Denis Donoghue, Yeats [Fontana Modern Masters] (London: Fontana/Collins 1971), Chap. 2: ‘The Play of Consciousness’

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].

There is a passage near the end of the second Book of A Vision where Yeats writes:

My instructors identify consciousness with conflict, not with knowledge, substitute for subject and object and their attendant logic a struggle towards harmony, towards Unity of Being. Logical and emotional conflict alike lead towards a reality which is concrete, sensuous, bodily.’

It is my understanding that this sense of consciousness as conflict is the most important article in Yeats’s faith as a poet, and that he committed himself to it, at whatever cost, in the first years of the new century. He may have felt the need of it in his early relation with his father, the need not to avoid or dissolve conflict but to find value in conflict itself, the process rather than the end. If he could convert mere division, a pathetic fact of life, into conflict, a technique of poetic energy, he could take the harm out of the world’s success and make, even from the materials of ostensible failure, an heroic drama. In The Winding Stair he writes of time, ‘we the great gazebo built’, and of death, ‘man has created death’, because he is now skilled in the drama of consciousness and he has no difficulty in converting fact to feeling. Without a flair for consciousness as conflict, he could not have done so. And while he speaks of - a struggle towards harmony, towards Unity of Being, the crucial part, I would maintain, is the struggle itself, rather than its end. The signal merit of the dramatic as a way of poetic life is that it allows its adept to retain his chaos, it is impartial in the employment of chaos as of order. Yeats’s poetry does not give an impression of striving [40] toward a single consummation; it does not make the reader think of an end to be reached, as he thinks of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, for instance, striving to fulfil itself in Little Gidding, where earlier possibilities are worked out according to a logic of the imagination. Eliot’s poetry is best understood by working back from its end, because the end was implicit in its logic from the very beginning. Yeats’s poetry does not give this impression, it deploys itself in process, along the way of conflict, action incites reaction, statement calls forth counter-statement, each voice is given its due but a rival voice is always heard. No end to such a poetry is required, save that a man dies. The poetry is not defined by internal logic or by the positions reached, but by the reaching of positions; the act of struggle rather than the conclusion. The struggle is propelled by that energy which Yeats, recalling Blake’s glowing use of the word, calls ‘excess’. Excess is the degree of energy which turns pathos into passion, pity into pride: it converts passion to power.

So the first quality to remark in Yeats’s mature work is that it takes conflict as a good; not a necessary evil but a subjective merit. Of his instructors he says again, ‘it was part of their purpose to affirm that all the gains of man come from conflict with the opposite of his true being’. [ A Vision ] Subjectivity and objectivity are ‘intersecting states struggling against the other’, and while Yeats has little good to say of objectivity in itself, its collaboration in conflict numbers it in the song, life being ‘impossible without strife’. The last phrase is not Yeats’s weary recognition of a fact of life, but his assent to the principle of conflict, there is no pathos. A man’s true being is determined, except that he is granted the freedom of defiance: conflict with his opposite is the definitive act of freedom. Poetry is the result of a ‘quarrel with ourselves’,’ deliberately provoked and pursued. The fascination of what’s difficult is not that it makes a problem but that it makes a drama: ‘only the greatest obstacle that can he contemplated without [41] despair rouses the will to full intensity’. The first poems of In the Seven Woods have the task of preventing despair, so that the will can persist, making conflict continuous. In A Vision Yeats says that Shelley lacked the Vision of Evil, could not conceive of the world as a continual conflict, so, though great poet he certainly was, he was not of the greatest kind’. Whitman and Emerson are touched with the same rebuke; though we may feel, incidentally, that Yeats is in no position to scold, his own vision of evil is extremely rarefied, he knows evil in one form only, the sadness with which a lover watches his beloved growing old. ‘Evil is loss, loss of order, beauty, nobility. ‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes, / What more is there to say?’

Conflict, struggle, tension, and difficulty are terms of praise, then, because they are manifestations of the mind in its characteristic act. ‘Tension is but the vigour of the mind,’ Yeats wrote in a rejected stanza of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’. The sentiment comes readily to him because, at least in his mature work, he loves to set his circus animals in conflict: Fergus and Conchubar; O’Connell and Parnell, Jupiter and Saturn, virgin and harlot, Rome and Greece, Russell and Whitehead. No force is rejected unless it is found too weak to engage with its opposite. The essential question is the definition of will. It is clear that Yeats’s interpretation of Symbolism held back for several years his mature understanding of will and its relation to imagination. At the beginning he distinguishes sharply between them: imagination takes a Symbolist form and is at home in trance, reverie, and its attendant rhythms, its matter is essence: will is a busybody, rushing about the world, preoccupied with getting on. The distinction persists in Yeats’s later work, but it is greatly modified, necessarily, because his theory of the Mask depends upon the validity of will; if the theory is to hold, will and imagination must conspire together, sinking their differences. But Yeats was slow in giving up the association of imagination [42] with reverie, essence, and timelessness. There are moments, even in his later poems, when he slips back to the old dream. Still, the weight of evidence puts will and imagination in accord. In A Vision a man is classified according to the place of will in his diagram; will is sometimes called ‘choice’, but by any name its milieu is ‘our inner world of desire and imagination’, lunar and antithetical. ‘Personality,’ Yeats says, ‘no matter how habitual, is a constantly renewed choice. …’ At that stage the distinction between will and imagination is hardly material.

The theme is energy. In “The Death of Synge” Yeats declares that happiness ‘depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other self’. All joyous or creative life is ‘a rebirth as something not oneself, something which has no memory and is created in a moment and perpetually renewed’. Yeats called this something an image, presumably because he wanted to keep it close to its source, the imagination, and because he wanted a word from the general vocabulary of vision: symbol might have done as well, but for the fact that it bears a burden of memories, personal and racial, while image is in that respect free. A man’s image may be chosen from another era, but it comes to the imagination free of circumstance. ‘Every passionate man,’ Yeats writes in “The Trembling of the Veil”, ‘is linked with another age, historical or imaginary, where alone he finds images that rouse his energy.’ But this merely tells a man where he ought to look for his opposite. We seek our opposite, and what we find is already related to us ‘as water with fire, a noise with silence’. We reject what comes too easily, because it is likely to be a gift from the primary world and, if so, it humiliates our imagination, defeats our energy. Joyous life is dynamic, it engages the whole man, we seek an image. Writing of Phase 15 in A Vision Yeats says that in that phase thought has become an image, inhabiting a world ‘where every beloved image has bodily form, and every bodily form is loved’. This indeed is the promised end, and a more forthright account of it [43] than the general references to unity of being.

It is not a remarkable theory; nor does Yeats claim that it is original. Its elements come from the general understanding of Imagination in the Romantic tradition; Kant and Coleridge are its greatest exponents. Yeats has accepted the Romantic sense of imagination as a creative power, the finite counterpart, as Coleridge said in Biographia Literaria, of the original creative act of God, significantly, of the act by which God created himself, the divine I Am . Yeats’s sole contribution to the theme is to translate it into theatrical terms, God becomes a great dramatist. The poet, in Yeats’s version, becomes a great actor, taking unto himself a role directly opposite to his given nature. Living through that role, striking through the mask, the actor assumes a second nature, with this advantage over the first, that it is his own creation. The energy with which the actor commands his role is celebrated as style.

I am arguing that Yeats’s cast of mind is best understood in theatrical terms. Theatre brings everything together: consciousness as conflict, vigour of mind as tension, struggle, action, role, mask, will, gesture, speech, excess, form. Reading Yeats’s greatest poems, we find them intensely dramatic; reading his most typical poems, when the exact dynamic balance is lost, we find them theatrical, and we wonder whether the term falls into much or little blame; if much, we say the poems are histrionic. In any event, theatre is the art most congenial to his rhetoric and to his sense of life and form. When he draws upon the theme, he recurs to the same range of words: self-mastery, difficulty, discipline, the antithetical force, theatre, style. As in “Estrangement”, speaking of a relation between discipline and the theatrical sense:

If we cannot imagine ourselves as different from what we are and assume that second self, we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves, though we may accept one from others. Active virtue as distinguished from the [44] passive acceptance of a current code is therefore theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask. It is the condition of arduous full life.

In “The Death of Synge” he says that ‘the self-conquest of the writer who is not a man of action is style’, and in “Estrangement” that ‘style, personality - deliberately adopted and therefore a mask - is the only escape from the hot-faced bargainers and the money-changers’.

The mind acts by conflict, sometimes accepting the opposition provided by the external world, but more often seeking its own antithetical image, constantly renewing its choice. The warriors include ideas of good and evil, solar and lunar values, symbol and history, self and soul, soul and body, Oedipus and Christ, Blake’s Orc and Urizen, Yeats’s Robartes and Aherne. Sometimes one side of a question will hold Yeats’s affection for years, but sooner or later conflict begins again. Many of the early poems, for instance, are soul-poems, high and rarefied, and after a while the daily world seems dissolved or refined out of existence, as if words scorned their earthly origin. The possession of a body, in such poems, seems an outrage. But Yeats cared for the contrary movement, too. In this phase he believes, and finds sanction in ‘the philosophy of Irish faery lore’ for the belief, that ‘all power is from the body’, so it is only a matter of time until that belief assaults the rhetoric of soul; a matter of time, and of the theatrical imagination. The poetry of body is inspired by Blake, and, I think, by Donne: ‘the body makes the minde’, in Donne’s version. In “Certain Noble Plays of Japan” Yeats says, ‘we only believe in those thoughts which have been conceived not in the brain but in the whole body’; and in The Cutting of an Agate he writes that ‘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, [45] and sensations of the body’. Much later, in On the Boiler, he says that ‘our bodies are nearer to our coherence because nearer to the ‘unconscious’ than our thought’, and thought is rebuked in the quarrel with action. In “Sailing to Byzantium” the body, like nature, is to be consumed, a dying animal. Yeats has not forgotten Dante and the ‘perfectly proportioned human body’, but he is engaged in conflict with himself, and one force or the other must be in phase.

The organization of the Collected Poems is itself a kind of play, there is evidence that Yeats saw the dramatic possibilities and emphasized them. The oeuvre is understood as a sacred book, partly in deference to a motif in Mallarmé, but within that understanding each of the collections is a definite moment in a play; each is, to use his own phrasing, wrought about a vision, an attitude, a mood, a particular response to life which is dominant for the time being. The next book is the next moment, and it reflects a new and rival attitude, or the mind recoiling from its own creation. The Tower is improperly described as a development from everything that has preceded it; the idiom of development is misleading, it implies evolution. The relation between The Tower and the major books before and after, Michael Robartes and the Dancer and The Winding Stair and Other Poems, is a dialectical relation, and we do well to think of the books as personalities in a play. The fact that, in retrospect, they form a pattern does not refute what has been said; their personalities are never blurred, the pattern is a theatrical form. When the play is over, conflicting characters are seen to have conspired with one another, in all ignorance; their formal relation is conspiracy, their immediate relation is conflict. Yeats writes poems, and then he makes them into books, not by merely collecting them but by choosing and arranging them to define a mood: the mood is never single-minded, it always contains the next source of conflict within its official programme. There is always a Cuala Press in Yeats’s imagination, not content [46] with writing poems unless, from those poems, a beautifully harmonious book may be made. Then the books are ready to take part in the play.

It is possible to argue that Yeats’s ‘consciousness as conflict’ is inspired, like nearly everything else, by Blake; recalling many relevant occasions in Blake, the readiest being The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ‘Opposition is true Friendship’, and again, ‘Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.’ But the ostensible kinship between Yeats and Blake, though asserted by Yeats and recited by his critics, is a questionable thing: it has been accepted largely because Yeats declared it a point of doctrine. Temperamentally, they were worlds apart; Blake hard, direct, assertive while the Yeats who read him was a dreamer of lost times. In the early essays Yeats is enamoured of Blake’s poems, and his work with Edwin Ellis on Blake’s texts is pious and often brilliant if not scholarly. but there is no real fellowship between the two poets. Yeats admired Blake’s ‘precision’, knowing that his own poems lacked that quality and he hoped to gain it by the vigour of his admiration. Blake’s influence on Yeats is found mainly in theory and desire, in the argument of his prose, in certain powerful images in the poems. But if we think of the character of the work itself, of Yeats’s style as it governs the poems, we find little evidence of kinship. Blake gave Yeats many images, ideas, figures, and a prophetic ambition which was not the happiest gift; he did not give him what he needed, entry to the ‘theatre of the world’. In fact, the influence of the entire neo-Platonic tradition upon Yeats, if we are thinking of genuine kinship, has been exaggerated. When Spenser writes in the “Hymn to Beauty”:

What time this world’s great workmaister did cast
To make all things, such as we now behold,
It seemes that he before his eyes had plast [47]
A goodly Paterne, to whose perfect mould
He fashioned them as comely as he could ...

we recognize the neo-Platonic tradition in the purity of its central doctrine. But Yeats’s poetry is not written under that sign. What he received as neo-Platonism is a loose anthology of occult images and figures available to a poet who is avid for symbols. More accurately, his anthology is largely Hermetic and Gnostic, it has more to do with alchemical lore than with Plato or Plotinus. But again the theatrical element is missing; what persists is a lexicon of associations and analogies. Plato’s may be ‘the truest poetry’, as Edwin Muir said, but its truth appealed to Yeats in one aspect only, the timeless, the statuesque, the bronze repose. I do not argue that this aspect is trivial : it is clearly related to its opposite, and important for that reason, apart from other reasons. But I shall argue later that the crucial figure in Yeats’s poetic life, if any single figure may be named, is Nietzsche, and that the definition of Yeats’s mind in theatrical terms was achieved mainly under Nietzsche’s auspices, with some incitement from Heraclitus.

There is little point in saying that Yeats was a philosophic poet, if we are strict in phrase. He was not, like Wallace Stevens, a lover of ideas. Stevens found it natural to think of ideas as works of art; never tempted to live by ideas, he delighted to live among them. He entertained ideas as forms of the beautiful, he was a connoisseur and loved to contemplate his possessions. Philosophy was to him a branch of aesthetics. An idea touched him not in its truth but its formal perfection. He envisaged ‘a poetry of ideas in which the particulars of reality would be shadows among the poem’s disclosures’, and he thought of the relation between light and shade as especially beautiful: thus he moved among ideas as he might stroll in a formal garden. Yeats was not on such easy terms with ideas, he distrusted philosophy as he distrusted any activity which relied so heavily on concepts. When he used [48] the word ‘philosophy’, as in “The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry”, or in several references to Balzac’s philosophy, he meant certain patterns of imagery, the degree to which Shelley’s domes, rivers, shells, and caverns make or appear to imply a consistent universe; certain liaisons of incident and symbol in Balzac. There is some evidence that Yeats was scandalized by secular philosophy, and that he wanted to define philosophy in its relation to images and not to ideas or concepts; images being closer than ideas or concepts to the religious sense of life. Mircea Eliade has argued that the rise of experimental science in the seventeenth century was possible only because substances had begun to lose their sacred attributes: the difference between chemistry and alchemy is not that one is true and the other a delusion but that alchemy offered itself as a sacred act, and chemistry came into its own when substances had lost their sacred attributes. Nostalgia is a sufficient explanation for the fact that alchemy has never been destroyed by chemistry: alchemists are those who remember an ancient rite. Philosophy in Yeats’s unofficial sense, endorsed by his version of Symbolism and the anima mundi, enabled him to think of the world as sacred; like Swedenborg’s ‘desolate places’, animated by spirits. He did not always wish to do so; his relation to natural forms was not invariably a religious service. But in this phase the only philosophers he needed were those who restored to the. natural world its sacred and animate character.

The great enemy was Locke. Yeats read him in the Romantic way of Blake and Coleridge, and resented, as they did, Locke’s separation of the primary and the secondary qualities of matter. It is still a disputed point how sharp the separation in Locke really is; but Yeats took the Romantic reading for granted. In this account the primary qualities are inseparable from the external body, and they are independent of the mind of the perceiver: the paraphrase of Locke is rough, but it must serve a turn. Secondary [49] qualities are the sensations, as of colour, sound, taste and so forth, produced in the perceiver’s mind by the primary qualities. There are no innate ideas. Yeats interpreted Locke as offering an insidious abstraction: ‘and from that, day to this’, he wrote, ‘the conception of a physical world, without colour, sound, taste, tangibility, though indicted by Berkeley as Burke was to indict Warren Hastings fifty years later, and proved mere abstract extension, a mere category of the mind, has remained the assumption of science, the groundwork of every text-book’. It was only a short step, then, to ‘that form of the new realist philosophy which thinks that the secondary and primary qualities alike are independent of consciousness’ [“Bishop Berkeley”]. Two fears are active in Yeats at this point, the fear of abstraction, and the fear that substances cannot retain their sacred character if in their own right they retain only the primary qualities, solidity, extension, figure, mobility, and number. So he distinguished, in the poem “At Algeciras”, between the actual shells he gathered on the beach at Rosses Point and ‘such as are in Newton’s metaphor’. The passage in Newton reads:

I do not know how I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding another pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Presumably Yeats was outraged by talk of an ocean of truth distinct from the personally certified truth of the shells; so Newton and Locke denied spirit to ‘the world’s body’. Even an erotic poet would be outraged. In a letter to T. Sturge Moore Yeats argued that ‘nothing can exist that is not in the mind as “an element of experience”’, and he maintained that this stance would ‘liberate us from all manner of abstraction and create at once a joyous artistic life.’ He did not pursue the question, however, and he was relieved to find that Whitehead agreed with Berkeley [50] and a poet was free to agree with both.

Berkeley took up Locke’s challenge. ‘By Matter, therefore,’ he wrote in the Essay of the Principles of Human Knowledge, paraphrasing Locke, ‘We are to understand an inert, senseless substance, in which extension, figure, and motion do actually subsist.’ [Works, ed. A. A. Luce & T. E. Jessop, vol. 2, 1949, pp.44-45.] As Yeats wrote in the Diary of 1930, ‘Descartes, Locke, and Newton took away the world and gave us its excrement instead. Berkeley restored the world ... Berkeley has brought back to us the world that only exists because it shines and sounds. A child, smothering his laughter because the elders are standing round has opened once more the great box of toys.’ Berkeley established and liberated the imagination by denying material substance independent of perception: he was right, as the child is right. Yeats associated Berkeley with the irrefutable truth of a child gathering shells at Rosses Point, and he loved the philosopher for the memory. Substance could be felt again as sacred; though it was a difficult point whether its sacred character was innate, a function of its divine origin, or derivative, a function of its relation to man. To Yeats, it was enough for holiness if a thing was related to man; on this point he parted from Berkeley. The philosopher, Yeats complained, ‘deliberately refused to define personality, and dared not say that Man in so far is he is a personality, reflects the whole act of God.’ The division between Berkeley’s God and man is absolute. Yeats wanted to assimilate God to man, and he was led to do so because Blake had already gone to that point in his annotations on Berkeley’s Siris : ‘God is Man & exists in us & we in him.’ That is: God is the human imagination. in one of the captions to There is No Natural Religion Blake rejects Locke and runs beyond Berkeley: ‘Man’s perceptions,’ he declares, ‘are not bounded by organs of perception; he perceives more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.’ Berkeley restored to the poet his box of toys and the imagination to play with them, though he did not allow him to believe that a generous God might in that [51] play be domesticated. Blake led Yeats to believe that the play, the imaginative vision of the world, was holy; though Blake did not ascribe any special value to the toys, save as baubles for children to play with. Yeats wanted to believe, for the most part, that box and play were sacred, and that man was divine to the degree of his creative joy. He could then write poems like those “Supernatural Songs” in which Ribh rebukes St. Patrick.

Natural and supernatural with the self-same ring are wed.
As man, as beast, as an ephemeral fly begets, Godhead begets Godhead,
For things below are copies, the Great Smaragdine Tablet said.

Reverting to Locke and Berkeley: much of the argument can be summarised as a gloss upon one of Yeats’s cryptic “Fragments”:

Locke sank into a swoon;
The Garden died;
God took the spinning-jenny
Out of his side.

Yeats included these lines in the introduction to The Words upon the Window-Pane, prefaced by the following:

I can see in a sort of nightmare vision the ‘primary qualities’ torn from the side of Locke, Johnson’s ponderous body bent above the letter to Lord Chesterfield, some obscure person somewhere inventing the spinning-jenny, upon his face that look of benevolence kept by painters and engravers, from the middle of the eighteenth century to the time of the Prince Consort. (Explorations, p.358-59.)

There is also an earlier observation in the same Introduction, where Yeats says that in Swift’s time Unity of Being was still possible though somewhat over-rationalized and abstract, more diagram than body. In the Diary of 1930 [52] this is described again as a ‘sinking into abstraction’, partly shown by Berkeley’s failure to triumph over Locke. In the essay on Berkeley Yeats recurs to Locke’s abstraction: ‘it worked’, he says, ‘and the mechanical inventions of the next age, its symbols that seemed its confirmation, worked even better’. Only where the mind partakes of a pure activity,’ he insists, ‘can art or life attain swiftness, volume, unity’: he is thinking of Coleridge’s remark that Shakespeare drew the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet from direct observation, passive sense-impression, but Hamlet, the Court, the whole work of art, out of himself in a pure indivisible act.

The tone of the argument is rueful. In the “Fragment” it is sharpened, one apprehension set against another, a drama rather than a lament. The poem enacts the defeat of Berkeley and Blake by Locke’s abstraction. Locke sank into the swoon of abstraction, more diagram than body. Marshall McLuhan argues in The Gutenberg Galaxy that ‘the Lockean swoon was the hypnotic trance induced by stepping up the visual component in experience until it filled the field of attention. At such a moment the garden (the interplay of all the senses in haptic harmony) dies.’ The justification of this gloss is an elaborate argument, not yet settled one way or the other, to the effect that the printing press reduced the several modes of perception to one, the other senses being, as it were anaesthetized. Blake supports the argument, castigating Bacon, Newton ‘and Locke for their ‘single vision’. The single vision is the ‘point of view’, where the observer is trapped before the observed scene, experience is congealed, restricted to those items which the observer sees from his fixed position; he might as well be deaf and dumb. The God of the Industrial Revolution took Locke’s primary qualities out of his side, thereby ensuring that man would always be alone among machines: the parody of the creation of Eve goes at least as far as that, God made her lest Adam be alone. The effect of Locke’s swoon and Newton’s sleep is the loss of that [53] entire world of experience for which the appropriate metaphors are organic, vegetal, bodily, nuptial.

But the relation of poetry and philosophy is seriously incomplete, so far as Yeats is concerned, if it is conducted solely in terms of realism versus idealism. If it begins and ends with a choice, Yeats’s position is clear: idealist. Cassirer’s statement of the idealist case is satisfactory, idealists want to transform ‘the passive world of mere impressions, in which the spirit seems at first imprisoned, into a world that is pure expression of the human spirit’. [ Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim, 1953, Vol. 1, p.8] Yeats was content with that: there are moments in which his imagination seems predatory in its idealist fervour, and we resent the demands made upon the innocent objects of his attention, as the swan becomes ‘another emblem there!’ There are other moments in which the box of toys is enjoyed for its plenitude, the imagination revels in its fortune, the strict question of epistemology is evaded. But there is a point beyond which further consideration of subject and object is null, and we feel that the English philosophers have not given Yeats the idiom he needs.

In September 1902 John Quinn sent Yeats his own copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra and impersonal copies of The Case of Wagner and The Genealogy of Morals . For months thereafter Yeats seems to have read virtually nothing but Nietzsche. Apologizing to Lady Gregory for tardiness in correspondence, he said, ‘the truth is you have a rival in Nietzsche, that strong enchanter. I have read him so much that I have made my eyes bad again ... Nietzsche completes Blake and has. the same roots - I have not read anything with so much excitement since I got to love Morris’s stories which have the same curious astringent joy.’ Yeats’s letters to George Russell and to Quinn over the next few months show that his reading of Nietzsche made him dissatisfied with the work he had done in Ideas of Good and Evil, which had recently appeared. ‘The book is too lyrical, too full of aspirations after remote things, too full of desires,’ he told Quinn. To Russell he explained: [54] ‘the close of the last century was full of a strange desire to get out of form, to get to some kind of disembodied beauty, and now it seems to me the contrary impulse has come. I feel about me and in me an impulse to create form, to carry the realization of beauty as far as possible.’ These conflicting movements of the soul, as Yeats called them, the desire to transcend forms and the desire to create forms, he associated with Nietzsche’s Dionysiac and ‘Apollonic’ movements, as he called them. ‘I think I have to some extent got weary of that wild God Dionysus, and I am hoping that the Far-Darter will come in his place.’ He told Florence Farr that he was trying ‘to lay hands upon some dynamic and substantializing force as distinguished from the eastern quiescent and supersensualizing state of the soul - a movement downward upon life, not upwards out of life’. I would maintain that Yeats’s ‘consciousness as conflict’ began to define itself in this excited reading of Nietzsche, when he found himself turning from one mood to its opposite and sought some means of retaining both. In The Will to Power Nietzsche writes:

Handel, Leibniz, Goethe, Bismarck - characteristic of the strong German type. Existing blithely among antithesis, full of that supple strength that guards against convictions and doctrines by employing one against the other and reserving freedom for itself.

In the Autobiographies Yeats mentions that not one of his contemporaries had ‘a talent for conviction’: it is apparent that Nietzsche’s philosophy of risk was precisely what Yeats needed, to enable him to live with passion in that state. ‘Live dangerously,’ Nietzsche says in The Gay Science . -Build your cities under Vesuvius.’ The will to power ‘can manifest itself only against resistances; therefore it seeks that which resists it’. Later: ‘It is not the satisfaction of the will that causes pleasure . ... but rather the will’s forward thrust and again and again becoming master over that which stands in its way.’ The feeling of [55] pleasure, Nietzsche continues, ‘lies precisely in the dissatisfaction of the will, in the fact that the will is never satisfied unless it has opponents and resistances’. The happy man is ‘a herd ideal’ [ Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann & R. J. Hollingdale, 1968]. It is also at least probable that Nietzsche’s attack upon the pretentions of spirit, as opposed to the wonderful fact of body, helped to dislodge Yeats from the Innisfree of his early poems: the admission of body, the dynamic relation between body and soul, are crucial in Yeats’s artistic life, since body involves time, place, and history in its power. Ultimately, the aesthetic of combat which Yeats endorsed is based upon facts of biological life, upon the energy required for the survival of an organism. One of the purposes of games in an industrial society is to divert the combative instincts which otherwise break out in violence: the procedure has only one defect, that it fails in its grand design while succeeding on minor occasions. Its value is aesthetic. One of the distinctive qualities of Yeats’s imagination is that it revels in combat; cultivates force at the risk of aggression, power at the risk of violence, lest the organism die of sloth and satisfaction.

To Yeats, Nietzsche was in these respects the archetypal Hero, exemplar of Phase 12 in A Vision . ‘True to phase,’ Yeats writes, ‘he is a cup that remembers its own fullness!’ There is now, he continues, ‘the greatest possible belief in all values created by personality’. Yeats speaks of ‘a noble extravagance, an overflowing fountain of personal life ... a philosophy which is the logical expression of a mind alone with the object of its desire’. Finally, ‘the man follows an Image, created or chosen by the Creative Mind from what Fate offers; would persecute and dominate it’.’ Recall Nietzsche’s description of ‘the great man’:

He knows he is incommunicable: he finds it tasteless to be familiar; and when one thinks of it, he usually is not. When not speaking to himself he wears a mask. He rather lies than tells the truth; it requires more spirit [56] and will. There is a solitude within him that is inaccessible to praise or blame, his own justice that is beyond appeal. {Ibid., p.505.]

The doctrine of the Mask is more fully developed in Beyond Good and Evil, but already it is clear that the image which Yeats sought is more Blake than Plato, more Nietzsche than Blake.

Yeats’s copies of Nietzsche are heavily annotated. When something appealed to him, he underlined it, often adding several comments in the margin. An underlined passage in Beyond Good and Evil occurs where Nietzsche is declaring the difference between a master-morality and a slave-morality. Speaking of the Master as the creator of values, Nietzsche refers to ‘the feeling of plenitude, of power which seeks to overflow, the happiness of high tension, the consciousness of riches which would fain give and bestow; the noble man also helps the unfortunate not (or scarcely) out of sympathy, but rather out of an impulse produced by the superabundance of power’. In the third section of Zarathustra’s Prologue, where Zarathustra says that, God being dead, the worst sin is to blaspheme against the earth, or to rate supernatural life higher than the meaning of the earth, Yeats writes in the margin: ‘Yet the “supernatural life” may be but the soul of the earth out of which man leaps again, when the circle is complete.’ Yeats is already converting Nietzsche into cyclic, gyring terms, reincarnation being one of the few beliefs Yeats really held, his small talent for conviction fulfilled there if rarely elsewhere.

His relation to the strong enchanter is based upon the needs of a particular moment, but it became a definitive relation, never abandoned or even greatly modified. Specifically, the kinship depends upon Nietzsche’s terminology of power, the endorsement of will and conflict, his feeling for the theatrical principle, his sense of tragedy, contempt for the herd, glorification of the Hero - ‘One should recall [57] what one owes to Napoleon: almost all the higher hopes of this century -’; his feeling of power working from within, his ‘curious astringent joy’. Nietzsche’s criticism of Darwinism is that life is not the adaptation of inner to outer circumstances, but will to power, which incorporates and subdues more and more of what is ‘external’. The Christian ideal is contemptible because it proposes as the universal standard of value the virtues by which happiness is possible for the lowliest: it grossly flatters the instinct for preservation in the least vital of all classes. The herd is justifiable merely as a means of preserving the species. That these sentiments appealed to Yeats can hardly be disputed, their impact is felt in poems, plays, essays, where the Nietzschean gesture may be registered throughout Yeats’s later work. One factor is especially important, the concept of the Hero. Yeats needed such a concept to justify his hierarchical sense of life, his belief that life is defined by its imperious moments, great deeds, and by these alone, society valued for its masters. The hero is an antithetical fiction, his idiom is power, will, his sense of life dynamic, theatrical. In The King’s Threshold Seanchan says:

The stars had come so near me that I caught
Their singing. It was praise of that great race
That would be haughty, mirthful, and white-bodied,
With a high head, and open hand, and how,
Laughing, it would take the mastery of the world …

and later, just before his death:

I need no help. He needs no help that joy has lifted up
Like some miraculous beast out of Ezekiel. …
Dead faces laugh.

This is pure Nietzsche, the simultaneous presence of joy, triumph, and death, the hero laughing into the face of death. The gesture came from Nietzsche, and Yeats received it as if he had spent his life waiting for it, as in a [58] measure he had. Certainly, many of Yeats’s motives would have gone without definition but for Nietzsche: the proof is in the plays, especially in The King’s Threshold and Congal’s death-scene in The Herne’s Egg ; in the poems, “Upon a Dying Lady”, “The Gyres”, “Lapis Lazuli”, and many more. The Nietzschean gesture in the face of death is the personal version of the ‘laughing, ecstatic destruction’ in the historical myth of “The Second Coming”.

Yeats linked Nietzsche with Blake but not, so far as I have found, with Heraclitus. This is surprising, not only because Nietzsche’s admiration of Heraclitus is explicit in Twilight of the Idols and other books, or because Heraclitus is a model for Zarathustra, type of the lonely hero; but because both philosophers offer, in effect, escape from subject and object. in Heraclitus, as in Nietzsche, energy displaces knowledge as ‘the good’, action replaces concept. It is not known how much of Heraclitus Yeats read, and it may be that his study was even more fragmentary than Heraclitus’s texts. Only one phrase stayed in his mind, but it is significant. At the end of The Resurrection the Greek cries:

O Athens, Alexandria, Rome, something has come to destroy you. The heart of a phantom is beating. Man has begun to die. Your words are clear at last, O Heraclitus. God and man die each other’s life, live each other’s death.

Heraclitus’s words, Fragment 66 in some modern editions, are quoted several times in Yeats; at least four times, which is certainly too often, in A Vision, twice in On the Boiler, and a strong echo is heard in “Byzantium”. Yeats does not quote the phrases to endorse the survival of the soul after the body’s death, though such a purpose would be justified: invariably, he recalls the fragment when his theme is the death of one force and its vicarious life as its opposite: ‘an age is the reversal of an age’. Normally, Yeats suppresses ‘God and man’ in favour of ‘opposite’s’, and the forces [59] in question may be Rome and Byzantium, Discord and Concord in ‘The Great Wheel’, solar and lunar periods in ‘The Completed Symbol’, Lazarus and the Good Samaritan. In each case the opposites depend upon the energy which holds them together, the ‘high tension’ of their relation. What is common to Heraclitus and Nietzsche is the declared complicity of opposites. Nietzsche was more useful than Heraclitus because he offered Yeats a theatre of personality, and the gestures appropriate to tragic joy. Strangely, Yeats associated him with Balzac. In a lordly conversation with Hugh Kingsmill in 1924 Yeats announced, ‘all Nietzsche is in Balzac’, the theme on that occasion being Balzac’s romanticization of power.

Nietzsche’s impact on the poems is demonstrable: words of power are used with a special intonation, as if they were pre-empted for an imperial theme. In many cases, words find their meanings driven beyond good and evil. It is difficult to use such words as ‘arrogant’ and ‘bloody’ in the twentieth century with eulogy in mind, but a Nietzschean rhetoric succeeds where the dictionaries fail:

Blessed be this place,
More blessed still this tower;
A bloody, arrogant power
Rose out of the race
Uttering, mastering it,
Rose like these walls from these
Storm-beaten cottages.

Most of the work is done by ‘rose’, which makes good and evil irrelevant in the rhetoric of power; ‘uttering, mastering it’ justifies the Norman conquerors according to master-morality. If any sentimental feelings persist, they are driven away by ‘storm-beaten’; the Normans are now a force of Nature. The effect is made easier by recalling a passage in Per Amica Silentia Lunae :

There are two realities, the terrestrial and the condition [60] of fire. All power is from the terrestrial condition, for there all opposites meet and there only is the extreme of choice possible, full, freedom. And there the heterogeneous is, and evil, for evil is the strain one upon another of opposites; but in the condition of fire is all music and all rest.

But the gloss is hardly necessary. In the poem itself, “Blood and the Moon”, power as distinct from wisdom is ‘like everything that has the stain of blood, / A property of the living’, and in the immediately preceding poem, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”, the condition of blessedness follows when one has cast out remorse. Norman conquerors are justified because they were masters, their relation to Celtic natives is that of tower to storm-beaten cottage: ‘blessed’ has become, under this pressure, a secular word. The transition from ‘uttering’ to ‘mastering’ is so swift that we hardly register the ethical leap we make from one to the other, the tone of hauteur is enough. Yeats learned from Nietzsche how to maintain this tone even when the context is violent: the equivalent in Nietzsche is the rhetoric of fire and ascent, a procedure studied by Gaston Bachelard in L’Air et les Songes - ‘Le feu n’est qu’un trait qui monte!’ The ethical question soon appears archaic. A context is prepared which excludes ethics; words which enter now are slanted toward a Nietzschean ‘transvaluation of values’. A word in such a context becomes a new word.

The Nietzschean note is heard most clearly, perhaps too clearly, in the third section of “Vacillation”, in “Parnell’s Funeral”, “Lapis Lazuli”, “An Acre of Grass”, and pervadingly in the last poems and plays. Nietzsche propelled Yeats toward the idiom of combat, theatre, unity of opposites. He is certainly responsible for some of the ensuing rant, as well as the splendour: he conspired with Yeats in bravado. But Yeats’s greatest poems depend upon the theatrical sense, and it is difficult to regret an association which helped him to write with such eloquence. [61]

“Sailing to Byzantium” is a case in point: it is a dialogue of self and soul, except that ‘dialogue’ makes the relation sound explicit. Rather, the relation is a matter of gestures, feelings, leanings toward one limit rather than another. The poem begins with an old man looking toward death; looking back, too, at the young world of love, credences of summer held as if they were eternal, the ‘sensual music’ of youth. The man at the breakfast-table feels his age and thinks of death, but the poet, old in his own way, imagines death as immortality, one of the great human limits, trying to take the sting out of it. The poem is a ritual to transform death, representing it as immortality, not denying the fact but creating it, transforming it, turning it into subjective purpose. The first stanza is full of the honey of generation, and even if the old man intervenes to say that generation is also death, the flow of summer feeling continues. The second stanza accepts, for the moment, the rift of body and soul:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.

The scarecrow is brought to life, this is the force of ‘unless’, preparing the magic. The god of life is the soul, seen as a Blakean child, visionary of innocence. ‘Soul clap its hands and sing’, as if to answer the lovers in the first stanza with a corresponding joy; even though the joy is largely what the poet learns from the lovers. There is, so far as feeling goes, no contradiction. The old man is changed into a poet and he knows his place, it is not on earth, in nature, but in the eternity of art. It makes little difference to the poem whether we feel Byzantium as an island of the blessed, a land of eternal youth, or the holy city of Romantic art, so long as we receive from it suggestions of permanence, perfection, and form. ‘God’s holy fire’ is not likely to mean more than immortality registered as a continuous imaginative [62] act, the fire that makes all simple. The poet is asking to be received into that order, to be made over again as child and seer. For such a boon he is ready to ‘die’ to summer: ‘consume my heart away’. The body is felt, now more than ever, as a ‘dying animal’. In the last stanza, like Keats saying, ‘Already with thee!’, Yeats yearns for the freedom of Byzantium:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The determination with which the profession of faith is made testifies to the depth from which the feeling comes, there can be no doubt of the strain. Casting the body aside, the poet turns to new analogies with the desperate certainty of a recent convert. But these golden figures are still the old human roles, translated into emblems of art. The resolved soul is to occupy itself, like any poet or storyteller, keeping drowsy emperors awake or singing, like any bird in a tree, to lords and ladies. The themes are themes of time, ‘what is past, or passing, or to come’, and differ only in their setting, though that difference is great. But the direction of feeling in the poem is not as determined as its scenario implies, and if the last line restores the poet to the cycle of generation, it marks an essential qualification in the entire movement of feeling. The poet speaks of the ‘artifice’ of eternity, and some readers take the reference as strongly ironic; but it is not. ‘Gather me ...’ means gather me into a self-subsistent world, an artifice indeed but only in the sense that it is man’s creation and, Yeats would hold, all the nobler for that. A slight feeling of distance is certainly present in the word, but not as much as, [63] say, in the reference to ‘monuments of unageing intellect’ in the first stanza. The last line of the poem, too, is stronger evidence; the difficulty encountered in moving out of nature is greater than the scenario promised. Yeats’s feeling, in this respect like language itself, is still half in love with the old fleshpots, time, place, memory, history. This is in the nature of words. Music is the Symbolist art because its relation to the empirical element is weak, it finds no difficulty in releasing itself to a condition of pure form. But words drag the ball and chain behind them, the burden of time. T. Sturge Moore complained to Yeats that “Sailing to Byzantium”, ‘magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or passing or to come to Lords and Ladies’. Yeats thought the point well taken, and wrote “Byzantium” as if to answer it. In fact, “Sailing to Byzantium” is preserved by its helplessness, by the conflict between its official feelings, and by Yeats’s reluctance to resolve the conflict, except by continuing it. It is a sign of the integrity of the poem that, responsive to rival feelings, it registers their strain, one upon the other. The poem is saved by Yeats’s scruple and by his theatrical flair.

Before reading “Byzantium” we should advert to a passage from Yeats’s Diary of 1930:

I am always, in all I do, driven to a moment which is the realisation of myself as unique and free, or to a moment which is the surrender to God of all that I am . … Could those two impulses, one as much a part of truth as the other, be reconciled, or if one or the other could prevail, all life would cease … Surely if either circuit, that which carries us into man or that which carries us into God, were reality, the generation had long since found its term. [ Explorations, pp.305, 307.]

The two circuits are really self and soul, one ‘as much a [64] part of truth as the other’. “Byzantium” begins as if everything Yeats meant by self or heart were already transcended, consumed in the simplifying fire. But the critical question to ask of the first stanza concerns the poet’s attitude to the apparent victory of soul over the fury and the mire of human veins. There is nothing here to correspond to the heartfelt evocation of love and summer in the first lines of “Sailing to Byzantium”, a hint that Yeats’s dominant feeling has moved toward the proffered forms of transcendence: there is an impression that transcendence has been achieved too easily, the difficulties have not been allowed to assert themselves. These difficulties are recognized in the winding and unwinding of the bobbin in the second stanza, but the figure does not register any remarkable degree of vitality, we do not feel the strain between two allegiances. The last lines of the stanza make a dangerously vatic moment in the rhetoric of the poem. Much depends upon the reception of the Heraclitean motif, ‘death-in-life and life-in-death’; it is hardly clear, unless we associate it with the sentence already quoted from Yeats’s marginalia on Nietzsche, that the supernatural life ‘may be but the soul of the earth out of which man leaps again, when the circle is complete’. ‘I hail the superhuman’: the mage in Byzantium is calling the generic soul of man, coming from the anima mundi and returning to it. ‘Shade more than man, more image than a shade’: presumably to mark the indeterminate status of the spirit, the séance has just begun. This indeterminateness is echoed again in the third stanza, ‘more miracle than bird or handiwork’, but the line can hardly do more than attach an aura to the singing bird of “Sailing to Byzantium”. The artificial bird can crow like the cocks of Hades, heralds of rebirth on Roman tombstones, or it can disdain the mere ‘complexities of mire or blood’; the bird is close to the scornful dome of the first stanza. In the next stanza the ‘blood-begotten spirits’ die in Byzantine flames; they are [65] carried on the dolphin’s back like the Holy Innocents going to Heaven in Raphael’s statue:

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

The question here again is the recognition of self and soul, each as much a part of truth as the other, and the answer chiefly depends upon the force of ‘break’ in this stanza: does it conspire with the flames and the marbles in reducing the poor multiplicity of life to unity, or does it resist, in life’s behalf ? Does the language ensure -reality and justice in a single thought’ by showing a tragic drama on that dancing floor? It seems to me that the bitter furies of complexity have done what they can, but they cannot do enough, there is not enough here to give that ‘complexity’ convincing force. The word is used as if it referred to something already certified; but nothing has been certified, certainly not enough. That the images are self-creative, like the flames, is something, so we rush into the last line with [r]eality and justice not quite established. That line is magnificent in a good cause. ‘Dolphin-torn’ now has the force of human action behind it, and the ‘gong-tormented sea’ is a cry from time and earth. Mostly the feeling comes in the rhythm, which is entirely different from the hieratic tone of the mage. These are now, at the last moment but not too late, the accents of passion turned upon loss: it is the nature of the poem, after all, that it resolves nothing. To Yeats, as to Stevens, ‘the imperfect is our Paradise’, and it may be our Hell, too.

It is customary nowadays to read “Byzantium” as a parable of the poetic imagination, putting it in the company [66] of similar parables from Coleridge to Stevens; taking the blood-begotten spirits as the poor human feelings, broken but also forged by the creative imagination and refined to the ‘glory of changeless metal’. Life is sacrificed for art, and Romantic feeling urges that a world is well lost in such a grand cause. Read in this way, the poem seems to me a small thing. I should wish to take it more literally, as more in keeping with Nietzsche’s voice in the background. The plot of the poem is given in the first stanza of “Vacillation” a few pages later in the Collected Poems :

A brand, or flaming breath,
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night.

But there is the same problem here of gauging the full significance of ‘destroy’: its first associations are exalted, in keeping with Yeats’s cult of fire and flame. But then:

The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?

Body and heart cannot be expected to welcome the flame: remorse is the violence which conscience does upon the heart, death is violence only greater in degree. What is joy? meaning, what is the source of that joy which is active even in destruction, like Nietzsche’s tragic joy? The answer is given in the fourth section of the poem. So the weight of ‘destroy’ must be held in suspense, we cannot take the full strain of its meaning until the poem is complete. This applies also to ‘break’ in “Byzantium”, it waits upon the complete action.

A word about the poem and its ‘circuits’. The first stanza is all Soul, the rhetoric favours the second circuit, ‘that which carries us into God’. The crime of death and birth [67] has not been forgotten, but it trails out from the second circuit and barely survives the second stanza; its survival depends upon the extent to which such heart-words as ‘mire’, ‘fury’, and ‘complexities’ assert themselves against their rivals. The second and third stanzas hail the superhuman: the changeless metal is not that of Sato’s ancient blade, emblem of history and tradition in the “Dialogue of Self and Soul”, it is assimilated to the moonlit dome and declares a like scorn. But at least the mire and blood are recalled, if only to be refined and simplified, antinomies of day and night to be destroyed by the flames, flames that no faggot feeds’, since this is the second circuit, the Way of the Soul. The triumph of Soul would be complete but for the dolphin, friend to man and Self. As the dolphin carries the souls to Paradise, the reality of the first circuit breaks in: the poet looks back at the waves of poor reality breaking upon the marbles of the floor. The first circuit, ‘that which carries us into man’, moves the reader into the cycle of nature, honey of generation, mire and blood and time.

The mind is its own theatre. One of the effects of ‘consciousness as conflict’ in Yeats is that conventional terminologies, including standard ethical values, are often displaced: energy assumes the right to displace them. The basis of Yeats’s consciousness is energy, conflict is the plot of energy. It would be neat to say that Yeats thinks of energy as the internal power which corresponds to the vital power in Nature. Personal energy would then appear a pious acknowledgement of energy at large, its spirit in keeping with God as Absolute Energy. But in Yeats the direction is nearly reversed. The first energy he recognizes is within, and his theories and motifs are designed to extend that recognition, hopefully to present All in consonance with the irrefutable One. Thus he tends to derive a sense of the vital spirit at work in the world from the certainty of a vital spirit at work within himself, the problem is to accommodate the world to himself. So also he [68] tends to judge an act in relation to the energy which it concentrates; the more, the better. Heroes are heroic because their degree of energy is high, timid people are miserable in Yeats’s eyes because their degree is low. Finally, the gap between knowledge and action is closed, imperatively, because action subsumes knowledge, the Platonist scholar in his lonely tower lives not for contemplation but for power, that purely internal power which is energy. Conflict is valued because, one energy confronting its opposite, the mere person is transformed.

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