ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 4

 - William Butler Yeats


The early poetry of William Butler Yeats is read and interpreted with particular attention paid to Yeats’s ambitions as a specifically Irish poet.  Yeats’s commitment to a poetry of symbol is explored in “The Song of the Wandering Aengus,” a fable of poetic vocation. “A Coat,” composed at the end of Yeats’s struggle to bring about an Irish national theater, shows the poet reconceiving his style and in search of a new audience. ”The Fisherman” is read as a revision of “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” which reflects this new set of concerns.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 4 - William Butler Yeats

Chapter 1. Introduction: William Butler Yeats [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: For Wednesday – This is my – our first Yeats lecture. We’re going to have three of them. For the next class I’d like you to, well, I’d like you to do a few things. I know that your teaching fellows will have handed out a meter exercise for you. I’d like you to work on something else. You don’t have to do this for Wednesday but let’s say for next Monday, and that is: I’d like you to memorize a short poem by Yeats or by Frost, either one. And this poem could be the basis of a first paper, a topic for one. It doesn’t have to be but it might be. And on Wednesday I’ll also hand out a topic for paper number one. In class I’ll talk about “Easter 1916,” “The Magi,” “The Second Coming,” “Leda and the Swan,” and I’d like you to pay special attention to these special Yeatsian words: “tumult,” “turbulence,” “bestial.” Think about also that phrase “terrible beauty” in “Easter 1916.” And finally, in your RIS packet you’ll see a timeline that charts significant dates in modern poetry that tells you something about when the different poets we’re reading were working, and helps you perhaps keep track of them; because confusingly, although the course has a kind of rough chronological order, we do move back and forth in time. And in fact today, right now, we’re going to move back the furthest we go, all the way into the nineteenth century to talk about the early Yeats.

Yeats’s career is maybe the most famous one in modern poetry; that is, a career that has been seen as a kind of representative story about modern poetry as a whole. What’s that story? Well, Yeats begins as a Romantic visionary and a late nineteenth-century aesthete, and under the pressure of political and social crisis he breaks with the artificial rhetoric of his early poems and becomes a kind of heroic realist. Now, there’s something to this story but it is also a kind of cliché, and I’ll try to introduce, I think, a more true and also more interesting way of understanding Yeats’s development today, starting with this picture.

This is an unlikely picture. The face there, if you have seen him before, you will recognize as Yeats’s. This is Yeats as King Goll. This is Yeats in costume, costumed as a figure from Irish myth, as an ancient bard, mad King Goll, which is the furthest thing from a modern poet. It’s a late Victorian image of an archaic singer rendered in the melodramatic manner of Pre-Raphaelite art and thoroughly removed from the aesthetic values of modernism, such as naturalism, formal clarity, emotional restraint and so on. It’s an image that was created by Yeats’s father, the painter John Yeats. You could also say that it was created by the late nineteenth-century culture that Yeats’s father, John, represented and introduced to his son. It’s an image of Yeats that modern poetry eventually forgot, Yeats as an un-modern, nineteenth-century poet hamming it up.

But this poet is, in fact, important to the one that Yeats became. In a way, Yeats is always in costume. His poetic identity is forged through identification with the heroic characters of his poems, characters who are sometimes surrogates for the poet, such as King Goll, the warrior Cuchulain or the mysterious Michael Robartes – all characters you’ll meet. Or who are sometimes simply versions of the poet himself; that is, the poet rendering himself for us in stylized roles; that is, Yeats the public man, Yeats the lover, Yeats the mad old man. Yeats is always creating himself in his poems and creating himself as a kind of version of a type. And he does the same thing, in fact, to those around him, famously to his lover, Maude Gonne, who becomes Helen of Troy in “No Second Troy” and in other poems. The martyrs in the Easter Rebellion of 1916 become ancient Irish warriors, and we’ll talk about that next time. There are many other instances of this myth-making imagination that Yeats is always working with.

Chapter 2. W. B. Yeats and King Goll [00:06:28]

Yeats takes on self-consciously staged identities, requiring costumes, and he sees other people in similarly theatrical and mythic terms. His poetry is, in fact, deeply autobiographical, but it doesn’t necessarily help to know that because his life is not a reliable key for reading the poems, exactly because he treated his life as art, raising the particulars of his experience into general symbols, working the narrative of his life into myth. This is a way of conceiving his activity as a poet but it’s also, as we’ll see, a way of conceiving, in fact, culture and human history in general. In Yeats, people are always particulars who are fitted to types, which are new versions of old identities that travel across time. In a certain sense, Yeats, I think, really felt that he was King Goll.

Now, the story of King Goll is interesting. It’s a longish poem, not in your anthology, but you can find it in The Complete Yeats, and I’ve given you on this handout page just a couple stanzas from it, so you have a sense of it. King Goll is a mythical Irish ruler who goes mad in the heat of battle. He becomes distracted by an inward fire that draws him into the woods where he wanders and sings, full of unfulfilled desire. Finally, he destroys his harp, in the scene represented by Yeats’s father’s portrait. This story is a certain version of Yeats’s own early ambition to become a particular kind of figure – not an Irish king but an Irish poet, which would mean consolidating in himself a sense of national identity and explaining that identity, representing it, embodying it in all senses; representing and embodying Irishness, for an English speaking readership in Ireland, but also in England and elsewhere. The nationality of that identity is important; that is, Yeats’s Irishness, and so is Yeats’s audience. His ambition is to become the first major Irish poet writing in English. Significantly, this picture of Yeats as King Goll was used as an illustration for his first appearance in an English periodical, a magazine of art and ideas called The Leisure Hour. Yeats bridges Irish and English cultures, and he is importantly Protestant with social and family ties to English life.

The ambition that I’m describing is a public and political one. But paradoxically, perhaps, for the young Yeats this ambition drew him away from the social and political world into the charmed landscapes of Irish myth, maybe in the same way as King Goll is drawn away from, lured away from battle, to wander in the Irish wood. All of Yeats’s early poetry takes place in a symbolic, mythic domain. King Goll’s madness and the destruction of his instruments are perhaps warnings about the dangers of a poetry that would be confined to a symbolic world, as if to fully enter it, to fully enter a mythical world, to write a kind of pure poetry that was archaic in its aims and its sources – this would be to go mad, to give sway to dangerously inward passions that can’t be satisfied, to be cut off from the world. Being cut off from the world in some kind of higher or separate reality is a lure and threat, opened up for Yeats by the particular ambition that he had to write a mythic poetry on Irish themes.

Now, something else is worth highlighting about King Goll as a way to understand who Yeats was. King Goll is a singer. Identifying with him, Yeats identifies poetry with song; in particular, with songs of passion in which – songs in which sound takes over, is ravishing, enchanting. Yeats’s early poetry has those aspects of song as its aim. They suggest verbal and oral equivalents for the poetry’s cognitive concern with symbols. That is, in sound, just as in theme, Yeats’s poetry is idealized, purified, sensually rich, and yet also abstract. Contrast Frost. Yeats’s poetry dominated the poetry world in which Frost began writing and publishing. Yeats publishes “King Goll” in The Leisure Hour, and Frost mocks the ideal of poetry as the “dream of the gift of idle hours”; he mocks the idea of poetry as “easy gold at the hand of fay or elf” in “Mowing” –characters that come right out of early Yeats. Frost’s realism, his roughness, which is part of his sensibility – it’s part of the sound of his poetry – well, it contrasts quite directly with the smoothness sought by Yeats and the kind of simulation of ease.

You could go to Yeats’s poem “Adam’s Curse” to see the poet talking about this aesthetic ideal. Yeats there in “Adam’s Curse,” which is in your anthology, calls specifically for a kind of simulation of ease in poetry, which is a traditionally aristocratic ideal, one which hides one’s labor in order to make accomplishments seem natural. Yeats, in “Adam’s Curse,” regrets that the beautiful is something to be labored for and he wants to conceal that labor. The contrast with Frost is powerful. Yeats once said that he wanted the natural words in the natural order, but he had a very highly cultured sense of what is natural, and his poetry is full of verbal archaism. It’s characterized by a kind of high, formal bearing. It has a careful decorum, a kind of high sheen, especially this early poetry.

Chapter 3. W. B. Yeats Poem: “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” [00:14:41]

Metrically, Yeats’s attitudes result in a kind of superb regularity. In the early Yeats you find smooth, unbroken lines, a diction that’s elegant and seemingly easy, without ever deigning to seem merely colloquial. The sound of Yeats was, and was meant to be, seductive. The poems are, in fact, very often about kinds of seduction – a child, a king, the poet, these figures are drawn away from society or from family towards secret, sacred places, magical places of love that are frequently imaged in these poems as an island or the center of a wood; in short, places of privacy that shut the world out and that stand for Yeats’s ideal of poetic autonomy, his desire to create and inhabit self-sufficient, imaginative worlds. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” “Who Goes with Fergus?” “The Hosting of the Sidhe”: these are all poems from your anthology that exemplify this idea, and there are many, many more.

These poems come from a phase in Yeats’s career, the climax of which is this book published in 1899 that I showed you the cover of in the first class, The Wind Among the Reeds, with its gorgeous Celtic aestheticism. Here’s the title page, reminding us, again, that this gorgeous Celtic aestheticism is published and put up for sale in London, which is important again. And here’s the table of contents, which you can’t read, that has on it, well, the first poem, “The Hosting of the Sidhe,” “The Song of the Wandering Aengus,” and other famous poems from Yeats’s early career. I’d like to look with you at “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” as a kind of model of the kind of poem I’m talking about and its aesthetics. It’s on page 98. Yeats says:

I went out to the hazel wood [Yeats says – that is to say, Aengus says;
it’s a dramatic monologue for Aengus],
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread [If you’re having problems identifying
iambic pentameter this should – well, it’s not quite pentameter, but if you
want to get an iambic rhythm in your head, this’ll do it];
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout. When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air. Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she is gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

It’s rhymed iambic tetrameter, four beats per line, with some variations. It is a popular song form in English. It’s the way Puck and other folk characters speak in Shakespeare. Its smoothness and its simplicity are associated with folk forms, perhaps with the condition of enchantment or trance, into which the speaker, Aengus, falls. The poem is a fairy tale. It’s the story of Aengus’ longing and quest for union with a fairy girl whom he desires. Yeats spoke of the poem as a mad song, maybe not a kind of mad song we would – it’s not what we would think of as a mad song, necessarily. The poem imagines, through a dramatic character, Yeats’s own coming to poetry, which he represents here both as the undertaking of a specifically erotic quest and as a sort of fury in the mind: “a fire was in my head,” Aengus begins. Yeats wants us to share in, as we attend to the sound of his poem, a certain state of enchantment and longing, which includes a feeling of monotony, as we listen to those repeated phrases and images and syntactic structures that always seem on the verge of redundance in this poem.

Think about how generalized, how abstract, how unnatural nature is in this poem. But then, it’s exactly a poem about nature transformed: the fish who turns into the glimmering girl, who, like any really marvelous catch, gets away. The transformation here, importantly, interrupts the eating of the fruit; consummation of desire is deferred. Appetite gets sublimated and at the same time deferred, held in suspension. The glimmering girl then calls Aengus by name. She names him. She, in a sense, makes him Aengus. Aengus is the Celtic name, the Celtic master of love, a certain kind of Irish version of Apollo. He’s also a mortal who ages. The poem describes a vocational moment when the poet is called to his calling, called to his calling in a way that amounts to a kind of seduction, that lures him out into the woods, wandering as he follows this fish-woman and fairy girl, who is a kind of muse, or mother, too. The quest is without end, it’s even without direction.

It has a goal, however, that’s described in that last stanza. Contrast Yeats’s old age and the freshness of his desire in this poem. He holds in dream the possibility of satisfied desire, possession of the beloved; meaning specifically physical possession of her, which would be an apocalyptic event, the end of time and times. Yeats represents that moment of consummation as the plucking of the silver and the gold apples. Yeats was trained in the occult disciplines of Theosophy and Gnosticism. Those traditions merge in his early work with European symbolism, and also with Irish cultural nationalism. Here, the gold and silver apples are specifically alchemical symbols of body and soul, and a kind of mystical image of earthly paradise. That’s a nice touch. But don’t worry about these symbols; don’t worry about them too much. Here, as elsewhere in Yeats’ poetry, it’s not essential for you to be able to pursue his occult learning and decode his symbols in order to read his poetry.

Jahan Ramazani, who is the editor of The Norton and a great Yeatsian, he himself has decided that all this is too much to explain and you don’t really need it. And fair enough. The point is simply to recognize that the apples are occult symbols, which is to say they’re not apples. They are rather images, symbols, artifacts. And isn’t that clear already from their colors, the material that they’re made of? Gold and silver, these colors marked them as fashioned, precious objects, inorganic, and in all these ways beyond time and nature, growth or decay. When Aengus or Yeats pursue their desires, the object of desire – that is, when they pursue a kind of hoped for unity of being that the merging with the beloved would constitute – this carries them out of the natural world into a realm of high art, of symbols. The realization of desire for this young Yeats is something only possible in art.

In many ways Yeats retained this aesthetic bias. This is Yeats rather later, still dressed, however, in his study as an aesthete and dandy. You can see that wonderful coat and silk bowtie. He began and ended his career as a decadent, I suppose; a reader of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde. Nonetheless – Oscar Wilde, a friend of Yeats – nonetheless, Yeats’s poetry does undergo an important and notable stylistic change. When I said that there’s a story about Yeats’s career that makes him out to be an exemplary modern poet, I had in mind how over the course of this long career he leaves behind him that idealized world of late nineteenth-century art for a more fully human, realist poetry, one that, rhetorically, strips away Yeats’s own poeticisms and locates his subjects in contemporary politics and history. This was the kind of generalized story of Yeats’s career.

Chapter 4. W. B. Yeats Poem: “A Coat” [00:27:01]

Pound – Ezra Pound – is Yeats’s younger friend. Pound, you’ll see, keeps turning up in all of these stories. He had a role in pushing Yeats in the direction in which he went. He had also a big role in publicizing Yeats’s development. Here’s a copy of a letter to Pound by Yeats when they were both living in London. This is at the Beinecke among Pound’s papers. Oh, and here’s the – This is Yeats’s letter. He’s living, at this point, at Woburn Place, Yeats is, in London, where one of the bombs went off in London two summers ago, right outside Yeats’s house. “My Dear Pound, here is the poem. Many thanks for taking so much trouble with it. Yours, W. B. Yeats.” Pound goes to work on Yeats, goes to work on his poetry and helps modernize him, although I think in lots of ways the influence went just as much the other way. The period of Pound’s influence coincides with Yeats’s significantly titled book Responsibilities. This is published in 1914, which is the same year as Frost’s North of Boston. These two books are coming out at the same moment in London. Some of the poems in this book dramatize, dramatize and describe the stylistic changes I’m talking about. For instance, the short poem, “A Coat.” Here it is; it’s in your anthology as well:

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eye
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

Yeats is throwing off his early work as if throwing off a kind of costume. All that King Goll crap that he had on, he’s tossing it off. The embroidery and decoration, all that now seems inauthentic, something that, in fact, Yeats’s audience had failed to value properly; he’s complaining here in this poem. In this short poem, he is referring to the vexed efforts by himself and his collaborators, J.M. Synge and Lady Augusta Gregory, to create an Irish national theater. Yeats sought a popular audience for his poetry, in part through his work in the theater, but he became disenchanted with the theater-going public; with imitators and detractors, too, all of whom, as he puts it here, caught at his coat. This is a poem that declares nakedness as a poetic value. It’s a kind of semi-official announcement that Yeats is giving up his early manner, precisely because it seems like a manner and a disguise.

In doing so, Yeats might have seemed to be moving closer to the Irish people, in a move something like Frost’s foreswearing of the poetry of dream and elves and fairies, in favor of a poetry of fact. And let’s keep in mind Frost’s own wish to create a poetry that would reach ordinary people and would reach all kinds and sorts. Again, it might seem that Yeats is interested in something like this too and, again, in this same moment that Frost is publishing his work in England. But there’s a difference in Yeats. He adopts this ideal of nakedness precisely as a repudiation of a popular audience. It’s a kind of dare, demonstrating not just his indifference to the crowd but in fact his scorn for it. “I’m going to walk naked. I’m not going to dress for you.” Yeats’s early poetry is elite because it is high, aristocratic, ideal in character. The middle poetry, the poetry that begins with the volume Responsibilities, remains elite; only now, its elitism will be expressed differently. It will be expressed in a rhetoric of nakedness, or what Yeats will also call “coldness.”

Chapter 5. W. B. Yeats Poem: “The Fisherman” [00:32:45]

“The Fisherman”: “The Fisherman” is another poem from this volume that both comments on and exemplifies the transformation that I’m describing, the transformation of Yeats’s style and values. It suggests both the difference between the earlier Yeats and the middle Yeats, but also, importantly, the kinds of continuity between them, the ways in which Yeats remained very much the same poet. Let me read it for you.

Although I can see him still
The freckled man who goes
To a grey place on a hill
In grey Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies,
It’s long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.
All day I’d looked in the face
What I had hoped ‘twould be
To write for my own race
And the reality;
The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer,
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch-cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.

Well, Yeats begins in scorn of an audience that’s unable to recognize true wisdom and great art. In scorn of that audience, he imagines another audience, another audience to write for and to emulate, an audience represented by the fisherman. What is the fisherman like? What does he represent? What values does he embody? Grayness – grayness that suggests the color of a land and a culture, the color of stone, of peasant clothes. He, the fisherman, is a solitary figure in a landscape of stone, stone that is dark, resistant, apparently non-ideal; that is, real. Contrast this place, this way of imagining Ireland, what Ireland means, with the sensual landscape of Aengus, with the unreality of the world of that earlier poem. In a sense, the earlier poem, “The Song of the Wandering Aengus,” transformed the Irish landscape into a place of myth, in the same way that the poem is describing the transformation of the trout into the girl.

Yeats seems to be reversing this trick in “The Fisherman,” seems to be converting myth back into reality, the ideal object of desire from a glimmering girl back into a trout. The poem represents a kind of – as does the short poem, “A Coat” – represents a kind of ascetic move, an active imaginative and rhetorical stripping-down. The landscape itself in, here in Yeats’s poem, seems naked, barren, probably un-tillable, and the poetry that Yeats wants from this place will be, as it seems, as he goes on to describe, cold and passionate. Let me finish the poem here.

Maybe a twelvemonth since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience [that Yeats has been describing, this audience
associated with the Dublin middle class and theater-going public]
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face,
And grey Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream;
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, “Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe, as cold
And passionate as the dawn.”

The poetry that Yeats wants from this place, the place that the fisherman takes him to, it’s going to be cold and passionate, as he describes it. You can see him, in a sense – Yeats, cooling the fire in the head of Aengus at this moment. The poem identifies also cold and passion with dawn, the moment of awakening, which is also a moment of coming into reality from dream and sleep. Yeats – the kind of rhetorical and stylistic transformation I’m describing identified with Yeats’s modernness, his coming into modernity, has these qualities and is associated here powerfully with morning.

Importantly, though, morning and dawn are also seen as moments of passion. If Aengus is a figure of passion, so, interestingly, is the fisherman. It’s only what it means to write a poetry of passion that Yeats is now beginning to rethink. Passion seems to lie in coldness rather than heat, lies exactly in the restraining and disciplining of passion. In this sense, “The Fisherman” is not, after all, a poem that’s very different from “The Song of the Wandering Aengus.” In fact, Yeats is still writing about a solitary fisherman. And just as in that earlier poem, the act of fishing is symbolically resonant. “The Fisherman” is an image of man searching the depths of the world for the wisdom that hides beneath the surface of things. Fishing is seen here, as in the earlier poem, as an image of quest and an image of desire. For all these reasons, “The Fisherman” is really a re-writing and even a kind of continuation, rather than a repudiation, of “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” and the poems from that period.

In fact, as Yeats declares, the fisherman does not exist. It’s a wonderful sentence, isn’t it? “A man who does not exist, / a man who is but a dream.” Yeats is still writing dream. The man is not a real man, the man is a symbol; only this time, a symbol of the real, a symbol of the actual and local, of the Irish race and the reality. And the poetry that he stands for – that the fisherman stands for – like all of Yeats’s poetry, is a poetry again of symbols. The fisherman is also representative of the Irish peasantry to whom Yeats turns in scorn of the urban audience that he had tried to write for in the theater. This is, again, not a break with the aristocratic values of the early poetry but an aligning of those values with an ideal image of the peasant classes with whom Yeats creates a kind of imaginative bond against the bourgeois people who seem to represent the new order of things – modernity and Dublin. Yeats’s sense of modern history, of the crisis of his moment – this is something we can describe and explore next time, in “Easter 1916.”

Before we finish today, let me just connect “The Fisherman” and its images of cold passion to another poem – the elegy for Robert Gregory, Yeats’s friend, Augustus Gregory’s son, who dies in the First World War, an airman. Yeats here evokes Gregory as a kind of fallen representative of Irish culture and of aristocratic culture, in particular, in which art and eloquence and political and cultural life all co-exist and all combine and form a passionate heart. Yeats evokes Gregory’s death and sees it in relation to other friends and collaborators of Yeats’s early life, including Lionel Johnson and Synge and others. This is, again, Gregory representing a kind of aristocratic elegance and culture that is juxtaposed to – will be juxtaposed to – the revolutionary violence that comes to shatter the Irish capitol in 1916 and in many ways reshapes Yeats’s career as he encounters what he calls the “terrible beauty” of that explosive rebellion.

Well, that’s enough for today, and we’ll continue with Yeats on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]

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