with a slow derision that makes the flesh creep as the thought of such crawlers, and one notes, too, how “set upon me” has not even the courage of its own treachery. The line-ending enacts a cowardly skulking behind and setting on of others. But, for all Maud’s own scorn, it frees itself from complaining of “the people,” and in registering her “reproof” Yeats captures the stalling of his thought. The dream of being “something intended, complete” is banished by this “reproof,” and the poet is confronted by his own spite and meanness. He comes up with a defence; she, not having “lived in thought but deed,/ Can have the purity of a natural force” (30-1), whereas his “analytic mind” (33) means that he “can neither close/ The eye of the mind nor keep my tongue from speech” (33-4). But the defence sounds like logic-chopping. The phrase “the eye of the mind,” straight after the first-person pronoun, sounds like a bad pun; the “analytic” plea seems manifestly defensive.
A breakthrough occurs at the end when the former self-fashioning breaks down:
And yet, because my heart leaped at her words,
I was abashed, and now they come to mind
After nine years, I sink my head abashed.
He is twice “abashed” because he is stirred by what she has said, by his belated sense, perhaps, that his “phoenix” has risen from the ashes of the unmerited attacks she has experienced and proved herself to be, indeed, a friend that could “mix/ Courtesy and passion.” The poet is left “abashed” by her humility, by his hubris. At stake throughout are differing senses of self: Yeats passes from the would-be Renaissance poet enjoying the patronage of an art-loving Italian prince to the recognition that, at some level, he is at one with what he despises. And, as often in Yeats, the sense of the poet directing his poem’s “phantasmagoria” plays its part in the final reckoning, even in the midst of self-abasement. The fact that the words “come to mind” calls into question the virtues supposedly inhering in “the definitions/ Of the analytic mind” (32-3): another kind of “mind” is apparent here, that of involuntary memory. From that concluding self-abashment springs another, remodelled self, one audible in the dignifying effect of the repeated account of being “abashed,” where we sense the undergoing by the poet of some self-created ceremony of penance.
“The People” places us in contact with a mind passing judgement upon itself in the poetic act. Always behind and often in the Yeatsian poem, not exactly paring his fingernails, but organising the curtain drops and the shifting images of the phantasmagoria, is the figure of the poet, adjusting, controlling, shaping, and yet himself shaped by the very poem that he is shaping. One plot in the tragic changes recorded in “Easter, 1916” involves a fuller, deeper grasp of the poet’s role. The poet, passing the republican figures who gave their lives in the Rising of 1916, was, before that tumultuous event, “certain that they and I/ But lived where motley is worn” (13-14). When he asserts, “All changed, changed utterly” (15) he has in mind, too, his role and duty as a poet, the singer in his robes who will close the poem with a stirring declaration: “I write it out in a verse ...” (74). Yet this roll-call mythologises consciously, and what Yeats writes out in a verse includes some extremely complicated feelings. “Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart” (57-8): the very image of permanence suggests the destructive hardness of unswerving commitment to a cause. It suggests, too, a poet’s fear of fixity. He wants to celebrate to praise, to record a “terrible beauty” (80), an annunciation in and through history. Yet swirls of bitten-back protest animate the poem: the accidental makes one of its most potent appearances in Yeats in the third section when “the living stream” (44) of time is evoked: “A shadow of cloud on the stream/ Changes minute by minute” (49-50). This change is contingent, accidental, fleeting, outside, marginal to the tragic change wrought by the revolutionaries, a change that brings about near-arrest, as is caught in the strong stresses of “All changed, changed utterly.”
The poem’s troubled state shows in the way in which it cannot stop asking questions: “Was it needless death after all?” (67); “And what if excess of love/ Bewildered them till they died?” (72-3). What if even those who have changed things for ever were “Bewildered,” a verb that exonerates even as it hints a criticism—can you blame someone for being “bewildered,” especially by “excess of love”? Well, you cannot, but even to ask the question suggests the continued disturbance of the poet’s mind. Yeats intersperses and offers no “complete” answers, only the weighed assertions, “We know their dream; enough/ To know they dreamed and are dead” (70-1), lines that use “know” deliberately to waive the possibility of comment on the validity of the revolutionaries’ “dream.” All these pondered hesitations are written out of the poet’s divided self “in a verse.” He, too, has “changed,” making us aware in the process of a self-divided poet arriving at an unsimple affirmation in the face of something antithetical to the accidental self: a major historical transformation. Yeats’s career has pivoted on wishing to sing a new Ireland into being; yet when history hands him the theme on a plate the result is an intense phantasmagoria perplexed by the poet’s inability to be “something intended, complete.” His sense that he is “True brother of a company” (2), as he expresses his earlier desire in “To Ireland in the Coming Times,” is true only to the degree that such fraternity is inseparable from an individualist sense of apartness, even aloneness.
“Easter, 1916” shows the poetic self caught in yet conducting itself through the labyrinths shaped by the poem’s own unfolding. The tragic dimension accorded to “changed,” for example, must accommodate the challenge to it in the central account of “the living stream,” where the fleeting, the transitory, and the accidental takes pride of place: “A shadow of cloud on the stream/ Changes minute by minute.” Again, an attempted comparison between the dead revolutionaries and children to whom “sleep at last has come/ On limbs that had run wild” (63-4) affectingly derails itself, as the poem uses a question and answer exchange to build towards and move away from the escapist consolation of a metaphor: “What is it but nightfall?/ No, no, not night but death” (65-6). More generally, an aspect of the Yeatsian poetic self believes that art is a place where “Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show” (22), as “The Statues” has it, where the repetition shows reflection finding only itself endlessly doubled. But in that poem “Empty eyeballs knew/ That knowledge increases unreality, that/ Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show” (20-2).This Buddhist glimpse of “emptiness” (24) enters the poem’s story of different approaches to “reality,” only, so the poem’s elliptical transitions suggest, to be overcome by a force of will, “the heroic cry” raised by the “west”, embodied, both anciently and recently, in “We Irish” (28). Comparably, the poet must be “lost amid the labyrinth that he has made” (“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” III, 70), yet simultaneously be able to know that he is still making that “labyrinth.”
Yeats’s poetry is remarkable for the concentrated power with which it embodies such knowledge. At the end of “Man and the Echo” the poem’s design mimics its own shattering or distraction:
O rocky voice,
Shall we in that great night rejoice?
What do we know but that we face
One another in this place?
But hush, for I have lost the theme,
Its joy or night seem but a dream;
Up there some hawk or owl has struck,
Dropping out of sky or rock,
A stricken rabbit is crying out
And its cry distracts my thought.
Echo’s voice has vanished, leaving behind the Man’s questioning turn; “voice” and “rejoice” is a rhyming marriage that easily foresees its imminent divorce; knowledge is pinned back to the fact that “we face/ One another in this place?” So much for the “spiritual intellect’s great work” (20) that has been described with rhythmic force in the preceding speech. The Man’s self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark. And then Yeats offer us a moment when he destroys and builds, holding justice and reality in a single thought, combining his longing for shape and his acceptance of all that refuses to cohere. The entire debate is dismissed, commas replacing full stops as though to signal hesitant or blurring imprecisions of mind; he has “lost the theme,/ Its joy or night seem but a dream.” This wool-gathering is staged, and there is an affecting authority about the way Yeats presides over his poem’s self-undoing. Ultimately he discovers that the universe will not simply serve as an echo to his “thought.” The contraries of possible “joy” and feared “night” give way to a more creaturely intuition of what it means to be “in this place.” In the line “A stricken rabbit is crying out,” the extra syllable captures the present-tense immediacy of physical pain, before the line passes into its off-rhymed partner, “And its cry distracts my thought.” The fact that “distracts” is intricately woven into the preceding line’s sound-pattern, emerging from “struck,” “rock,” “stricken,” and “cry,” makes it a word that “completes” the poet’s design, a design that only end up as “something intended, complete” when it opens itself to “accident and incoherence.” Here, what the poet’s “thought” adds up to is not a powerful knowledge so much as a dramatised quarrel.
“But Time, to make me grieve,/ Part steals, lets part abide” (9-10): the lines are Thomas Hardy’s in “I look into my glass.” Hardy’s unheroic, wry insight into time’s mischief-making is poles apart from Yeats’s commitment to self-remaking, one might feel, and yet Yeats, too, addresses the topic of time’s attritional ironies. For him, as well as for Hardy, the erosions of temporality can call into question the very idea of what the self is, yet, in so doing, amplifies understanding of the complex reality of selfhood. Here time models the self. In “A Bronze Head” the poet sees a sculpture of Maud Gonne (by Lawrence Campbell), a sculpture introduced abruptly in a verbless first sentence that plays off against the expected elegance of the rime royale (the Troilus and Criseyde stanza) chosen by Yeats for the poem:
Here, at right of the entrance this bronze head,
Human, super-human, a bird’s round eye,
Everything else withered and mummy-dead.
What great tomb-haunter sweeps the distant sky;
(Something may linger there though all else die;)
And finds there nothing to make its terror less
Hysterico-passio of its own emptiness?
The shock of Maud’s appearance as a terrifying “tomb-haunter” is reflected, as Helen Vendler points out, in the poem’s inability to make of its first quatrain “something intended, complete” (351). It carries over, one might argue, in the half-traumatic misrecollection of Lear’s “hysterica passio.” Is the sculptor’s version of Maud true of her entire being as well as arrestingly evocative of her current state? Pursuing the implications of that question, Yeats asks, “who can tell/ Which of her forms has shown her substance right” (10-11), before dropping his voice in the musing reflection,“Or may be substance can be composite” (12). “Profound McTaggart thought so” (13), writes Yeats, his sprezzatura apparent in the adjective which, in conferring profundity, suggests how much more “Profound” is the poet imparting qualities to one of his dramatis personae. McTaggart was a neo-Hegelian philosopher, who, in Human Immortality and Pre-Existence (1915) wrote, in respect of the seeming cessation of existence: “It means that units, which were combined in a certain way, are now combined otherwise. The form has changed. But everything which was there before is there now” (quoted from Jeffares 499). But the poem drives on beyond this abstract comfort, returning to its opening sense of Maud as “Human, super-human” in lines that dramatise Yeats’s understanding of her, an understanding that surely projects onto Maud the poet’s own “vision of terror", a vision that he could imagine shattering his soul as well as hers:
But even at the starting-post, all sleek and new,
I saw the wildness in her and I thought
A vision of terror that it must live through
Had shattered her soul. Propinquity had brought
Imagination to that pitch where it casts out
All that is not itself. I had grown wild
And wandered murmuring everywhere “my child, my child!”
The poem’s drama has to do with the revelations it is implicitly making about Yeats’s self as it describes his attempt to understand Maud’s self. Few poems are more about modelling the self than this one is, and the last lines of the third stanza unite poet and Maud. The poem, like Maud, brings “Imagination to that pitch where it casts out/ All that is not itself.” The poet who “saw the wildness in her” has been taken over by that wildness: “I had grown wild,” he writes, advancing the word into the couplet rhyme place. In his pity for her, Yeats becomes the “wild” thing he sees her as being, “And wandered murmuring everywhere ‘my child, my child!’” This is Maud as a human receptacle for a “terror” too great to be lived through. But the alternative, chilling in its way, is that she is more at one with the “supernatural” (22), “As though a sterner eye looked through her eye” (23) and expressed a terrifying contempt for “this foul world in its decline and fall” (24). Here Yeats attributes to Maud eugenicist ideas found in his own On the Boiler, but the canny, uncanny syntax means that “wondered” at the end (“And wondered what was left for massacre to save” (28)) could either be governed by “I thought” (22) or could be a response attributed to the near-inhuman “sterner eye.” In “The Bronze Head” no one proposition about the self is absolute. None of the poem’s speculations is more than that: a speculation. All are offered with passion and force. The poem addresses Yeats’s thinking about the value of the self constructed by and constructing “Heroic reverie” (27), “reverie” that knowingly contemplates the dependence of the “Heroic” on “massacre.”
Here, Yeats’s dramatisations of feelings about the effects of time on the self ally themselves unpredictably with his representation of the poetic self engaged in such dramatising. “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz” is an earlier poem that also submits to and fights against “time” (25), but whose inflections are less emphatically “Heroic.” It is written in tetrameter quatrains, rhyming abba, the In Memoriam stanza as Vendler observes, iambic, but sharpening at moments of greater intensity into trochees. One such moment is the fourth line, which concludes the exquisite opening epiphany, where the series of phrases suspends the moment, confusing the workings of memory with an eternal present:
The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
But nothing stands still, as even the enjambment of “both/ Beautiful” hints. The “Beautiful” sisters destroy themselves, so the poet goes on to lament half-sardonically, the one (Con Markiewicz) “Conspiring among the ignorant” (9), the other (Eva Gore-Booth) in her “withered old and skeleton-gaunt” (12) state an image of Utopian politics. Sense overruns the quatrains, much as time has despoiled the sisters’ beauty. We enter another kind of time towards the first paragraph’s close, the inner life of resolve and implicit regret, the idea the poet has of picking up the threads of his relationships (“Many a time I think to seek” (14)), so that he might “recall/ That table and the talk of youth” (17-18), before he goes back into reverie, repeating the haunting lines,“Two girls in silk kimonos, both/ Beautiful, one a gazelle” (19-20).
The poem’s structure, dividing into two halves, each with its own inner divergences, reflects the drama of its treatment of the remodelling poetic self. In the second half, Yeats addresses the sisters as “Dear shadows” (21); he can speak to them directly because they are “shadows,” shades of memory, victims of mortality, dead as we can find out (the title invites us to do so, naming specific individuals), and he shifts in his view of them, no longer speaking with scorn of their “politics” (13). He sees them as victims of “time”—“The innocent and the beautiful/ Have no enemy but time” (24-5)—and seeks to invoke them as spectral metaphorical arsonists, fellow terrorists of the imagination, if you like, who will burn nothing but time itself. The change is startling, after the complex living in time of the first section. Now the poet turns on time itself; now he is at one with the sisters from whom he distanced himself: “We the great gazebo built” (30). “We,” changed from “I” in the draft, unites poet and sisters in some Anglo-Irish pact, seeing the trio as battle-scarred seers who “know it all,/ All the folly of a fight/ With a common wrong or right” (21-3). So much for “active virtue” and the value of “conflict.” Now, with great power, Yeats would turn on his own creation, “the great gazebo,” his version of Coleridge’s “stately pleasure-dome” (“Kubla Khan,” 2). Jeffares suggests that “gazebo” has “three possible meanings … a summer-house; … to make yourself ridiculous; and a place to look from” (594). To these three, one might add a fourth: the new Ireland itself, the Ireland that has emerged from the dreams of the Literary Revival and the horrors of civil war. Yeats makes a magnificent gazebo of himself as he invites the sisters to help him demolish time, the material creation, almost the poem itself; and yet only “almost” since the poem moves towards some near-atemporal space where a poet’s metaphorical commands have power, where poetry is the metaphysical fire burning up what “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” calls “The entire combustible world” (82).
In the end, after all the shape-changing, the poetic remaking, and the self-fashioning, Yeats appears to turn to the unregenerate self that resists being remodelled: “appears to turn” since even the model-resistant self involves a reworking of the self. This apparent turn, complexly manifest in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” occurs in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.” Both speakers are elements within Yeats: Harold Bloom calls them the “esoteric Yeats,” the Soul intent on spiritual knowledge and redemption, and the “natural man,” the Self, refusing to be refined out of existence (375). Pitiless adversaries, locked in unyielding struggle, they are evidently twinned forever. Soul begins with the arresting and arrested line, “I summon to the winding ancient stair” (1), then issues commands that will ultimately lead to a “quarter where all thought is done” (7): in that “done,” “carried out” jostles ambivalently with “finished.” Self does not debate these commands, but affirms images that speak of this world, a world of sexuality, men and women, of action (“The consecrated blade upon my knees” (9)) and love (“That flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn/ From some court-lady’s dress” (13-14)). Soul is scornful of Self’s recollection of things “that are/ Emblematical of love and war” (18-19); its colloquial mimicry heaps scorn on intellect’s “wandering/ To this and that and t’other thing” (22-3), while its command, “Deliver from the crime of death and birth” (24), implies total rejection of living. Self digs its heels in, though with no philosophical or mystical language to challenge the Soul’s superiority, and claims “A charter to commit the crime once more” (32), presumably the “crime” of existing. Soul finally goes beyond language to contemplation of “Heaven” (38) where all dualisms vanish and language reaches its limits.
Soul has reached the point where further speech is unnecessary, and the second half of the poem is given over wholly to Self. Self passionately commits itself to life, and yet that commitment is edged with bitterness as the poetry rehearses the arduous process of what it means to be “A living man” (41). Certainly, the poet does imaginatively reincarnate his life in words, but the always perceptive M. L. Rosenthal is for once a little hasty when he says “It is as if he had risen from the psychoanalyst’s couch cleansed of any sense of having to atone for being the person he was” (304). Yeats will never lose the sense of poetry as place where “atonement” is sought, a seeking that involves toil and struggle audible in questions which imply the simultaneous answers, “It would not matter” and “It would matter greatly.”
What matter if I live it all once more?
Endure that toil of growing up;
The ignominy of boyhood; the distress
Of boyhood changing into man;
The unfinished man and his pain
Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;
The finished man among his enemies?––
These lines confront the desperately painful stages of what is often euphemistically referred to as “growth.” And yet propelling the process is not merely human biology, but the wish to be the kind of man who could be the poet engaged in writing the current poem. If, as Vendler observes (Our Secret Discipline 312), “ignominy” points back to its Latinate meaning of lacking a name, the whole shaping of the stanza parallels the movement towards being a “finished man,” a man who has forged a name for himself in the fires of poetic and existential development. At the same time, this development cannot bypass the lacerating “pain” involved in being “Brought,” in the present tense of the poem, “face to face with his own clumsiness,” where rhyme only accentuates the “distress” that includes the poet’s unsparing sense of the cost involved in the self’s remodelling through poetry.
And then, once the man is “finished,” has bridged that stanza break, has made of himself “something intended, complete,” what then? What awaits him are enmity, spite, and, evoked with biting accuracy, that process which Shelley calls “self-contempt” (see, for example, Laon and Cythna, 8. 3381) when the self becomes what it beholds and is taken over by the caricatured image presented to itself by “The mirror of malicious eyes” (52). The stanza is disturbed, enjambed, and restless and yet Self fights back: after all, there is a tenacious (and, the poetry persuades us through its strength and pathos, valid) clinging to a sense of self-worth involved in seeing the eyes of others as “malicious.” “I am content,” he says, “to live it all again” (57), before the poetry tumbles “again,” by way of another qualification, into a refocusing, as of a flare-up of temporarily sedated toothache, of what the just-spoken words mean: “if it be life to pitch/ Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch” (58-9). But in the final stanza catharsis of sorts is achieved, and the lines show that Yeats’s poetic self is reluctant to lose touch with the “bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast.” Rather he reshapes and remodels it. Acceptance pluralises itself:
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.
The emphasis on “I,” following the exhilarating decision to “Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot” (67), spells out the conscious self-remodelling at work here. Yeats will “Measure the lot” partly because he has put into poetic “measure” his sense of the charivari of living, a measuring of his experience that finally aligns itself with a determination to place the solitary first person in a larger company (“We,” 70, 71). This alignment seems sparked into being by the willingness to “forgive myself the lot,” making possible the state of forgiveness denied by the Soul to the living, and brings about a ceaseless interplay between self and reality: “We must laugh and we must sing.” Not only do “we sing amid our uncertainty,” we “must” do so; it is the poet’s categorical imperative to affirm, to realise that “We are blest by everything” and “Everything we look upon is blest.” If we receive but what we give, then blessings will generate further blessings, Yeats summoning up, appropriately, Romantic predecessors operating on either side of the fence that separates Innocence from Experience: Blake in his Songs of Innocence conceiving of life as a process of reciprocal giving of grace, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner momentarily released from guilt, able to bless the sea-snakes. But just as the mariner is compelled to tell his tale over and over, so Yeats, to the end of his career, working in the wake of the great Romantics and their complex bequest in the realm of self-making and self-remodelling, oscillates between selves, between (to borrow words from “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”) the “dream” of art and the word that “art” calls up as a troubling rhyme-partner, the “heart,” often waywardly at odds with whatever is “intended, complete.”
Michael O’Neill is a Professor of English at Durham University and a Director of the University’s Institute of Advanced Study. His recent publications include The All-Sustaining Air: Romantic Renewals and Legacies in British, American, and Irish Poetry (Oxford UP, 2007) and Wheel (Arc, 2008), a collection of poems.
Quoted, as are all Yeats’s writings where possible, from W. B. Yeats: The Major Works, ed. Edward Larrissy (379). Page numbers supplied parenthetically for quotations from Yeats’s prose.
Quoted from Lord Byron; “image” has been substituted for “imagine.”
Yeats from a journal entry of January 1929, quoted from Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats, as excerpted in The Poems of W. B. Yeats: A Sourcebook 52.
See Ellmann’s discussion, as excerpted in The Poems of W. B. Yeats; see especially 51-2.
See Vendler, especially 169-70 and her quotation from Seamus Deane 169.
For a fine discussion, see Reeves 94.
For Yeats’s dealings with revelation in this and other poems, see Wood, “Yeats and Violence.”
Yeats’s poem is quoted from Yeats’s Poems, ed. and annotated A. Norman Jeffares. Line numbers have been supplied. Coleridge is quoted from Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Complete Poems, ed. William Keach.
See Yeats’s letter concerning “Lapis Lazuli:” “But no, I am wrong, the east has its solutions always and therefore knows nothing of tragedy. It is we, not the east, that must raise the heroic cry” (quoted in Yeats’s Poems 622).
This reading, “Hysterico-passio,” is to be found in the printing in The New Republic, 22 March 1939, and in the “ribbon-copy typescript” of the poem, which seems to be Yeats’s final version (see W. B. Yeats, “Last Poems,” l). Lear uses the phrase in 2. 4. 55 (Conflated Text; Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt).
See John Bayley for a shrewd account of how “Profound MacTaggart [sic] lends both weight and ease to the stanza” 111.
See the prosodic discussion in Vendler 225-6; she makes the connection with Tennyson on 226.
See Vendler 314 for a different collocation of the two poets (she sees Blake as supplanting Coleridge).
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