ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 5

 - William Butler Yeats (cont.)


Yeats’s middle period is explored, beginning with the middle-aged Yeats’s assumption of the role of spokesman for Irish nationalism and the development of his complicated response to nationalist violence. The aestheticization of violence is considered in the poem “Easter, 1916” and briefly in “The Statues.” Yeats’s conception of the relationship of violence to history, with particular emphasis on the frightening interaction among the divine, the human, and the bestial, is demonstrated in the visionary poems “The Second Coming” and “The Magi,” and finally in “Leda and the Swan.”

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 5 - William Butler Yeats (cont.)

Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: In our first Yeats lecture, I was talking about Yeats’s early development and stylistic transformation over the course of, roughly, a twenty-, twenty-five year period. Yeats has a long career, really beginning in the late nineteenth century. The poems that matter the most to us today are those that he starts publishing around 1915, or 1914, and later. But he’s really in the middle of his literary career at that point. I suggested in looking at that early development that Yeats is seen as a kind of representative figure who somehow moves out of symbolism, out of a kind of ornate aestheticism, towards a kind of heroic realism. But I insisted instead that, in fact, the way to understand that development is really a transition from one set of symbols to another, as exemplified by the movement between “Aengus” and “The Fisherman” in Yeats’s early work. The little poem, “A Coat,” that poem about that stylistic transformation about the enterprise of walking naked, well, it’s a poem that reminds us that Yeats’s development was, as he understood it, conditioned by his relationship to his audience.

Yeats, I said, wanted to speak for and to the Irish people, as well as to explain Ireland and Irishness to an English-speaking world abroad. At the same time, even as he has a kind of intense identification with the Irish people, he also, in that little poem and in other poems, fears being betrayed by the crowd; fears being sold cheap; complains of his reception. Last time, I alluded to Yeats’s involvement in the Abbey Theater, beginning in 1904. This is an important phase of his career, when with the help of Lady Augusta Gregory and John Synge, Yeats tries to establish an Irish national drama. Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World – which you may know – it was set in the Aran Islands, in Western Ireland. This was a kind of turning point in the movement. Misunderstood as a satire on the Irish peasantry, Yeats’s production of the play led to riots in 1909. This is one of the events, I think, that Yeats is thinking about in “The Fisherman” when he speaks of “great Art beaten down.”

The audience that Yeats distains and turns away from in the teens is, importantly, a middle class, urban audience, and that attitude of Yeats’s – it’s a motif we find in other poets that we’ll read, and I’d like you to note it; an attitude that we’ll see in Pound, in Eliot, in different ways. The displacement of aristocratic and peasant cultures by an urban bourgeoisie, by the Dublin theater-going audience, the people at the center of a new mongrel, modern culture – well, these are the people that Joyce depicts so memorably in the daily life of Leopold Bloom. Yeats is a very different writer and has a different relation to the world of Joyce’s Ulysses, for example. Yeats has a kind of hostility towards this ascendant middle-class world, and a hostility that you can view as a kind of anti-modernism or anti-modernness, that is again an important component in Yeats.

Or maybe the right way to say it would be that Yeats’s sense of his own modernity, of what it means for him to be modern, emerges in defiance of certain new social formations and also through a fantasy, I say, identification with the aristocracy and with the peasantry, with these cultures rooted in rural Irish society of the past. Like Pound, like Eliot, from a political and social point of view, you could say that Yeats is a reactionary modernist, turning away from the ascendant social forms of the present towards an idealized past. Or, rather, you could say Yeats seems to want to do this, seems to want to turn away from the present – expresses the desire to. In fact, however, Yeats’s eyes remain really fixed in a kind of horror and fascination on the cataclysmic events of his time and the political life of his time in which he is himself very much involved. Yeats is, in fact, a far less nostalgic thinker than either Eliot or Pound, at least as I understand them. The stance that I’m trying to describe, which is a kind of ambivalent and complicated one, emerges powerfully in the poem “Easter, 1916,” on page 105 in this book. And I’d like to spend some time with that, with you.

Chapter 2. W. B. Yeats Poem: “Easter, 1916” [00:07:52]

“Easter, 1916.” The subject of this poem is the Easter Uprising, the Irish Republican challenge to English domination that briefly established an Irish state led by Padraig Pearse, who, along with, in fact, all but one of the leaders of the insurrection, was executed. These events have a – still have a kind of central and powerful place in modern Irish consciousness. If you go to Dublin and you enter the post office, one of the important scenes of the rebellion, you find great wall paintings of scenes from the rising, almost like Stations of the Cross. Well, Dublin is an interesting place to be with this poem in mind, partly because you realize when you are there that it’s – the city center is a small one, and that, well, Yeats’s house is – was not far from the post office; and the world that he’s writing about is something very intimate and familiar, of which he is a part. And that is, in fact, one of the important points of departure for this poem. He says:

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses. [Dublin, “them” being the revolutionaries.]
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
[“Motley” signifying their Irishness, as if Yeats and these men
and women he speaks of shared only their Irishness.]

In the second strophe of this poem he proceeds to talk about, to isolate individuals, particular figures of the revolt, which your editor identifies at the bottom of the page.

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vain-glorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart, [Maude Gonne]
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Yeats is describing his interaction with and his distance from Pearse and the others in that first stanza, and then in the second. He’s saying something like, “I used to see these people all the time. I was proud, however. I kept myself apart from them. I felt we had nothing in common but “motley,” our Irishness. But all that is changed by events. They have become political martyrs to the future Irish state, and I am obliged to remember and honor them in my poetry, even those I disdained. My poetry, which” – well, the dedication to which had defined Yeats’s difference from them up till now.

The poem’s extraordinary refrain, “a terrible beauty is born,” returns in the poem like a chorus, like the voice of some kind of abstract and impersonal chorus, and it suggests almost a strangely impersonal event, something that happens without agents making it happen. “A terrible beauty is born” – a passive construction. Take the first part of the refrain first: “All changed, changed utterly.” “All changed, changed utterly.” I think there are really three strong metrical accents in a row there. By “all,” that three letter word, a highly Yeatsian word, a word Yeats loves to use – you’ll see him use it often – Yeats means “all of them,” “all of those people,” “all the people I’ve been describing.” He also means “my relation to them,” “the way I kept myself apart from them.” He also means “all: everything, plain and simple,” “all” in the sense of “everyone and everything”; “all” conveying a kind of apocalyptic, epochal event. That wonderful pileup of stress in that line, “all changed, changed utterly: / a terrible beauty is born”; another two, two strong three-beat lines in a row; they become a kind of, well what? A bell ringing in the poem, pealing and announcing the coming of the birth of a new and terrible age.

How can something be changed utterly? How can something be changed utterly? Doesn’t that mean “destroyed,” to be entirely changed? Yeats is talking about an event that has brought forth destruction, destruction of the world before the Easter Uprising. And Easter is an important resonance here, obviously. Easter, another moment of death and transfiguration, transformation. Here, this destruction brings forth a new order, a new form of life that Yeats calls “terrible beauty.” This may be the most memorable sentence in modern poetry: “a terrible beauty is born”. I said that Yeats looks on the modern with a sense of both horror and a fascination, a compulsion almost. Well, it’s a “terrible beauty” he sees that draws him in this way. He sees, specifically, the passion of the revolutionary’s act and he finds it beautiful. Yeats aestheticizes their political action. He finds beauty in it, it seems even or especially because it is terror-filled, when the change that it enacts is utter, which is to say, a change that means blood.

To find bloody events beautiful, what do you think about that? How do you describe the politics, if you like, of such a position? Well, how does Yeats stand in relation to the events he’s describing? “Easter, 1916” equivocates. Like that phrase, “a terrible beauty,” the poem is full of contradictions, of contradictory feelings. It takes the side of the nationalists. It also makes the anti-nationalist, the English or pro-English or unionist, case. It sees the dead as heroic martyrs. It also sees them as ideologues, as stony-hearted political activists. It sees the dead as lovers, too. It sees them as dreamers. Yeats looks at them with pity, with admiration, with scorn. He speaks of them as a mother would of her children. All of these attitudes and others, too, are held in suspension in the poem. And you can hear them together, Yeats moving from one to another with, oh, incredible speed and agility in that final strophe of the poem, on the next page. Listen to how quickly Yeats modulates from one feeling, one image, to another in these really very short, quick, three-beat lines.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

This is really moving poetry, remarkably so. And that may be the most important fact about it. When Yeats aestheticizes the political, he makes it moving, moving in the literal sense of, I think, emotionally engaging and cathartic. He specifically converts the political into tragic action; tragic action with which as spectators, the poet and the reader – ourselves, are meant to be passionately and imaginatively engaged, which is also to say implicated. Through Yeats’s poem, Easter, 1916 goes on happening, happening in a sense in and even to us. The poem makes us see the political as a space of passion and of contradictions, like art. And it requires us to understand history not in moral terms, such as “good” and “evil,” but rather in aesthetic terms. “Pity” and “terror,” these become crucial terms, the terms that Aristotle, in his Poetics, used to define tragedy.

Chapter 3. W. B. Yeats and History [00:23:15]

When the bombs went off in London last year, I thought about Yeats and what he might have thought or written about this. As I said last time when I showed you that letter to Pound, Yeats’s London apartment is essentially across the street from where the number 30 bus blew up. And interestingly, strangely, make of it what you will, the man who detonated that bomb, as I understand it, had studied Yeats at school in Leeds. There’s a way in which Yeats’s poetry of this period goes on resonating in the world we’re living in.

Yeats’s sense of his own implication in history, well, it’s something that we see in the intensive, stylistic transformations that his writing undergoes. Part of the resonance and power of that famous refrain, “a terrible beauty is born,” is that this beauty is being born not only in the world but in Yeats’s poetry. Something remarkable is happening to the poet and to his language at the same time. Yeats is saying even simply on one level, “I will write differently henceforth, I must.” Yeats’s stylistic changes in this way are coordinated with, respond to the historical changes he witnesses and participates in; in particular, coordinated with the violent emergence of, through civil war, of the Irish State, for which Yeats would serve as a senator in the 1920s. Yeats in this period makes and remakes his work out of passion, a sort of, as he images it, tumult in the breast, a tumult from which new modes of poetry, new modes of self-knowledge emerge for Yeats. Yeats’s poetry is full of images of birth, and he tends to represent birth as an explosion, a bursting forth, a bursting forth of energy or presence in some sense that can’t be contained or constrained in existing forms. I’ll say more about this next time with reference to Yeats’s late poetry.

What I want to stress now is that Yeats sees passion at work in the same way in history. Powerful super human forces emerge from, or invade, human actors and change them. One consequence of this view is that for Yeats history starts to look like a poem, or it starts to conform to laws of poetic imagination or of tragedy, if you like, of myth. In the Easter Rising, Pearse and the others for Yeats invoke – as they, the revolutionaries themselves, deliberately and rhetorically did – invoke ancient Irish heroes. Pearse is seen as, in Yeats’s poetry and in popular lore, as Cuchulain, as a kind of avatar of the mythic Irish hero. At the same time, as the superhuman enters these historical characters in this way, there is also, well, an energy that you would have to call sub-human, bestial, that does as well. In his late poem, “The Statues,” which you don’t have, Yeats says, “When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side, / what stalked through the post office,” as if the revolutionaries’ action brought forth at once the presence of a legendary hero and a beast that might be stalking through his embodiment and his presence.

Chapter 4. W. B. Yeats Poem: “The Second Coming” [00:28:47]

Yeats saw history in symbolic and mystical terms. This is a poet who, with his wife, practiced automatic writing, who believed that the dead spoke through the living. This occult Yeats is a genuinely and wonderfully strange thinker. He elaborated a systematic account of mind and history. As I said last time, talking about “The Song of the Wandering Aengus”, and Yeats’s interest in alchemy, which was developed, it isn’t, in fact, necessary for you to grasp Yeats’s system, which you’d have to go to his book called A Vision to begin to do. It isn’t necessary for you to grasp his occultism in order to read his poetry well. Yeats said that the voices that he communicated with on the other side gave him “metaphors for poetry.” This is what they deliver him. They also gave him, as he put it, “stylistic arrangements of experience.” The occult gives Yeats aesthetic forms for understanding individual psychology and historical event. This is, I think, how we need to understand the various occult symbols in another great poem from this phase in his career, a little bit further on, “The Second Coming,” on page 111.

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?

Another poem of birth. Notice how very casual Yeats is in that second strophe, how self-consciously fantastic and speculative he is. He doesn’t insist that the Apocalypse is at hand, only that some revelation is. In fact, this poem’s power lies, I think, in its – not only its inability but its unwillingness to specify the content of that revelation. Yeasts suggests that we think of this historical moment as the Second Coming. But this is not the return of Jesus that Christianity prophesizes. Yeats sees the Second Coming as an image, as a myth, an idea, a metaphor, a certain stylistic arrangement of experience. It comes out of what he calls Spiritus Mundi, a semi-technical term; Yeats’s name for something like the collective unconscious of all peoples, a kind of repertoire of archetypes from which the symbols that we use to understand the world derive. This is really, I think, a radical if not heretical idea for the national poet of a Christian people. Yeats is saying that Christianity is only one symbolic order among others. It has a history. It is now passing away as it once came into being. He is also saying that the birth of Christ in Bethlehem was a nightmare for the world it altered, the world that it changed utterly – a change that Yeats sees as the end now of the Christian Era and not its fulfillment. There is in there, too, the disturbing suggestion that Christ himself was a rough beast.

Chapter 5. W. B. Yeats Poem: “The Magi” [00:34:40]

Yeats develops this idea or develops another version of it in a somewhat earlier poem that’s interesting in relation to this one. And let’s turn back and look at it, on page 103. That’s “The Magi”; again, a visionary poem where Yeats is saying, “I see, I see in my mind’s eye.” The action of the poem takes place in Yeats’s imagination.

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

The Magi here are, again, an image, a kind of visionary symbol, an image available “in the mind’s eye” at all times. They are unsatisfied by “Calvary’s turbulence” – “Calvary’s turbulence,” a remarkable phrase – unsatisfied by the scene of Christian martyrdom because they recognize that history is cyclical and that the cycle that they saw come into being can only be completed by another such birth, not by Christ’s death and resurrection. Notice here how Yeats images what is at the core of Christ’s birth. It is an uncontrollable mystery “on the bestial floor”: on the floor, on the bottom, on the ground, where the animals dwell. The Second Coming, it seems, is as Yeats imagines it a kind of similarly uncontrollable mystery, and the energy, the new presence that it releases into the world, is bestial, is that of a beast. The divine enters the human in these poems of Yeats’s through the bestial. It’s a powerful and disturbing idea.

Chapter 6. W. B. Yeats Poem: “Leda and the Swan” [00:37:55]

There’s another very powerful and disturbing poem that literalizes this idea, and that is “Leda and the Swan,” on page 118: a poem that is a sonnet, though it doesn’t quite look like it at first, a mythological poem that seeks to give a mythological image to or for the kinds of epochal and apocalyptic historical change that Yeats is living through in the 1920s in Ireland. In certain ways, it’s a beautiful poem and a grotesque one at the same time.

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast. 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?

History, what makes history happen, is imaged here in the form of the rape of the human by the divine in the form of a beast, the form of a swan. The myth that Yeats takes up is of Zeus’s rape of the maiden, Leda, whom he attacks as a swan. The offspring that the rape engenders includes Helen, the “terrible beauty” for whom the Trojan War was fought; also Clytemnestra, the wife of the Greek lord Agamemnon whom Clytemnestra murders on his return from Troy. Those future events are glimpsed in the sestet of this poem, in the final six lines. They are, in a sense, compressed and imaged and contained in the rape itself. There’s a kind of radical foreshortening of temporal experience at what Yeats images as the orgasmic union of the divine and human – “a shudder in the loins” – bringing about the sack of Troy, the murder of the king, all that future contained in this generative, ambiguous violence in the present that the poem describes. In effect, in that middle part of the poem, Yeats collapses creation and destruction, suggesting that the same bestial energy flows through both of these acts. Here, divine force reduces to brute power in somewhat the same way as it does in “The Magi” and “The Second Coming.”

One result of this is Yeats’s – and this is interesting – his lack of interest in the god. This isn’t a poem about Zeus; it’s not a poem about the swan. He doesn’t name the swan, just as he doesn’t name the “rough beast” in “The Second Coming.” What the swan thinks or feels or intends doesn’t matter. The swan is really only a force, and Yeats’s concern is rather with the human experience of that force, which is, again, another manifestation of “terrible beauty.” Yeats explores that experience, which is an experience of suffering here and of violation, through a series of rhetorical questions, which are a crucial poetic device for Yeats. Yeats is a poet who asks questions. Questions, well, they’re different, even rhetorical questions are different, aren’t they, from statements of fact. They’re more like propositions, like speculations, that we’re asked to test through empathic identification with, in this case, the poem’s subject, Leda. This is what the form of the question invites, I think.

In “Easter, 1916” I talked about Yeats’s partial, complicated identification with the suffering martyrs of that poem. Well, that identification here is re-imagined and we’re invited into it, too, troublingly, I think. The frightening experience that Yeats evokes here is the imposition of the divine on the human. “Helpless breast upon… breast”: that’s a wonderful phrase. The repetition of “breast” links them, makes us see them together, side by side, one on top of the other. It even, I think, identifies the divine and the human, makes them hard to tell apart; binds them, even while we are being confronted with their difference. Leda feels the beating of the swan’s heart, and that heart is “strange” to her, that simple, powerful word. The poem’s great final question concerns that perception: “Did she put on his knowledge with his power”? Did she know the heart she felt or could she only feel it? What difference would it make between those two things, between knowing that heart and merely feeling it? It’s the difference between knowing history – understanding its patterns and motivating forces, causes, intentions – and merely feeling it, merely suffering it, serving as its instrument or vessel, an object to be dropped when it’s no longer useful. To know history, to be able to put on the god’s knowledge with his power, would be to have access to history’s meaning, and therefore to be more than merely subject to it, subject to its capricious and violating forces.

But Yeats doesn’t answer the question, does he? Well, why not? Probably because there isn’t an answer. The further implication is, I think, that whether or not we can have access to historical knowledge, the only path to such knowledge is through submission to its bestial or brute power, which is a kind of shattering experience in this poem. Well, on Monday we’ll look at some of the figures in Yeats’s late poems, who represent a kind of knowledge to be had through an experience of violation or of shattering power, characters such as the mad old men or Crazy Jane in Yeats’s late poems.

[end of transcript]


W. B. Yeats, “Leda and the Swan,” 1924. Used by permission of A P Watts Ltd on behalf of Gráinne Yeats.

This material is not licensed under a Creative Commons license. Users must seek permission to use such third-party materials directly from the publisher or estate, as appropriate.

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