W.B. Yeats: quarrelling with himself

‘We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.’[1]

Yeats

This famous statement by W.B. Yeats reflects the appeal of his most powerful poems. The poems which I go back to or am rediscovering often possess this quality of emerging from the writer’s internal struggle, which not only elicits an emotional empathy but also creates a dynamic which carries the poem forward. It is this sense of struggle that I responded to as I reread Eliot’s Four Quartets and which I recognise again in Yeats.

 

I was brought up on Yeats, particularly the early poetry and the drama, so, in one sense, his work feels as if it were part of my DNA.  On the other hand, I find many of his ideas antipathetic, offensive or just plain daft, and I have no wish to immerse myself in them.  I have read many demolitions of his romantic ideas about big houses and the role of the aristocracy as well as articles challenging his status as an Irish writer, given his Protestant Ascendancy background, and these have flavoured my attitude over the years. Rereading him now, I recognise that he belongs indisputably, wilfully and complicatedly, to Irish history and culture; I recognise also the heights of sheer brilliance he reaches in language; finally, I recognise and respond to the element of struggle which runs through so much of his poetry but which is perhaps most apparent in his later work.

 

At a philosophical level, this struggle has been described as dialectic, a process which Yeats inherited from the Romantics, most particularly William Blake, who remained one of his heroes and whose work he championed: ‘Without contraries, there is no progression’. At the emotional level, we might think of Keats and his ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, where the conflict between the desire for the ageless immortality of art is set against the warm but fragile flesh: ‘breathing human passion’ versus ‘Cold pastoral”. Keats’ poem seems very much a fore-runner of Yeats’ ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

 

Given the breadth, depth, range and sometimes passionately controversial nature of writing on Yeats, I feel reluctant to offer any analysis of his work beyond an attempt to explore this idea of personal struggle or felt conflict in a few poems. ‘The Stolen Child’ is a very early poem which I have a vague memory of reciting in choral speaking lessons at school and the chorus remains in my head:

Come away, O human child!

            To the waters and the wild

            With a faery, hand in hand,

            For the world’s more full of weeping than you

 can understand.

Aside from its wisps of Celtic Twilight, the poem presents the conflicting attractions of the purity and primacy of Nature with the comforts and sociability of human society. The Nature which is shown is that of Ancient pre-Christian Ireland, rich in wildlife and fruit.  As in Keats’ faery world in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, nothing here is cooked; only in the last stanza, which describes the world the child is leaving, is there mention of human crafts and artefacts: ‘the kettle on the hob’ and the oatmeal-chest’.  The ancient but persisting natural world is offered as an escape from the trials of human life which the child has not yet experienced. Yet all the attractions of the outdoor faery world which stretches from lake to hill to ocean and which is mapped in Irish place names, ‘Sleuth Wood’, ‘the Rosses’, ‘Glencar’ are matched by the security and warmth of the limited homestead evoked with yearning in the final stanza:

He’ll hear no more the lowing

Of the calves on the warm hillside

The poem opposes the longing for freedom, space and unity with Nature or what is beyond to the physical and joys and pains of being human.

 

In ‘When You are Old and Grey and Full of Sleep’, Yeats’ version of a sonnet by Ronsard, Love (or the rejected poet) ‘fled/ And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars’. Although the opening of the poem follows Ronsard quite closely, in these final lines Yeats moves away from the French which has a carpe diem theme:

Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:

Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.

 

Yeats, on the other hand, shows both lover and beloved left wanting. The beloved woman is left with nothing but dreams of the past as she nods by the fireside, while the lover/poet has retreated to what is lofty and beautiful, the mountains, stars and grandeur of nature but has lost the possibility of physical human love and companionship.

 

The dialogue or debate poem has a long history in the context of Christianity, where, as Marvell put it, the ‘resolved soul’ is in conflict with ‘created pleasure’.  This struggle between the soul’s heavenward aspirations and the physical joys of materiality reappears, minus the Christianity, in ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ published in The Winding Stair and Other Poems, in 1933, when Yeats was already in his sixties.  The conflict between Self and Soul in this poem has variously been described as between intellect and lust, mind and body, life and death.  Part 1 of the poem is self-consciously embellished with Yeatsian tropes such as Sato’s sword, ‘emblematical of love and war’ or ‘the tower/Emblematical of the night.’ Most of this part of the poem could be described in Yeats’ own terms as ‘rhetoric’.  The argument is balanced and the language and pace stately rather than passionate. There are vague expressions such as ‘the basin of the mind’ and reference to philosophical abstractions such ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’ which signal but do not evoke. In places, the passion and the poetry break through and in doing so, reveal the poet’s profound ambivalence.  “The winding ancient stair’ is a symbol Yeats chose to make real in his purchase of the tower at Ballylee. The paired adjectives ‘winding, ancient’, ‘broken, crumbling, ‘breathless, starlit’ accentuate the difficulty of this ascent.  ‘Breathless’ seems ominous, foreshadowing death, while the darkness ‘where all thought is done’ and is finally indistinguishable from the soul signifies the annihilation of the individual self.  The soul seeks its own extinction, something the self recoils from. Indeed, such is the self’s rejection of the soul that it is banished from the second part of the poem, where the passion of the ‘living man’ shines through. Yeats seems to be considering the possibility of some form of reincarnation where the unredeemed or unenlightened self would have to repeat his life. The first stanza of Part II is a rending recapitulation of childhood and growing up which through its devastating frankness becomes recognisable beyond that individual self and time:

 

 

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;

 

Here is the sense of struggle and of pain which makes us cherish the poem; in the third stanza, he continues to switch between relish and disgust: ‘I am content to live it all again… to pitch into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch.’ This is the very antithesis of ‘starlit air’ or ‘beautiful, lofty things’, but there is pleasure and even profit in it as revealed by the surprising adjective ‘fecund’: ‘that most fecund ditch of all,/The folly that man does/Or must suffer, if he woos/ A proud woman not kindred of his soul.’  Isn’t this another way of saying that poetry comes out of personal conflict?

 

At the end of the poem, in the view of Carol Rumens, ‘the poet finds resolution by discarding remorse in favour of self-forgiveness’. She applauds the conclusion`:

The final, gloriously childlike “We must laugh and we must sing” rings out after all the turbulence like the Ode to Joy at the end of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.[2]

However, I am less convinced by the ending; it is not so easy to banish remorse and the language which is a reprise of Blake’s  ‘For everything that lives is holy’ sounds forced:

We are blest by everything,                                                                                                 Everything we look upon is blest.

‘Forgiv[ing yourself] the lot’ can only be a very temporary sweetness and is only convincing in the presence of its contrary.

In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ from the earlier collection, The Tower (1928), the overt opposition is between the mortal, subject to age and decay, and the supposed ‘artifice of eternity’. The poet seeks to escape the natural world and the aging process by moving to Byzantium where he will be transformed into a singing golden bird.  This resolution is obviously faulty since the equation of artifice with eternity is false. In the story of The Emperor and the Nightingale by Hans Christian Anderson, the artificial singing bird breaks, and we know that works of art are subject to decay, even if the process is slower than in nature. Behind this desire to be transformed into a work of art, we hear the demands of Soul to survive the body it is shackled to: ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing…unless/Soul clap its hands and sing’. However, the real quarrel the poet has with himself in this poem is revealed in the phrase where he describes his heart as ‘sick with desire’.  The sickness of desire is produced from the powerful conflict between desiring and desiring not to desire. Despite conjuring the sages to ‘consume [his] heart away’, the strength of desire and the poet’s longing to be able to fulfil his desires are displayed in the gorgeous lines of the first stanza:

 

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

 

Compared to the abundant list of living things, the monuments of intellect seem stony and unappealing even when, as if for reassurance, they are referred to again in the next stanza. Yet, as the poem proceeds, it enacts itself as a ‘monument of magnificence’. From his quarrel with his own mortality and the effects of age, Yeats creates a splendid fiction. We do not need to believe in Byzantium, the golden bird, or the poet’s elaborately constructed philosophical system; the bird of ‘hammered gold and gold enamelling’ is the metaphor for what the poem becomes.

 

‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is a difficult poem on whose interpretation no two critics seem to agree[3]. Although it reflects feelings of disappointment, anger and horror in its “Thoughts upon the Present State of the World’ (the original title), it may be regarded as rhetorical in that the poet’s quarrel here is more with the times than with himself. It is significant that the dominant personal pronoun is ‘we’ as he places himself alongside his peers who, in the days before World War 1, before the Eastern Rising, before the Civil War, hoped and planned for a better world, ‘but now/ That winds of winter blow/ Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed’. Set against these regrets is Yeats’ belief in historical repetition which he expresses elsewhere in his theory of the gyres and alludes to here with his reference to ‘the Platonic year’ which ‘Whirls out new right and wrong,/Whirls in the old instead’.  This poem has much in common with ‘The Second Coming’ with which it shares the expectation of the end of an era and the advent of a new barbarism, but it would be wrong to call either apocalyptic since they do not anticipate the end of time but its continuation, albeit in unwelcome ways.

 

The first person singular ‘I’ only appears in the third section of the poem; the poet declares his satisfaction with the comparison of the solitary soul to a swan, describing the image he would choose:

The wings half spread for flight,

The breast thrust out in pride

Whether to play, or to ride

Those winds that clamour of approaching night.

This is an odd image for the soul, in that it seems both egotistical and supremely physical. The reader cannot but be reminded of ‘Leda and the Swan’ which appears in the same volume. This is perhaps where the quarrels with himself re-emerge, in the conflict between the spiritual and intellectual search to divest selfhood and the temporal in the journey towards death: ‘if our works could/But vanish with our breath/That were a lucky death’, an idea which seems at variance with the assertive image of the swan. The poet switches from the quietist idea of ‘ghostly solitude’ to an annihilating rage ‘to end all things’. In the same way, we feel the pull between public and private: this poem is a public statement, a verdict on the times, made by someone who has been involved in public life; at the same time, it is private, even esoteric.  The end of the poem is prophetic and rhetorical but filled with references to Yeats’ own elaborate and almost hermetic system of symbols. The last five lines seem to undermine their threat by the obscure reference to Robert Artisson and Lady Kyteler[4], so that the poem is simultaneously public and private. The final line, with its suggestion of perverted sexuality and black magic, evokes a brutal return of barbarism and irrationality, but through symbols of male beauty. Is this another way of saying the noble will be sacrificed to the rogues and rascals, that ‘ingenious and lovely things’ will be lost? If so, it is revelatory of the cast of Yeats’ mind rather than the conclusion to his argument.

Helen Vendler says that where ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is philosophical, ‘Among School Children’ is autobiographic. Certainly, it is a poem where Yeats looks back over his life, although the autobiographical elements have been scripted for dramatic effect. I find Vendler’s reading of the poem convincing, so I will hold back from extended comment. In the first stanza Yeats seems self-conscious and ill at ease in his skin as he presents himself from the outside, ‘A sixty-year-old smiling public man’. The ‘comfortable kind of old scarecrow’ which the world sees is at odds with the poet’s passionate and self-tormenting memories and reflections. The increasing sense of the futility of all human endeavour and activity is arrested in the final stanza where in Vendler’s words there is

a massive re-conceiving of life. Hitherto, life has been indexed by its two determining points- its promising inception and its betrayed close. Now, with a mighty effort, Yeats begins to think of life in two new ways.[5]

The two images he turns to in celebration of creativity and the life force are the chestnut tree and the dancer.

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Although these lines are famous as an affirmation of life, they are almost disjunct from the rest of the poem and the fact that they are framed as questions suggests that they represent a hope or an aspiration rather than a certainty. The struggle and disillusion, the bruised body, the beauty born out of despair, the blear-eyed wisdom, all survive into the last stanza.

 

There is a recording on You Tube[6] of Yeats reading his own poetry where he refuses to read his work as if it were prose, because it took him ‘a devil of a lot of trouble’ to get it into verse.  I don’t think he was just talking about versification. What I value in Yeats is the sense that a resolution like that in ‘Among School Children’ has been hard fought for in a battle to shape his disparate and messy realities into an art which is the product of life, not distinct from it.

 

 

[1] ‘Anima Hominis’ in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, 1918.

[2] Poem of the Week, The Guardian, Monday, 11th February, 2008

[3] See, for example, Eamonn Dunne in J.Hillis Miller and the Possibilities of Reading: Literature after Deconstruction,(Bloomsbury ,USA, 2010) and Foshay, Toby A., and Toby A. Forshay. “Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’: Chronology, Chronography and Chronic Misreading.” The Journal of Narrative Technique, vol. 13, no. 2, 1983, pp. 100–108. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30225063. Accessed 13 July 2020.

 

[4] Yeats did provide an explanatory note when the collection first appeared, but the last lines remain vague in their menace, although they seem eerily prescient in the present trepidatious times:

There lurches past, his great eyes without thought

Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,

That insolent fiend…’

[5] Helen Vendler, ‘The Later Poetry’ in The Cambridge Companion to W.B. Yeats edited by Marjorie Howes and John Kelly, C.U.P., 2006.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2FT4_UUa4I

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