W. B. Yeats: The Poems (II)

In 1896 Yeats met Lady Augusta Gregory, the widow of a former Governor-General of Ceylon (Shri Lanka) who had an Irish country estate at Coole Park near Galway. There, after his death - she married him at 28 when he was 63 - she entered Irish writers and laid took the first steps towards creation of the Abbey Theatre. Yeats visited Coole Park annually and wrote many of his finest poems there. As the century drew to a close, however, the Land-League agitation against landlords and rents intensified and Yeats found himself defending the aristocratic world in which he had now found a niche.

His poem “Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation” is characteristic of the eugenic theory he invariably advanced in this context - an argument which rather improbably alleges that the owners of ‘great houses’ are essentially better-qualified to lead a nation culturally than people from ‘mean roof-trees’ (i.e., cottages and cabins). The poem argues that hereditary land-owners are a kind of ‘eagle’, a superior order of human being that ‘comes of the best knit to the best’ (i.e., selective breeding) and therefore equipt to perpetuate the highest form of culture. It its own time, or any time, it is a dangerous form of political nonsense.

A curious feature of the poem’s rhetoric is its elbow-nudging use of the demotic term ‘luck’ in place of the more elevated word ‘fortune’, as if the poet were attempting to persuade the peasants in their own language that their animosity to the landlords is misguided.

How should the world be luckier if this house,
Where passion and precision have been one
Time out of mind, became too ruinous
To breed the lidless eye that loves the sun?
How should their luck run high enough to reach
The gifts that govern men, and after these
To gradual Time's last gift, a written speech
Wrought of high laughter, loveliness and ease?

The same argument is made, for instance, in “Ancestral Houses” (first section of “Meditations in Time of Civil War” in The Tower Collection) where he attempts to balance the violence of the Norman and Cromwellian conquerors of Ireland with the excellence of the cultural that they supposedly sustained through their patronage as Anglo-Irish grandees:

Some violent bitter man, some powerful man
Called architect and artist in, that they,
Bitter and violent men, might rear in stone
The sweetness that all longed for night and day,
The gentleness none there had ever known;
What if those things the greatest of mankind
Consider most to magnify, or to bless,
But take our greatness with our bitterness?

- What if, in other words, history writes down the beauty of the Palladian mansions of Ireland and their expensive artistic contents as mere expressions of the rapacious character of their first occupants? The poet who writes in this vein is identifying closely with a colonial élite which, at the time of writing, is rapidly passing into extinction; and to this extent, W. B. Yeats founds his own imaginative lexicon on the idea of a doomed nobility which others - notably the mass of Irish nationalists - were more likely to regard as a tyrannical class whose death-knell had been justly sound.

Once the Free State had been established and Yeats had been appointed Senator, he had an opportunity at the passing of the anti-Divorce Act of 1927 to speak out sonorously for the Anglo-Irish in a speech objecting to what he saw as a sectarian Catholic measure directly aimed against the Protestants of Ireland: ‘[O]n behalf of that small Protestant band which had so often proved itself the chivalry of Ireland [...] I think it tragic that within three years of this country gaining independence we should be discussing a measure which a minority of this nation considers to be grossly oppressive.’ He then went on: ‘I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority.’

We against whom you have done this thing are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan, we are the people of Swift, the people of Parnell. We have created most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence. Yet I do not altogether regret what has happened. I shall be able to find out, if not I, my children will be able to find out whether we have lost our stamina or not. You have defined our position and given us a popular following. If we have not lost our stamina then your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed. (Speech of 11 June, 1925, in Donald Pearce, ed., Senates Speeches of W. B. Yeats, 1960, p.99.)

In 1913 Yeats’s pseudo-aristocratic antipathy to the rising Catholic middle class in Ireland - which controlled the Dublin Council that rejected his plan for a gallery to house Sir Hugh Lane’s donated Impressionist paintings - took the form of a brilliant poetic diatribe which invoked the memory of the - mainly Protestant - Irish patriots of 1798 in order to castigate the mean-minded spirit of those for whom they might be supposed to have died. (Yeats had met John O’Leary, the patriot named in the refrain, in the final decades of was that vernerable, old Fenian’s life.)

There is a good deal of sectarian finger-pointing in the allusion to the thrifty habits of the shop-keepers of Ireland (whom Yeats liked to call ‘hucksters’) while amassing expectations of eternal reward by an analogous religious process:

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone?
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

There is also, however, a resonant celebration of the special temperament of the self-sacrificing patriots, so different from the men on the Dublin Corporation that the poem so bitterly castigates. (Actually, they were not as philistine as he makes them seem.) In citing the names of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone, Yeats gives a name to their common passion: ‘All that delirium of the brave’. It is a name very like the idea of ‘excited reverie’ that he elsewhere identifies as the characteristic humour of the poetic mind in the act of artistic creation.

But if the aristocratic posture, fuelled by an innate fear and hatred of the tradition of Catholic democracy in Ireland which originates with O’Connell, drew powerful sustenance from Yeats’s association with Lady Gregory - herself by no means so foolish in her view of modern history - then it also fostered some of his greatest lyric poetry in pieces such as “The Wild Swans at Coole”, a meditation on human passion and age which takes the legend of “The Children of Lír” as its point of imaginative departure. Hence the swans which he counts on the still waters of the lake are more than ornithological and even, perhaps, more than merely human:

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

It is therefore, aside from its aristocratic setting, a poem to the human soul. Another “swan” poem, and one which takes up the theme of historical cycles and the advent of new spiritual dimensions by means of a kind of divine intervention, is Yeats’s meditation on the Greek myth of “Leda and the Swan”. Here, disguised as a swan, Zeus rapes and impregnates Leda with the result that Helen is born and the destruction of the city of Troy rendered inevitable as a consequence of her beauty, which will cause Paris to abduct her from her royal Greek husband. Yeats characteristically poses a series of unanswered questions regarding Leda’s awareness (or the lack of it) of the meaning of that momentous - and brutal - moment:

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                  Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

“The Second Coming” - a poem of 1920 much instilled with feelings of danger and insecurity at the time of the Civil War in Ireland - has become the anthem, almost, of conservative paranoia about social anarchy of all kinds:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
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;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The poet follows this dramatic statement of his misgivings about the tendency of history at the time with a visionary moment in which he purports, like a prophet, to see the form of the new historical dispensation:

                                  but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Not surprising, both Yeats and many readers have interpreted this ‘visionary’ as a forecast of European fascism - especially in its suggestion that the Christian era of Western Civilisation is about to be superceded by a more ruthless but not less glorious world-order. (Others - such as Brenda Maddox - have seen in the poem a trace of Yeats’s anxiety about the pregnancy of his young wife Georgie and the imminent arrival of an little ego in the household even more superdominant than the poet’s!)

“Leda and the Swan” is another poem in which the idea of a new historical era, launched by the brutal intervention of a supernatural being in human time is starkly epitomised by the rape of Helen of Troy’s mother by Zeus in the guise of a swan. What is envisaged here is the conception of Helen of Troy which would result, through her sheer beauty (to be compared, of course, with Maud Gonne’s) in the destruction of the city around which Homer told his epic tale in The Iliad.

The order that Yeats actually aspired to was to be not embodied in any political ideal, but rather in a state of intellectual and emotional plenitude which he identified with the capacity of the human imagination to engender what he calls ‘the artifice of eternity’ in “Sailing to Byzantium”, a poem that posits a journey away from Ireland - or, at least, some realm of youthful fecundity which impels the poet to feel his own mortality all the more acutely - towards an ideal and timeless realm, here symbolised by the holy shrines of Byzantium (now Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, the Eastern capital of the Christianised Roman Empire).

In this poem, the poet’s personal anxiety about age and death of passion finds brilliant embodiment in a fantasy of travel to a realm where ‘monuments of undying intellect’ enjoy a permanence immune from the usual effects of time - for which encroaching personal decrepitude (‘a tattered coat upon a stick’), or else the ruins described by Shelley in “Oxymandias”, a chiliastic poem about the ruined monument of an ancient king (‘around the colossal wreck nothing beside remains. Boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away’).

“Among School Children”, written about the occasion when Yeats, as an Irish senator, made a visit to a Dominican convent school in Waterford, takes the form of an intense reflection on the process of age and its possible spiritual significance. In the foreground are the children who remind the poet of Maud Gonne in her childhood and also of her present form, an old woman who - contemporaries remember - was peculiarly ravaged by the facial marks of old age. (Yeats compares her in one place to a marble sculpture of an aged merchant by a Quattrocento Italian artist to be seen in the Irish National Gallery.)

He too had ‘pretty feathers once’, and now he wonders what any mother would think to find her child grown up into a ‘sixty-year old smiling public man’ such as the children now see walking in their classroom. The precise manner in which he poses the question is intriguing:

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

Carefully read, that conveys the idea that the child, not the mother, has been betrayed into life by the lure of sexual pleasure which led its parents to conceive it. The child, likewise, struggles to escape under the impulsion of ‘recollections’ which can only be those of another world in which its soul existed before its mortal life began. Yeats’s poem, therefore, engages with Platonic ideas of spiritual existence in an ideal world of which the physical world is but a shadow.

Yet he certainly does not take this ancient comfort very seriously. What he seeks to find at the end of the poem is a more complex and dynamic resolution to his present intimations of immortality (the famous title of a poem by William Wordsworth). He therefore conjures up the idea that spirit and matter are so utterly intertwined that neither can be separated from the other and hence the ‘dance’ of life and death is of such a kind that none can tell ‘the dancer from the dance’.

Much more practical questions - though not without reference to mortality and its opposite and their respective modes of being - were triggered in Yeats’s mind by the Easter Rebellion, which occurred in Dublin while he was in England having his portrait made and dining with his literary friends. His poem ‘‘Easter 1916’’ weighs his previous dismissal of the nationalist revolutionaries with their present condition, having been transformed by patriotic sacrifice in such a way that - according to the intensely memorable oxymoron of the refrain - ‘a terrible beauty is born’.

Predictably, Maud Gonne hated the poem; yet it embodies powerfully too different currents of Yeats’s thoughts about the event. Firstly, the belief that the rebellion was practically uncalled for since it seemed certain that Home Rule would be granted at the end of the war with Germany, in keeping with the Parliamentary Act of 1914. Secondly, the recognition that a heroic gesture of this scale elevated its subjects beyond all such practical considerations.

At the still centre the tension between empirical and imaginative considerations which characterises the argument of the poem - citizen and bardic poet vying for the upper hand - stands a predication about the effect of political conviction (or even fanaticism) on the individuals who are ‘maddened’ by them - a condition explicitly identified with ‘the delirium of the brave’ in ‘‘September 1913’’. In the second section ‘‘Easter 1916’’, Yeats writes:

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.

It is an argument that he also conducted with women who take to ideas and who ‘give all to an opinion as if it were some terrible stone doll’ - having Maud Gonne and Countess Markievicz chiefly in mind. By contrast, he desires to see young women following his preferred aristocratic pattern of ‘high laughter, loveliness, and ease’ - “Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation”, and to content themselves with ‘dispensing round / Their magnanimities of sound’ a little like biscuits at a tea-party, as he says in “A Prayer for My Daughter” where he yearns to see her married to the proprietor of a great house ‘where all’s accustomed, ceremonious’, there to remain thoughout her lifetime in ‘one dear perpetual place.’

This is not a conception with which we can easily agree today but it nevertheless encapsulates one pole in the dialectic of Yeats’s mind which allowed him to contemplate a traditional, ordered society, founded on ancient colonial violence and a world of cataclysmic upheavals which yet threw up the flowers of mortal beauty and immortal art as a sort of evolutionary consequence. All art, by collolary, is founded ultimately on violence and he was not slow to instance the contribution of the great mercenary soldiers of Italy to the European Renaissance.

Much of Yeats’s poetry in the middle period is effectively informed by a spirit of elegy for the Anglo-Irish class which he sees as being swept away by the ‘filthy modern tide’ of democracy in Ireland. Whether that process was tragic or comic is the final question that faced him as a a philosophical poet. By ‘comic’ I do not mean funny but rather that transcendence of the tragic mood which involves, in Yeats's terminology, an access of ‘tragic joy’ or ‘gaiety’ that permits him to say: ‘Hamlet and Lear were gay’ (“Lapis Lazuli”). In the next lecture, which takes ‘‘Philosophy and Magic’’ as its topic, I will consider this issue together with the question of his ultimate beliefs.


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