Denis Donoghue, Yeats [Fontana Modern Masters] (London: Fontana/Collins 1971), Chap. 5: The Savage God.

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].

In the fifth book of A Vision, which is dated February 1925, Yeats wrote:

A civilization is a struggle to keep self-control, and in this it is like some great tragic person, some Niobe who must display an almost superhuman will or the cry will not touch our sympathy. The loss of control over thought comes towards the end; first a sinking in upon the moral being, then the last surrender, the irrational cry, revelation - the scream of Juno’s peacock.’ [A Vision, p.268.]

In its syntax it recalls “Leda and the Swan”; in its tone, “The Second Coming”. The scream of Juno’s peacock is heard through an entire generation. We hear it in Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”, D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent, Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God, Pound’s Jefferson and/or Mussolini, Yeats’s The Tower. From a passage already quoted: ‘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’. According to A Vision and Yeats’s last plays, the next turn of the gyre is ordained, everything yields to the cycle. ‘This age and the next age / Engender in the ditch.’ The copulation is terrible; Yeats sometimes denounces it, more often accepts it, with whatever degree of dismay, as the work of history, the price of form. As for his own role in such an age, the possibilities are limited, the most he can seek is to make himself a tragic hero or at least an actor skilled in a few tragic gestures. In many of the last poems the dominant stance is that of fierce, desperate joy, Nietzsche’s tragic ecstacy, but what we feel in the lines, too, is Yeats’s terrible insistence. He put those poems together to keep him [116] self from falling apart. He insists, now more than ever, upon passion rather than knowledge:

                       Empty eyeballs knew
That knowledge increases unreality, that
Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show.

But boys and girls who press ‘live lips upon a plummetmeasured face’ know that passion can ‘bring character enough’.

It is splendid, but it hardly conceals despair. Yeats’s idiom is threatening to tell against him. The trouble with ‘consciousness as conflict’ is that, when the conditions are hostile, the theatrical image dissipates itself in violence. Energy, deprived of an enabling form, turns back upon itself, erupting because it must. In Yeats, vain energy took for the most part a political turn, and readers have felt that the poetry is saved by that exigency; the impurities run into ground already poisoned. But the question is not simple.

As for the poisoned land of politics: it is a commonplace that many of the greatest writers in Yeats’s generation felt that reality had now taken a political form and that it could not be evaded in that capacity. Many of these writers, too, recoiled against the current of liberal democracy as if it were what Pound called it in the ABC of Economics, ‘a mess of mush’. Their preferred values were formal, precise, hierarchical, often authoritarian: it is a painful story, and we do not understand it in full. Yeats is an extreme example. In 1937 he praised ‘rule of kindred’ as the impending form of government, set off against the heterogeneity of the time. ‘Great nations blossom above,’ he sang in “Three Marching Songs”; ‘A slave bows down to a slave.’ In the Diary of 1930 he said, ‘we wait till the world changes and its reflection changes in our mirror and an hieratical society returns, power descending from the few to the many, from the subtle to the gross, not because some man’s policy has decreed it but because what is so [117] overwhelming cannot be restrained’. [Explorations, p.337] He had lost confidence in the discovery of order among natural materials, order must be imposed if it is to prevail. The terminology of strong men, heroes, power is more assertive than ever: significantly, he reads Nietzsche again in 1936-7. He finds justification in the history of art. The classic imposition of order was the victory of Greek statuary over Asiatic formlessness. ‘Europe was not born when Greek galleys defeated the Persian hordes at Salamis; but when the Doric studios sent out those broad-backed marble statues against the multiform, vague, expressive Asiatic sea, they gave to the sexual instinct of Europe its goal, its fixed type.’ [Explorations, p.451.] Or the same in verse:

                                  for the men
That with a mallet or a chisel modelled these
Calculations that look but casual flesh, put down
All Asiatic vague immensities,
And not the banks of oars that swam upon
The many-headed foam at Salamis.
Europe put off that foam when Phidias
Gave women dreams and dreams their looking-glass.

The many-headed foam corresponds to modern democracy, detested for its mess and vagueness.

It is also linked with racial degeneracy, ‘gangling stocks grown great, great stocks run dry / Ancestral pearls all pitched into a sty’. In “To-morrow’s Revolution” Yeats maintained that ‘since about 1900 the better stocks have not been replacing their numbers, while the stupider and less healthy have been more than replacing theirs’. Sooner or later, he insisted, ‘we must limit the families of the unintelligent classes’. Hopefully, ‘the best bred from the best shall claim again their ancient omens’. [Explorations, pp.423, 426, 437.] It is often held that these wretched sentiments were aroused in the bitterness of Yeats’s last years, and may be considered mere ash on an old man’s sleeve. But their origins are much [118] deeper in his sensibility, they return to his early sense of culture, ‘the inherited glory of the rich’, tradition, and charm. In 1900 he transcribed from the notes to Queen Mab a passage in which Shelley writes of ‘a perfect identity between the moral and physical improvement of the human species’, though Shelley’s vegetarian argument in those pages cannot have pleased him much.’ In “Estrangement” he says that ‘culture is the sanctity of the intellect’, and by culture he means certain high products of freedom, good breeding, and wealth. One of the considerations which led him to approve of the Fascists was that their policy in regard to land had ‘the history of the earth to guide it, and that is permanent history’. ‘If I till my land,’ he argues, ‘I should have rights because of that duty done, and if I have much land, that, according to all ancient races, should bring me still more rights.’ The liaison of feeling which Yeats sponsored between peasant and aristocrat meant a paternalistic society of rights and duties based on land. Fascism had a better chance of his praise than, say, Nazism because its most spectacular version was enacted upon his beloved Italian soil and he could not help believing that somewhere beneath those marching boots one might hear the sweet sounds of Urbino, ‘the wise Duchess’, and Lady Emilia giving the theme. So he found it easy to mistake Mussolini for Duke Frederick, Gentile for Castiglione, and to think of them in civilized association with Parnell, O’Leary, Kevin O’Higgins, and the great immortals.

That Yeats was attracted to the Fascists is indisputable. He criticised them in occasional detail, mainly because he thought them entirely wrong in sponsoring large families; generally, however, they caught his imagination: he seems to have traced a straight line between Fascism and oldworld charm. Still, he could not be more than a tourist in Fascist Italy. This is Pound’s meaning, I think, in a passage from Thrones: [119]

But the lot of ’em, Yeats, Possum, Old Wyndham
  had no ground to stand on
Black shawls still worn for Demeter
  in Venice,
    in my time,
      my young time.

Pound is saying that the trouble with Yeats, Eliot, and Lewis in their political sentiments is that their feelings are not grounded in their soil; whereas the Fascists are expressing the genuine Italian tradition, the genius of their place. There is a lot to be said for this view, incidentally. Eliot himself warned that sound political thought in one country cannot be built upon political facts in another: for his own part, I might mention, he is on record as saying that Fascism, considered as a political faith, is humbug. In Ireland, Yeats’s cordiality to the Blueshirts was certainly an attempt to sponsor an authoritarian movement which would utter ‘the speech of the place’.

It should be remembered, however, in assessing the relation between poetry and politics in Yeats, that like other writers in his time he derived a politics from an aesthetic. He did not approach politics in its own terms. So the question of ‘trained incapacity’ arises. Veblen has used this phrase to refer to a situation in which a man is prevented from seeing certain things by the fact that they are not emphasized in the grammar of his professional skill. Training in one direction makes a disability in another. It may be argued that modern writers, skilled in one way and dedicated to their own idiom, are for that reason disabled in other respects, including respects readily available to less talented men. It is common in moral philosophy to derive an ethic from an aesthetic, making the good a function of the beautiful: G. E. Moore, for instance. It is equally natural to derive a politics from the same source, trading with the demon of analogy. I have no doubt that for. every position in aesthetics there is a corresponding [120] position in politics, though I do not offer to specify one, given the other. T. E. Hulme said that Yeats attempted ‘to ennoble his craft by strenuously believing in supernatural world, race-memory, magic, and saying that symbols can recall these where prose couldn’t’; Hulme thought it ‘an attempt to bring in an infinity again’. [Further Sepculations, ed. Sam Hynes, 1962, p.98.] That such an attempt has political bearings can be assumed; if analogy fails to work in this case, it is not a resourceful demon.

Think of modern aesthetics, with politics half in mind. The single article of faith which goes undisputed in the Babel of modern criticism is the primacy of the creative imagination. It bloweth where it listeth, indisputable and imperious, it gives no quarter. In extreme versions, it concedes no rights to nature, history, other people, the world of natural forms is grist to its mill. It is strange that we have accepted such an authoritarian notion in aesthetics while professing to be scandalized by its equivalent in politics. The poet is free to deal with nature as he wishes, whatever form the imposition takes. The point is not answered by saying that a political act has immediate consequences in the lives of ordinary people, while an aesthetic act is merely virtual, and affects nobody. What is in question is an attitude to life, whatever we wish to say further about the relation between attitude and act. The freedom conceded to the poet’s imagination is fundamental in European Romanticism, represented accurately enough by Coleridge. The modern understanding of imagination assumes that order is imposed upon experience by those exceptional men, the few, capable of doing so: that it is natural for such men to do so, as an act issues from a prior capacity. It would be possible, I suppose, to devise an aesthetic which would consort with a democratic politics, but no such aesthetic has flourished in modern literature. If you start with the imagination, you propose an élite of exceptional men; their special quality is power of vision. The relation between this élite and the masses [121] is bound to be a critical relation, and it is likely to proceed by authority. We proceed in this direction when we speak of a play in terms of the hero; or, as in Yeats, when everything in the drama culminates in the hero. Even when Yeats writes of ostensibly historical events, he cannot prevent the authoritarian note from sounding, it comes from the aesthetic part of his mind. In “The Tragic Generation” he describes how ‘somewhere about 1450, though later in some parts of Europe by a hundred years or so’, men came to Unity of Being; ‘and as men so fashioned held places of power, their nations had it too, prince and ploughman sharing that thought and feeling’. ‘Whatafterwards showed for rifts and cracks were there already,’ he says, ‘but imperious impulse held all together.’ [Autobiographies, p.291.] Now it is possible, but unrewarding, to read these sentences as historical comment; their true bearing is aesthetic, they refer to art, pattern, order, tension, form, and are best received in that spirit. ‘Imperious’ begins as a term of aesthetic power, and Yeats is then pleased to find, in the historical world, a corresponding empire of feeling.

Reverting to the last poems and plays; their deepest impulse begins in art, then seeps into contemporary politics. The political rant is tolerable when we receive it as a poet’s rage for order, a revolt against formlessness, vagueness, mess. In “The Statues” Yeats writes:

We Irish, born into that ancient sect
But thrown upon this filthy modern tide
And by its formless spawning fury wrecked,
Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace
The lineaments of a plummet-measured face.

‘We Irish’; because Berkeley used the phrase to refute English empiricists. ‘That ancient sect’, meaning Ireland as pre-industrial, imaginative, fantastic, oral, subjective, religious, with an implication that religion comes from caste and aspires to ritual. The filthy modern tide is an image of democratic society, the herd’s success-story [122] narrated in the yellow press. ‘Formless spawning fury’; fury is often a word of praise in Yeats, but here it is dominated by the violent adjectives, and ‘spawning’, despite the ‘frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch’, comes from Yeats’s disgust at large families of puny people. ‘Climb to our proper dark’: the verb hovers between indicative and imperative, with a touch of each. Yeats is recalling us to the values of The Winding Stair and The Tower, our dark is the dark of the soul’s tower, ‘emblematical of the night’, scorning the squalor of accident. In these lines the relation between poetry, philosophy, and politics is very close, but the dominant feeling is aesthetic revulsion. The tracing of the lineaments at the end resumes the history of artistic form from Pythagorean numbers to Blake and the ‘profane perfection of mankind’. The faces examined are divine, Yeats says in On the Boiler, ‘because all there is empty and measured’. [Explorations, p.451.] In the poem as a whole, the symbolic power to make an image, transfiguring passion as form, is focussed now upon the Greek statues. I assume the image of the dancer is felt to be vulnerable like poor Margot Ruddock, the crazed girl, ‘her soul in division from herself’: the permanence of art must be assigned to more imperious manifestations. It was not always so. In several earlier poems the sculptured object was seen as too remote, too bloodless to satisfy, and the dancer took all his love. Now the dancing-master has outlived the dance and is in search of new employment, new analogies. Form must resist the weather of feeling, as in the statues, where calculation, number, even measurement, intellect, and passion become imperial powers, set against chaos. It could be argued, incidentally, that in the politics of form, sculpture is the art most amenable to authoritarians. Music cannot forget its relation to time, the creatural predicament of rhythm and the critique of silence, despite the purity of its form. Literature is pathetically human, despite its occasional lust for the absolute. Drama cannot evade its dependence upon time, ‘body and [123] its stupidity’, passion and bare boards. But sculpture easily declares itself independent: it is what it is, and only the perspective of centuries can force it into time and change. A statue is not even loyal to its maker, it treats him with the same indifference which it brings to other eyes. It is significant that Yeats goes to sculpture rather than to the other arts when it is a question of ‘putting down’ the Asiatic vague immensities, or their modern equivalents; the verb is haughty, and it comes from force. The fact that Yeats’s natural art was theatre, theatre-poetry, dramatic poetry, makes the recourse to sculpture in “The Statues” and other poems the more remarkable. In sculpture, the form stands out boldly from its setting; the political correspondence is clear. Of course this is not a full account of the situation, Yeats wrote plays virtually till the day of his death, and there are late dances, like the Queen’s dance in A Full Moon in March . But there is, nevertheless, a turn away from body to stone, and the turn is significant; politically significant, too.

I am not trying to take the harm out of a sinister politics by calling it a post-Romantic aesthetic; but merely showing what goes with what, and the imposed order of their going. In fact, the relation between aesthetics and politics is always dangerous. In “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue” (1936) Wallace Stevens writes of

an Italy of the mind, a place
Of fear before the disorder of the strange,
A time in which the poets’ politics
Will rule in a poets’ world.

But he goes on to say:

Yet that will be
A world impossible for poets, who
Complain and prophesy, in their complaints,
And are never of the world in which they live.

Poets, that is to say, live by hallucination, and must do so, [124] or their poetry dies. Walter Benjamin has argued, speaking in the idiom of history and Marxist politics, that ‘all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war’. Fascism is his example, ‘the logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life’. ‘The violation of the masses, whom Fascism with its Fürher cult forces to its knees, has its counterpart,’ Benjamin says, ‘in the violence of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values.’ [Illuminations, trans. Hary Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt, 1969, p.241.] He maintains that Fascism is the consummation of ‘L’art pour 1’art’, its motto ‘Fiat ars - pereat mundus’:

Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. [Ibid., p.242.]

Marinetti’s Futurist hymn to war is then quoted: the year is 1936, Yeats’s time, but it would be fanciful to put Yeats and Marinetti in the same ideological cell. There are degrees of Fascism as of other allegiances. But the evidence in Yeats’s case is strong, too. ‘The danger is that there will be no war,’ he wrote, ‘that the skilled will attempt nothing, that the European civilisation, like those older civilisations that saw the triumph of their gangrel stocks, will accept decay.’ [Explorations, p.425.] In “Three Songs to the Same Tune” he sings, ‘But a good strong cause and blows are delight.’ Sometimes he lauds war for Nietzsche’s reason, that it hardens muscle, but normally he has more than muscle in view. ‘Desire some just war,’ he writes, ‘that big house and hovel, college and public-house, civil servant ... and international bridgeplaying woman, may know that they belong to one nation.’’ We are returned to Parnell, Mitchell, and O’Leary, only the times have changed.

Yeats is shouting in the dark. His liaison of peasant and prince is touching, and the aesthetic source from which it [125] comes is clear, but it was always, in the limiting sense, a dream. Even in Ireland, peasant and prince were declining classes. Aristocrats were already archaic; of the few who survived, some lived in London, using Dublin for an annual visit to the Horse Show, and the remoter parts of Ireland as fishing-lodges. The peasants were still emigrating from impoverished farms to the bourgeois amenity of English and American cities. Yeats’s dream could only be sustained by deciding that f6r poetic purposes his peasants could be replaced by a pseudonymous fisherman, his prince by Duke Ercole. It was still possible to recite political lessons from Vico, Burke, and Swift, but there was little hospitality for such parables in Senator Yeats’s bourgeois island. This may help to explain the stridency of his last years, the impression of a great soul at the end of its tether.

It would be strange, therefore, if Yeats’s last poems and plays escaped uninjured, the phantasmagoria preserving them from danger. Frank Kermode has argued in The Sense of an Ending that Yeats did not take his apocalyptic predic- tions literally, that he was saved by his scepticism and by his still persisting relation to the syntax of common speech, the values of the vernacular. It is true. But the scars are clear, none the less, in the last poems and plays. Tragic joy begins to sound shrill in “Lapis Lazuli”, the wild old wicked man is tiresome, and often ‘an old man’s frenzy’ amounts to little more than a promise to ‘do such things, what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth’. I speak harshly of this element in the last Yeats because it seems to me to humiliate the magnanimity of his greatest work, the ‘reality and justice’ of his central poems. ‘My temptation is quiet,’ he writes in “An Acre of Grass”, and we know he speaks as a Nietzschean, but we wish he had yielded to it sometimes. The stress of the last years tells upon the poetry, often producing a shrill tone which I associate with hysteria of the imagination. In the account of Phase 16 in A Vision he wrote that ‘there is always an element of frenzy, and almost always a delight in certain [126] glowing or shining images of concentrated force: in the smith’s forge; in the heart, in the human form in its most vigorous development, in the solar disk; in some symbolical representation of the sexual organs; for the being must brag of its triumph over its own incoherence’. We hear this bragging in “Under Ben Bulben”, especially the third stanza, where Yeats writes as if unity of being could be achieved by any violent man with his temper up. The bragging is felt in the insistent rhymes, and generally in the blatancy of rhythm which disfigures several late poems.

Clearly a just balance of forces is required, and those poems in the last book which are completely realized are those in which a balance is held. The idiom of a lifetime was now in danger of collapse. Yeats comes within an ace, in these last poems, of repudiating the whole structure he has made: having made it, he can think of nothing to do but pull it down. He does not pull it down, but he makes destructive noises, growling and ranting. So he directs upon his own work the scorn and violence which he cast upon the world. When we find the poems harsh and metallic, the reason is that Yeats, making sure of his own voice, drowns every other voice: differences, opposites, qualifications are censored. Many of these poems lack what Henry James calls, in the Preface to The Lesson of the Master, ‘operative irony’, which ‘implies and projects the possible other case, the case rich and edifying where the actuality is pretentious and vain’. In the fine poems the possible other case is heard; as in the dialogue of heart and dream in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”. In “The Man and the Echo”, echo stands in judgement, however tactfully, upon the man’s soul, and the effect is like a refrain of justice, qualifying the report of mere reality. The Rocky Voice issuing from a cavern does not drown the poet’s questions, rather it sets the questions reverberating among natural forms, ancestral memories. Again in “Cuchulain Comforted” opposites meet and merge before passing to the next incarnation. [127]

In “The Apparitions” a declaration of joy is qualified by terror:

When a man grows old his joy
Grows more deep day after day,
His empty heart is full at length,
But he has need of all that strength
Because of the increasing Night
That opens her mystery and fright.
Fifteen apparitions have I seen;
The worst a coat upon a coat-hanger.

The last lines make a refrain, and several poems of this time have the voices recurring in this way; gradually, the words acquire an air of coming from a far distance, bearing age-old wisdom. Verbs become proverbs. ‘You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence,’ Yeats said in one of his last letters,’ and he wanted the poems to sound like tales. The images that make the Muses sing are archetypal, not psychological or accidental, they must appear permanent types rather than individuals. In “Long-Legged Fly” the refrain at the end of each stanza does what insistence fails to do in the lesser poems, holds the mind to what is permanent, while everything else changes.

In this wonderfully curial poem Yeats presents Caesar, Helen of Troy, and Michelangelo, three different modes of power, united in a central silence. Caesar in his tent before battle, the maps spread out, his eyes ‘fixed upon nothing’; Helen, practising ‘a tinker shuffle / Picked up on a street’, inconsequential, yet her mind, too, ‘moves upon silence’; Michelangelo, painting the Sistine roof, his hand moving .to and fro, his mind moving upon silence. Many years before “Long-Legged Fly”, Yeats resumed a debate in “Michael Robartes and the Dancer” on the theme of body, Robartes maintaining that ‘all must come to sight and touch’. His evidence: [128]

While Michael AngeIo’s Sistine roof,
His “Morning” and his “Night” disclose
How sinew that has been pulled tight,
Or it may be loosened in repose,
Can rule by supernatural right
Yet be but sinew.

In the fourth section of “Under Ben Bulben” the same evidence is offered in proof ‘that there’s a purpose set / Before the secret working mind’. The secret working mind is the mind moving upon silence, the supernatural right of rule attested by the silence at the heart of power. The play of silence upon words, silence upon deeds, makes “Long-Legged Fly” one of the most resplendent of Yeats’s later poems, and it testifies to the extraordinary balance of feeling which he could still achieve, even in a frenetic time. In “A Bronze Head” Yeats wonders, of Maud Gonne, ‘which of her forms has shown her substance right’. The question of ‘composite substance’, recited from ‘profound McTaggart’s’ Studies in Hegelian Cosmology, leads the mind to other possibilities, but the first question is not forgotten. I think it accounts for the extraordinary delicacy of these poems, when they are delicate at all.

In “To Dorothy Wellesley”, finally, the sign of balance is a style of remarkable grace: it has been censured as tumid, but I think the rhetoric is earned. The verses make a parable of the poetic imagination, but only incidentally, beginning in ‘moonless midnight’, the time of visionary power, ‘our proper dark’. In the first lines a poet’s way with natural forms and configurations is given in the ‘old nonchalance of the hand’, the trees becoming ‘Famous old upholsteries / Delightful to the touch’, nature amenable to man. The imaginative effort is given in physical terms: ‘stretch’, ‘tighten that hand’, ‘draw them closer’. There is an answering enrichment of the imagination, ‘rammed full / Of that most sensuous silence of the night’. ‘Rammed’ is a word Yeats associated with Ben Jonson’s use of it, ‘so [129] rammed with life that he can but grow in life with being’. ‘Climb to your chamber full of books and wait’: thereafter, the poetic spirit is to disengage itself from accident, a movement of feeling expressed in a sequence of negatives, ‘No books upon the knee’, ‘no one there’, ‘a Great Dane that cannot bay the moon’, ‘Nothing’, ‘Neither Content / Nor satisfied Conscience’. ‘What climbs the stair?’ What, not who, for it is a movement away from the merely personal toward the spirit of Poetry:

                             What climbs the stair?
Nothing that common women ponder on
If you are worth my hope! Neither Content
Nor satisfied Conscience, but that great family
Some ancient famous authors misrepresent,
The Proud Furies each with her torch on high.

The Furies are the spirit of Poetry understood as Platonic frenzy and inspiration (‘wait’); they can hardly be taken as having the entire history attributed to them in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, where they begin as Erinyes, goddesses of vengeance for blood spilt, and end as Eumenides, protective and somewhat managerial spirits. Their meaning in the poem is restricted by ‘proud’ and by the contrast with Content and satisfied Conscience: much of their force comes from Nietzsche, but some of it reaches far back into Yeats’s poetry with “Vacillation” as an important stage in its history. The long cadence is beautifully enriched by the delayed resolution: the penultimate line is a change of key between one grandiloquent line and another; general, where the lines before and after are specific, prosaic where they are poetic and high. I do not know who the ancient authors are or how they have misrepresented the Furies, but it is hardly material, the line acts by changing the dominant poetic key without committing the mind to anything very specific: delay, however, is crucial to the rhythm. The texture of the passage is greatly enhanced by the prosaic line which it accommodates, the ‘grand style’ of the last [130] line is forced to justify itself. This effect, incidentally, I read as Yeats’s intimate compliment to Dorothy Wellesley, because he particularly admired this quality in her poems. In the Introduction to her Selections he quotes a passage from the poem “Horses”, ending in the superb line, ‘With stripe from head to tail, and moderate ears.’ ‘No poet of my generation would have written “moderate” exactly there,’ he says; ‘a long period closes, the ear, expecting some poetic word, is checked, delighted to be so checked, by the precision of good prose.’ It is precisely the effect of Yeats’s own moderate line. I think the whole poem is not just a tribute to Yeats’s friend, or even to the spirit of Poetry, but to the powers of one particular poet, author of “Fire”, one of Yeats’s favourite poems. I might mention, by the way, that one of the attractive features of Yeats’s work in these last years - and on the whole those years are terrible - is his readiness to learn from other poets; as the short verse line of Purgatory is adapted from Dorothy Wellesley’s poems.

But the significance of “To Dorothy Wellesley” is that it brings Yeats to his inveterate idiom, conflict, the high tension of balance; domesticity and violence, beautiful woman and the Furies. A few days after sending the poem to her, Yeats wrote again:

We have all something within ourselves to batter down and get our power from this fighting. I have never ‘produced’ a play in verse without showing the actors that the passion of the verse comes from the fact that the speakers are holding down violence or madness - ‘down Hysterica passio’. All depends on the completeness of the holding down, on the stirring of the beast underneath. Even my poem “To D.W.” should give this impression. The moon, the moonless night, the dark velvet, the sensual silence, the silent room and the violent bright Furies. Without this conflict we have no passion, only sentiment and thought. [131]

He reverts to the theme:

About the conflict in “To D.W.” I did not plan it deliberately. That conflict is deep in my subconscious, perhaps in everybody’s. I dream of clear water, perhaps two or three times (the moon of the poem), then come erotic dreams. Then for weeks perhaps I write poetry with sex for theme. Then comes the reversal-it came when I was young with some dream or some vision between waking and sleep with a flame in it. Then for weeks I get a symbolism like that in my Byzantium poem or in “To D.W.” with flame for theme.... The water is sensation, peace, night, silence, indolence; the fire is passion, tension, day, music, energy. [Letters … to Dorothy Wellesley, 1936, pp.86-97.]

It is fitting that Yeats’s account of the poem should end with that word: for our part, it is enough if we feel the relation between energy at the source and, in the poem, a commanding nobility of form. T. S. Eliot said of certain poems in The Winding Stair that in them ‘one feels that the most lively and desirable emotions of youth have been preserved to receive their full and due expression in retrospect: for the interesting feelings of age are not just different feelings; they are feelings into which the feelings of youth are integrated’ [On Poets and Poetry, 1957, pp.258-59.] In the finest of Yeats’s later poems one feels, indeed, continuity between youth and age: nothing has changed, but the conditions have become more difficult, the obstacles more resolute. But Yeats’s art thrives upon difficulty, spurred into song by injuries which drive lesser poets to exasperation or drink. In his greatest poems the feelings are powerful, and his mastery of them is powerful. In the theatre of such poems no feeling, however sullen, is abandoned or denied. ‘I am content to live it all again,’ he says in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”. He is, in that measure, heroic. [132]

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