Seamus Heaney, ‘In the Midst of the Force Field’, in The Irish Times (28 Jan. 1989); rep. in Jonathan Allison, ed., Yeats’s Political Identities (Michigan UP 1996), pp.257-60.

When W. B. Yeats died on this day fifty years ago, he died ready. This does not mean that he was passively resigned to being gathered like a good Christian to his reward. Affirmation was more his style than resignation, even in extremis; obedience to established systems was not a thing that came naturally to him. Yeats, after all, had been influenced early on by William Blake and had conducted his spiritual and artistic life in accordance with Blake’s belief that one must create one’s own system or be enslaved by another’s.

Yeats’s readiness came from a sense of having completed the work. When death presented itself, Yeats re-presented it, and it became thereby more a matter of artistic closure than of physical extinction or moral reckoning. His last poems and letters display no drift or waver; they maintain the posture of active approach, and the voice that speaks in them is the voice of one consciously dramatising his condition rather than one pathetically enduring it.

The somewhat melodramatic declarations he had made earlier, that ‘Man has created death’ and that ‘Death and life were not / Till man made up the whole, / Made lock, stock and barrel / Out of his bitter soul’ - these boasts begin to be made good as his artistic will brings the hapless end of his life as a dying creature into congruence with the profile he imagined for himself as the destined poet.

One of the greatest ever death-bed utterances got completed on 13 January 1939. This was “Cuchulain Cornforted”, a poem in terza rima in which Cuchulain, the violent and famous hero, enters the underworld and is ritually initiated into a ghostly fellowship of cowards and outcasts. Then, in a mysterious transformation, all these spirits begin to sing until, through the action of song, their throats change and they have ‘the throats of birds’.

This poem can be linked with Yeats’s late play, The Death of [258] Cuchulain, where the hero’s last words liken his soul to a bird fluttering before him and about to sing. It can also be linked with scores of other passages in his work where the liberated soul is imagined as a bird, and the gaze of the superhuman is located in ‘a bird’s round eye.’ Which is to say that “Cuchulain Comforted” is not an accidental lyric cry but a deeply conceived and perfectly timed act of self-fashioning.

For example, by using the terza rima form, a three-line, triple-rhyming stanza which he had never before employed in over half a century of composing verse, and by using it at this precise moment, on the verge of death, Yeats was awakening new music from the ancient harp of European poetic tradition. To treat the theme of the spirit’s journey to the land of the dead, and to do it in terza rima, the metre of The Divine Comedy, was to call the great poets of western civilisation to keep a vigil at his bed. Homer had sent Odysseus down, Virgil had sent Aeneas, Dante had sent himself in a dream, and now Yeats was sending his shadow-self in the form of Cuchulain. What he was experiencing was being given form and meaning even as it was happening. It was as if Shakespeare had arranged to die not years after the end of his stage career but during the first production of The Tempest, at the moment when Prospero declares that he will break his staff and drown his book.

It is this dramatic genius and unifying purpose that give Yeats’s work its glamour and concentration. Everything is gathered into the artifice, and the artifice is all transformative and dynamic, part of an action of self-completion and self-renewal. The energy and containment are just equal to each other, so there is exhilaration in being near to the vitality of it all. Reading Yeats, I can feel at times a transmission of dangerous force such as I felt as a child, standing alone in fields close to the tremble of electric poles, under the sizzle of the power lines.

But the master would not thank me for that technological image. The whole push of his endeavour was against the further encroachment of the scientific spirit. Yet perhaps he would not have resisted the electric image so strongly, since electricity retains the force of a natural miracle, and Yeats’s overall intent was to clear a space in the mind and in the world for the miraculous, for all kinds of rebellion against the tyranny of physical and temporal law. Indeed, it is time we redirected our attention to this visionary courage in his oeuvre and laid off pressing him too trimly into our own cultural arguments, and even blaming him for our predicaments.

It has been obvious for a long time now that a certain revisionism has been working against Yeats in those very areas where the magnificence of his contribution had been originally most gratefully felt. His creation of the idea of an Ireland enhanced by the committee action of [258] native artists and writers, his presumption that the fate of the nation is dependent on the right orientation of its most imaginative members, all that intercourse between politics and literature which his cultural nationalism set out to sponsor, has been interrogated and assailed. Indeed, long before a shot had been fired in Derry or Belfast in the present era of our history, Yeats’s invention of Romantic Ireland had been denounced as a lie by a man who walked nakeder than Yeats would ever have approved of, Patrick Kavanagh.

Democratic, iconoclastic and at eye-level with the life that he blamed Yeats for mystifying, Kavanagh promoted ordinariness, comedy and parochialism over heroism, tragedy and nationalism. In so doing, he changed the pitch of poetic ambition generally and initiated the demythologising of poetry as a force in the national life; and all this accorded with a new caution in the face of political rhetoric on the home ground generally. Paul Durcan and Paul Muldoon ('If Yeats had saved his pencil lead, Would certain men have stayed in bed?’) are the poets of this new world of irony and suspicion - although it might be argued that Nuala Ni Dhomnaill and a number of other women poets are still richly at work within the force field of myth rather than in the free fall of scepticism.

At any rate, it is obvious (as Seamus Deane insisted in his Field Day pamphlet, The Tradition of an Idea) that representative imaginative work can no longer posit itself upon the idea of an exclusive and essential Irishness. Yet it is also obvious that without the daring and danger of Yeats’s career, our collective poetic and critical life would be less alive to the extreme possibilities - and responsibilities - of those who would ‘articulate sweet sounds together.’

Yeats’s best advocates cannot sweep away his attraction to Italian fascism in the 1930s, nor is there any need to extenuate the scandal of his rant in late pieces like On the Boiler . The political case against him has been pressed hard (and reasonably defended, as when Elizabeth Cullingford concludes her study of the subject with the proposition that his fascist sympathies were part of his ‘fantasies rather than part of his convictions’). But perhaps the general implications of his tough-minded insight that all reality comes to us as the reward of labour have been insufficiently pondered. There is surely political sense, of both a realistic and visionary kind, in his stated enterprise of holding in a single thought ‘reality and justice’; and in his conviction - which overrode his sense of hierarchy and noble election - that even among the gombeen men ‘There cannot be ... A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.”

Yeats’s nationalism, in the end, was an avenue towards an ideal ‘unity of being’, an advance towards the ultimate, imagined dancing [259] place where ‘body is not bruised to pleasure soul’, where the free spirit - as Auden recognised - could be taught how to praise. The sweet cry of the soul could only be heard in a transformed world, and contact with a national life was conceived by Yeats as being transformative rather than coercive. (His reverie on the perfect harmonies of Byzantium, in A Vision, is a projection of an ideal Ireland.) In fact, nationality as a category of life possessed for Yeats something of the positive resource that the unconscious possessed for Jung. Its function was to awaken the appetite for self-transcendence and to awaken access to a more spontaneous, liberated and abundant life.

The central drama was to combine transcendence with consolidation, or, to put it more simply, how to settle down if you were committed to keep dreaming new things up. The central command was to resolve within the theatre of the individual psyche the eternal opposites: art and life, time and eternity, body and soul, knowledge and power. The most admirable Yeats, I feel, is this old Yeats in the prison of his days, driven to consult the oracle ‘in a cleft that’s christened Alt’, crying out his questions to the stone and getting back only the ‘Rocky Voice’ of an echo.

Out from under the tattered coat of this disconsolate elder (in poems like “The Man and The Echo” and “Cuchulain Comforted”) there creeps the new brood of Samuel Beckett’s reflexive, unsparing old contenders, dragging themselves towards an ending, intimate with cowards and outcasts, always on the verge of giving up, but always discovering a way of turning exhaustion into utterance and thereby overcoming the exhaustion. It is the unconsoled modernity of this central achievement, which is to be found in the plays too, notably in At The Hawk’s Well, that allows Yeats to abide our questions, even though it is fair that the questions continue to be pressed.

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