Leap Into Light
Sep 16, 2009
14 Min read time
William Butler Yeats has been called the twentieth century’s greatest poet. He may even deserve the title. As Richard Ellmann wrote in his classic study Yeats: The Man and the Masks, “it is not easy to assign him a lower place.” Others may have attempted more; none achieved it. Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and all the other contenders of Yeats’s illustrious generation—none stakes quite the same claim on the imagination, or on the idiom, of our time. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”; “A terrible beauty is born”; “Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare / Rides upon sleep.” Even Joyce has his protagonist Stephen Dedalus murmuring lines from Yeats’s early poem “Who Goes with Fergus?” on Sandymount strand: “And no more turn aside and brood / Upon love’s bitter mystery.” Like Shakespeare, Yeats is inescapable.
Yet few critics, including Ellmann, have seemed entirely comfortable with this fact. As a man, Yeats could be personally unappealing, even arrogant and intolerant, although not more so than Eliot and less so than Pound. The problem with casting Yeats as the ne plus ultra of twentieth-century poets stems from the fact that his work defies preconceptions about what a sufficiently modern—and specifically Modernist—poetry should be. Yeats’s ties to the nineteenth century and the legacy of Romanticism were vital and strong. Most importantly, Yeats forsook radical formal innovation and was instead a lifelong advocate of traditional poetic meter and form. However, as Calvin Bedient writes in The Yeats Brothers and Modernism’s Love of Motion—his lively new study of the poet and his brother, the painter Jack Yeats—“Yeats knew what technical resources to call upon to convey movement as force.” Despite the conventionality of its composition, Bedient maintains, Yeats’s work is a revelation and enactment of the twentieth century’s discoveries about the nature of the physical world and of the human psyche. He is the poet of dynamism, of “creative destruction,” and also of violence and horror.
“Most of the Modernist poets disturbed existing hierarchies and the conservative rule of concepts by thinking change,” Bedient argues. Only Yeats “thought motion in [its] particular, dizzying rotations” (emphasis added). The same Modernist
who was most fixated on formality, the logical one to get into a verbal scuffle with Marinetti, the Futurist, when the latter read from his work in a salon, Yeats nonetheless felt and thought in terms of great power-shifts and vectors.
Paradoxically, this antiquarian stylist with a love of esoteric mysteries was the most contemporary of his peers, the one who still speaks most immediately to our present anxieties of flux and dislocation.
Pound, a friend and collaborator as well as a rival, mocked Yeats’s allegiance to airy symbolism, writing in The Pisan Cantos of
Uncle William dawdling around Notre Dame
in search of whatever
paused to admire the symbol
with Notre Dame standing inside it
Yet symbolism, as Yeats well knew, was a resource. Like abstraction, as Helen Vendler remarks in Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, it allowed “large and recalcitrant events [to] be brought within the precincts of poetry.” Form, too, allowed Yeats to delineate more precisely the contours of flux and transformation. Fragments and caesura, enjambments and comma splices, staccato redundancies and paratactic parallel statements (to cite a list of technical resources that Bedient enumerates) all work to heighten tension, to check progress, to convey vacillation:
Violence upon the roads: violence of horses; . . .
Thunder of feet, tumult of images, . . .
[“Nineteen Hundred Nineteen”]
I turned about and looked where branches break
The glittering reaches of the flooded lake.
[“Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931”]
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
Irrational streams of blood are staining earth;
Empedocles has thrown all things about;
Hector is dead and there’s a light in Troy;
We that look on but laugh in tragic joy.
Simultaneously, for every effect of motion “there is an equal and opposite effect of measure.” In the mediation of such contraries lies Yeats’s genius.
Yeats found a tragic grandeur in the quarrel of antinomies. (Perhaps that is why he was so fatally attracted to a woman in nearly every way his opposite, Maud Gonne.) Yet he also strove for what he called, with characteristic portentousness, “Unity of Being.” He saw it as the artist’s task “to hold in a single thought reality and justice,” as he wrote in the introduction to A Vision, his strange work of esoteric cosmology in which the types of human personality and the vicissitudes of history were linked alike to the phases of the moon. The regularity of the lunar cycle governing, platonically, a process where all is change and mayhem, chaos and disorder, echoes the relation between the ordered formal patterns of his verse—ottava rima, sonnet, ballad stanza—and its heart-bruising content. Yeats wrote in a late autobiographical essay (“If I were Four-and-Twenty”) that the whole purpose of his life had been to “hammer [his] thoughts into a unity,” so that action in each sphere of life—poetry, politics, or philosophy—would be “a discrete expression of a single conviction.” But there is no conviction expressed in Yeats’s poetry that is not also qualified or refuted.
These outward inconsistencies are the sort of thing that gives many critics—especially academics—fits. Vendler and Bedient are two of our finest critics of poetry. In addition, both are respected scholars with a long devotion to the study of modern poetry and to the work of W. B. Yeats in particular. They bring remarkably different temperaments and analytic resources to the task of criticism. Vendler’s method is an amalgam of fastidiousness, patience, and lucidity; Bedient is all improvisation and daring. Their books grapple in very different but ultimately complimentary ways with the achievement of Yeats, and both are successful to varying degrees. (Vendler’s approach, the more traditional, is perhaps also the more successful.) Both also come to grief in varying ways against the colossal object of their study—a great poet has a way of revealing a critic’s limitations.
Vendler’s Our Secret Discipline is a remarkable contribution. Its aim—a systematic exploration of Yeats’s poetics—is so essential to a complete understanding of the poet’s work that one can only wonder that it had not been undertaken earlier. Vendler’s point of departure is the unspoken but often present (and crucial) assumption that history trumps poetry—call it the embarrassment of the aesthetic before the historical—that often vitiates criticism of poetry, especially Yeats’s poetry. “The historical drama of Yeats’s era,” Vendler writes, “has, until now, distracted commentators from his patient and meticulous work as a poet; to read him well, we need to enter, with him, the parallel drama of the creation of art.” Not only that, we need to give that drama of creation, as Vendler does, status equal to that of the drama of history, at least where the artist is concerned. For Yeats, as Vendler reminds us, the perfection of technique was the greater part of the work of art; the real world—“this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its farrow that so solid seem,” to quote “Blood and the Moon”—occupied but a small part.
Vendler’s ingenuity and determination in reestablishing the centrality of the aesthetic to Yeats’s work are impressive. Her readings, especially the masterful chapter devoted to Yeats’s deployment of ottava rima (an intricate eight-line stanza whose first practitioners included the Renaissance poet Boccaccio), patiently discover ever-finer layers of historical and ideological meaning embedded in the visible and audible surface of poetry—poetic form in all its minutiae: rhyme, meter, diction. That Yeats is aware of these resources of poetic language and uses them with a skill rivaling that of Bach in the construction of contrapuntal harmony is something Vendler takes as self-evident but also tirelessly explains and demonstrates.
The insight that the formal properties of poetry and even the intrinsic, “magical” properties of words—their aural qualities’ subliminal and somatic effects—are the fundamental building blocks of poetic art is at once obvious and subtle. That is to say, it is obvious to those who practice the art of poetry, but it is not necessarily something that readers or even critics are fully aware of or able to articulate. (We can listen to Bach’s music without “hearing” the counterpoint, without perceiving its existence, yet even unrecognized it still influences our perception of musical beauty.) “Poetic thinking,” Vendler writes, “proceeds not only by propositions and images, as we sometimes think, but also by . . . lexical and phonetic slippages and linkages.”
Vendler’s method returns us to the making of the poems as verbal objects, forcing us to think anew about choices at the level of word and phrase. She has not forgotten the pedagogical side of the critic’s vocation, and at her urging we read poetry with a livelier sense of its beauties and artistic accomplishment. However, the danger in Vendler’s method lies in the same literalism that constitutes its strength. For example, Vendler misreads Yeats’s great poem “Sailing to Byzantium” by setting the third stanza, entirely presumptively, in the Hagia Sophia. She assumes that the final lines of the second stanza must mean that the speaker is literally in Byzantium:
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium
Of course Vendler is well aware that Yeats himself never visited the Near East and was probably inspired to write the poem by having visited Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna and Sicily. But her literal reading of the speaker’s claim to “have come . . . to Byzantium” misguides her reading of the poem’s final stanzas:
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Vendler reads the third stanza as direct ekphrasis (verbal description of a visual artwork) because for her each stanza is a literal “station,” that is, a description of a physical or mental location without any blurring between the two, or between the successive stations. This leads her into perplexities because she seems to have forgotten that the journey is an imaginative one; the speaker is a “mental traveller,” as in Blake. Her emphasis on the stanzas as successive literal stations, each with distinct locations, forces her to imagine a mutually exclusive choice between the states represented in the third and fourth stanzas. “You cannot imagine yourself simultaneously as a sage-singing-in-and-of-eternity (represented in the cathedral of Holy Wisdom by a sacred mosaic) and a voice-singing-in-and-of-time,” she tartly admonishes the reader. You can’t? Of course you can. That is precisely what Yeats does, just as he superimposes the sages standing in “God’s holy fire” upon the figures in the gold mosaic (“as in” meaning, “as [also] in” rather than, as Vendler has it, “as [though] in”). Both possibilities are adduced imaginatively and are intended to be held in tension in the mind.
As Bedient observes, “Yeats . . . had far too capacious, clamoring, and self-crossed a nature to remain fixed like a limpet at one pole of his dialectic(s).” Vendler’s misreading is reminiscent of the mistakes that have tripped up other scholars reading Yeats. It seems to these readers that the resignation and philosophical discipline expressed in the closing stanzas of both “The Tower” and “Sailing to Byzantium” do not reflect plausible notions held by the poet, because in other poems—for instance, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”—he maintains categorically opposed ideas, choosing time over eternity. These readers have forgotten that each poem presents its own set of problems that are not entirely those of the poet, or of the next poem. The solution to a poetic problem provides only a momentary stay against the natural and ever-changing course of life. Perhaps Ellmann put it best in reference to “Sailing to Byzantium”: “The problem of the poem is solved, but in actual life Yeats’s pursuit of wisdom could never be so single-minded.”
Bedient may better capture the energy and vibrancy of Yeats’s embodied thought in all of its exhilarating, perplexing, and at times infuriating multifariousness. He is at his best in illuminating poems that Vendler neglects or overlooks. His finest moments come in his readings of “Lapis Lazuli” (a poem Vendler curiously disdains), “Long-legged Fly,” and the “Crazy Jane” sequence from “Words for Music Perhaps.” He perceives that all three poems (to speak of the “Crazy Jane” lyrics as a unit) are rooted in Yeats’s dramatic technique of writing “from and through types” that both “intensify and simplify” the reality they represent. Types, though inherently artificial, “bear up under tons of atmosphere.” Though at times Yeats’s personages are mere thematic focal points, in his most successful poems they spring to life in extraordinary ways: a teenage Helen in “Long-legged Fly,” still “three parts a child,” practicing “a tinker shuffle / Picked up on a street”; or “Michael Angelo / With no more sound than the mice make” moving his hand to and fro over the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; or that unforgettable desperate character Crazy Jane locked in life-or-death struggle with the representatives of conventional morality, a woman whose strength comes out of a terrified awareness of absence, whose “plain diction” is energized by “the torque of the lineation against the syntax”:
A lonely ghost the ghost is
That to God shall come;
I—love’s skein upon the ground,
My body in the tomb—
Shall leap into the light lost
In my mother’s womb.
[“Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman”]
Bedient shows with consummate mastery how and why these scintillating characters are Yeats’s best creations, how they outshine the Wordsworthian musing of even the best of Yeats’s early lyrics such as “Who Goes with Fergus?”
It is appropriate, in a way, that Bedient, with his eye for the visually and characterologically distinctive, should have devoted half of his study to the painter Jack Yeats, the poet’s brother. This pairing is meant to illuminate the relationship of the two artists and brothers and to correct the comparative neglect into which the work of the latter Yeats has fallen. Bedient, however, fails to provide a convincing account of Jack Yeats’s genius. He relies mainly on repeated assertions of the painter’s excellence and on laudatory quotations culled from various sources, some of which are vaguely suspect authorities on the question of Jack Yeats’s artistic merit. Samuel Beckett’s praise of Yeats the painter seems motivated in great part by dislike of the more celebrated Yeats frère:
What is incomparable in this great solitary oeuvre is its insistence on sending us back into the darkest part of the spirit that created it and upon permitting illuminations only through that darkness. . . . The artist that stakes his being comes from nowhere. And he has no brothers. (emphasis added)
Bedient’s frequent recourse to such adjectives as “astounding,” “astonishing,” and “first-rate” in his descriptions of Yeats’s canvases is not reassuring; nor are the paintings themselves, which give evidence, to my untrained eye, of only a mediocre sort of post-impressionism stuck somewhere between Monet and Francis Bacon. Bedient’s thesis of intertwining, coeval, and yet divergent modernisms is handily exemplified, it is true, by a comparison between the Yeats brothers. But unfortunately the work of the one hardly stands up to that of the other, making the supposedly more “radical” aesthetic investigations of Jack Yeats look like parodic and second-rate imitations of his brother’s monumental archetypes.
Perhaps it is because, as Bedient acknowledges, W. B. Yeats discovered a tragic realism in the quarrel of antinomies while “Jack willingly sacrificed much of the outline of the ‘simple Unchangeable’ to the ‘protean Changeable,’” that Yeats the poet was the greater artist. “Without contraries is no progression,” Yeats’s elected master, Blake, asserted. This is true even within an individual artist’s style; where no line restrains color, where no strictness of form militates against sublime intensities of feeling, we get mush. As Bedient further notes, “what makes [W. B.] Yeats modern (or Modernist) is his constant attention to the problem of adjudicating between the extremes.” One cannot simply dispose of the problem of judgment by merging with the flux of the all. It is precisely this resolution, this mediation of contraries, this flow of intensities within a lineated form that gives poems such as “Sailing to Byzantium” or “Nineteen Hundred Nineteen” their incontrovertible power and permanence.
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September 16, 2009
14 Min read time