A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Poem of the Day: William Butler Yeats

Lapis lazuli carving given to Yeats by Henry Talbot De Vere ("Harry") Clifton
(For Harry Clifton)

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
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 mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
--William Butler Yeats





Oh, how glad I am that I don't have to teach this great poem today and deal with the elephant in the room: Gay. We know that Yeats didn't mean it in the currently dominant sense of the word. Well, not entirely. Even in his day, the word "gay" could be used in a sexual sense, meaning "licentious." In the Punch cartoon above, from 1857, the joke hinges on a recognition that the women are prostitutes, and obviously not very joyful ones. And there is perhaps a buried sense lurking even in Yeats's poem that artists are sexually loose, perhaps effeminate. But it's also likely that Yeats, who knew a lot of odds and ends of stuff, had in mind the Provençal gai saber, the "joyous wisdom" alluded to by Nietzsche in Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, a title that was first translated into English as The Joyous Wisdom but is now known by Walter Kaufmann's title, The Gay Science.

Yeats's late poems, of which this is one, are among the great artistic treasures given us by people in their later years, like Beethoven's late quartets, or Verdi's Otello, Falstaff and Requiem. We like to celebrate people who died young -- Byron, Shelley, Keats, Mozart -- but we should also be thankful for the ones who matured into wisdom and poured that wisdom into their art. It was a point I stressed in a review for the Mercury News of the second volume of R.F. Foster's magnificent biography of Yeats:


Was William Butler Yeats the last great poet to write in English? The last, that is, who could stand comfortably with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth and Keats?

Of the poets from the generations that followed Yeats (who was born in 1865), only a few -- perhaps T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens -- would even be considered for that pantheon, but they seem somehow frail and spidery in the company of Milton and Wordsworth. And as for contemporary poets, how many English or American poets under the age of 50 can you name?

It may be that the great age of poetry in English is over, and that 1939, the year in which Yeats died, can serve as the terminal date on its tombstone. So it seems appropriate to ask, when faced with the second volume of a 1,500-page biography of Yeats that has taken its author, R.F. Foster, 17 years to write: Is Yeats -- is any poet -- worth such an effort?

The first volume of Foster's biography was published in 1997. His second volume begins when Yeats was 50. Offhand, I can't think of any other writer whose greatest work was ahead of him at that age, but these were the years when Yeats produced such poems as ''The Second Coming,'' ''A Prayer for My Daughter,'' ''Leda and the Swan,'' ''The Tower,'' ''Sailing to Byzantium,'' ''Among School Children,'' ''Lapis Lazuli,'' ''Long-Legged Fly'' and -- in the last year of his life -- ''The Circus Animals' Desertion.''

He also married, fathered two children, served as a senator (a non-elective position) for the Irish Free State, continued his involvement with the Abbey Theatre, founded an Irish Academy of Letters, fought against censorship and for the separation of church and state, toured the United States, won the Nobel Prize and even took a leading role in designing the new Irish coinage.

And he indulged in several extramarital flings, had a vasectomy as part of a ''rejuvenation'' treatment, used a blue rinse on his whitening hair, flirted with fascism and grew more deeply involved with the occult, which resulted in his near-unreadable mystico-mythical theory of history, ''A Vision.'' There were times while reading Foster's fascinatingly detailed account of Yeats' life when I marveled that so much nonsense could coexist with so much wisdom. How did a man who could have been an obscure crank, devoted to astrology and communicating with spirit guides, become a great poet?

But it's to Foster's credit that he never stops to wrestle with such possibly unanswerable questions. Foster -- who is a professor of history at Oxford, not a literary biographer -- simply has a wonderful story to tell, and he tells it with a novelistic mastery, careful to put Yeats in his time and place and to delineate that time and place skillfully. As Foster told an interviewer for the Guardian, Yeats was ''not a loony misplaced southern Californian, but a quintessential Irish Protestant looking for his own kind of magic. As a Protestant, your relationship with the Irish land was extremely complicated and compromised.''

And it's Yeats' struggle to make sense of the complications and compromises that constitutes both the drama of his life and the essence of his poetry. Yeats once famously wrote, ''We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.'' But in fact he blurred that distinction more often than not, and the strength and sinew of much of his greatest verse comes from the tension between Yeats and his country, a readiness to quarrel with those whose vision of Ireland differed from his. And some of his best earlier verse had come out of the lovers' quarrels with the beautiful revolutionary Maud Gonne.

By the time this second volume opens, Gonne was separated from her husband, John MacBride, and was living in France. For his participation in the Easter Rebellion of 1916, MacBride was executed, earning his place in Yeats' ambivalent tribute to the rebels, ''Easter 1916,'' as the ''man I had dreamed/A drunken, vain-glorious lout'' who ''had done most bitter wrong/To some who are near my heart'' but had been ''Transformed utterly'' by his participation in the rebellion.

MacBride's death opened the way for Yeats to make yet another play for Gonne. Thwarted once again, he turned his attentions to her 22-year-old daughter, Iseult. Rebuffed by her, he married 24-year-old Georgie Hyde Lees, whose fascination with the occult matched his own. The marriage didn't begin well -- the groom had a psychosomatic breakdown, perhaps not unexpected from a 52-year-old man getting married for the first time, and to a woman less than half his age.

But George -- as she came to be known after Ezra Pound started calling her that -- had a special talent that cemented the marriage: She was adept at ''automatic writing,'' serving as a conduit to the spirit world with which her husband was so eager to communicate. Foster gives us a droll, sly account of the way George manipulated Yeats with the messages she related from the spirits -- she even managed their sex life, and carefully steered him away from his obsession with Maud and Iseult.

Given that Yeats was capable -- as his poetry often demonstrates -- of good sense, I sometimes wonder if his apparent credulity was not in part a pose. A game, after all, is more fun if you pretend that it's real. But Foster also helps us keep in mind that Yeats' pursuit of the esoteric was a way of looking for certainties in a world that seemed more terrible with each year -- the World War, the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of fascism and Nazism, and the outbreak of another World War whose inevitability was apparent in the last months of his life. And always in the foreground there was the violent struggle of his own country for independence.

Yeats may have dabbled in fog-brained mysticism and been tempted by narrow-minded politics, but he neither charged into the one nor retreated into the other. A distaste for democracy betrayed him into an early admiration of Mussolini, and of the Blueshirts in his own country, but while Foster finds Yeats ''elitist and oligarchic,'' he's inclined to downplay Yeats' enthusiasm for fascism. Unlike many of his contemporaries, including Gonne, he never expressed anti-Semitic views, and his friendship with Pound was strained by Pound's increasing fanaticism.

Which is not to say that Yeats would pass even one of our more lenient tests for political correctness, but rather that he lived in uncertain times and reacted to them without the benefit of our hindsight. And more to the point, he managed in his poetry to find a central humanity unfettered by ideology. This is what makes it possible for generation after generation to return to a poem like ''The Second Coming'' and find truth in lines so often quoted that they come to us unbidden: ''The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.''

''The Second Coming'' is larded with esoteric references to ''Spiritus Mundi'' and underpinned by his cyclical theory of history, and it was written in the aftermath of World War I, when the ''blood-dimmed tide'' of revolution had been loosed into his own country. But these are just the specifics that underlie the universal in the poem, as the specifics of Yeats' literary career underlie the universality of aging in ''The Circus Animals' Desertion.''

The brilliant achievement of Foster's biography is that it acquaints us intimately with the specifics, and thereby brings home more clearly how invaluable Yeats' poetry is. No one, I submit, except possibly Shakespeare in ''King Lear,'' has written more powerfully and persuasively on aging than Yeats did in ''The Circus Animals' Desertion.'' To read it, and the other poems that Foster cites in his biography, is to be reminded that poetry does some things that can't be done by the dominant literary genre of our day, the novel, or the dominant media -- film, television, popular music.

In ''Coole Park and Ballylee,'' memorializing his patron, collaborator and friend Lady Augusta Gregory, Yeats wrote:

We were the last romantics, chose for theme
Traditional sanctity and loveliness,
All that is written in what poets name
The book of the people, whatever most can bless
The mind of man or elevate a rhyme;
But fashion's changed. . . .

When they're read today, these lines could be an epitaph for poetry itself.


W.B. YEATS: A Life, Vol. II -- The Arch-Poet
By R.F. Foster
Oxford University Press