Sunday, March 6, 2011

Selections from William Butler Yeats

Yeats is often described as one of the last Romantics whose poetic career signaled a transition into modernism. M. Rosenthal writes in his introduction to his selected poems: "He began as a sometimes effete post-Romantic, heir to the pre-Raphaelites, and then, quite naturally, became a leading British Symbolist; but he grew at last into the boldest, most vigorous voice of this century." Yeats's biography is helpful for contextualizing some of the elements in his poetry which Rosenthal mentions. John Butler Yeats, his father, was an intellectual cosmopolitan, and his mother came from the countryside. Rosenthal suggests that this mixture of backgrounds produced in Yeats highly intellectual commitments on the one hand and natively patriotic, and often spiritual commitments on the other hand (in his later life, Yeats became part of Mme. Blavatsky's circle, developing interests in the occult and philosophies on the supernatural). Politically, Yeats was committed to the Irish nation, but often the realities of politics seemed "by its very nature inimical to [his] uncompromised idealism." Maud Gonne, whom Yeats was in love with but whom he never ended up being with, becomes an antithetical figure for Yeats: she found passion in political action, and he in poetry. More often than not, Maud (though unnamed in the poems) rebuffs Yeats's world of words and ideas. Yet ideas are deeply important for Yeats--the oppositions that he sets up (action versus ideas included) show his mistrust of fixed, calcified orthodoxies; in setting up oppositions, he affirms a Blakean philosophy of necessary antagonisms and avoids falling into the trap of self-created orthodoxies. 

The Rose (1893)
The influence of Romantic poets is very strong in these early poems. In "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," the poet declares that he will go to Innisfree and build a cabin there among nature, and find peace. The final stanza particularly evokes the Romantic notion of memory and inner perception, particularly of nature, as a salutary reprieve amidst other settings: referring to Innisfree, the poet writes: "I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray / I hear it in the deep heart's core." "The Two Trees" also privileges an inner vision, contrasting "the holy tree" which is growing in his beloved's heart with the "broken boughs and blackened leaves" in the "bitter glass" which she looks at. In the ardent "To Ireland in the Coming Times," the poet philosophizes that poetry, beyond its measured structure, needs to reach an ancient, unmeasured nature, "the-red-rose-bordered hem / Of her, whose history began / Before God made the angelic clan, / Trails all about the written page." The poet importantly makes the following distinction: "My rhymes more than their rhyming tell," signaling the deeper importance of sound (elemental, natural) rather than structural function (systematic, rational) in a poem.

The Wind Among the Reeds (1899)
The Romantic influence is clear in this collection as well -- in "Into the Twilight," nature serves as a reparative force for the "Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn." "Your mother Eire is always young, / Dew ever shining and twilight grey," the poet tells the heart. This distinction between modern times' weariness and the past's greater connection to nature (and also tradition) will remain important for Yeats throughout his career.

In the Seven Woods (1904)
"Adam's Curse" specifically imagines one symptom of modern weariness as losing "the old high way of love." To Maud (presumably), the poet writes: "I had a thought for no one's but your ears: / That you were beautiful, and that I strove / To love you in the old high way of love; / That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown / As weary-hearted as that hollow moon."

The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910)
This collection has a few striking poems about Maud, and the antithetical force with which Yeats set great value on. In "A Woman Homer Sung," the poet chronicles his own time wasted over writing words and thoughts on her, himself grown grey and "That coming time can say, / 'He shadowed in a glass / What thing her body was.'" The next stanza continues, "For she had fiery blood / When I was oung, / And trod so sweetly proud / As 'twere upon a cloud." The physical world of the body, of action (trodding) triumphs in this poem over the representational world of Yeats's words. "No Second Troy" reflects more negatively on Maud; the poem compliments her in calling her a "Helen," but the Helen in a modern world does harm rather than good: "Why should I blame her that she filled my days / With misery, or that she would of late / Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways." Though the poet doesn't blame this fiery Helen, for her beauty was "not natural in an age like this," she nevertheless does harm.

Responsibilities (1914)
This collection marks a turning point in Yeats's career--the onset of World War I and the brewing of conflict which would result in episodes like the 1916 Easter Uprising necessitated a new poetics that would account for modern political violence. No longer could this be a world he could reject; of the year 1900, he famously said, "everybody got down off his stilts." "The Coat," explicitly refers to a new poetics: "I made my song a coat / covered with embroideries / Out of old mythologies," he writes, but believes from then on that "there's more enterprise / In walking naked." An earlier poem in the collection,"September 1913,idealizes the past--the line, "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone / It's with O'Leary in his grave" ends every stanza--but this repetition also consolidates that this is an unrecoverable past. The final stanza suggests the possibility of bringing back these Romantic exiles, but ends pessimistically: "But let them be, they're dead and gone, / They're with O'Leary in the grave." "To a Shade" is similarly pessimistic, addressing Parnell's ghost and effectively telling him not to come back because the people have not appreciated his "passionate serving kind" and so as it were, he would be "safer in the tomb."

Wild Swans at Coole (1919)
Wild Swans continues to engage, as Responsibilities has, more poignantly and directly with the struggles of the modern world. Some poems, like "Wild Swans at Coole" maintains Yeats's faith in nature's goodness, but unlike in some of the earlier poems, there seems to be a greater gulf between himself and nature. Nature's reparative force doesn't reach him because nature's hearts, unlike man's, don't "grow old." In the past, the poet writes, "I have looked upon those brilliant creatures, / And now my heart is sore." Other poems in the collection reflect the turn towards direct engagement with modern times, often on a very personal level as with "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory" and "An Irish Airman Foresees his Death," both poems about his friend Lady Gregory's son, killed in war. "In Memory" actually mostly discusses many disparate people who have been important to Yeats, all of whom he has brought together in his head, even though they are dead. He brings together Lionel Johnson, John Synge, George Pollexfen, all "my close companions many a year" who, in a way, find unity in Yeats's mind even if they may have fought if they were instead alive together. One person, however, fails to be so simply assimilated--Robert Gregory: "Soldier, scholar, horseman, he," "I had have brought to mind / All those that manhood tried, or childhood loved / Or boyish intellect approved, / With some appropriate commentary on each; /...but a thought / Of that late death took all my heart for speech." On a broader level than a tribute to Robert Gregory, it seems that the poem also comments on the difficulty of unifying the Irish nation, even when so many individuals were so good, each in their own right. "An Irishman Foresees his Death" is in the voice of Robert Gregory, whom Yeats sees as oddly yoking together the world of words (art) and the physical world. Yeats has this Irish airman rejecting politics, law, and duty ("Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love...Nor law, nor duty bade me fight. / Nor public men, nor cheering crowds") and embracing an artistic impulse in the act of dying. He says: "A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds; / I balanced all, brought all to mind...In balance with this life, this death." Yeats's personal engagement with Maud in relation to working out his own place in the world continues in poems like "The People" which imagines the two of them in dialogue. Yeats says that he might have earned more renown and made a bigger impact as a poet in an age and place like Ferrara's Italy, to which Maud rebuffs him the statement that she has never "[c]omplained of the people." Yeats literally has the last word in this poem, saying that  he "can neither close / The eye of the mind nor keep my tongue from speech" but he finds in the final lines to himself that he is "abashed" when thinking back on this dialogue nine years later. Continuing with the personal engagements of this collection, Mabel Beardsley (Aubrey Beardsley's sister) appears also in this collection in the heartbreaking poem, "Upon a Lady Dying" recording her resilient decorum and courage before her friends in her dying days (Mabel died of cancer)--the poem suggests Yeats's continuing admiration of traditional, old values that have gone from the modern age, and records Mabel as embodying these. Other poems in this collection are more abstract, though they still reflect struggles of the modern age, though perhaps less directly since less personally: "The Scholars" critique the "old, learned, respectable bald heads" who "edit and annotate the lines / That young men tossing in their beds / Rhymed out in love's despair / To flatter beauty's ignorant ear." "On Being Asked for a War Poem" envisions an unbridgeable gap between the poet and the statesman, the poet humbly admitting that he feels it "better that in times like these / A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth / We have no gift to set a statesman right." "Ego Dominus Tuus" records a dialogue between "Hic" and "Ille" in which Ille critiques the modern age, wherein "[w]e are but critics, or but half create, / Timid, entangled, empty and abashed," leaving his books and manuscripts behind to seek an "image" (an "anti-self," he says, while before nature). The poem seems to criticize those who are entangled amongst books as highly selfish in their supposed individualism, hence the need for an "anti-self" that will be less timid, more engaged with the physical world. In "The Phases of the Moon"a fictional character named Michael Robartes charts Yeats's belief in more occult philosophy (elucidated in "The Vision") of the soul's progress through twenty-eight incarnations, the final incarnation being "The Fool," a nameless, mindless figure blown around by the wind.  

The Tower (1928)

In his 1925 essay, "A Vision," Yeats talks about a cyclic theory of civilization, and his sense that the current age was a declining age--that out of the ruins of this Christian age would be another pagan ascendancy. Unlike Eliot, Yeats's solution was not a return to Christian orthodoxy, but a turn to art as eternity. This is the usual interpretation of the inaugural poem in this collection, "Sailing to Byzantium," in which the aging poet leaves his declining, inhabitable modern world, where "whatever is begotten, born, and dies" to go to Byzantium, a place with "the artifice of eternity."

"The Tower" is a further reflection on old age and ruin, but also an imagination of potential continuity through bequeathing something to the next generation. The poet reminisces on the work which he has created in the past, thinking now that "[s]trange, but the man who made the song was blind," though upon consideration, realizes that Homer too was blind. Of his prior creations he singles out Hanrahan, a folksy character, until returning again to an idea which he began with, asking if "all old men and women, rich and poor, / Who trod upon these rocks or passed this door, /whether in public or in secret rage / As I do now against old age?" Accepting old age, in the third stanza the poet says that "It is time that I wrote my will," bequeathing his "faith and pride / To young upstanding men / Climbing the mountain side." "Meditations in Time of Civil War" is a collection of poems which reflect on the possibilities of continuity amidst difference, ending the penultimate section pessimistically with, "We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart's grown brutal from the fare; / More substance in our enmities / Than in our love; O honey-bees, / Come build in the empty house of the stare." In the very last section there seems to be a solution only via abstraction: "I turn away and shut the door.../ The abstract joy, / The half-read wisdom of daemonic images, / Suffice the ageing man as once the growing boy." "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" also muses on civil war, the failed "fine thought" or "master-work of intellect or hand" deteriorating into days that "are dragon-ridden," in which violently, "a drunken soldiery / Can leave the mother, murdered at her door, / To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free." The fifth stanza is a kind of warped unity, in which a chorus is unified in its mockery of pretty much everything: it mocks those who have "toiled so hard and late / To leave some monument behind," the wise, and the good. The Tower also contains the two famous poems, "Leda and the Swan," which imagines the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of the swan (the encounter a symbol of the birth of a new historical period, as signaled by "the burning roof and tower" of Troy following out of the birth of Helen) and "Among Schoolchildren," inspired by a visit to St. Oteran's school in his later career as a senator of the Irish free state, chronicling how he imagined Maud amongst the children, launching him into a reverie on the pangs of creative work.  

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