Denis Donoghue, Yeats [Fontana Modern Masters] (London: Fontana/Collins 1971), Chap. 3: History and the Secret Discipline

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].

We should consider now the sources of that energy. In “The Symbolism of Poetry” Yeats says that ‘all sounds, all colours, all forms, either because of their preordained energies or because of long association, evoke indefinable and yet precise emotions, or, as I prefer to think, call down among us certain disembodied powers, whose footsteps over our hearts we call emotions’. A reader may prefer to think that the last phrases are blarney, but Yeats meant them almost literally, and it is difficult to understand his version of Symbolism unless we take the words strictly. In “The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry” he speaks of the Great Memory as ‘a dwelling-house of symbols, of images that are living souls’. The aura we feel in a symbol is the presence of the supernatural in the natural; the souls of the dead are understood as living in places which are sacred because of that residence, as in mountains ‘along whose sides the peasant still sees enchanted fires’. Yeats’s evidence is not an elaborate theory of the occult, it is the fact that certain images, certain places, have been long ‘steeped in emotion’. In the essay on Magic he writes that ‘whatever the passions of men have gathered about becomes a symbol in the Great Memory, and in the hands of him who has the secret it is a worker of wonders, a caller-up of angels or of devils’. It follows that Yeats distinguished even more sharply than other writers between symbolism and allegory. A symbol is ‘the only possible expression of some invisible essence, a transparent lamp about a spiritual flame; while allegory is one of many possible representations of an embodied thing, or familiar principle, and belongs to fancy and not to imagination: the one is revelation, the other an amusement.’ Symbol redeems [70] fact, because through symbol the imagination enters experience, as Christ redeemed fact in the Incarnation - comparison made, incidentally, in the commentary on Blake by Yeats and Ellis. Belief in reincarnation is endorsed by assent to tradition, symbolism is the hermeneutics of that faith. I have argued that the first stirrings in Yeats are a feeling of his own latent power, certified by energy, and that his relation to nature is derived from within: if so, his theory of Symbolism is not an attempt to make sense of the World but to define the world in his own image. We may let that argument stand. But Yeats proposed to find in the theory not only plenitude and power but discipline. ‘It is only by ancient symbols, by symbols that have numberless meanings besides the one or two the writer lays an emphasis upon, or the half-score he knows of, that any highly subjective art can escape from the barrenness and shallowness of a too conscious arrangement, into the abundance and depth of Nature.’ I take this to mean that symbols mediate between the individual consciousness, which would otherwise be solipsist, and the given world, which would otherwise be alien. Symbols partake of the created and the given; they are given, but given by creative souls not unlike our own. A race is a communion of souls: a poet who writes in these terms must be, in Yeats’s sense, a Symbolist. ‘The poet of essences and pure ideas must seek in the half-lights that glimmer from symbol to symbol as if to the ends of the earth, all that the epic and dramatic poet finds of mystery and shadow in the accidental circumstances of life.’ Here is one escape from solipsism, the more reliable because it is consistent with the liaison of poetry, tradition, and symbolism. The poet’s art is devoted to essence, he fills our minds ‘with the essences of things, and not with things’, his chief instrument is rhythm, which keeps us ‘in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols’. This is Yeats’s early idiom, taken largely from Pater and [71] Symons- ‘In art rhythm is everything’, Symons wrote in 1898 - and he tired of it, or turned to its opposite, but he always associated symbolism, rhythm, and trance. It may be, he said, that the arts ‘are founded on the life beyond the world, and that they must cry in the ears of our penury until the world has been consumed and become a vision’. A Symbolist disciplines himself by scruple.

With Yeats in mind, therefore, it is well to understand Symbolism as the literary form of magic, except that what the mage does consciously the poet does half-consciously and half by instinct. The ancient secret is common to both disciplines. When someone asked Yeats, of his belief in magic, ‘It is just a game, isn’t it?’, Yeats answered, ‘One has had a vision; one wants to have another, that is all.’ [Autobiographies, pp.298-99; viz., W. E. Henley.] The answer is irrefutable, unless one is in a position to deny the first vision. A mage believes he can do what a Symbolist does, but deliberately. The activities are so congenial, one to the other, that their double presence in the minds of ‘the tragic generation’ is entirely natural; two forms of the same impulse, to command a spiritual power without incurring the commitment of an objective Church. Cornelius Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia was one of Yeats’s sacred books, and Prometheus Unbound was another: their joint presence in his mind is neither an indulgence nor an aberration, but a choice. Magic was congenial to Yeats for many reasons, but especially because it depended upon the imperative power of language, Rimbaud’s alchemie du verbe. When Yeats writes, as in the plays, ‘I call to the eye of the mind,’ he is not devising a pretentious way of saying, ‘Let us think of ...’ The phrase issues from his feeling for the common grammar of mage and poet. Cassirer has written in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms that ‘all word-magic and name-magic are based on the assumption that the world of things and the world of names form a single undifferentiated chain of causality and hence a single reality.’ [Ralph Manheim, trans., 1953, p.118.] This goes some way to account for the incantatory note in Yeats’s style, where [72] his sentences are more readily understandable if we take them as rituals, prescriptions, interdictions than as secular utterances. In the background we sense the presence not merely of Hermetic procedures but of Mallarmé’s ‘mystère d’un nom’. Reality is invoked through the natural power common to poet and mage, the power described in Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life and other books. The religious life is not always explicable in relation to power, but when Yeats described himself as ‘very religious’ he meant it as a phrase of power; in that sense, a religion is what a man creates, not a creed which he values because it is independent of his hands.

Symbols are of all kinds, as Yeats writes, ‘for everything in heaven or earth has its association, momentous or trivial, in the Great Memory, and one never knows what forgotten events may have plunged it, like the toadstool and the ragweed, into the great passions’. Continuity of passion is the test. Continuity of power is proof, to Yeats, that souls do not die: ‘the dead living in their memories are, I am persuaded, the source of all that we call instinct, and it is their love and their desire, all unknowing, that make us drive beyond our reason, or in defiance of our interest it may be’.’ The anima mundi , ‘described by Platonic philosophers and more especially in modern times by Henry More’, is more than a storehouse of images and symbols, since its content is what a race dreams, whatever it remembers; its memories and dreams remain active, and often assume a palpable form. The great soul may be evoked by symbols, which are the script of images italicized by the supernatural, but the spirits are not mere functions of ourselves, they have their own personalities, they make sport and mischief. Perhaps the best interpretation of the anima mundi is that it is the subjective equivalent of history, a nation’s life in symbols; it is not our invention, but it may respond to our call.

Yeats did not distinguish very sharply between image [73] and symbol. He accepted the meaning of image mainly from Boehme and William Law, ‘image meaneth not only a creaturely resemblance, in which sense man is said to be the Image of God; but it signifieth also a spiritual substance, a birth or effect of a will, wrought in and by a spiritual being or power’. Imagination is then ‘the power of raising and forming such images or substances, and the greatest power in nature’. Image and symbol differ, apparently, only in degree. In the symbol, much of the spiritual work has already been done, and it requires only natural sensitivity and a little imaginative power to disclose the symbol’s force. Yeats found in Blake’s Milton a figure to represent the process by which symbols are received

When on the highest lift of his light pinions he arrives
At that bright Gate, another Lark meets him & back to back
They touch their pinions, tip [to] tip, and each descend
To their respective Earths & there all night consult with Angels
Of Providence and with the Eyes of God all night in slumbers
Inspired, & at the dawn of day send out another Lark
Into another Heaven to carry news upon his wings.

Yeats interpreted the passage as meaning that man attains spiritual influence in like fashion: ‘he must go on perfecting earthly power and perception until they are so subtilized that divine power and divine perception descend to meet them, and the song of earth and the song of heaven mingle together’. He did not associate it with a similar passage in The Revolt of Islam about ‘Spring’s messengers descending from the skies’, though a section from the same Canto VII represented for him the subjective action which he describes in “Ego Dominus Tuus”. Shelley’s Cyntha speaks of the inner power which enabled her to transform the world. Either we are darkened by the [74] shades, she says, or we ‘cast a lustre on them’. Then she continues:

My mind became the book through which I grew
Wise in all human wisdom, and its cave,
Which like a mine I rifled through and through,
To me the keeping of its secrets gave
One mind, the type of all, the moveless wave
Whose calm reflects all moving things that are,
Necessity, and love, and life, the grave,
And sympathy, fountains of hope and fear;
justice, and truth, and time, and the world’s natural sphere.

Shelley made the imprisoned Cythna, as Yeats says paraphrasing the next stanza, ‘become wise in all human wisdom through the contemplation of her own mind, and write out this wisdom upon the sands in “signs” that were “clear. elemental shapes, whose smallest change” made “a subtler language within language”, and were “the key of truths which once were dimly taught in old Crotona.”’ So ‘Ille’ in “Ego Dominus Tuus” seeks an image, and calls to his opposite for the disclosure of ‘all that I seek’. But if one mind is to be ‘the type of all’, it must be suffused in symbols, else contemplation becomes an and exercise.

In the idealist tradition the contemplation of one’s own mind is bound to be the exemplary act, like Mallarmé watching himself in a mirror in order to think. One’s own mind in the place of incarnation. In Yeats, contemplation - not ‘slippered Contemplation’ but a dynamic act - the mind is moving within its own circle, confronting its opposite. gathering its energy into a symbolic gesture. Dance in its embodiment. The subtler language within a language corresponds to the self-appeasing gestures of the dancer, a sensual metaphysic within the physical body. The classical emblem is Mallarmé’s Hérodiade, who gathers everything into the artifice of the dance: [75]

Et tout, autour de moi, vit dans l’idolâtrie
D’un miroir qui reflète en son calme dormant
Hérodiade au clair regard de diamant ...

or in Symons’s translation, which Yeats quoted in “The Tragic Generation”:

And all about me lives but in mine own
Image, the idolatrous mirror of my pride,
Mirroring this Hérodiade diamond-eyed.

Mallarmé’s virgin is crucial in the mythology of Yeats’s dance-plays and especially his Salomé-play, A Full Moon in March : it may even be fancied that the dance-plays were designed to complete what Mallarmé left unfinished in the drama of “Hérodiade”. In “The Tragic Generation”, after the quotation from Symons’s translation, Yeats says, ‘Yet I am certain that there was something in myself compelling me to attempt creation of an art as separate from everything heterogeneous and casual, from all character and circumstance, as some Hérodiade of our theatre, dancing seemingly alone in her narrow moving luminous circle.’ We have here an almost complete aesthetic for a Symbolist theatre; the dancer moves by her own sweet will, a dynamic image, and in the climax of the play disengages herself completely from character and circumstance, the stage a luminous circle answering to her mind, everything transfigured in the energy of the dance. Yeats described it again in A Vision , the perfection of subjectivity in Phase 15:

The being has selected, moulded and remoulded, narrowed its circle of living, been more and more the artist, grown more and more ‘distinguished’ in all preference. Now, contemplation and desire, united into one, inhabit a world where every beloved image has bodily form, and every bodily form is loved.

Yeats has moved rather surreptitiously from Mallarmé to [76] Dante. I would maintain that the admission of body and bodily motives qualifies the otherwise pure Symbolism of this theatre. For the moment it is enough if we recognize that Yeats’s Symbolism, which owes much to Shelley, is turned toward the theatre by Mallarmé. Mallarmé’s theatre is not the same as Nietzsche’s, and the Noh theatre differs in important respects from each, but for the present Mallarmé is enough, Symbolism being, our theme. The celebrated programme outlined in ‘Crise de Vers’ establishes the contours of Symbolism, so far as we need them in reading Yeats. Mallarmé has been describing the new motive, ‘pour ne garder de rien que la suggestion’ (to keep nothing but the suggestion), and he continues:

Instituer une relation entre les images exacte, et que s’en détache un tiers aspect fusible et clair présenté à la divination (To institute an exact relationship between the images, and let there stand out from it a third aspect, bright and easily absorbed, offered to divination).

The chief characteristic of a Symbolist poem, in this context, is that the third aspect disables interpretation or criticism except in so far as these responses aspire to divination: the images, since they live by action rather than by knowledge, refuse to be translated. This gives them their esoteric aura. The climax of a dance-play does not disclose a meaning separable from the aura of this action; it is exactly the form which subjective intensity takes, and apart from that form it is nothing. As for the words, it would be better if we received them as ‘vocables’ than as counters to be construed from a dictionary. The equivalent act in Yeats’s poetry is “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”, where ‘the entire combustible world’ is consumed in a moment, fire returning to its origin in fire. “Flare” brings Pater, Nietzsche, and Mallarmé together, but the poem shows how Yeats transcends his origins with an [77] entirely personal rhythm.

The elegy is also Yeats’s incandescent tribute to the antithetical life. It has recently been impugned on the ground that Robert Gregory was not the remarkable man Yeats took him to be: but the argument is sordid. The men celebrated in the poem are not presented as major figures but as companions of Yeats’s life, vivid people in their own right. The text may be glossed from Autobiographies and A Vision , but the gloss is unnecessary. The people described are not all lonely or subjective types; Synge’s subjective lives, for instance, being over, as Yeats says in the Autobiographies . But the several people lead to Robert Gregory: his life-in-death and death-in-life disengages itself, like, the Symbolist dancer, from accident and multiplicity, even from the generous variety acknowledged in Lionel Johnson, Synge, and George Pollexfen. The climax is prefigured by the ‘measureless consummation’ of which Johnson dreamed. The rhetoric implies that Gregory, ‘our perfect man’ and exemplar of Unity of Being, achieved that illumination by the intensity of his antithetical power:

We dreamed that a great painter had been born
To cold Clare rock and Galway rock and thorn,
To that stern colour and that delicate line
That are our secret discipline
Wherein the gazing heart doubles her might.

The secret discipline is that contemplation of one’s own mind which Yeats admired in Shelley’s Cythna; he gives another version of it in “A Bronze Head”:

Propinquity had brought
Imagination to that pitch where it casts out
All that is not itself ...

If a reader asks why the landscape of Clare and Galway is necessary, the answer is: antithetical imaginations need an obstacle and, if an obstacle is not given, devise one. [78]

The imagination acts in this phase, fulfils its energy, by casting out all that is not itself, but it needs something to cast out. Even Hérodiade acknowledged ‘et tout, autour de moi’ as materia poetica to be gathered into the image. ‘The gazing heart doubles her might’ by committing herself to her proper discipline. The artist sees not with the eye but with the mind’s eye: the Symbolist acts by exclusion, narrowing the luminous circle for greater concentration and intensity. At this point the imagination is indeed the will, electing to make the world anew in its own image. The effort is an internal act. ‘Gazing’ is a strict term in Yeats, and depends upon a distinction between two, or perhaps three, modes of vision. In “Dove or Swan” near the end of A Vision , he describes the period of Roman decay, distinguishing between the qualities of Roman and Greek statuary for evidence. Roman vision is rendered in the glance, which is characteristic of a civilization in its last phase; it is the sign of administration, measurement, the Civil Service, character rather than personality, the gap between subject and object, inert bodies, ‘as conventional as the metaphors in a leading article’; these eyes are dead, subjectively, while objectively they have taken and are about to lose possession of the world. Yeats contrasts the glance and the gaze: the gaze is purely internal and secret, ‘vague Grecian eyes gazing at nothing, Byzantine eyes of drilled ivory staring upon a vision, and those eyelids of China and of India, those veiled or half-veiled eyes weary of world and vision alike’. The distinction between these last two attitudes, if it exists, need not concern us here. The gaze is the subjective act of the Grecian figure, described also as dance; gazing at nothing, or presumably at its own antithetical nature and the correspondingly challenged antinomies. Greek statues are also Symbolist poems. Yeats’s words make a sequence, culminating in the Oriental equivalent of the ‘flare’.

The gaze is internal and secret, it issues in the self-begotten dance, in ‘heroic reverie’-a phrase from “A [79] Bronze Head” - and even, however ruefully this was to appear, in the enchanting ‘dream’ of “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”. Any idiom, if held against resistance, is bound to win or appear to win, because nothing can defeat its logic. That Yeats hoped to find all in the symbol is not a scandal but proof that aesthetic systems are irresistible, a system can be defeated by another system only if the second is self-consistent and the first is not. A well-wrought fiction is irresistible. Yeats could certainly have found everything in the symbol by allowing his dancer to take possession of the world, converting it to an image. But he was not, after all, a thoroughgoing Symbolist. Even in the elegy on Robert Gregory he allowed his system to be bewildered, brought to silence by brute fact, by ‘the abrupt indiscretion of events’, as Symons said on another occasion. In the last stanza, after the conflagration, Yeats comes down to the daily world and finds it relentless. in other poems man may have invented death, but now death, like the bitter wind ‘that shakes the shutter’, scorns horsemen, scholars, soldiers, antithetical poets, secret disciplines. Yeats’s imagination tries to provide ‘a fitter welcome’ for his guests than the bitter wind, ‘but a thought / Of that late death took all my heart for speech’. The dance is broken. Yeats’s sense of fact and his sense of justice admit the rival terminology, however rude. The admission undermines his security as Symbolist, but it gives with one hand what it took away with the other; it allows him, by entertaining conflict, to find a more inclusive and a greater art. ‘Life is the last thing he has learnt,’ Symons wrote of Yeats in 1904, with an implication that the lesson was now well established in his art.’ In his mature poems Yeats does not allow his sense of life to be overwhelmed by the charm of a system, even one of his own devising: he became a major poet when he determined to live by that creed.

Some readers deny that Yeats achieved such an art. Ezra Pound, who admired Yeats’s work, rebuked him for the [80] excess of his Symbolism. In Canto 83, with Yeats in view as well as Baudelaire, Pound insists that ‘Le Paradis n’est pas artificiel’; the reference is to Baudelaire’s Les Paradis artificiels , an ode to the hieroglyphics of dream and symbol. Paradise is not artificiel, Pounds says, repeating a warning already given in Cantos 74, 76, and 77. Paradise exists, finite and historical, if ‘only in fragments’, such as excellent sausage, the smell of mint, and Ladro the night cat. Pound teases Yeats:

And Uncle William dawdling around Notre Dame
in search of whatever
paused to admire the symbol
with Notre Dame standing inside it. [ Cantos , 563.]

The point is well taken, so far as it refers to Yeats’s tendency to replace the given world by a figment of the Symbolist imagination; ‘in search of whatever’, since this effect is possible only by vacancy, taking one’s eye off the object. Pound is insisting that the given world, such as it is to common imagination, is more durable than the bronzes of Symbolism: it stands forth, bodied against the golden bird and the hieroglyphic dream of “Byzantium”.

There is a relevant passage in the “Esthétique du Mal” where Stevens writes movingly of such matters:

How cold the vacancy
When the phantoms are gone and the shaken realist
First sees reality ...

A few stanzas later, Stevens speaks of one who is alone in both the peopled and the unpeopled worlds:

In both, he is
Alone. But in the peopled world, there is,
Besides the people, his knowledge of them. In
The unpeopled, there is his knowledge of himself.
Which is more desperate in the moments when
The will demands that what he thinks be true? [81]

I quote these passages from Pound and Stevens to mark a transitional stage in the argument; from Pound, to concede that a point has been made against Yeats, and then to say that it is merely a point and does not reflect the full situation; from Stevens, to say that Yeats, in love with phantoms as he was, still faced the desperate moments in which ‘the will demands that what he thinks be true’. It is wrong to present Yeats merely as Mallarmé’s ephebe or a slightly more robust Symons; I have perhaps already gone too far in that direction. Only a small fraction of Yeats’s poetry sounds as if it were written under the auspices of ‘L’apres midi d’un faune’. There are moments in which he is satisfied with whatever the subjective will chooses to do, but there are other moments in which he is satisfied with nothing less than the truth, conceived as independent of his will. These rival allegiances are brought together by the theatrical force of his imagination, and there is reason to think that his poetry was preserved by his scruple.

Against symbol, therefore, we should place history; meaning whatever the imagination recognizes as distinct from itself. History in this sense means not only the past but the usual, whatever comes from the nature of things and not from the imagination: in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” Yeats called it ‘life’. We may concede that Yeats was sullen with history understood in this spirit, since his first love was symbol: ‘the cracked tune that Chronos sings’ was peculiarly harsh to his ear. He allowed history to enforce itself only because it was the strongest rival to symbol, and therefore a constructive obstacle: it could not be denied, and might in some moods be welcomed. In a letter to Dorothy Wellesley (4 May 1937) Yeats said that Mallarmé ‘escapes from history’, but ‘you and I are in history’, specifying, however, that he meant ‘the history of the mind’. Roger Fry’s translation of Mallarmé ‘shows me the road I and others of my time went for certain furlongs ... it is not the road I go now, but one of the [82] legitimate roads’. But we must be careful with the word. We speak of the past, but we do not bind ourselves to say whether what we speak of is boldly independent of ourselves or is one of our attendant slaves. History is a predicate, hopefully to be reconciled to the subject, but it is not the subject’s minion. It is common nowadays to speak of history as if it were a pure fiction, and at that point we confuse history with historiography, the past with our book of the past. In the Eighteenth Brumaire, however, Marx said that men make their own history, but they make it under circumstances directly encountered, given, transmitted from the past: the tradition of the dead generations, he said, weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. It may be said of Yeats that from one nightmare he made another, different from the first only because its monstrous lineaments were the products of will: A Vision is proof. But the evidence runs both ways, and Yeats never freed himself from double allegiance. He respected the past as different from himself, one more version of an irreducible reality, but he longed to feel that the past was his oyster. He accepted the past as given, but given to satisfy his need. Like other historians, amateur and professional, he found in the past whatever his sense of form required. One of the purposes of A Vision is to declare the susceptibility of time and history to a tragic pattern, Nietzschean in tone: the past becomes a ‘memory theatre’, apocalyptic in its climax. if the book is considered eccentric, it cannot be, for this reason, it is no more wilful than other grandiose histories by Lamprecht or Burckhardt. Like these, Yeats’s book ties historical events to its chariot, the emperor declares the victory of his fiction. The poems are greater than A Vision because they force the fictive element to encounter certain moments, richly imagined, in the cycle of time. “The Magi”, for instance, fits the pattern of history outlined in A Vision , but it also testifies to a perennial feeling, for which no gloss is required. Yeats may be right or wrong about the next historical gyre, but success or failure in prediction makes [83] no difference to the power of “The Gyres”, which is certified by an inveterate feeling and by that alone.

The official pattern of history is an apocalypse, life felt in terms of a violent limit - the next turn of the gyre. Historical periods as given in the diagram at the beginning of Book 5 of A Vision are correlated to the twenty-eight phases of the moon, Yeats’s Great Year. Recurrence is the law, whether we think of it benignly as cycle, ‘eternal return’, or harshly as gyre or vortex. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra celebrates recurrence as the wedding-ring of rings - ‘Oh how should I not lust for eternity and for the wedding ring of rings - the Ring of Recurrence’, in “The Seven Seals” - but Yeats’s idiom conspires with the violent figures of his imagination as if they alone issued from the Spirit of History. ‘The world begins to long for the arbitrary and accidental, for the grotesque, the repulsive and the terrible, that it may be cured of desire,’ he writes near the end of A Vision as if to cure himself of desire, now that he has had his life. Ages are described in a grand sweep, A.D. 1 to A.D. 1050 disposed of in twelve pages, like Lamprecht treating the history of Germany from 500 B.C. to A.D. 190 in an hour’s lecture. I suppose the justification is that the historian can trace a pattern without noting every point in it. Smaller-scale maps are available in Yeats’s occasional essays. In the essay on Spenser, for instance, he maintains that Spenser’s death in 1599 marked the end of ‘the Anglo-French nation’, sometimes called Merry England, the old feudal nation which had been established when the Normans made French the language of court and market-place. Elizabethan poetry coincides with a quarrel to the death between the old Anglo-French civilization and the new Anglo-Saxon values arising amid Puritan sermons and Marprelate tracts. ‘This nation had driven out the language of its conquerors, Yeats says, ‘and now it was to overthrow their beautiful haughty imagination and their manners, full of abandon and wilfulness, and to set in their stead earnestness and logic and [84] the timidity and reserve of a counting-house!’ ‘Anglo-French Chaucer’ is the great figure of the merry time, while Langland and Bunyan conspire with the Puritan nation. In Bunyan, ‘religion had denied the sacredness of an earth that commerce was about to corrupt and ravish’; but ‘when Spenser lived the earth had still its sheltering sacredness’. Spenser was by nature ‘altogether a man of that old Catholic feudal nation, but like Sidney, he wanted to justify himself to his new masters’; so he curbed the wild creatures of his imagination in deference to forms of allegory which were the products of a merchant culture. But ‘he had been made a poet by what he had almost learnt to call his sins.’

The essay on Spenser resumes in some detail a moment in history; after the Fall, it rehearses the joys of medieval unity. Yeats never wrote a Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, but like Henry Adams he implied an Eden in history, where body was not bruised to pleasure soul. That he found this felicity in the period from Chaucer to Spenser hardly matters, his historical sense is governed by his aesthetic sense, his sense of form, and particularly tragic form. So it demanded an Eden in time, from which man ejected himself. In that Eden hero and peasant lived with the same excess, intensity signifying unity of being, unity of culture; experience, brought to the pitch of form. The earth was sacred, and the souls of the dead inhabited desolate places. The only enemy was a Satan who turned his eyes toward money and machines, splitting thought and feeling, consciousness and experience. Now that mechanical force is about to become supreme - the year is 1925 - the hero’s only portion is defiance. Frenzy is forcing the next play on to the stage. Passion is the energy of recurrence: ‘for passion desires its own recurrence more than any event’. The understanding of history requires, like A Vision, applied typology. The historical sense, Nietzsche’s sixth sense is racial memory.

It follows that Yeats valued the past as the stuff of [85] poetry and drama; he made of history a dramatic poem, a long poem. The events themselves are fated, but what we make of them is free, with such freedom as can be wrested from fate. What makes such a poetry endlessly possible is the correspondence of mind and world, certified by symbols: this enables the poet to bear with the fact that a mind is only as rich as the images it contains. Yeats’s mind was peopled by images drawn from mythology and history: he did not take dictation from those images, but turned them to theatrical purpose, setting them astir. He was not a mere parcel of memories. The mythology most congenial to him was Celtic, with some additions from Indian lore. The history most congenial to him was that of Renaissance Italy, mainly illustrated in the history of art, and with some important additions from the history of Ireland in the eighteenth century, Berkeley, Swift, Goldsmith, ‘the people of Burke and of Grattan’.

There was also, most bitterly, the history of his own time. I emphasize this last to make the point that, beginning with In the Seven Woods , Yeats’s poetry admits into the otherwise self-enclosed garden of art the lives of other people, rarely ordinary people, I concede, but sufficiently common to acknowledge a reality which cannot be dissolved. These ‘presences’ are palpable, and they correspond to the vernacular idiom of the poems they inhabit. The result is that the professed Symbolist is often, in practice, hardly a Symbolist at all: the student of Mallarmé resorts to Jonson and Donne. Style in these poems is a testament to values still persisting in the finite world, and it encourages Yeats to mediate between his rival dreams, Innisfree and apocalypse. in The Wild Swans at Coole , especially, he reaches a dynamic accommodation with history, which allows him to retain the old persuasions of idealism and subjectivity while acknowledging the sturdy independence of other people. With that acknowledgement comes the irreducible reality of fact, body, and time. The Wild Swans at Coole is vivid with a life which Yeats is willing to concede [86] he has not invented: a short list of its manifestations includes George Pollexfen, Synge, Lionel Johnson, Iseult Gonne, Robert Gregory, ‘the living beauty- as distinct from ‘dazzling marble’, the fisherman, ‘the form / Where the mountain hare has lain’, Mabel Beardsley, Maud Gonne. These indisputable figures are set in league with other figures from mythology and Yeats’s fiction: the Sphinx, the Buddha, Robartes, Aherne, the Fool, the Hunchback, Diarmuid and Grainne. What is common to both lists is the affection they stir, and this is proof enough. The book is perhaps misleadingly named, because it refers to birds which have offered themselves too readily, at least since Shelley’s Alastor , for symbolic purposes - ‘A swan there was, / Beside a sluggish stream among the reeds.’ Yeats’s’ reference to Coole qualifies the offer, tying it to history, but hardly with enough force, because the great house was already transcending history to become an emblem. Still, the balance is beautifully held in the poems themselves. The Wild Swans at Coole is history, consistent with symbolism; The Tower is symbolism, glancing ruefully at history. The balance is always difficult in Yeats, because it is foreign to his nature to delight in a world he has not made. The price an idealist art pays for its self-delighting power is a certain fretful note, when the auspices are wrong; when the brute world insists on breaking in, or the internal power fails and magic drifts away. It is remarkable that Yeats’s middle poems transcend, to such a degree, their official aesthetic: nothing but moral power, to the degree of genius, can account for it. He was made a great poet by what he had almost learnt to call his weakness; a weakness for reality.

“Among School Children” is the poem to read, if it comes to a choice, to see how vivid the tension between history and symbol can be, and how satisfying. A prior condition, or it least an essential quality in the actual engagement of the two, is that each is given a fair chance. It is usual to interpret the first stanza in a more ironic spirit than I [87] would favour, mainly because readers expect Yeats to use the word ‘modern’ as a term of distaste, but on this occasion, by my reading, he does not. The schoolroom activities described in this stanza are charming, and only a gruff reading takes them as anything else:

The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way ...

There is external evidence that Y eats was pleased with this Montessori school, and praised it for being exceptional, indeed a school of remarkable cultivation. But the evidence is hardly necessary. ‘Cipher’ is enough to show, by its archaic quality, that this is a grammar-school of courtesies. The irony in the ‘sixty-year old smiling public man’ is turned upon himself, not upon the school, the nun, or the children. In the second stanza Yeats, as if recalling the heartsick note on which “Adam’s Curse” had ended, recites an occasion on which the lover and his queen were in tune, ‘our two natures blent / Into a sphere’; the first motif of unity in a poem which ends with two resplendent figures flowering in the same cause. I shall not go through the several stanzas; it is enough that we catch the reverberations set astir in the contrasts; between childhood and age, nuns and mothers, the body in flower and the body in decay, Adam’s curse diversely laid upon beautiful women and comely youths, the pain of mothers, sons, and lovers, the woman as ‘a living child’ and as a ‘Leaden body’, daughter of the swan. In the seventh stanza Yeats distinguishes between images, eternal objects of our passion:

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
- But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts. … [88]

It is my impression that these lines make the structural figure of the entire poem. Two sets of images are juxtaposed, and the difference between them is great, but at the end they converge, sharing one quality. The relation between the sets is not a simple contrast, because much of Yeats’s feeling, as the poems of Byzantium and “All Souls’ Night” testify, yearns toward ‘a marble or a bronze repose’. The images which ‘animate a mother’s reveries’ are irrefutable, so there is no question of the contest being decided on a simple verdict. Common to both sets is their power to break hearts. The antinomies are not destroyed but resolved, the poet makes peace, retaining both, justifying both by the passion they incite. The two sets are joined as one, both being eternal; invoked now as ‘presences’, Yeats’s translation of ‘images’ into persons. These presences, being eternal, are ‘self-born mockers of man’s enterprise’ and the effort of the last stanza is to send a lark aloft, hoping to meet a divine lark descending from the sky. History and symbol converge in this great stanza, as if an aura of beatitude surrounded the first, and the second consented to be seen. Life assumes the freedom of art, art the fullness of life. Fact, time, place, and person converge upon tree and dancer; when we say that tree and dancer are symbols, we mean that mere things are touched with supernatural radiance. Their unity is indissoluble. Symbolism has become secret history, and history is transfigured.

This is not the whole story. If it were, it would imply an order of history in which everything would know its place. There are poems which celebrate that happiness, but they are few. Normally, they are forestalled by the inveterate obstacles, division, alienation, antinomies of mind and world. Some arise from within. A constant motif in Yeats’s mature poems is the question of the monstrous, the inconceivable event which humiliates history and makes nonsense of finite order. The supernatural is monstrous in a good or bad sense, because it cannot be imagined, it defeats the imagination: affronted, the imagination can only [89] play a guessing game, hoping to come upon an approximation. It seems impossible to reconcile the inconceivable with human freedom, except by the miserable stratagem of choosing not to credit the signs. Yeats’s last plays try to cope with monsters and fatality by dramatizing them; their dominant feeling is that version of the Sublime which goes with terror. Yeats, as if recoiling from the idiom of freedom, virtually conspires with the evil genius of determinism, ‘what he would abhor if he did hot desire it’, since it is his opposite. In The Resurrection Greek accuses Syrian, ‘you talk as if you wanted the barbarian back’, and Syrian answers, ‘what if there is always something that lies outside knowledge, outside order? What if at the moment when knowledge and order seem complete that something appears? ... What if the irrational return? What if the circle begin again?’’ According to the stage directions, the Syrian is laughing, evidently the Nietzschean laugh of violence and ecstasy, companionable noise to “The Second Coming”. Christ’s Incarnation was ‘outside knowledge, outside order- as knowledge and order were then understood:

Odour of blood when Christ was slain
Made all Platonic tolerance vain
And vain all Doric discipline.

Two thousand years later we expect the next ‘influx’, and while we have no idea what form the irrational will take, it cannot well be human.

It is customary, in glossing “The Second Coming” to refer to that passage in the fourth Book of A Vision where Yeats, having named Henry Adams, Petrie, and Spengler as Viconian philosophers of history, offers his own prediction, an ‘antithetical revelation’ which will come ‘neither from beyond mankind nor born of a virgin, but begotten from our spirit and history’. It is not clear why our spirit should want such a monster, unless its lust for conflict and apocalypse is insatiable, as perhaps it is; or unless Yeats’s [90] reason is true, that we long to be cured of desire. That history is ready to give birth to a monster seems at least probable. Yeats associates with his prediction Blake’s The Mental Traveller , presumably for its visionary grappling of opposites, male and female, birth and death: ‘Terror strikes thro’ the region wide: / They cry ‘The Babe! the Babe is Born!’ / And flee away on Every side.’ The approaching antithetical dispensation, Yeats says, ‘obeys imminent power, is expressive, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh, surgical’: it must ‘reverse our era and resume past eras in. itself’. What else it must be, ‘no man can say, for always at the critical moment ... the unique intervenes’. The unique is the supernatural, the irrational, the monstrous. Yeats then gives, as if by doing so he would make all clear, the lines from “The Second Coming” which describe the ‘shape with lion body and the head of a man’.

‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre’: the poem begins with the last Act of the present cyclical drama. in his note in Michael Robartes and the Dancer Yeats says that ‘at the present moment the life gyre is sweeping outward ... all our scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization belongs to the outward gyre and prepares not the continuance of itself but the revelation as in a lightning flash ...’ ‘The falcon cannot hear the falconer’; as Yeats says in A Vision , ‘the loss of control over thought comes towards the end’. Some readers wish to translate the falconry into specifically political terms, but 1 think it better to have the effect ominous rather than particular, marking the first signs of loss of control, the collapse of official order:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

Ceremony is described in the next poem, “A Prayer for My [91] Daughter”, ‘Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn’, the cornucopia of ‘radical innocence’. When the soul, having expelled hatred, learns that it is ‘self-delighting, / Self-appeasing, self-afrighting’, it learns also ‘that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will’, presumably because it is no longer necessary to distinguish between Heaven and itself. The ‘blood-dimmed tide’ is the ‘filthy modern tide’ of “The Statues”. ‘Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand’: not the promised second coming of Christ, but Yeats’s equivalent of the monstrous dragons in the Revelation of St. John.

Somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

This is the Egyptian sphinx, not Oedipus’s riddler. I think it also comes from a trope which Yeats recalls several times in prose, the passage in the Odyssey where Heracles is seen by Odysseus in Hell. Heracles is present in Hell only in his shade, the real Heracles, man rather than shade, is at the banquet of the Gods. Yeats ends the “Dove or Swan” section of A Vision with the dense question: ‘shall we follow the image of Heracles that walks through the darkness bow in hand, or mount to that other Heracles, man, not image, he that has for his bride Hebe, “the daughter of Zeus the mighty and Hera. shod with gold”?’ Twenty years earlier he had recited the same passage, with more detail, at the end of “Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places”:

... in the Odyssey where Odysseus speaks not with ‘the mighty Heracles’, but with his phantom, for he himself ‘hath joy at the banquet among the deathless gods and had to wife Hebe of the fair ankles, child of Zeus and Hera of the golden sandals’, while all about the phantom [92] ‘there was a clamour of the dead, as it were fowls flying everywhere in fear. …’

I suggest that the ‘shape’ in the poem, the sphinx, is related also to Christ as phantom to man. The desert birds are flying, like Homer’s fowls, in fear and terror from the new monster. ‘Indignant’ is a touch of mastery, because it humanizes the reaction of the birds without qualifying their fright: witnesses of a new incarnation treat it with contempt as well as horror. If my reading of the passage is feasible, it clears up a difficulty which some readers have found in the last lines, the apparently pointless scandal of the impending birth of a monster at Bethlehem:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

It is natural that the new Galilean turbulence should begin where its predecessor began, the circle coming round again. ‘After us the Savage God.’

It is important to keep ethical responses as far as possible away from these lines: we are dealing with a monster, so it is beyond good and evil. ‘A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun’: ‘gaze’ has its Yeatsian meaning, already discussed, while ‘blank and pitiless’ removes the monster from our moral concern; it is a form of the supernatural, hence it makes our moral categories vain. The poem imagines the next eruption of the supernatural and its descent upon the natural, ‘the unique’ bursting into history, destroying old orders. Our response to it depends upon what we make of Yeats’s tone; some readers have taken it as the tone of horror, a poet dreading the inevitable. The poem was written some months after the Great War and the Russian Revolution, and it expresses Yeats’s terror at the anarchy loosed upon the world. There is strong evidence for this reading, but it does not take account of other elements in the poem, especially the Syrian note of laughter behind dread. That Yeats feared the new forces is clear: it is also [93] true, but harder to prove, that in a full description of this fear, dread must include fascination. it is typical of his sensibility to be fascinated by what it fears, by what he would desire if he did not abhor it. The easiest explanation again is ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’, especially if we add the feeling of anticipating historical destiny, whatever dreadful form that destiny is to take. There is in Yeats, and especially in his later work, a determination to leave nothing unimagined, to run toward ‘the unique’, even though the precise form of its manifestation cannot be divined. it is a commonplace in descriptions of the Sublime that the perceiver is struck by the blow of an event, driven beyond himself by the revelation, and it matters little whether the event is superb or horrifying; the force of the blow is what matters. The moral sense is astonished by the ‘woe and wonder’ of the occasion. In “The Second Coming” the note we hear includes awe as well as dread; in a technical sense, this is Yeats’s most sublime poem. In the last lines, to be specific, the moral sense which registers itself at ‘towards Bethlehem to be born’ is astounded by the monster, and this part of the feeling is given in ‘slouches’: the poetry acts in the clash between rough beast and Christ-child, St. John’s vision is overwhelmed. This is the image which, as Yeats says, ‘troubles my sight’, and the human burden of the poem is sustained by such amateur terms and their corresponding rhythms. The poem enacts one of the perennial forms of trouble, and this is its value. The image comes ‘out of Spiritus Mundi ’, it is not merely a fiction, a deliberate gargoyle. Finding words for it, Yeats draws it into the history of his poem; the process is nearly as mysterious as that by which ‘the unique’ interrupts the formal history of human life. [94]

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