This is the third of a series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) readers to the work of important poets. In this series I limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.
The earliest works of William Butler Yeats, whose family was part of the Protestant Ascendancy that dominated Ireland during the days of British rule, are dreamy, melodious, and romantic, a compound of Spenser, Shelley, and pre-Raphaelite medievalizing. He soon found rewarding materials closer to hand and became fascinated with his country’s indigenous culture. Yeats published Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, a collection of traditional lore from earlier sources, and, five years later The Celtic Twilight, stories he had himself recorded from cottagers. The book concludes with his lyric “Into the Twilight” which clearly defines the fin de siècle appeal of what he, an “out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,” had found in “mother Eire,” which by contrast seemed “always young.” For him his informant Paddy Flynn possessed “the visionary melancholy of purely instinctive natures and of all animals” and “did not live in a shrunken world, but knew of no less ample circumstances than Homer himself.”
The most popular poem of Yeats’ youth is surely “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
This vision of escape to an uninhabited island in Lough Gill is very much a pastoral dream. In spite of its Irish scene which he knew well in person, he said the poem was largely inspired by Thoreau’s Walden and by the fountain in a London shop window. It is an urbanite’s fantasy of the countryside, as unreal and as precious as Theocritus.
Yeats was deeply involved in the late nineteenth century fashion of mysticism and the occult, studying Theosophy and joining the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The fullest explanation of his esoteric system is laid out in A Vision. To some this quasi-philosophy is central to the poet, while to Orwell it underlies his fascist tendencies. Auden’s reaction was simpler: “How on earth, we wonder, could a man of Yeats’s gifts take such nonsense seriously?”
In some poems, however, such as the Byzantium pieces and “The Second Coming,” the poet’s preoccupations bore substantial fruit.
The Second Coming
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.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: 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.
The darkness drops again; 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?
In all times, but especially in the modern era, many unfamiliar with Yeats’ theory of the two thousand year periods he called “gyres” have felt as though the world were coming apart. In the poet’s lifetime, age-old theories of society, of the nature of humanity and, in particular, the human mind had been shaken, if not destroyed, by Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Religious assumptions that had dominated European culture for over a thousand years were thrown into question by scholarly investigation of the Biblical texts and by the availability of Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist writings in translation. Then World War I with its gas attacks, aerial bombardment, and prolonged trench warfare resulting in enormous casualties further disillusioned Europeans.
The ancient trope that we live in decadent latter days of our species, familiar from around the world, gained new form and currency. In terms so memorable they have provided Chinua Achebe, Joan Didion, and Woody Allen with titles, the poem characterizes the apparent chaos of the contemporary world, implicitly contrasted with a more orderly past. In images chilling as any horror movie, Yeats imagines the governing deity of the time to come as “rough,” “pitiless,” and, perhaps most frightening of all, “blank” like the entropy or total randomness implied in the earlier phrase “mere anarchy.”
Yeats’ later poems become increasingly spare and gnomic. One group describes Crazy Jane, a “wise fool” who, like the poet, is capable of maintaining self-contradictory propositions and speaking truth to power.
Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop
I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
`Those breasts are flat and fallen now
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.'
`Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,' I cried.
'My friends are gone, but that's a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart's pride.
`A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.'
The bishop, a representative of religious authority, cautions the madwoman to have care for her soul. Knowing as she must that she has not much longer to live, he tells her to prepare herself for admission to heaven rather than living “in some foul sty.” She responds by questioning the dualities by which the bishop has governed his life, suggesting that opposites are in fact not in contention but rather are “near of kin” and that this true of life and death as well as of “fair and foul” and “lowliness” and “pride.” The selfless idealism of romantic love, she reminds the prelate, is also messy and dirty. Her argument is sealed with an unanswerable anatomical point: “Love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement.” The poem ends in a grand crescendo of multiple meanings of soul/sole and whole/hole as Jane insists that what strikes us as the imperfection of reality is in fact its glory, the Fall that thickens the plot and sets history in motion, the suffering and passion that not only accompany sexual love and child-birth, but which in general make our lives meaningful and arduous and taxing and worth living.
In his later years, the same Yeats whose righteous nationalist enthusiasm had contributed so greatly to the Irish Literary Revival was writing marching songs for the explicitly fascist Blueshirts (though, to be sure, he did end his affiliation with them). His poetry, however, had become far more artful, compressed, and subtle in theme. He had a master’s control of poetic sound effects, rare in his day and rarer still today. Over his lifetime he changed and excelled in a variety of styles producing in each memorable cadences and unforgettable images. Yeats for his craftsmanship stands as a sort of complement to our American Whitman of the loose flowing language. Whitman’s celebrative affirmation is answered by Yeats’ more secretive and ambiguous mythology, but their contradiction points a greater truth as both are probing, as though through the Very Large Telescope in Chile, the furthest reaches accessible to words.