Richard J. Finneran’s revised edition of the poems of W. B. Yeats is the first volume of a fourteen-volume series that will include Yeats’s plays, essays, and autobiographies. It could not have appeared at a better time. Fifty is a dangerous age for a dead man’s reputation. The fame of a lifetime has had time to fade, and the echoes are more likely to give an impression of distance than of the enthusiasm which first gave rise to it. The weakening of the echoes is progressive. In 1942, three years after Yeats’s death, Allen Tate could still speak of “a poetry which . .. is nearer the center of our main traditions of sensibility and thought than the poetry of Eliot and Pound.” I suppose that was a bold thought for the time, from a man of an age to have received the first impact not only of Yeats’s later work but of the main oeuvre of Pound and Eliot. At the same time Tate delivered himself of a grim foreboding: “the study of Yeats in the coming generation is likely to overdo the scholarly procedure, and the result will be the occultation of [the] poetry.” It could be argued that he was right about the scholarly procedures. Was he also right about the occultation? Or, as Eliot and Pound themselves hurry into the past, does their work seem in no less danger of losing touch with the “sensibility and thought” of the immediate future?
Yeats was born in 1865, the year in which the American Civil War ended and in which Swinburne, still only in his late twenties, published Atalanta in Calydon. Those events smell of a past already remote when, in 1936, Yeats said in the introduction to his Oxford Book of Modern Verse, “I have tried to be modern"—a claim to which the contents of that muddled volume gave, even then, a certain pathos. He was, after all, an older contemporary of William Vaughn Moody and of Edwin Arlington Robinson, and had outlived them both. A septuagenarian, however brilliant a performer he has been or still is, is not the best person to edit an anthology designed to give a view of the preceding three decades. It would be absurd to judge Yeats’s “modernity” in terms of his work as an anthologist; in the New Poems, published by the Cuala Press in 1938 and reproduced in the posthumous Last Poems (1940), he still spoke with authority. It is on the “later Yeats” as a whole (however you reckon that period) that any claim to count the poet with Eliot and Pound as a “modern” must rest. However that may be, those three are the three major poets of the English language in the first half of the twentieth century—two Americans, one Irishman. No Englishman: Hardy, born in 1840, can hardly be considered of the period.
The perspective of Eliot and Pound on Yeats suggests that they felt the gap between the generation of the 1880s, to which they belonged, and that of the 1860s, which was Yeats’s. Eliot summed up his attitude in 1934 with the remark that “Yeats has arrived at greatness against the greatest odds,” and illustrated what he meant by citing, as the terminus ad quem the older poet had arrived, lines from The Winding Stair.
Things said or done long years ago, Or things I did not do or say But thought that I might say or do, Weigh me down, and not a day But something is recalled, My conscience or my vanity appalled.
Eliot’s criticism implies a sense of Yeats’s long haul from his early romanticism. Pound’s relations with Yeats were more complicated. From the other side of the Atlantic he recognized the older poet as the one technical master then at large in London. When he arrived he found that there were two, the other being Ford Madox Hueffer, and it was the latter, certainly, who taught him more about the undesirability of “cream puffs.” Later there came a time when Yeats was learning from Pound, an unusual reversal of roles between the generations. In the intervening period (in 1918) Pound could write to Margaret C. Anderson as if Yeats had failed him: “And I desire also to resurrect the art of the lyric, I mean words to be sung, for Yeats’s only wail and submit to keening and chaunting (with a u).” Pound was right to see that Yeats’s was a cloudy and impure music as compared with that of Waller or Campion.
The uneasiness the generation of the 18 80s felt about Yeats is well illustrated, one might almost say summed up, in the notice Wyndham Lewis wrote for New Verse on the occasion of Yeats’s death. Lewis had felt reluctant to write, but Yeats had spoken up for Childermass and no doubt he felt under a moral constraint. “It has the appearance of hitting a man when he is down to jump in and say anything short of praise in such a case,” he said, and praise he did: “The writing of a faultless lyric is such an achievement that I could leave it at that. But everyone knows that he has written a few lyrics of consummate beauty.” He concluded:
Yeats has given me a sort of kick: a kind of soft, dreamy kick. I am obliged to him. I am certain he will live. He will live to give many as yet unborn a kick like the kick he gave me. An authentic kick. I am for this particular ghost. And this will, I believe, be a unanimous verdict.
It is as if the “later Yeats” had not got through to him, or had not been believed. That is the attitude of a generation, more or less, and leaves Eliot’s diagnosis as the best that, in the end, they could say for him.
New Verse itself, which represented Auden and his generation, was no more sympathetic, and was more strident. The editorial note introducing Lewis’s obituary began with “The poeticising period is over” and went on to deride a tribute the then poet laureate (John Masefield) had paid to the great poet. That functionary had remarked that “the most poetical figure of this time has passed from us.” The editorial comment on this judgment was sharp; it was “an ambiguity, which is in one sense more true no doubt than it was intended to be. We have probably been exaggerating the value of Yeats.” Clearly, nothing was to stand in the way of the seizure of power by those whose voices had broken more recently.
This was the atmosphere in which I came to my first serious reading of Yeats. I put it like that because I had, of course, already come across the pieces then most anthologized, such as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and, as a boy absorbed by Keats and even by Rossetti, I must have read them with delectation. But at the age of seventeen I had encountered the work of Eliot, and shortly afterward that of Pound, and all that had immediately preceded them was swept away. It was only after this radical re-education, and indeed after indoctrination by New Verse, that I came to the Collected Poems of Yeats—well instructed enough, therefore, to know that I should start reading from The Winding Stair and The Tower. I looked once or twice without effect, and then the magic began. However fashionable my theoretical literary dogmatisms may have been at the time, the poems worked. The clarity and the emphasis of the language were such that the words went home to my memory, and what used to be called the heart, so that I have never since been able to return to Yeats without being threatened by a recrudescence—at times sharply resisted—of that early enthusiasm. The impressions of youth are indelible, and when I open the book now the words rise less from the page than from within me.
The poems—strangely, I now think—did not affect the adolescent verses I occasionally wrote at that period; the influences were those of Eliot, Pound, and finally Auden. It was their too evident presence that made me give up writing verse at the age of twenty. When, nearly nine years later and in circumstances determined by the war, I started again, and began intermittently writing my grown-up poems, literary influences were not what occupied my mind. The risk of fresh contemporary contagion had really disappeared by 1940, when I found myself regarding Eliot’s final phase with skepticism.
If I have given what may seem undue attention to the attitudes of generations dead or dying in what is supposed to be an essay on Yeats himself, it is because I am acutely conscious that, like the poet, the reader and the critic have their own subjectivities, and that these are nowhere more obstructive than when one is speaking of a poet whose life span overlaps one’s own. In this connection one should perhaps say something about the Irishness of Yeats since, if it has properly a relatively small part in the vast bulk of scholarship concerned with his work, it was of vast importance to him and can hardly have been irrelevant tot the currency of his poems among American readers.
It would have been an odd English reader, in the Thirties, who gave the matter much thought. The Celtic twilight had gone out, or flickered over the early poems merely to give a touch of local color. Nobody at that time cared what MacDonagh’s bony thumb had been doing in 1916, and the settlement of 1922 was completely indifferent, one might say, to the English public at large and certainly to the young. After all, the settlement was bland, as far as England was concerned, and its effects were simply invisible. The Irish came and went as they still do and as they had always done. A certain obtuseness on the part of the English has to be allowed for. In any case, the politics which raged among students in those days were hardly concerned with national matters, except in relation to Germany. What mattered about Yeats was the literary question of what one might call his possible modernity; he appeared to have left the Celtic twilight for something like the brilliant daylight we imagined we were living in. No attention was paid—and very little has been paid since—to the fact that Yeats’s early attachment to O’Leary had developed, by way of a liking for great Anglo-Irish houses and rather absurd claims for the intellect and for fine manners, to a contempt of the mob, and to the sort of fascist sympathies which led Pound to the wrong side in the war. O’Leary himself was of a different stamp. He had said in the 1890s:
I hold still . . . that all agitating movements, however inevitable and necessary they may be, are at best but a necessary evil, involving all forms of self-seeking and insincerity, accompanied with outrage and violence, and opening up the widest field for the exercise of that treachery and violence which lies latent in human nature.
It was not only “Romantic Ireland” that was “with O’Leary in the grave” but a certain moral lucidity. Yeats perhaps admired “ranting, roaring oppressors,” as Dorothy Wellesley said he did. Conor Cruise O’Brien, whose essay on Yeats’s politics is a remarkably well-informed guide to the subject, comments that, had Yeats survived, and had the war gone differently, “one would have expected to see him at least a cautious participant, or ornament, in a collaborationist regime.” O'Brien then concludes:
It is probably fortunate for his future reputation . . . that he died in January, 1939 before the political momentum of his last years could carry him any farther than On the Boiler [his last collection of essays].
Pound’s reputation has survived, if not altogether undamaged, from even less pardonable wrongheadedness, and certainly such considerations do not trouble me now. When I re-read Yeats, it is only from my own literary past that I fear obfuscation, because those first readings remain so vivid. Yet I find I am not tempted to make the sharp distinction between the early and the later Yeats which was so fashionable in my time. The whole oeuvre seems to flow from its roots like a tree. Crossways, the volume of 1889, contains elements, even habits of form, which were still with Yeats in the Thirties, and without which the chastened language of the later period would not have its full effect. Consider “The Stolen Child,” with its refrain:
Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Yeats’s later taste, and you might say the general change of fashion, would have removed the “faery.” The tone of his work had lost that dreaminess and become that of “the finished man among his enemies.” Yet not only the use of a refrain, but the singing line of the early poem, tightened and honed, is clearly recognizable in
“I am of Ireland, And the Holy Land of Ireland, And time runs on,” cried she. “Come out of charity, Come dance with me in Ireland.”
The later poem is more accomplished, certainly; it is the work of a more practiced hand, but it is the same hand. “The Stolen Child” has merits of a different kind. “Where flapping herons wake/The drowsy water-rats” is the work of someone who has seen a riverbank; one can imagine the young Pound finding a needed clarity there.
Yet the overwhelming impression of the early poems is of a dreaminess that has nothing to do with dreams but exhibits, rather, that relaxation of attention to the outside world which was one of the perils of nineteenth-century romanticism. The words for the most part are sanctioned by a preconceived notion of what is poetical, a different set of words from those which deadened so much of the poetry from the eighteenth century, but still a set. The author has not been touched by Browning or by Clough, who, each in his own way, had been able to write in a language much less affected; but his ability to handle “poetic” matter in his chosen “poetic” style marks him often as a possible, sometimes as an actual, master of his art. The verses are not only in “beautiful” language, they are beautifully managed, and the poems have an inner structure which few in any tradition have controlled so well. It may be that it is easier now for the young to appreciate this, to whom the poems must seem to come from a distant culture, than for the older generation for whom “Innisfree” or “When You Are Old” are so familiar that the ploys they use can hardly be encountered again without a smile. “The Powers whose name and shape no living creature knows” may seem tiresome, but there are moments when Yeats points in their direction with an unexpected vigor. In 1893 no reader—not the author himself—could guess where that vigor would lead.
Who will go drive with Fergus now, And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade, And dance upon the level shore? Young man, lift up your russet brow, And lift your tender eyelids, maid, And brood on hopes and fears no more. And no more turn aside and brood Upon love’s bitter mystery; For Fergus rules the brazen cars, And rules the shadows of the wood, And the white breast of the dim sea And all dishevelled wandering stars.
The “russet brows” and the “tender eyelids” do not impede the energetic movement of the verse, which is as sure as in the shorter lyrics of The Tower and The Winding Stair.
Of course, the dreamy young man of these earlier poems is a figure of fun, though no funnier, perhaps, than some literary figures of a later date, including some who now take themselves seriously while posing in a different fashion. In a note to the Collected Poems, Yeats, looking back at Crossways from a distance of some thirty-five years, and still not entirely seeing the joke, speaks of “the mystical painter Horton... writing... these words: ‘I met your beloved in Russell Square, and she was weeping,’ by which he meant that he had seen a vision of my neglected soul.” Yeats’s notes are printed in the present edition, and Finneran gives his own comments on this one:
Yeats is apparently recalling a letter of 6 May 1896. . . . Horton wrote of a “vision” he had had of Yeats that morning: “Yeats, naked and gaunt, with long black hair falling back over a face of a deathly whiteness, with eyes that flame but have within them depths of unutterable sadness. He is wearily going on his way following many lights that dance in front and at the side of him. Behind him follows with outstretched arms a lovely girl in long trailing white garments, weeping.”
A fine situation for a young man of thirty! one might say. Horton was certainly seeing something behind the poet’s dream mask, including a certain self-deception as to the nature of his “soul,” and it must be said that, even or especially in the most vigorous of his later poems, the attitudinizing remains, and one is never sure that he knows how much or how little of the truth he is telling.
What happened to Yeats, as he moved through many wonderful performances and much public praise into old age, was that he developed from the skillful use of a predesigned romantic language to a rhetoric the purpose of which seems to have been more to present himself as a striking figure than actually to persuade anyone. No use for him to say, as he did in mid-career, that the “hollow face” of Dante was a mask that the author of the Commedia had “fashioned from his opposite,” because with Dante it is not himself but what he presents that matters, and his figures are not, like Yeats’s “Dying Lady” or “Major Robert Gregory,” figures to impress the world but people whose time for impressing the world has passed. We are always on the edge of action with Yeats’s most impressive poems. One suspects that the will, if not indeed willfulness, entered into his compositions in a manner not usual with poets; the habit of “writing out first the substance of the verse on which he was working,” as F. R Higgins puts it, is perhaps an indication of this. Yeats sought and found an emphatic clarity of utterance, and the carpentry of his verse was unmatched in his time.
One might still think that the content was always that of a man too uncertain of himself to speak without a certain scheming deliberation. Perhaps this is a question which cannot be resolved except at a distance from the fripperies of the twentieth century. Patrick Kavanagh, forty years Yeats’s junior and the son of a small farmer in County Monaghan, saw Yeats’s Ireland as “essentially sentimental,” “a phoney Ireland . . . eminently suitable for export to America” which “falsified the picture of the country.” These things must have a diminishing importance as the past recedes. Meanwhile, the touch of hoax about Yeats’s performance has probably limited the depth of his influence on younger poets. Yet a man who did so much to “rid himself of elaboration, of redundancy” (Higgins again) cannot but be a profitable study for anyone with the capacity to learn how to write well. And if, after the liberties and confusions of the last fifty years, the problem of writing well-made stanzas is now different from the one which faced a poet emerging from the world of Tennyson and Swinburne, no writer of verse can fail to benefit from a familiarity with Yeats’s—in its kind—unsurpassed performance.
- The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume 1: The Poems, edited by Richard J. Finneran; Macmillan, 751. pages, $32.50. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 Number 10, on page 61
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