Many years ago I gave a lecture at Queen’s University Belfast on a theme I have long since forgotten. After the lecture Prof Singh of the Italian department came up to say hello and to invite me, if I were so inclined, to listen to a tape recording of a recent lecture given at Queen’s by the literary critic FR Leavis. The subject was William Butler Yeats.
I was indeed so inclined, especially as Dr Leavis had turned down my request that he write an essay for An Honoured Guest, a collection of new essays on Yeats that JR Mulryne and I were compiling. Leavis’s assessment of Yeats was hard to find – he did not write on him as often as on TS Eliot – so his lecture would be a pointed occasion. The following morning, before catching the train to Dublin, I listened to it in silence with Prof Singh.
Leavis began by asserting that although Yeats was obviously a major figure, it was difficult to point to a single poem in which his genius was manifest. Without more ado, Leavis chose to comment on three poems: Sailing to Byzantium, Byzantium and Among School Children, in that order.
The poems of Byzantium did not in the end survive his most concentrated attention. Leavis dismissed them, although with blessings on their heads: they were too dependent on Yeats’s private scheme of reference. When he turned to Among School Children, I felt that nothing less than western civilisation was in question. If the poem survived Leavis’s scrutiny, than civilisation would have a chance: if not, not.
Leavis’s commentary was far-reaching, a quest of significances for which the local detail of Yeats’s language in the poem was resorted to for evidence. I still recall the tension and the excitement I felt as Leavis’s phrases leaned one way or another in the commentary: they seemed to hold themselves in reserve, endlessly postponing the verdict.
To my nearly exhausted relief, Among School Children passed with honours; it survived Leavis’s concerned analysis; it was a fully achieved thing. Not only did the poem withstand any degree of critical pressure as a poem, but it also testified to cultural possibilities that might be invoked in its name.
I was immensely gratified and took the train to Dublin with Among School Children and Leavis’s commentary almost equally in my head. In the meantime, and perhaps because of Leavis’s praise, Among School Children is accepted, so far as my reading goes, as Yeats’s finest poem. The two Byzantine poems are argued over, sometimes given a splendid pass, sometimes not.
I hope that my recollection of Leavis’s recorded lecture is accurate, but it may not be. Many years later I find that, in his Lectures in America (1969), he declares both of the poems of Byzantium to be “triumphs of a wholly original art of creative expression that is contemporary with Eliot’s”. Speaking of The Tower, Leavis said that “the volume containing Sailing to Byzantium and Among School Children impressed one – and impresses – as coming from a major poet”.
This points to another instance of unanimity. It is universally agreed that Yeats became a great poet, not merely a post-Victorian lyricist, with the publication of Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), The Tower (1928), and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933).
In these books he achieved a poetry of which even Leavis, a critic not disposed to admire it, wrote: “There is no element of a man’s experience in the twentieth century that, of its nature, it excludes.”
Anyone is free to admire some earlier and some later poems, as TS Eliot admired Who Goes with Fergus?, The Folly of Being Comforted, Adam’s Curse and Pardon, Old Fathers. Conor Cruise O’Brien spoke well of the very late Cuchulain Comforted, and nearly everyone likes The Circus Animals’ Desertion.
Still, the crucial poems are still thought to be those of the three central books. I would cast a vote for The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), if only because it contains In Memory of Major Robert Gregory, A Deep-Sworn Vow and Upon a Dying Lady. But to make a case for that book is another day’s work.
Michael Robartes and the Dancer, The Tower and The Winding Stair and Other Poems are the books in which Yeats solved, or came closer than any other modern poet in English to solving, the problem that defeated so many of his contemporaries: how to reconcile the claims of common speech, morally responsible, with the insisted-on autonomy of the poem, a reconciliation of image and discourse, meaning and form, a claim to unity inherent in the symbolism that modern English poetry inherited from French.
The poem, whatever its materials, must be one, complete, independent, as articulate as a piece of music, a painting or a dance by Balanchine, which it resembles in everything but the fatedness of speech.
Yeats made this achievement difficult for himself by writing poems in response to occasions. Something happens that makes something else happen in its turn. Robert Gregory was killed. Then we get In Memory of Major Robert Gregory, one of the classic poems. Most of Yeats’s poems are occasional. Something arouses him to anger, rage, disgust, love, pity: he writes a poem, and perhaps with Jonathan Swift for master he puts aside for the moment the supreme need of his art to ensure that the aesthetic function will prevail.
Eliot never worked in this way. He was a man of the world, he paid attention to nearly everything that was going on, but when he was impelled to intervene he consigned his words to an essay, a lecture, an editorial in the Criterion, a letter to some editor. He kept his poems at a distance from such provocations. Yeats was also a man of the world, but he took its observances differently.
Leavis thought Eliot’s way the better one. “Where Eliot is in question, it is the economy, concentration, perfected art and assured creative purpose of the body of achieved poetry that tells.” The jury on that question is out.
In A General Introduction for My Work (1937) Yeats made an attempt, laborious indeed, to distinguish between the poet and “the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast”. The poet “has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete”. “Idea” doesn’t convince, if he means the poet concentrating on his craft and the tradition he honours. Yeats tries again: “he is more type than man, more passion than type.” That is no help.
There is always a phantasmagoria, Yeats says, and I presume he means that the poet’s imagination is all the time working, as if independently, projecting a bizarrerie of images, scorning what goes on at the breakfast table.
Then Yeats gives us a sentence we can use. We adore the poet, he says, “because nature has grown intelligible, and by so doing a part of our creative power”. Presumably he means that it is the poet’s business to show this growth happening, or to make it happen.
So Yeats has been intuiting the life common to all forms of it and bringing particular forms to the state of being intelligible. This is easy with landscape, because landscape has nothing to say for itself: if it seems to be eloquent, it is our eloquence. In The Wild Swans at Coole the streams are “companionable” not because they just are but because Yeats sees them as such, bringing them to that version of intelligibility.
It follows that the intelligible must be conveyed in common speech, and that much of the work is done by adjectives, which indicate modes of existence. As in The Second Coming:
. . . 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.
“Indignant” does the work of intelligibility; it is what we would feel if we were a desert bird. In Leda and the Swan:
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
“Indifferent” is one of our feelings, not an attribute of beaks. If a reader were to point to the tyranny of adjectives in these and other poems, I don’t see how I could defend the words: they convert the natural modes of being to human modes, inexorably. But that is our way of being alive. Everything ends up in the humanity of speech. Nouns are more resistant, such as “stone” in Easter 1916: they are what they are. I see no way out of these quandaries.
No matter how often I read Among School Children I still find it thrilling – and would be quite willing to see the fate of western civilisation hang in its balance. The first stanza – “I walk through the long schoolroom questioning” – is just as stirring as the great last lines, gnomic as they are:
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
I would say: all of the above, like St Patrick’s shamrock, three things in their unity one:
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
A harder question. I would say: we can’t know the dancer from the dance, if by knowing you mean the same knowledge that distinguishes leaf, blossom and bole. But I can’t imagine under what conditions, and with what motive, we would need or want to practice such knowledge. Dancer and dance are two names for the one figure, an act of culture, not of nature, which comes to intelligibility in the form of appreciation. That, too, is part of our creative power.
Denis Donoghue is university emeritus and Henry James professor of English and American letters at New York University
| Grant me an old man’s Frenzy,|
My self must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call.
The unnecessary “that” imports a feeling of affectation, and the same tendency is present in all but Yeats’s best passages. One is seldom long away from a suspicion of “quaintness”, something that links up not only with the ‘nineties, the Ivory Tower and the “calf covers of pissed-on green”, but also with Rackham’s drawings, Liberty art-fabrics and the Peter Pan never-never land, of which, after all, The Happy Townland is merely a more appetising example. This does not matter, because, on the whole, Yeats gets away with it, and if his straining after effect is often irritating, it can also produce phrases (“the chill, footless years”, “the mackerel-crowded seas”) which suddenly overwhelm one like a girl’s face seen across a room. He is an exception to the rule that poets do not use poetical language:
| How many centuries spent|
The sedentary soul
In toils of measurement
Beyond eagle or mole,
Beyond hearing or seeing,
Or Archimedes’ guess,
To raise into being
Here he does not flinch from a squashy vulgar word like “loveliness” and after all it does not seriously spoil this wonderful passage. But the same tendencies, together with a sort of raggedness which is no doubt intentional, weaken his epigrams and polemical poems. For instance (I am quoting from memory) the epigram against the critics who damned The Playboy of the Western World:
| Once when midnight smote the air|
Eunuchs ran through Hell and met
On every crowded street to stare
Upon great Juan riding by;
Even like these to rail and sweat,
Staring upon his sinewy thigh.
The power which Yeats has within himself gives him the analogy ready made and produces the tremendous scorn of the last line, but even in this short poem there are six or seven unnecessary words. It would probably have been deadlier if it had been neater.
Mr Menon’s book is incidentally a short biography of Yeats, but he is above all interested in Yeats’s philosophical “system”, which in his opinion supplies the subject-matter of more of Yeats’s poems than is generally recognised. This system is set forth fragmentarily in various places, and at full length in A Vision, a privately printed book which I have never read but which Mr Menon quotes from extensively. Yeats gave conflicting accounts of its origin, and Mr Menon hints pretty broadly that the “documents” on which it was ostensibly founded were imaginary. Yeats’s philosophical system, says Mr Menon, “was at the back of his intellectual life almost from the beginning. His poetry is full of it. Without it his later poetry becomes almost completely unintelligible.” As soon as we begin to read about the so-called system we are in the middle of a hocus-pocus of Great Wheels, gyres, cycles of the moon, reincarnation, disembodied spirits, astrology and what not. Yeats hedges as to the literalness with which he believed in all this, but he certainly dabbled in spiritualism and astrology, and in earlier life had made experiments in alchemy. Although almost buried under explanations, very difficult to understand, about the phases of the moon, the central idea of his philosophical system seems to be our old friend, the cyclical universe, in which everything happens over and over again. One has not, perhaps, the right to laugh at Yeats for his mystical beliefs—for I believe it could be shown that some degree of belief in magic is almost universal—but neither ought one to write such things off as mere unimportant eccentricities. It is Mr Menon’s perception of this that gives his book its deepest interest. “In the first flush of admiration and enthusiasm,” he says, “most people dismissed the fantastical philosophy as the price we have to pay for a great and curious intellect. One did not quite realise where he was heading. And those who did, like Pound and perhaps Eliot, approved the stand that he finally took. The first reaction to this did not come, as one might have expected, from the politically-minded young English poets. They were puzzled because a less rigid or artificial system than that of A Vision might not have produced the great poetry of Yeats’s last days.” It might not, and yet Yeats’s philosophy has some very sinister implications, as Mr Menon points out.
Translated into political terms, Yeats’s tendency is Fascist. Throughout most of his life, and long before Fascism was ever heard of, he had had the outlook of those who reach Fascism by the aristocratic route. He is a great hater of democracy, of the modern world, science, machinery, the concept of progress—above all, of the idea of human equality. Much of the imagery of his work is feudal, and it is clear that he was not altogether free from ordinary snobbishness. Later these tendencies took clearer shape and led him to “the exultant acceptance of authoritarianism as the only solution. Even violence and tyranny are not necessarily evil because the people, knowing not evil and good, would become perfectly acquiescent to tyranny. . . . Everything must come from the top. Nothing can come from the masses.” Not much interested in politics, and no doubt disgusted by his brief incursions into public life, Yeats nevertheless makes political pronouncements. He is too big a man to share the illusions of Liberalism, and as early as 1920 he foretells in a justly famous passage (“The Second Coming”) the kind of world that we have actually moved into. But he appears to welcome the coming age, which is to be “hierarchical, masculine, harsh, surgical”, and is influenced both by Ezra Pound and by various Italian Fascist writers. He describes the new civilisation which he hopes and believes will arrive: “an aristocratic civilisation in its most completed form, every detail of life hierarchical, every great man’s door crowded at dawn by petitioners, great wealth everywhere in a few men’s hands, all dependent upon a few, up to the Emperor himself, who is a God dependent on a greater God, and everywhere, in Court, in the family, an inequality made law.” The innocence of this statement is as interesting as its snobbishness. To begin with, in a single phrase, “great wealth in a few men’s hands”, Yeats lays bare the central reality of Fascism, which the whole of its propaganda is designed to cover up. The merely political Fascist claims always to be fighting for justice: Yeats, the poet, sees at a glance that Fascism means injustice, and acclaims it for that very reason. But at the same time he fails to see that the new authoritarian civilisation, if it arrives, will not be aristocratic, or what he means by aristocratic. It will not be ruled by noblemen with Van Dyck faces, but by anonymous millionaires, shiny-bottomed bureaucrats and murdering gangsters. Others who have made the same mistake have afterwards changed their views and one ought not to assume that Yeats, if he had lived longer, would necessarily have followed his friend Pound, even in sympathy. But the tendency of the passage I have quoted above is obvious, and its complete throwing overboard of whatever good the past two thousand years have achieved is a disquieting symptom.
How do Yeat’s political ideas link up with his leaning towards occultism? It is not clear at first glance why hatred of democracy and a tendency to believe in crystal-gazing should go together. Mr Menon only discusses this rather shortly, but it is possible to make two guesses. To begin with, the theory that civilisation moves in recurring cycles is one way out for people who hate the concept of human equality. If it is true that “all this”, or something like it, “has happened before”, then science and the modern world are debunked at one stroke and progress becomes for ever impossible. It does not much matter if the lower orders are getting above themselves, for, after all, we shall soon be returning to an age of tyranny. Yeats is by no means alone in this outlook. If the universe is moving round on a wheel, the future must be foreseeable, perhaps even in some detail. It is merely a question of discovering the laws of its motion, as the early astronomers discovered the solar year. Believe that, and it becomes difficult not to believe in astrology or some similar system. A year before the war, examining a copy of Gringoire, the French Fascist weekly, much read by army officers, I found in it no less than thirty-eight advertisements of clairvoyants. Secondly, the very concept of occultism carries with it the idea that knowledge must be a secret thing, limited to a small circle of initiates. But the same idea is integral to Fascism. Those who dread the prospect of universal suffrage, popular education, freedom of thought, emancipation of women, will start off with a predilection towards secret cults. There is another link between Fascism and magic in the profound hostility of both to the Christian ethical code.
No doubt Yeats wavered in his beliefs and held at different times many different opinions, some enlightened, some not. Mr Menon repeats for him Eliot’s claim that he had the longest period of development of any poet who has ever lived. But there is one thing that seems constant, at least in all of his work that I can remember, and that is his hatred of modern western civilisation and desire to return to the Bronze Age, or perhaps to the Middle Ages. Like all such thinkers, he tends to write in praise of ignorance. The Fool in his remarkable play, The Hour-Glass, is a Chestertonian figure, “God’s fool”, the “natural born innocent”, who is always wiser than the wise man. The philosopher in the play dies on the knowledge that all his lifetime of thought has been wasted (I am quoting from memory again):
| The stream of the world has changed its course,|
And with the stream my thoughts have run
Into some cloudly, thunderous spring
That is its mountain-source;
Ay, to a frenzy of the mind,
That all that we have done’s undone
Our speculation but as the wind.
Beautiful words, but by implication profoundly obscurantist and reactionary; for if it is really true that a village idiot, as such, is wiser than a philosopher, then it would be better if the alphabet had never been invented. Of course, all praise of the past is partly sentimental, because we do not live in the past. The poor do not praise poverty. Before you can despise the machine, the machine must set you free from brute labour. But that is not to say that Yeats’s yearning for a more primitive and more hierarchical age was not sincere. How much of all this is traceable to mere snobbishness, product of Yeats’s own position as an impoverished offshoot of the aristocracy, is a different question. And the connection between his obscurantist opinions and his tendency towards “quaintness” of language remains to be worked out; Mr Menon hardly touches upon it.
This is a very short book, and I would greatly like to see Mr Menon go ahead and write another book on Yeats, starting where this one leaves off. “If the greatest poet of our times is exultantly ringing in an era of Fascism, it seems a somewhat disturbing symptom,” he says on the last page, and leaves it at that. It is a disturbing symptom, because it is not an isolated one. By and large the best writers of our time have been reactionary in tendency, and though Fascism does not offer any real return to the past, those who yearn for the past will accept Fascism sooner than its probable alternatives. But there are other lines of approach, as we have seen during the past two or three years. The relationship between Fascism and the literary intelligentsia badly needs investigating, and Yeats might well be the starting-point. He is best studied by someone like Mr Menon, who can approach a poet primarily as a poet, but who also knows that a writer’s political and religious beliefs are not excrescences to be laughed away, but something that will leave their mark even on the smallest detail of his work.
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