William Butler Yeats
By Louise Bogan
William Butler Yeats, at the age of seventy-three, stands well within the company of the great poets. He is still writing, and the poems which now appear, usually embedded in short plays or set into the commentary and prefaces which have been another preoccupation of his later years, are, in many instances, as vigorous and as subtle as the poems written by him during the years ordinarily considered to be the period of a poet's maturity. Yeats has advanced into age with his art strengthened by a long battle which had as its object a literature written by Irishmen fit to take its place among the noble literatures of the world. The spectacle of a poet's work invigorated by his lifelong struggle against the artistic inertia of his nation is one that would shed strong light into any era.
The phenomenon of a poet who enjoys continued development into the beginning of old age is in itself rare. Goethe, Sophocles, and, in a lesser degree, Milton come to mind as men whose last works burned with the gathered fuel of their lives. More often development, in a poet, comes to a full stop; and it is frequently a negation of the ideals of his youth, as well as a declination of his powers, that throws a shadow across his final pages.
Yeats in his middle years began to concern himself with the problem of the poet in age. He wrote in 1917, when he was fifty-two:
A poet when he is growing old, will ask himself if he cannot keep his mask and his vision, without new bitterness, new disappointment.... Could he if he would, copy Landor who lived loving and hating, ridiculous and unconquered, into extreme old age, all lost but the favor of his muses.... Surely, he may think, now that I have found vision and mask I need not suffer any longer. Then he will remember Wordsworth, withering into eighty years, honoured and empty-witted, and climb to some waste room, and find, forgotten there by youth, some bitter crust.
We can trace, in Yeats, the continually enriched and undeviating course of an inspired man, from earliest youth to age. We can trace the rectitude of the spiritual line in his prose and poetry alike. And there is not a great deal of difference between the "lank, long-coated figure . . . who came and went as he pleased," dramatizing himself and his dreams in the streets of Dublin (the youth who had known William Morris and was to know Dowson and Wilde), and the man who, full of honors in our day, impresses us with his detachment and subtle modernity. Yeats, the fiery young Nationalist, rolling up with his own hands, the red carpet spread on a Dublin sidewalk "by some elderly Nationalist softened or weakened by time, to welcome Viceroyalty," is recognizable in the poet of advanced years who does not hesitate to satirize certain leaders of the new Ireland.
Yeats's faith in the development of his own powers has never failed. He wrote, in 1923, after receiving from the King of Sweden the medal symbolizing the Nobel Prize:—
It shows a young man listening to a Muse, who stands young and beautiful with a great lyre in her hand, and I think as I examine it, "I was good-looking once like that young man, but my unpractised verse was full of infirmity, my Muse old as it were, and now I am old and rheumatic and nothing to look at, but my Muse is young." I am even persuaded that she is like those Angels in Swedenborg's vision, and moves perpetually "towards the dayspring of her youth."
Irish literary and dramatic movement, in general belief, rose, late in the nineteenth century, in some vague manner from the temperament of the Irish people. As a matter of fact, Ireland in Yeats's young manhood was as ungrateful a soil for art as any that could be found, in a particularly materialistic time. The native Celtic genius that Arnold had felt to be so open to the influence of "natural magic" had been, for over a century, drawn off into politics. The Anglo-Irish tradition, having produced in the eighteenth century Swift, Congreve, Edgeworth, Goldsmith, Berkeley, and Burke, flowered no more.
The Land Agitation (the struggle of the peasantry against their landlords) and the Young Ireland and Fenian Movements (the struggle of the Irish people against English rule) from the '40s on had absorbed the energies and the eloquence of talented young Irishmen. Irish writers, as Stephen Gwynn has said, having been taught by Swift that written English could be used as a weapon against their oppressors, never forgot their lesson. The Catholic Emancipation Bill, by the efforts of Daniel O'Connell, was passed in 1829. In 1842 the Young Ireland Movement was given a newspaper by Thomas Davis: the Nation, whose motto was "to create and foster public opinion in Ireland and make it racy of the soil." The Nation fostered, as well, a school of Irish poets. Their audience was eager for stirring and heartening words; the verse which spoke to it most clearly was the rhetorical and sentimental ballad, celebrating the Irish race and inciting it to action and solidarity. This verse, when it was not written in the sentimental and insipid vein made famous by Tom Moore, was filled, as has been pointed out, with the hortatory gusto of Lord Macaulay. Versifiers used its forms with skill, and one or two—Clarence Mangan and Sir Samuel Ferguson—touched them with real color and depth of feeling. But there is no doubt that Irish literature, in the years between 1848 and 1891, had fallen upon barren times.
The year 1891 brought Parnell's death. The tragic end of a leader intensely hated and loved, and the loss of much political hope thereby, threw the national consciousness violently back on itself. Yeats has described the situation (he was twenty-six at the time). "Nationalist Ireland was torn with every kind of passion and prejudice, wanting so far as it wanted any literature at all, Nationalist propaganda disguised as literature. All the past had been turned into a melodrama with Ireland the blameless hero, and poet, novelist and historian had but one object, to hiss the villain, and only the minority doubted the greater the talent the greater the hiss. It was all the harder to substitute for that melodrama a nobler form of art, because there had been, however different in their form, villain and victim."
At the breakup of the Catholic State in the wars of the seventeenth century "Irish laws and customs, the whole framework of the Gaelic civilization, had been annihilated. Music, literature, and classical learning, loved by even the poorest of the Irish, had been driven into hiding, with only 'hedge-schoolmasters' and wandering bards to keep them from oblivion." During the years when the Nation was coming to be the literary force behind Irish Nationalism, traditional Gaelic survived in the minds of Gaelic-speaking peasants. Elsewhere it had disappeared, and from these minds and memories it was rapidly fading. After generations of poverty and oppression, the orally transmitted songs and histories had become fragmentary. Few educated Irishmen knew them, since no educated Irishman knew Gaelic. The Irish language was forbidden in the national schools, and the sons of Anglo-Irish landlords and rectors who passed through Trinity College in Dublin learned English culture and English literature. Standish James O'Grady had published his Bardic History in 1880, but, since O'Grady was a champion of the aristocracy, the book made little impression on the partisan-minded country as a whole. When, in 1894, an Irish landlord with literary ambitions, Edward Martyn, said to another of the same class, George Moore, "I wish I knew enough Irish to write my plays in Irish," Moore replied, "I thought nobody did anything in Irish but bring turf from the bog and say prayers." And Yeats has testified in an essay on the Irish Dramatic Movement: "When we began our work we tried to get a play in Gaelic. We could not even get a condensed version of the dialogue of Oisin and St. Patrick."
Where so much of the spirit of art had to be revivified, so many of its forms repaired, and so tight a mould of fanaticism broken, a man was needed who had in himself some of the qualities of the fanatic—a man who was, above all else, an artist, capable of making an occasional compromise with a human being, but incapable of making one with the informing essence of his art. New light and air had to be let into the closed minds and imaginations of a people made suspicious and hysterically provincial through persecution and disaster. It was impossible to weld the opinions of factions, but all could be drawn into "one net of feeling." A man of sensibility, however, was not enough. Not only insight and imagination, but ruthlessness, fervor, disinterestedness, and a capacity for decision and action, were required.
William Butler Yeats first appears, in the memories of his contemporaries, as a rarefied human being: a tall, dark-visaged young man who walked the streets of Dublin and London in a poetic hat, cloak, and flowing tie, intoning verses. The young man's more solid qualities were not then apparent to the casual observer. But it was during these early years that Yeats was building himself, step by step, into a person who could not only cope with reality but bend it to his will. He tells, in one of his autobiographies, of his determination to overcome his young diffidence. Realizing that he was "only self-possessed with people he knew intimately," he would go to a strange house "for a wretched hour for schooling's sake." And because he wished "to be able to play with hostile minds" he trained out of himself, in the midst of harsh discussion, the sensitive tendency "to become silent at rudeness."
The result of this training began to be apparent before Yeats was thirty. George Moore has recorded how, on meeting him in London (having been badly impressed by his "excessive" getup at a casual meeting some years before), he thought to worst Yeats easily in argument. The real metal of his opponent soon came into view. "Yeats parried a blow on which I had counted, and he did this so quickly and with so much ease that he threw me on the defensive in a moment. 'A dialectician,' I muttered, 'of the very first order'; one of a different kind from any I had met before."
This intellectual energy, this "whirling" yet deeply intuitive and ordered mind, with its balancing streak of common sense, had come to Yeats through a mixed inheritance. The Yeats blood, perhaps Norman, had been Anglo-Irish for centuries, and it is notorious that English families transplanted to Ireland often become more Irish than the native stock. Yeats's paternal grandfather and great-grandfather had been Protestant rectors, in County Down and County Sligo respectively, and there had been eighteenth-century soldiers and government officials on this side of the family. Yeats's mother was a Pollexfen; her stock was Cornish—that is to say, English-Celtic. Her father, William Pollexfen, a lonely strong man whom Yeats as a child loved and feared ("I wonder if the delight in passionate men in my plays and poetry is more than his memory"), had settled in Sligo as a shipowner, after a career as master of ships. Yeats spent several of his childhood years and many of his adolescent summers near the town of Sligo, and from that Western countryside, so full of the beauties of lake, mountain, and sea, and from its people, who still had Gaelic in their speech and legends in their memory, he drew the material of his early poetry.
Yeats has told of the deep emotional reserves in his Sligo-born mother, "whose actions were unreasoning and habitual like the seasons." From his father, John Butler Yeats, a man of original mind who had been trained in the law but turned to painting and to the pre-Raphaelite enthusiasms current in the '70s and '80s, Yeats early heard that "intensity was important above all things." The father's passion for Blake, Morris, and Rossetti soon was shared by the son. Yeats had some English schooling; he later was an art student in Dublin. During this period he became a Nationalist. The elder Yeats had friends among Unionists and Nationalists alike, and, well acquainted with the liberal English thought of his time, enthusiastically espoused the cause of Home Rule. His son's Nationalism was both intellectual and emotional. He became the friend of John O'Leary, an old Fenian who had returned to Dublin after imprisonment and exile for youthful conspiracies; and Maude Gonne, a great beauty and successful agitator, was also an influence helping to channel his youthful ardor toward the more heroic and mystic side of the Nationalist movement. In both of these people Yeats felt imaginative and courageous character which transcended political bigotry and dogma. At no time, from the beginning of his career onward, did he for a moment yield to the hard letter of Irish politics. It was the spirit in those politics he wished to strengthen and make serviceable. His ends, and the means to bring about his ends, were always clear in his mind. "We cannot move the peasants and the educated classes in Ireland by writing about politics or about Gaelic, but we may move them by becoming men of letters and expressing primary truths in ways appropriate to this country."
His art was poetry, and, almost from the first, he used that art as a tool, his avowed purpose being to rid the literature of his country from the insincere, provincial, and hampering forms of "the election rhyme and the pamphlet."
The music of Yeats's early poetic efforts was in part derived from Morris and Shelley. The earliest poems, published in the Dublin University Review in 1886, paid youth's tribute to romantic subjects and foreign landscape: Spain, India, Arcadia. The poems in The Wanderings of Oisin, published in 1889, celebrated Irish landscape as well. Actual Sligo place names appeared in them, and, along with imaginary words put into mouths of legendary Irish figures, Yeats had built poems on the single line of a song, or around a few words heard from peasants. Sligo continued to be the home of his imagination during the next ten years, when he was much away from Ireland, working as a journalist in London. His best-known early poem, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," came to his mind in a London street, and expressed his homesick memory of an islet in Lough Gill, a lake near the town of Sligo.
In England he not only was drawn into the end-of-the-century literary movement, but played an active part in shaping it. With Ernest Rhys he founded, in London, the Rhymers Club, to which Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, and Arthur Symons belonged. He knew Wilde and was published by W. E. Henley in the National Observer. Yeats went to Paris in 1894, at a time when Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Axel was exerting its power over the young for the first time. This poem, "the swan song of romanticism," a mixture of Gothic gloom, Rosicrucian occultism, and Symbolist poetry, was to influence more than one generation of young writers. "Axel or its theme," Yeats wrote thirty years later, "filled the minds of my Paris friends. I was in the midst of one of those artistic movements that have the intensity of religious revivals in Wales and are such a temptation to the artist in his solitude. I have in front of me an article which I wrote at that time, and I find sentence after sentence of revivalist thoughts that leave me a little ashamed." Contact with such enthusiasm, however, did much to confirm Yeats's own belief in the importance of standing out for l'art pour l'art. He had been exposed, at exactly the proper moment in his young career, to literary excitement heightened into a kind of religious fervor. He brought back seeds of this stimulation to Ireland: to a soil which had lain fallow for a long time.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, an interest in Gaelic was growing. Douglas Hyde, a brilliant student at Trinity in Dublin, had learned Gaelic and had begun to translate Gaelic songs and legendary material into the beautiful Tudor English still spoken in the West. Gaelic idiom had been brought over into this speech, and Yeats immediately recognized the language, English yet un-English, in which he wished to write. His poetry soon took to itself not only Gaelic effects of alliteration and assonance, but Gaelic effects of rhythm: that "gapped music" so delicate that it seems to come from the rise and fall of intonation in the Irish voice.
Many Irish people, particularly the young (as Joyce has testified), were haunted by the harp-like fluidity of these songs, and imaginatively stirred by the traditional symbols, the heroic Druid figures Yeats revived. But political societies and the press turned against his aesthetic purposes. The poems in The Wind among the Reeds (1899) were termed "affected," "un-Irish," "esoteric," "pagan," and "heretical." Yeats in later years was to admit a "facile charm, a too soft simplicity," in his early work. He soon began to clear his style of its symbolic trappings, to make it austere, flexible, resonant—an instrument of great lyric and dramatic range. Had he clung to the early style, with its long swing, almost like incantation, its heavy imagery, he would have limited himself unduly. Coming when they did, however, these evocations of Celtic beauty, heroism, and strangeness wakened, as more severe music could not then waken, Ireland's ears to the sound of its own voice speaking its own music.
Yeats had the good fortune to form, in the late '90s, one of the most important friendships of his life. He met Lady Gregory when his need for a staying influence was crucial. He had not entirely escaped the results of the romantic violence let loose (more into their personal lives than into their poetry) by the poets of the decade, in their revolt against respectable bourgeois strictures. He has indicated the nature of his own crisis in Dramatis Personae. "When I went to Coole [Lady Gregory's estate in Galway] the curtain had fallen upon the first act of my drama. . . . I must have spent the summer of 1897 at Coole. I was involved in a miserable love-affair. . . . Romantic doctrine had reached its extreme development. . . . My nerves had been wrecked."
Lady Gregory, whom Yeats met through Arthur Symons and Edward Martyn (Martyn's demesne, Tillyra, adjoined Coole), was a woman of much cultivation and generosity of spirit. Yeats had lost the power to impose upon himself regular habits of work. Lady Gregory, who was later to write out the Irish legends in the simple speech of the peasants of her countryside, took him from cottage to cottage collecting folklore. Coole and its environs were to give the mature Yeats a background for his later work, as Sligo had given him a scene for his earlier. With his technical apprenticeship and his most excessive enthusiasms behind him, Yeats turned away from the middle-class culture of Dublin to the people of Galway farms and villages, "Folk is our refuge from vulgarity." Once he had regained "a tolerable industry," his grasp on reality was further strengthened by the struggle to found what was to become the Abbey Theatre. To this task he and Lady Gregory, with the help of Edward Martyn and George Moore, now applied themselves.
Yeats knew that nothing was read in Ireland but "prayer books, newspapers, and popular novels." He also knew that the Irish had been trained, by politics and the Church, to listen. They were a potential audience, in the primary sense of that word. He had already formed in Dublin the National Literary Society, with the intention of giving "opportunity to a new generation of critics and writers to denounce the propagandist verse and prose that had gone by the name of Irish literature." He now wanted a literary theater. He had written plays, but had no stage, unless it were the stage of small halls, where they could be presented.
Against him were ranged the entrenched powers of the commercial theatre, the Church, and the press, the last two informed with the special Irish fear of "humiliation" and misinterpretation, bred from Ireland's peculiar political situation. "But fight that rancor I must." He fought it for more than ten years, not only for the sake of his own plays, but for the plays of other Irish dramatists, particularly Synge. His own plays caused mild trouble. Synge's Playboy, presented in 1904, brought on a week of riots and emptied the Abbey Theatre for months. But Yeats held out, against an enraged Dublin and an intimidated company. By 1912 the public had learned how to listen to imaginative drama with appreciation, to satiric plays without resentment. The Irish Dramatic Movement had come through, at the cost of great energy and courage expended by its founders. Yeats then turned away from the "popular" theatre, and began to write plays which could be presented in a room by a few amateurs and musicians, plays which could carry his special music and dramatic formality with the least theatrical machinery.
"We should write out our thoughts," Yeats has said, "in as nearly as possible the language we thought them in, as though in a letter to an intimate friend." And again: "If I can be sincere and make my language natural, and without becoming discursive, like a novelist, and so indiscreet and prosaic, I shall, if good or bad luck make my life interesting, be a great poet; for it will no longer be a question of literature at all."
If we grant naturalness, sincerity, and vigor to Yeats's late style, we still have not approached its secret. Technical simplicity may produce, instead of effects of tension and power, effects of bleakness and poorness. What impresses us most strongly in Yeats's late work is that here a whole personality is involved. A complex temperament (capable of anger and harshness, us well as of tenderness), and a powerful intellect, come through; and every part of the nature is released, developed, and rounded in the later books. The early Yeats was, in many ways, a youth of his time: a romantic exile seeking, away from reality, the landscape of his dreams. By degrees—for the development took place over a long period of years—this partial personality was absorbed into a man whose power to act in the real world and endure the results of action (responsibility the romantic hesitates to assume) was immense. Yeats advanced into the world he once shunned, but in dealing with it he did not yield to its standards. That difficult balance, almost impossible to strike, between the artist's austerity and "the reveries of the common heart,"—between the proud passions, the proud intellect, and consuming action,—Yeats finally attained and held to. It is this balance which gives the poems written from (roughly) 1914 on (from Responsibilities, published in that year, to poems published at present) their noble resonance. "I have had to learn how hard is that purification from insincerity, vanity, malignance, arrogance, which is the discovery of style."
Technically, the later style is almost lacking in adverbs—built on the noun, verb, and adjective. Its structure is kept clear and level, so that emotionally weighted words, when they appear, stand out with poignant emphasis. The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) opens:—
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.
Equipped with this instrument, Yeats could put down, with full scorn, his irritation with the middle-class ideals he had hated from youth:—
What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this that Edward Fitzgerald died
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
On the other hand he could celebrate Irish salus, virtus, as in the poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," and in the fine elegies on the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rebellion.
And Yeats came to be expert at the dramatic presentation of thoughts concerning love, death, the transience and hidden meaning of all things, not only in the form of a philosopher's speculation, a mystic's speech, or a scholar's lonely brooding, but also (and this has come to be a major Yeatsian effect) in the cracked and rowdy measures of a fool's, an old man's, an old woman's song. The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1929) contain long meditations— some "in time of civil war"—upon his life, his times, his ancestors, his descendants; upon the friends and enemies of his youth.
The short plays, composed on the pattern of the Japanese No drama, which Ezra Pound had brought to Yeats's attention,—Four Plays for Dancers (1921), Wheels and Butterflies (1934), The King of the Great Clock Tower (1935),—Yeats made the vehicle for the loveliest of his later songs, for all his later development of pure music:—
Come to me, human faces,
Familiar memories; I have found hateful eyes
Among the desolate places,
Unfaltering, unmoistened eyes.
Folly alone I cherish
I choose it for my share,
Being but a mouthful of air I am content to perish.
I am but a mouthful of sweet air.
The opening song in the play Fighting the Waves illustrates the variety of stress, the subtlety of meaning, of which Yeats became a master:—
A woman's beauty is like a white
Frail bird, like a sea-bird alone
At day-break after a stormy night
Between two furrows of the ploughed land;
A sudden storm and it was thrown
Between dark furrows of the ploughed land.
How many centuries spent
The sedentary soul
In toil of measurement
Beyond eagle and mole,
Beyond hearing or seeing,
Or Archimedes' guess,
To raise into being
A strange unserviceable thing,
A fragile, exquisite pale shell,
That the vast troubled waters bring
To the loud sands before day has broken.
The storm arose and suddenly fell
Amid the dark before day has broken.
What death? what discipline?
What bonds no man could unbind,
Being imagined within
The labyrinth of the mind,
What pursuing or fleeing
What wounds, what bloody press
Dragged into being
From youth on, Yeats has thought to build a religion for himself. Early "bored with an Irish Protestant point of view that suggested, by its blank abstraction, chlorate of lime," he eagerly welcomed any teaching which attested supersensual experience, or gave him a background for those thoughts which came to him "from beyond the mind." "Yeats likes parlor magic," George Moore maliciously remarked, in the '90s. At that time, when religious belief and man's awe before natural mysteries were rapidly breaking up, the wreckage of the supernatural had been swept into mediums' shabby parlors and into the hands of quacks of all kinds. Many men of Yeats's generation took refuge in the Catholic Church. But Yeats kept to his own researches. He had experimented, when an adolescent, with telepathy and clairvoyance, in the company of his uncle, George Pollexfen, a student of the occult. He later studied the Christian Cabala and gradually built up, from his own findings and from the works of Blake, Swedenborg, and Boehme, his theories of visionary and spiritual truth. But he was never, as Edmund Wilson has pointed out, a gullible pupil. He invariably tried to verify phenomena. And to-day, when we know more than we once knew concerning the meaning of man-made symbols, the needs of the psyche, and the workings of the subconscious, Yeats's theories sound remarkably instructed and modernly relevant. His Anima Mundi closely resembles Jung's universal or racial unconscious, and even his conceptions of Image and Anti-Image, the Mask and its opposite, are closely related to psychological truth.
Of late years, after a lifetime spent at efforts to break up the deadening surface of middle-class complacency, Yeats has drawn nourishment from the thought of the relation of eighteenth-century Anglo Irish writers to their society. These men—Swift, Berkeley, Grattan—had behind them, he believes, a social structure capable of being an aid to works of imagination and intellect. The ideal of the artist built into his background, sustaining it and sustained by it, Yeats has termed "Unity of Being." He has striven all his life to give Ireland a sense of what such a society can be, and to make himself an artist worthy of the energy which built "the beautiful humane cities."
In age, he shows no impoverishment of spirit or weakening of intention. He answers current dogmatists with words edged with the same contempt for "the rigid world" of materialism that he used in youth. He is now content to throw out suggestions that are not, perhaps, for our age to complete, as it is not for our age fully to appreciate a man who reiterates: "If we have not the desire of artistic perfection for an art, the deluge of incoherence, vulgarity, and triviality will pass over our heads." But adherence to that creed, and that creed alone, has given us the greatest poet writing in English to-day, and Ireland the greatest it has ever known.
Move upon Newton's town,
The town of Hobbes and of Locke,
Pine, spruce, come down
Cliff, ravine, rock:
What can disturb the corn?
What makes it shudder and bend?
The rose brings her thorn,
The Absolute walks behind.