Denis Donoghue, Yeats [Fontana Modern Masters, gen. ed. Frank Kermode] (London; Fontana/Collins 1971), 139pp.

CONTENTS: Chronology [7]; Introduction: Toward the Poetry [13; infra]; I. A Kind of Power [21; infra]; 2. The Play of Consciousness [40; infra]; 3. History and the Secret Discipline [70; infra]; 4. His Theatre [95]; 5. The Savage God [116; infra]; Notes [133]; Bibliographical Note [138]; Acknowledgements [140].

Introduction: Toward the Poetry.
I should explain at once what hope to do in this book, if only because the justification of publishing a study of Yeats at this time cannot be self-evident. There are many books on the subject already. Besides, my book has nothing new to offer in any of the following respects: it is not a biography, not even a “brief life”, it is not a guide to Yeats’s poetry, poem by poem, it does not study the poet’s sources. I am indeed concerned with the context of feeling from which the poems emerge, but I have not assumed that such a context can be indicated merely by attention to political or literary history. Yeats’s sensibility is my theme, so far as it manifests itself in the poems and plays. I would be happy to think that my account of’ the sensibility gives at least an impression of the sustaining context, but perhaps I should stop short of that claim, it is excessive.

Readers who believe that literature is important normally believe that Yeats is important. Critics who comment his poems generally do so in that belief, and they think of their readers as for the most part of similar conviction. There have been dissenting voices: critics who reject the common view that Yeats is a major poet. But even the dissenting critics address their readers on the assurnption, presumed to be shared by reader and critic, that the imagination is most profoundly engaged in literature, and that among that several kinds of literature a special aura surrounds poetry as the most subtle and concentrated life of language. Such critics deny that Yeats was a great poet, but they are among the first to assert that poetry is crucial in the history of the imagination. The late Yvor Winters was a critic of that persuasion. When [13] he discussed Yeats’s poems, he assumed that the question of poetry was a supreme question, and he argued his case with that grandeur in mind. He took for granted that his readers were of like mind, so far as the nature and value of poetry were in question. But it is my impression that Yeats’s readers nowadays include many people who have not felt obliged to make a grand commitment to poetry in general or to literature once for all. These readers do not assert the primacy of literature, they are not convinced that the imagination acts more profoundly in literature than in anthropology, philosophy, linguistics, the documentary film, or the social sciences. Mostly, literary critics preach to the converted, and their chief care is to avoid scandalizing the faithful. It is a new and tonic experience to address readers who retain, as they say, an open mind on their allegiances. In the short run, such readers make a critic’s life harder, they ask improbable questions, make wild leaps from one thing to another, propose conjunctions and fancies hardly certified in the academy. But over a longer stretch the critic is likely to feel exhilarated by the novel experience.

It cannot be impertinent to begin by saying that Yeats was a poet. He might have been mistaken for something else: politician, orator, theosophist, journalist, “public man”. He helped to found the Abbey Theatre, committing’ himself to “theatre business, management of men”. He invented a country, calling it Ireland. An enthusiast of vision, he conspired with mages, meditating upon “unknown thought”. But he took up these interests as latent forms of poetry, and the attention he gave them was poetic. Activities won his affection when they showed themselves capable of being brought to the condition of poetry. His life, seemingly diverse if not dishevelled, was unified by this consideration: everything ministered to his imagination, and was judged by that law. Ezra Pound twitted Yeats, when he became an Irish Senator, for reviving the ancient art of oratory, but Yeats knew that a speech [14] may be a poetic act. A speech has only this compared with a poem, that its survival depends upork and tradition and is therefore precarious. The poetic imagination has many aspects and relations. We Say, it is creatve, meaning that it delightsin fiction, it runs beyond the empirical evidence. Yeats accepted this sense of the word, but he add a further consideratim, that imagination is a poet’s conscience. To deal with ordinary things imaginatively is to deal with them somewhat strictly, it is not to play clucks and drakes with them. Certaingly a poet is strict with himself on these occasions, he must satisfy his imagination, whether the formal result is a poem, a public speech, or a letter to a newspaper. It has sometimes been maintained that Yeats’s professional care was given to verse and that his remaining interests were merely vacation exercises to beguile the time., The argument is intended to make the reader look carelessly upon these amateur pursuits, forgiving them when they irritate him. The poem is the thing. But a stronger argument says that there is no division between professional and amateur care. Yeats sought to make himself a poet, that is, to transform his experience, composing his life as if it were a poem. Experience provided the themes, the poetic matter, and imagination worked over this material, drawing it in to definition and form. A. man’s life is one thing and then another, a poet’s life is his Collected Poems . Yeats to make his entire life an oeuvre: the more diverse the material, the better. “Pure Poetry” was not his aim.

It as a formidable intention. Generally, poets are willing to settle for less, dividing their lives into amateur and professional occasions, with somewhat different requirements for each category. But we have only to read a few of Yeats’s poems to sense in them an exorbitant ambition, The poems may be wise, charming, and so forth, but they have these qualities by chance rather than intention. The character upon which Yeats’s art is directed, with a poetic intensity, is power: it denotes mastery, self-mastery if the [15] self is in question, as it regularly is. Going through the Collected Poems, a reader of Yeats finds himself living in an empire of feeling, the characteristic styles are imperial, words for the music of trumpets. Gradually the sense of present power imposes itself, and the reader finds himself taking everything in that spirit. Perhaps he is impressionable. But it is remarkable how persuasive the spirit is, and how determinedly Yeats’s poems draw an entire life - his own - toward a centre of power, whether its official name is passion, energy, will, or imagination. The life is various and eventful in its own right, but it is not allowed to press a claim until the formal requirements of the poem are satisfied. The relation between feeling and form is not allowed to run loose. If Yeats’s poems have a common style, it may be recognized by this sign, that it treats the relation between experience and poetry as that of servant and master. The reader, too, is kept in his place, demeanour is important because the relation between poet and teader is severe. It is not required of this style that it humble itself in order to be forgiven. The words are tokens of authority, and the only choice available to the reader is to accept or reject them. When we feel that a poem by Yeats is arrogant, we recognize the terms in which it is offered and we think them offensive. It is a requirement that we bend the knee. But arrogance is merely the extreme limit of his common tone: the sense of power is the most pervasive sense at work in the poems.

More specifically, I would maintain that Yeats delights in, conflict, because it is a mode of power. His imagination loves to cause trouble, starting quarrels between one value and another. His mind is restless with finality, because, finality is peace or death. Those who say that Yeats was a Platonist are right, subject to the. qualification that he was the opposite, empiricist or realist, even on the same occasions. If we select a value and say it is deaf to Yeats, we may be right, but only if we allow equal recognition to its opposite. There are indeed official preferences, but Yeats [16] values above all the energy of conflict. His mind needs two terms, one hardly less compelling than the other: action and knowledge, essence and existence, power and wisdom, imagination and will, life and word, personality and character, drama and picture, vision and reality. Any one of these, may engage his feeling, but the feeling longs to touch its opposite, the pairs are entertained for the tension they engender, the energy they release. It is foolish, then, to recruit Yeats to a cause, he will go over to the enemy, if only to prolong the quarrel. Now it is a maxim of criticism that a poet does not speak in his own but in an assumed character. Every poet is in that measure a dramatic poet, he imagines feelings and situations different from his own. But Yeats took this general truth more intimately to heart, making the dramatic imagination the productive force of his life. He thought of experience as, potentially, a dramatic poem: circumstance the matter, conflict and imagination the instruments, poetry the end. As for truth itself, he believed that it could not be stated, could not be known, but it might be enacted. Truth lives in the mode of action, not of knowledge: it is enacted in the temporal form of the play, and only that form is true.

In a later chapter I shall say something about a resplendent pair, history and symbol; arguing of Yeats’s symbolism that it accepts the intervention of history, with regret, and of his historical sense, that it longs to yield to the purity of presence, the present tense and that alone. These categories are familiar and therefore obscure, as obscure as other categories which they resemble, existence and essence, time and eternity. For corresponding techniques, I distinguish between interpretation and divination, the first for the historical signs, the second for symbolic portents. We make the same distinction between historicism and structuralism: historicism respects the social grammar of beginning, middle, and an end not yet reached, its congenial art is narrative; structuralism has no time for history, and respects only the internal force of structure, [17] considered as a natural law removed from time and place. I am not sure that it would be fruitless to drive our pairs somewhat further, thinking of two corresponding forms of power, politics and magic. Under any name, each member of these several. pairs has its sponsors: the arguments for and against structuralism make a case in point.

It would be idle to say that these merely make a quarrel, or that the imagination has no place among them. But one thing can be said: that each participant takes up his position and defends it, relentlessly. He does not disclose his misgiving, doubt, subversive qualms, occult allegiance to his enemy. I think a greater power of imagination is manifested where, as in Yeats’s case, the rivalries are proposed and pursued within the same mind. The trouble about a quarrel, where two men quarrel, is that each hunts the other long past reason. When the quarrels are pursued, within the same mind, the pursuit may still be intense but it is war to the life, not to the death, and the greatest cause is acknowledged to be life itself, energy, vitality.

Historically, Yeats may be understood within the context of European Romanticism. We acknowledge this when we respond to his work in terms of imagination, self and world, image and symbol, or when we think of idealism as, its philosophical companion. In its general, bearing, the work may he related to the preoccupations of the European mind since Blake, Kant, Wordsworth, and Goethe. The context is then clarified if it is allowed to include Symbolism as a special case of Romanticism, a case most suggestively present in Mallarmé and other French poets. If the matter were to be dealt with in social and political terms, it would be necessary to think of Ireland as a special case of Europe - Yeats’s own words would take the harm out of the extravagance. But if he is placed without further ado in the general setting of European Romanticism, even allowing for special cases, something is missing. I think it is the theatrical element, the sense of life as action and gesture. Before the context of feeling is really [18] useful, it must contain something active, individualistic, harsh, intolerant. To mark this element I emphasize Yeats’s kinship with Nietzsche: it seems to me a more telling relation than that between Yeats and Plato, Plotinus, or Blake.

The general sense of Yeats’s work which I propose depends upon certain notions which are easy to recite but hard to define. I mean such notions as: self, imagination, will, action, symbol, history, world, vision, self-transformation. I cannot define these terms in any way that would please a strict reader. Some of them, are reasonably clear, I think, in their practical employment but I shall make some primitive notes about them here. The idea of self-transformation is implicit in any Romanticism that takes itself seriously, where imagination is deemed a creative faculty and the self its final concern. One of the crucial doctrines of Romanticism is that the self is free, and freely creative: imagination is the common name for that freedom. The Romantic imagination is understood as exercising its freedom by playing widely ranging roles in a continuous drama: the poet is playwright and actor in his own play. The self is the object of its own attention, the attention, we say, is reflexive. The self, in another version, creates and extends itself by a continuous act of imagination, thus it evades the penury of the given. Romantic insistence upon the creative power of imagination has often appeared pretentious, but it is a reaction, against the forces of positivism which deny the self its freedom. I have such a quarrel in mind when I refer to this motif in Yeats. By symbol I mean whatever Yeats means when he can be quoted in point, otherwise I mean any natural form or event which has acquired special significance by virtue of the ancestral feeling which has gathered about it. The symbol is spontaneously evocative. By history I mean the past as an object of imaginative care, or that in time which resists the imagination, however unsuccessfully. World may be taken to mean things as they are or [19] even as they they appear to a common glance. I do not maked severe definition. Vision is what an artist sees with the mind’s eye: it is an internal power, often stimulated by an object in nature but not limited to a recital of the qualities deemed to belong to that object. Vision may refer to this power, or to its more or less fictive productions, it is hardly to be distinguished from the fiat of the imagination.

Readers of Yeats must decide how far they are willing to go tomeet him, and in what directions; his work bears upon modern feeling in several categories - poetry, drama, criticism, politics, social history, philosophy, religion, magic. I shall try to indicate the directions which seem most productive.

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