William Butler Yeats: Quotations (8)


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‘For some weeks now I have been elaborating my play in London where alone I can find the help I need, Mr Dulac’s master of design and Mr Ito’s genius of movement; yet it pleases me to think that I am working for my own country. Perhaps some day a play in the form I am adapting for European purposes shall awake once more, whether in Gaelic or in English, under the slope of Slieve-na-mon or Croagh Patrick ancient memories; for this form has no need of scenery that runs away with money nor of a theatre-building. Yet I know that I only amuse myself with a fancy; for though my writings if they be sea-worthy must put to sea, I cannot tell where they may be carried by the wind. Are not the fairy-stories of Oscar Wilde, which were written for Mr Ricketts and Mr Shannon and for a few ladies, very popular in Arabia?’ (April 1916; quoted in papers of Hiroshi Suzuki.)

Wm. Shakespeare
Jonathan Swift
George Berkeley
Edmund Burke
William Blake

William Shakespeare (I), in “Stratford-on-Avon” (Ideals of Good and Evil, 1903): ‘I do not thing cannot believe that Shakespeare looked in his Richard II with any but sympathetic eyes, understanding how ill-fitted he was to be king, at a certain moment of history, but understanding thta he was lovable and full of capricious fancy, “a wild creature” as Pater has called him. [..] To suppose that Shakespeare preferred the men who deposed his king is to suppose that Shakespeare judged men with the eyes of a Municipal Councillor weighting the merits of a Town Clerk.’ (Essays and Introductions, p.105.) ‘[To suppose that] Shakespeare preferred the men who deposed his king is to suppose that Shakespeare judged men with the eyes of a Municipal Councillor weighting the merits of a Town Clerk.’ (Idem.) ‘He saw indeed, as I think, in Richard II the defeat that awaits all, whether they be artist or saint, who find themselves where men ask of them a rough energy and have nothing to give but some contemplative virtue, whether lyrical fantasy, or sweetness of temper, or dreamy dignity, or love of God, or love of His creatures. He saw that such a man through sheer bewilderment and impatience can become as unjust or as violent as any common man, any Bolingbroke or Prince John, and yet remain “that sweet lovely rose”. The courtly and saintly ideals of the Middle Ages were fading, and the practical ideals of the modern age had begun to threaten the unuseful dome of the sky; Merry England was fading, and yet it was not so faded that the poets could not watch the procession of the world with that untroubled sympathy for men as they are, as apart from all they do and seem, which is the substance of tragic irony.’ (Ibid., 106; quoted in Barry Montgomery, ‘Yeats’s Occult Philosophy of Art’, UUC MA Diss. 2003.)

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William Shakespeare (II): ‘The heroes of Shakespeare convey to us through their looks, or through the metaphorical patterns of their speech, the sudden enlargement of their vision, their ecstasy at the approach of death. The supernatural is present, cold winds blow across our hands, upon our faces, the thermometer falls, and because of that cold we are hated by journalists and groundlings. There may be in this or that detail painful tragedy, but the whole work none. I have heard Lady Gregory say, rejecting some play in the modern manner sent to the Abbey Theatre, “Tragedy must be a joy to the man who dies.” Nor is it any different with lyrics, songs, narrative poems [...] The maid of [honour] whose tragedy they sing must be lifted out of history and timeless pattern, she is one of the four M[a]ries, the rhythm is old and familiar, imagination must dance, must be carried beyond feeling into the aboriginal ice.’ (Essays & Introductions, pp.522-23; quoted in Brown, op. cit., 1999, p.360.)

William Shakespeare (III): ‘Shakespeare’s people make all things serve their passion ...: birds, beasts, men, women, landscape, society are but symbols, and metaphors, nothing is studied in itself, the mind is a dark well, no surface, depth only.’ (Autobiographies, NY: Collier Books 1965, p.194; quoted in Ronald Schleifer, ‘Yeats’s Postmodern Rhetoric’, in Leonard Orr, ed., Yeats and Modernism, Syracuse UP 1991, p.28. (See also Yeats’s remarks on Dowden’s Shakespeare, supra.)

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Jonathan Swift [Yeats’s explanation of Swift’s view of the One, the Few, and the Many:] ‘The One is the executive [...] the Few are those who though the possession of hereditary wealth, or great personal gifts, have come to identify their lives with the life of the State, whereas the lives and the ambitions of the Many are private. The Many do their day’s work well, and so far from copying even the wisest of their neighbours, affect “a singularity” in action and thought [...] And furthermore, from the moment of enlistment thinks himself above other men and struggles for power until all is confusion.’ (Introduction to Words for Music Perhaps; rep. in Essays, p.351; quoted in Jeffares, New Commentary, 1984, p.346; quoted more fully in Jeffares, pp.282-83, as attached.)

Jonathan Swift [of Swift’s theory of the balance of the One, the Few, and the Many]: ‘Thought seems more true, emotion more deep, spoken by someone who touches my pride, who seems to claim me of his kindred, who seems to make me a part of some national mythology [...]’ (Wheels and Butterflies, p.8; quoted in Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Mask, 1948, p.271.)

Jonathan Swift:

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William Blake: ‘William Blake expounds the history of inspiration by a very curious and obscure symbol. A lark, he says, mounts upwards into the heart of the heavens, and there is met by another and descending lark, which touches its wings to its wings [...] man attains spiritual influence in like fashion. He must go on perfecting earthly power and perception until they are so subtilised that divine power and divine perception descend to meet them, and the song of earth and the song of heaven mingle together.’ (“William Carleton”, in Uncollected Prose, ed. John Frayne, Vol. 1, 1970, p.384; quoted in Barry Montgomery, ‘Yeats’s Occult Philosophy of Art’, UUC MA Diss. 2003.)

See also “The Thinking of the Body”: ‘[...] Art bids us touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrinks from what Blake calls mathematic form, from every abstract thing, from all that is of the brain only, from all that is not a fountain jetting from the entire hopes, memories, and sensations of the body.’ (In The Cutting of the Agate], Essays & Introductions, Macmillan, 4p.292; quoted in Denis Donoghue, Yeats, London: Collins/Fontana 1971, p.45-46.)

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William Blake and the Imagination” (1897): ‘There have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the future mixed her breath into the breath and shoor her hair about them, and hid them from the understanding of their times. William Blake was one of these men, and if he spoke confussedly and obscurely it was because he spoke of things for whose speaking he could find no models in the world he knew. He announced the religion of art, of which no man dreamed in the world he knew; and he understood it more perfectly than the thousands of subtle spirits who have received its baptism in the world we know, because in the beginning of important things - in the beginning of love, in the beginning of the day, in the beginning of any work - there is a moment when we understand more perfeclty than we understand gain until all is finished. In his time educated people believed that they amused themselves with books of imagination, but that they “made their souls” by listening to sermons and by doing or by not doing certain things. When they had to explain by serious people like themselves honoured the great poets greatly they were hard put to it for lack of good reasons. In our time we are agreed that we “make our souls” out of some one of the great poets of ancient times [...] while we amuse ourselves, or, at [111] best, make a poorer sort of soul, by listening to sermons or by not doing certain things.’ (Essays and Introductions, [1962], p.111-15, here p.111-12.) [Cont.]

William Blake and the Imagination” (1897) - [cont.]: He had learned from Jacob Boehme and from old alchemist writers that imagination was the first emanation of divinity, “the body of God”, “the Divine members”, and he drew the deduction, which they did not draw, that the imaginative arts were therefore the greatest of Divine revelations, and that the sympathy with all living things, sinful and righteous alike, which the imaginative arts awaken, is that forgiveness of sins commanded by Christ. The reason, and by the reason he meant deductions from the observations of the senses, binds us to mortality because it binds us to the senses, and divides us from each other by showing us our clashing interests; but imagination divides us from mortality by making the immortality of beauty, and binds us to each other by opening the secret doors of all hearts. he cried again and again that everything that lives is [112] holy, and that nothing is unholy except those things that do not live - lethargies, and cruelties, and timidities, and that denial of imagination which is the root they grew from in old times. Passions, because most living, are most holy - and this was a scandalous paradox in his time - and man shall enter eternity borne on their wings. [...] This philosophy kept him more simply a poet than any poet of his time, for it made him content to express every beautiful feeling that came into his head without troubling about its utility or chaining it to any utilitiy. [... W]hen one reads Blake, it is as though the spray of an inexhaustible fountain of beauty was blown into our faces, and not merely when one reads the Songs of Innocence, or the lyrics he wished to call “Ideas of Good and Evil”, but when one reads those “Prophetic Books” in [113] which he spoke confusedly and obscurely because he spoke of things for whose speaking he could find no models in the world about him. He was a symbolist who had to invent his symbols; and his counties of England, with their correspondence to the tribes of Israel, and his mountains and rivers, with their correspondence to parts of a man’s body, are arbitrary as some of the symbolism in the Axël of the symbolist Villiers de l’Isle Adam is arbitrary, while they mix incongruous things as Axël does not. He was a man crying out for a mythology, and trying to make one because he could not find one to hand.’ (Essays and Introductions, [1962], pp.12-14.)

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William Blake and the Imagination” (1897) - [cont.]): ‘Had he been a Catholic of Dante’s time he would have been well content with Mary and the angels; or had been a scholar of our time he would have taken his symbols where Wagner took his, from Norse mythology; or have followed, with the help of Professor Rhys, that pathway into Welsh mythology which he found in Jerusalem; or have gone to Ireland and chosen for his symbols the sacred mountains, along whose sides the peasant still sees enchanted fires, and the divinities which have not faded from the belief, if they have faded from the prayers, of simple hearts; and have spoken without mixing incongruous things because he spoke of things that had been long steeped in emotion; and have been less obscure because a traditional mythology stood on the threshold of his meaning and on the margin of his sacred darkness. [....].’ (“Ideas of Good and Evil”, in Essays and Introductions, 1961, 1961, pp.110-15.)

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George Berkeley: A time has come when man must have certainty, and man knows what he has made. Man has made mathematics, but God reality. Instead of hierarchical society, where all men are different, came democracy; instead of a science which had re-discovered Anima Mundi, its experiments and observations confirming the speculations of Henry More, came materialism: all that Whiggish world Swift stared on till he became a raging man. The ancient foundations had scarcely dispersed when Swift”. young acquaintance Berkeley destroyed the new for all that would listen, created modern philosophy and established for ever the subjectivity of space. No educated man to-day accepts the objective matter and space of popular science, and yet deductions made by those who believed in both dominate the world, make possible the stimulation and condonation of revolutionary massacre and the multiplication of murderous weapons by substituting for the old humanity with its unique irreplaceable individuals something that can be chopped and measured like a piece of cheese; compel denial of the immortality of the soul by hiding from the mass of the people that the grave-diggers have no place to bury us but in the human mind. (Explorations, pp.435-36; quoted in A. N. Jeffares, A New Commentary to the Poems [... &c.], Macmillan 1984, p.282 [commentary on “The Seven Sages”; but cf. “Under Ben Bulben”: ‘Though grave-diggers’ toil is long [...] They but thrust their buried men / Back in the human mind again’, Collected Poems, 1950, p.398. )

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