ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 6

 - William Butler Yeats (cont.)


Yeats’s late poetry is discussed and interpreted. The poet’s interest in human knowledge and its relationship to the body, particularly the aging body, is traced from “Leda and the Swan” to “Sailing to Byzantium,” “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz,” “Two Songs from a Play,” and “Vacillation.” Yeats’s late interest in the experiences of joy, madness, and “gaiety” is examined in “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop.” Yeats’s de-mystifying attitude toward art in “The Circus Animals’ Destruction” is contrasted with his celebration of art in “Lapis Lazuli.”

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 6 - William Butler Yeats (cont.)

Chapter 1. Yeats on the Subject of Magic and an Introduction to Yeats’s Late Poems [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Let’s see. On your handout I have Yeats on the subject of magic. This goes back in time from the text we were discussing last time in the teens and twenties to 1901. And I wanted to introduce it to you as some of Yeats’s reflections on the general question of the occult and of the symbolic in his poetry; a kind of preparation in his thinking for some of the poems we discussed last time, such as “The Second Coming.” He says, “I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are.” That’s important, I think. And you remember Yeats in “The Second Coming,” there’s a beast that’s kind of – He doesn’t know what it is, and here he’s saying something similar. He also speaks of his belief “in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in three doctrines,” which he will conveniently put forward for us:

(1) That the borders of our mind [and he has that in the singular there] are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, [that’s probably an important qualification] and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy. [In effect, at work in our common imaginations.] (2) That the borders of our minds are shifting, and that our memories are part of one great memory, [what he calls] the memory of Nature herself. (3) [And this is the most important thing.] That this great mind and great memory [this kind of unitary repertoire of spirits and memories] can be evoked by symbols. [From Magic]

This is something poetry can activate and draw upon. That “Spiritus Mundi” that Yeats refers to in “The Second Coming,” well, this is Yeats talking about that idea here. It is something, as he stresses, that can be evoked by symbols, by poetic symbols, and this he intends to do in his poetry. In fact, Yeats sees his poems as a kind of summoning of spirits or evocation of spirits, as he refers to it. Last time I talked just briefly about Yeats’s interest in automatic writing, a practice that he engaged in with his wife. Well, his poems themselves have an occult dimension of evoking this “great mind” and the spirits contained therein through symbols. He also stresses that the borders of our minds, and of individual identity, are ever shifting and unstable, and that, well, behind all these ideas, I think, is a sense of the poet as a figure who channels in his life, as well as in his writing, channels spirits and presences, and voices, importantly.

And this is related to Yeats’s idea that the poet – and this is something he wrote about in the prose I asked you to read for today – that the poet is more type than man. On page 884, late in his life, writing a kind of summary comment on his work for the collected edition being produced by the publisher, Scribner’s, he writes certain important summary propositions about his work but about poetry in general. And he says on page 884:

A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedies, whatever it be, remorse, lost love or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria. Dante and Milton had mythologies, Shakespeare the characters of English history, of traditional romance… [and so on. He says, the writer] …is more type than man, more passion than type. He is Lear, Romeo, Oedipus, Tiresias; he has stepped out of a play and even the woman he loves is Rosalind, Cleopatra, never The Dark Lady. [Well.] He is part of his own phantasmagoria and we adore him because nature has grown intelligible, and by doing so [we apprehend] a part of our creative power. [From A General Introduction for My Work]

In the poet and in his work nature grows intelligible. This is an important idea for Yeats and it suggests that though work is rooted in life for Yeats, it’s always a life transformed, fed through this “phantasmagoria” that he’s discussing, which is important because at once Yeats is insisting on the personal nature of his poetry and of the experience it offers, and yet he’s also, interestingly, a curiously impersonal figure, impersonal poet. On page 887 he says, towards the top of the page:

Talk to me of originality and I will turn on you with rage. I am a crowd, I am a lonely man, I am nothing. Ancient salt is best packing. The heroes of Shakespeare convey to us through their looks, or through the metaphorical patterns of their speech, the sudden enlargement of their vision, their ecstasy of the approach of death… [And so on.] [From A General Introduction for My Work]

And this is the kind of impersonal channeling of emotion that Yeats, himself a kind of actor in his poetry, wishes to convey.

On your handout there’s another quotation from late in Yeats’s life that I wanted to emphasize. He says – and here’s that Yeatsian word “all” again – he says:

When I try to put all into a phrase I say, “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.” [Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.] “I must embody it in the completion of my life. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Experience. [From a letter to Lady Elizabeth Pelham]

That’s a wonderful claim. “You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Experience.”

“Man can embody truth but cannot know it.” This is an important formulation. I think of it as a kind of reply to that famous question in “Leda and the Swan”; that is, “did she put on his knowledge with his power / before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” The answer that Yeats is giving here is different from saying either “yes” or “no” to that question. It’s more like saying “yes and no,” I think. Truth is something to be embodied in Yeats, embodied rather than known; embodied in the sense of lived, not merely understood but experienced. But also, I think, embodied because it is specifically a thing of the body and involves an experience of the body, as much as, or more than, the mind.

What kind of knowledge, if any, can be had from the shattering experiences of revolution or rape, those models of history that I proposed last time? Remember how Yeats represents history as rape in “Leda and the Swan.” He sees it there as an experience of violence, of sexual violence, involving the intercourse of opposites: of god and man, eternity and time, male and female, the will and patterning force of the one thing against the other, imposed on it by brute force. What kind of knowledge can be had from that experience? “Leda and the Swan” seems to say a knowledge of the body, of the necessity of embodiment. In the late Yeats, in the poems that I’ll be discussing today, there’s no knowledge apart from the body. And this is something to contrast with the early Yeats and its high idealism, and its drive to exist in an abstract and ideal world.

Late Yeats: this is a poetry written in age and written about age and aging; age seen and experienced as the failure and corruption of the body, to which the soul is bound. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” a transitional poem to later Yeats, on page 123 in your book, Yeats says:

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…

The poet speaks of his soul there as “sick with desire / and fastened to a dying animal”; that is, the body. And yet, for all of the complaints about the body here in this poem and in other late Yeats, the poet doesn’t reject it; doesn’t reject that dying animal, doesn’t scorn it. Instead, Yeats affirms it, affirms the body, in its corrupt state. He, in fact, sings and sings louder for it in this late poetry; sings louder, as he puts it, “for every tatter in its [the soul’s] mortal dress.”

This is the extraordinary energy of Yeats’s late poetry, what he calls – The word he has for the energy of this poetry, of this attitude towards life is “joy” or “gaiety,” words that recur throughout these poems: “joy,” “gaiety,” or sometimes “madness.” Joy and gaiety are both states of mind associated with madness in these poems – the body’s truth, felt as an experience of joy or of gaiety as arrived at through a kind of shattering of the body and of the rational mind and its working. Gaiety for Yeats seems to represent some reconstitution of mind and body, some experience of their unity out beyond an experience of tragedy and grief.

This is a point of view specifically associated in Yeats’s late poetry with old men and with women – particularly, but not only, old women, as he says on page 886, back in that General Introduction for My Work. This is interesting. He’s talking here about the kind of style he wishes to create in poetry which involves, for him, making the language of poetry coincide with that of passionate normal speech. He says:

I wanted to write [a version of Frost’s ambition, though conducted differently] in whatever language comes most naturally when we soliloquise, as I do all day long, upon the events of our own lives or of any life where we can see ourselves for the moment. I sometimes compare myself with the mad old slum women I hear denouncing and remembering; “how dare you?” I heard one of them say to an imaginary suitor, “and you without health or a home.” If I spoke my thoughts aloud they might be as angry and as wild.

So this is a kind of model for the late Yeats in poetry, the voice of the angry and wild slum woman.

Chapter 2. W. B. Yeats Poem: “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz” [00:15:02]

Well, in order to get at this style in action in Yeats’s late poems, I want to look back a little bit at a poem that looks back on “Easter, 1916,” the poem I discussed last time, as well as Yeats’s own earlier poetry, and that is the poem called “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz,” on page 126. It’s a kind of postscript to “Easter, 1916,” written in 1929. Con Markievicz was the only surviving leader of the Easter Rising, condemned to death, but then her sentence was transmuted. What is it? Yes, thank you: commuted, not transmuted. Well, Con Markievicz is, in a sense, a figure like Leda. She is someone who has suffered the traumatic violence that engenders history. Yeats’s elegy here recalls her youth and that of her sister, both friends of the younger Yeats: Eva Gore-Booth; a youth spent in the Sligo mansion, Lissadell, where Yeats visited in 1894. At that point Yeats was – 1894, Yeats is twenty-nine, and the two women were slightly younger. Let me read the beginning of it.

The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
But a raving autumn shears
Blossom from the summer’s wreath;
The older is condemned to death,
Pardoned, drags out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant.
I know not what the younger dreams –
Some vague Utopia – and she seems,
When withered old and skeleton-gaunt,
An image of such politics.
Many a time I think to seek
One or the other out and speak
Of that old Georgian mansion, mix
Pictures of the mind, recall
That table and the talk of youth,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

Here, female beauty, nineteenth-century manners, and aristocratic culture are all held together as if expressing each other and associated with each other. Yeats’s nostalgic vision of them is charmed and static, interestingly static. See how the verb is withheld in the first sentence of the poem, and then in the closing lines of that first strophe? Well, in order to give us that image, “two girls in silk kimonos, both / beautiful, one a gazelle,” which he returns to, it’s as if the action itself were being withheld from this charmed world and time slowed down or even stopped, making a picture, an image, a haiku.

But all of this is overthrown, “changed utterly,” by the radical politics that altered Ireland during Yeats’s lifetime, that announced the coming of modernity and that these two women themselves participated in centrally. Politics makes them ugly to Yeats. It’s as if they might have maintained their beauty had they only refrained from it. You could look at a similar attitude in “A Prayer for My Daughter,” another important big Yeats poem from slightly earlier, where Yeats says, “An intellectual hatred is the worst, so let her think” – his daughter – “that opinions are accursed.” Women shouldn’t have them. This is not an attractive side of Yeats, at least for people of our moment and sensibility. There’s a kind of, well, masculinism in Yeats, and it’s part of what I meant last time when I spoke of Yeats’s anti-modernism or his reactionary modernism. And it’s here, too, in this poem.

But the attitude here, as in “Easter, 1916” and Yeats’s other great poems, is complicated. For all of Yeats’s reactionary moods, even for his indulgence in nostalgia here, he’s not a nostalgic poet. And this poem I think shows us what I mean by that. Look at how the poem changes as it develops, as it moves to this second strophe, and Yeats turns from the frozen image of the past to address those two sisters directly, saying:

Dear shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight
With a common wrong or right.
The innocent and the beautiful
Have no enemy but time;
Arise and bid me strike a match
And strike another till time catch;
Should the conflagration climb,
Run till all the sages know.
We the great gazebo built.
They convicted us of guilt;
Bid me strike a match and blow.

The poet and the women together become “we” in the poem’s last sentence. “They,” the “they who convicted us of guilt,” well, that’s hard to identify. Who is that? I think it’s possible to see that “they” as the sort of general forces of modernity, of everything at odds with the aristocratic culture Yeats and these women shared, inhabited. “We the great gazebo built.” I stumbled and put “built” in the wrong place when I read it. It’s a strange line. I am told that it plays on a slang phrase then current, “to make a gazebo of yourself,” meaning “to make a spectacle of yourself and a fool of yourself, publicly.” The footnote to your Norton here suggests that the gazebo is a summerhouse and by extension – it’s quite an extension – the nationalist movement, and then, “even the whole temporal world.” Those are some real extensions, aren’t they?

It’s a little hard to know what to do with this gazebo. Does it, in fact, represent the nationalist movement that culminated, or one form of which culminated, in the Easter Rebellion? Does it represent Yeats’s own early cultural nationalism and the work represented in The Wind Among the Reeds and other early poems? Well, it’s a little hard to say. I tend to see that gazebo or summerhouse as a version of Lissadell itself, this home that the poem evokes and that is representative of a nineteenth-century world of art, of pleasure, of rarified and delicate and ideal beauty – a world very important to Yeats.

As Yeats – as his thought develops in the course of this poem, he turns from nostalgia to affirmation and seems to join the sisters in the actions that they chose through some kind of sympathetic identification; Yeats who had seemed to stand apart from it, against them, in the first part of the poem. The women represent for Yeats a kind of self-destructive energy, and it’s something he too, I think, is willing to share and enter into. He speaks of the destruction of the world that they shared, of a house that they had built, one that he mocks as this “great gazebo,” as something noble and beautiful, perhaps, but also fragile and a spectacle and unable to stand up to history. Time is the enemy in the poem, and Yeats joins forces with the women at the end, and in doing so joins forces with time and sets a match to it, as if time itself were tinder.

Chapter 3. W. B. Yeats Poem: “Two Songs from a Play” [00:25:15]

Yeats imagines a kind of active arson in this poem. Fire is symbolically important throughout his poetry. In “The Song of the Wandering Aengus,” I talked about the kind of flickering passion and the fire in the head that sends Angus out on his quest. Fire reappears with increasing frequency in the late poetry. In your RIS packet, I gave you the short poem “Two Songs from a Play.” The first stanza of that interesting poem repeats themes from “The Magi” and “The Second Coming.” You can look at it with those poems in mind where Yeats imagines a new world coming into being, ushered in through the blood of the old. This idea leads him to the meditation that’s in the second stanza there.

Everything that man esteems
Endures a moment or a day.
Love’s pleasure drives his love away,
The painter’s brush consumes his dreams;
The herald’s cry, the soldier’s tread
Exhaust his glory and his might:
Whatever flames upon the night
Man’s own resinous heart has fed.

“Man’s heart” in Yeats is “resinous”; it’s a sticky filth that flames. The longing heart accumulates desires that become in time a kind of volatile waste, which can’t be contained. The heart is combustible, like the energy that insists on birth in “The Magi” or “The Second Coming.” And this is our glory, Yeats says. Again, notice how bodily, how material and physical Yeats’s images of human energy are.

Chapter 4. W. B. Yeats Poem: “Vacillation” [00:27:29]

Let’s turn back to The Norton Anthology and look at the poem “Vacillation,” on page 131. This is a meditation that comes in several parts. As Yeats’s work develops, he creates a kind of poem that comes in parts; that is, you might think of it as a kind of sequence poem in which, with increasing daring, Yeats explores contending viewpoints seeking some kind of synthesis. That’s what’s going on here. There’s a similar kind of structure in other late Yeats’s poems. Yeats at first thought to call this poem “What Is Joy?” It takes up his lifelong quest to reconcile extremities, opposites – in his thought, in his experience – and to achieve some kind of unity of being. What is the goal of “Wandering Aengus”?

Between extremities
Man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath,
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night;
The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?

Here, in the first part of the poem, Yeats talks about death and remorse as the end of all debate, the last word. We’re all going to die and we’re all going to regret what we did. But this understanding of the end of things is only the cancellation of all those antinomies in a kind of failure to reconcile them; and it doesn’t satisfy Yeats. He’s asking, in effect, “how can we be joyful in the face of death and in the face of certain remorse?” Or, “how is it that somehow we are?” He wants to explain this. He wants to find a way to not so much redeem as affirm time and age and understand them not simply as a cause of despair or as a cause of defeat.

The poem then tries out different answers, answers that alternately explore transcendental and secular solutions. And the poem vacillates, as it were, between them. In Section III below, Yeats says, “Get all the gold and silver that you can” – “Provide, provide!” But just as in Frost, this strategy isn’t going to work. So, therefore, we must take up, he suggests, an ascetic path, engaging only, as he says, in “those works” that are fit “for such men as come / proud, [and] open-eyed and laughing to the tomb.” In Section IV then, the next, on the next page, blessing is not, on the other hand, something to work for. Rather, it’s a potential fire that flashes up momentarily within us.

My fiftieth year had come and gone [when I first read this poem that
seemed a really long way in my future, as perhaps it does to you],
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top. While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessèd and could bless.”

It’s a serendipitous and moving, momentary experience Yeats describes. And notice that it’s the body that blazes: soul and body or soul and heart. These are antinomies that the poem is exploring. Yeats insists that the heart is an organ of the body, and located in it. This is important. In the sixth section, down below, he speaks of “man’s blood-sodden heart.” This is another turn on that image of man’s “resinous heart.” In Section VII, “Soul” and “Heart” argue. The vacillation and debate become quickest here as one point of view gets one line and the other the rhyming next line.

The Soul. Seek out reality, leave things that seem. [That’s what the
Soul instructs us. The Heart responds.]
The Heart. What, be a singer born and lack a theme?
The Soul. Isaiah’s coal, what more can man desire?
The Heart. Struck dumb in the simplicity of fire!
The Soul. Look on that fire, salvation walks within.
The Heart. What theme had Homer but original sin?”

It’s a wonderfully compressed argument in which the Soul and the Heart make competing claims for Christianity and classical and literary wisdom. Yeats counterposes Isaiah’s prophetic coal to the blazing body of Section IV, where fire is spontaneous, imminent, something that arises from the body. There then follows in that last section a kind of comic conclusion where the poet chooses to side with Homer, and implicitly with poetry, against the theologian Von Hügel who’s a kind of comic figure at the end there.

Chapter 5. W. B. Yeats Poem: “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” [00:34:47]

“Vacillation.” The poem was written following a series of poems called the “Crazy Jane” poems, written as a kind of summary of them, a kind of resolution of the debates that go on in them. You have just one of them in your Anthology, but it is one of the greatest. It is back on page 130. In the “Crazy Jane” poems, the Bishop, who is Crazy Jane’s antagonist, has the part of Von Hügel, the position of the Church authority, and Jane speaks for Yeats and for poetry; for Homer, too, I suppose.

Crazy Jane is one of Yeats’s masks or roles. She is a mad peasant woman. She speaks from the point of view of a cracked or shattered mind, in the tradition of a Shakespearian fool. She speaks what Yeats calls in his general title for this group of poems Words for Music Perhaps. The poem’s connection to music signifies the difference in point of view in these poems from reasoned speech. It also seems to relate these poems to folk forms and to the wisdom of the folk. Jane speaks in praise of love, in praise of satisfaction. She speaks of the necessary unity of body and soul, which for her entails a defense of the body, defending, as she does, its knowledge and its goodness. As a character she is sour. She’s rank, ill-tempered, pungent in all senses. Well, let’s look at this debate.

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 [this is the Bishop, speaking to her of her
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.”
[To which Jane replies.] “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. [And she continues.] “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.” [“Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”]

The points of view, again, are those of the sacred and profane, the soul and the body, the promise of a heavenly mansion, and the reality of a life lived in a foul sty. The Bishop claims one side of debate, Jane claims the other. But unlike the Bishop, she doesn’t want to reject the other and this is important. Speaking for the body, she speaks for the potential unity of body and soul. In answer to the promise of the Bishop’s heavenly mansion in another life, she claims another sort of house, what she calls love’s “mansion,” which is noble itself and which is to be lived here on earth.

“Love has pitched his mansion in / the place of excrement.” This is an outrageous claim. What does it mean? Look at the claim it’s paired with. “For nothing can be sole or whole / that has not been rent.” Why is it necessary to rend something, to make it soul or whole? Is it necessary? Only that which is broken, Jane claims, is unified. That which appears whole is not. Yeats seems to be insisting through Jane on the necessity of shattering experience to achieve unity of being, which Yeats imagines, again, as the union of opposites. Again, think of the rape of Leda. This is the type of the violent union that Yeats imagines in which the divine enters the human, and the human finds access to the divine through the bestial. And the bestial is identified in Yeats with the heart and with the irrational and with the uncontrollable.

Yeats’s late poems speak from the point of view of Jane, more often than not, and yet powerfully, we do see him vacillating from different – between different points of view. We have really no time left to explore them, but I want to just point you to two important late poems that seem to represent different attitudes in late Yeats, that contrast the kinds of claim that can be made for art. One of them is the moving valedictory to his work that is called “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” where the poet imagines his imagination as having arisen on ladders, if you will, out of what he calls “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” And in conclusion he imagines giving up that terrific drive towards imagination and idealization and a return to the “rag and bone shop of the heart.” That’s an image of art ultimately leading out of art to a kind of state of de-sublimation.

Chapter 6. W. B. Yeats Poem: “Lapis Lazuli” [00:42:06]

Contrast this poem to “Lapis Lazuli,” a beautiful and moving late poem on page 135 that is full of echoes from that general introduction to his work that I quoted from earlier. Here, Yeats presents us with an image of art in the form of a lapis lazuli Chinese carving, and he describes the figures on that carving, who are in some sense representatives of an attitude, again, beyond tragedy, beyond the kinds of social and political apocalypse that Yeats faced in his career and that he describes also in this poem. And Yeats concludes, well, with an image of the artwork that I’ll read for you, that is fascinating in itself but is also, as I suggest, an image of Yeats’s late ideal for what art should be like. He says:

Every discolouration of the stone [this is on page 136],
Every accidental crack or dent
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plumb or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there [at their altitude, looking at the
world from within the perspective of art];
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes, amid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

And there is finally, again, an affirmation of this joy and gaiety, here seen as a property of the artwork itself.
Well, I’ve kept you a little bit longer. Please take time to deliver your poems to your teaching fellows, and we’ll go on to poetry of the First World War on Wednesday.

[end of transcript]


W. B. Yeats, “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz,” 1929 and “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop,” 1933. 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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