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In my review of Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, I casually referred to “Yeatsian idealism,” to contrast the earlier poet’s elite modernism with Heaney’s later and more modest poetic of the turf and bog. Facility with such phrases as “Yeatsian idealism” is the fruit of a general education, but as poetry is in the particulars, it is good for us generally educated to re-consult (or sometimes, frankly, consult for the first time) the primary sources to ensure that we actually know what we’re talking about.
To that end, I decided to go beyond the frequently anthologized or selected and read an original volume by Yeats; charmed by its green-and-gold mirrored deco design (by Thomas Sturge Moore), I chose the relatively late The Tower of 1928. As the received story of Yeats’s career goes, he began as an Aesthete and a nationalist, conjuring the Celtic Twilight in languorous post-Wildean lyricism; but events both public and private (the Irish war for independence and the subsequent civil war, World War I, his own tumultuous love affair with Maud Gonne, and his ongoing experiences with the occult) toughened his poetry into grave and austere meditations on history, violence, and the conflict between flesh and spirit. As John Carey wrote in Pure Pleasure, his lines “seem to have been graven on tablets of stone from the beginning of time.” The Tower—a collection organized around Yeats’s residence at Thoor Ballyllee, a Norman tower he bought in 1917—belongs to this later period of stern reflection.
How does my idealism thesis fare? I had in mind poems precisely like the collection’s opener, “Sailing to Byzantium,” in which the speaker, lamenting that his randy compatriots, both human and animal, are “caught in that sensual music” and so “neglect / monuments of unageing intellect,” expresses his wish to cease to be human (with his heart “fastened to a dying animal”) and to be reincarnated in “such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make”; he wants to become a mechanical bird upon a “golden bough” singing “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” So far, so idealist.
But the poem, in its praise for “the artifice of eternity,” undoes all its certainties. For one thing, the speaker is clear about the contingent circumstance, namely, old age, that inspires his desire to exit the human:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress…
Then there is the mild comedy of his fantasy of being an avian robot in the next life, as if the tradition of visionary poetry had become so attenuated that Keats’s nightingale and his urn have melded into one grotesque object. Finally, the speaker’s fancied triumph is ambiguous, as in his golden and artificial form he will be singing “To keep a drowsy Emperor awake,” which is to say that he will still be mired “in that sensual music,” however “out of nature” his own person. Yeats’s greatness inheres less in his idealism as such, but in his awareness of all that both inspires and menaces it. Who doesn’t from time to time want to escape their “dying generations,” and yet who can?
The title poem, about Yeats’s inhabitation of his tower in old age and about his dead and living neighbors and his own past work, makes the point still more sharply, that the soul must coexist with its incarnation, as the poet’s avowed credo:
And I declare my faith:
I mock Plotinus’ thought
And cry in Plato’s teeth,
Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul,
Aye, sun and moon and star, all,
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise,
Dream and so create
I have prepared my peace
With learned Italian things
And the proud stones of Greece,
And memories of love,
Memories of the words of women,
All those things whereof
Man makes a superhuman
In other words, our visions and imaginings, our utopias and godheads, arise from our experiences, our frailties, and our awful mortality itself—every image of the superhuman is a mirror of the human. Or, as he puts it in “Two Songs from a Play,” a perfectly bizarre poem posing as an extract from a Euripidean drama about Jesus, “Whatever flames upon the night / Man’s own resinous heart has fed.”
In “Among School Children,” the poet, while a senator (“a sixty year old smiling public man”) tours a school and envisions his former beloved as a girl; this inspires a reflection on their two souls’ Platonic sympathy, and on how time and age ravage the child (shades of Wordsworth) and make mockery of all idealisms. The poet insults the thought of Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras in turn as, like himself, “Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.” But the poem’s bitterness modulates into an image of earthly recompense. After observing that “nuns and mothers worship images”—which is to say that devotions to real and to ideal things come to same grief, because idea will always outstrip reality—the speaker then rebukes the divinities with a vision of secular redemption, wherein visible nature and humanity unite with the unseen spirit to produce an indivisible wholeness that cannot be divided into body and soul, real and ideal:
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
The Ruskinian or even Marxian appeal to unalienated labor in the above stanza’s first lines brings us to Yeats’s politics. Though “Mediations in Time of Civil War” finds the poet expressing “envy in [his] thought” for the soldiers who pass by his door, the poem is largely a lament for his country’s war-torn state (“We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare”), a condemnation of the politics of resentment that lead to civil violence (exemplified by the cry, “Vengeance for Jacques Molay,” which Yeats seems to take as a battlecry of the enraged masses due to its connection to Freemasonry), and an insistence, reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s axiom on civilization and barbarism, that our beautiful possessions were born of violence and reared by labor, and that we must “take our greatness with our bitterness.”
The famous sonnet “Leda and the Swan,” about the rape of Leda by Zeus and the consequent engendering not only of Helen of Troy but of the whole Trojan War, voices the same lament that there can be no peace or beauty without war and violence, even as it suggests that the rapt victim of inhuman forces may thereby gain inhuman power:
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?
(While Yeats is one of the more masculinist poets, it should be noted that in one of the sonnet’s several implied allegories, the inspired poet is the violated female figure rather than the male violator.)
Finally, there is the devastating “Nineteenth Hundred and Nineteen,” a poem that has both the Irish war for independence and the Great War for its context. Here the poet scorns all our enlightened and progressive complacency, none of which has made the world a more humane place:
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
The poet’s soul, figured as a swan, in this circumstance “leaps into the desolate heaven,” and the poem ends in disgust with Salome and Alice Kyteler, with witchcraft and sensuality in a whirwind and wasteland of death.
It is easy enough to say with Orwell that Yeats was a reactionary and a fascist. Edward Said, who did so much to redeem Yeats for the PC era by praising him in Culture and Imperialism as an anti-colonial poet meditating on Fanonian themes (in another mood, I might enter this into evidence for the fascist tendencies of identity politics), once wrote of “Swift’s Tory Anarchy.” The label might be applied to Yeats, who admired Swift: to his Tory elegy for a shattered culture of wholeness and authority, to his anarchic drive toward the shaping of a soul out of the chaos of experience. This conflict at the heart of his poetry is not reducible to idealism, obviously, though idealism is a necessary part of it, and it is not reducible to a single politics. And if the poet meant his wisdom only for the few, the books are widely available now, and their thought and feeling perhaps more widely shared than he suspected.
As for this collection qua collection: its less famous pieces are justly less famous, though the long penultimate poem, a blank-verse narrative set at the court of Haroun Al-Rashid, will interest autobiographical critics and those interested in the occult as it seems to dramatize (in a displaced historical fantasy) Yeats’s marriage to a medium. Feminist critics will not care for the speaker’s fear that his wife may become more than a vessel for spirits, may become an articulate intelligence who will challenge the seeming innocence of his love for her beauty (“A woman’s beauty is a storm-tossed banner; / Under it wisdom stands”), but, in distinction to postcolonialism, there is probably no rescuing Yeats for feminism, despite my parenthetical effort above on the poet’s identification with Leda.
Reading Yeats is like reading Hamlet or the King James Bible—it feels like perusing a dictionary of quotations. But no one knew better than did the poet himself that these ideal, unforgettable lines were wrenched out of painful material. We must take his greatness with his bitterness.
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