Parallel to his life’s work as a lyric poet, William Butler Yeats was active on several tracks. Though he was born into the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, he organized opposition to the British presence in Ireland and played a central role in helping define Irish national identity while the island was struggling to liberate itself from British influence and control. He worked tirelessly to establish an Irish theater, and he had an eye for the visual arts. He dabbled in spiritualism and the occult. His Autobiographies, collected and published in 1935, give insight into Yeats both as a poet and in these other roles.
Yeats managed to transform himself from the rather fey poet of the Celtic Twilight, where “midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,” into a master both powerful and plain-spoken while at the same time majestically lyrical. Here is a stanza from his late twenties, lines most readers of poetry know:
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.
This is beautiful, and there should always be poems for young lovers to recite to their sweethearts. But as Yeats aged he adopted a more mature poetic vehicle, one that could bear the full weight of history, psychology, and metaphysics in a world he saw as increasingly violent and tragic. Listen to the noble, impassioned music of this stanza from “Byzantium,” published when he was almost sixty:
The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and mire of human veins.
Students of his writing will know that the dark of the moon (“starlit”) and the full moon (“moonlit”) have specific meanings in Yeats’s worldview as expressed in his 1925 book, A Vision, which lays out a schematic explanation of human personality types and historical periods organized around a “great wheel” aligned with the phases of the moon. The gyres found elsewhere in his poetry are visual representations of historical trends. Happily, his images work perfectly well in the poems without requiring an understanding of Yeats’s elaborate theories.
Comparing the two poems quoted above, it is clear that even as Yeats matured he did not retreat from high rhetoric and the grand gesture, just as Beethoven did not renounce similar values in his late works that transformed our ideas of the highest beauty in music. Not for Yeats the fragmentation of The Waste Land, the futility of Prufrock, or the sprawling lines, idiosyncrasy and appealingly regretful world-weariness of Pound’s Pisan Cantos. The late Yeats remains as musical as he was in his early verses, but with a music comparable to that of late Shakespeare. T. S. Eliot tried in his own way to adapt the structure of the Beethoven quartets to poetic form, but to my ear the language of the Four Quartets is bloodless and constrained compared to the majesty of so many of Yeats’s poems, from “The Wild Swans at Coole” and “Easter, 1916” to “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” “Among School Children,” “Under Ben Bulben,” and a few dozen others.
The late Denis Donoghue, in his “Three Presences: Yeats, Eliot, Pound” from the Winter 2010 Hudson Review (reprinted in his Irish Essays), gave an account of Eliot’s evolving appreciation of Yeats’s genius. The inhibited and cautious Eliot was a reluctant convert to his contemporary’s poetry, but by the mid-1930s he had become unstinting in his praise, declaring that “by a great triumph of development, Mr. Yeats began to write and is still writing some of the most beautiful poetry in the language, some of the clearest, simplest, most direct.” Eliot put his finger on something essential when he wrote, “I can think of no poet, not even among the very greatest, who has shown a longer period of development than Yeats.” Eliot’s implied comparison is to Shakespeare’s long evolution from highly artificial early poems like Venus and Adonis to the majestic plain-spokenness of King Lear.
Reveries over Childhood and Youth, the first of six shorter books the Autobiographies bring together under one cover, came out in 1914, the same year as did his book of poetry Responsibilities, when the Great War was breaking out and Yeats was on the verge of turning fifty. His main achievement lies in his lyric poetry, not in his writing for the stage. But in accepting the Nobel Prize in 1923, this immodest man modestly downplayed his nondramatic poems, emphasizing his identity as part of the Irish national literary movement and the Irish theater. The lyric poetry shares with the dramatic works a gift for myth-making, creating characters such as an eighteenth-century ancestor who “was the friend of Goldsmith and was accustomed to boast, clergyman though he was, that he belonged to a hunt-club of which every member but himself had been hanged or transported for treason.” His writings stamp on our imaginations a sense of the reality of scenes and events, just as Dickens and Shakespeare did. His imagination, like Dickens’s, was possessed of a strangeness like no one else’s. This at first bothered Eliot to no end. In 1919 he wrote that “Mr. Yeats on any subject is a cause of bewilderment and distress.” He goes on to say that Yeats’s mind was “a mind in which perception of fact, and feeling and thinking are all a little different from ours.”
Yeats had a dramatic imagination that instinctively establishes context and historical perspective and effortlessly provides telling images, as in this passage from “Ireland after Parnell,” about the Irish politician Sir Charles Gavan Duffy:
One imagined his youth in some little gaunt Irish town, where no building or custom is revered for its antiquity; and there speaking a language where no word, even in solitude, is ever spoken slowly and carefully because of emotional implication; and of his manhood of practical politics, of the dirty piece of orange-peel in the corner of the stairs as one climbs up to some newspaper office.
That orange peel tells us everything we need to know about Duffy. One feels these word-pictures are things Yeats never labored over. He appears to have thought in images; his mind was anti-discursive by nature. He writes, for instance, of “Wordsworth, the one great poet who, after brief blossom, was cut and sawn into planks of obvious utility.” By contrast, he calls his own poems “verses that were all picture, all emotion, all association, all mythology.” Part of the pleasure of reading Yeats’s prose is seeing that fecund imagination of his employed not only in the lofty pursuits of his poetry but also in more mundane contexts. Who would have thought the famous “Lake Isle of Innisfree” had been triggered by a shop-window display in London?
I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From this sudden remembrance came my poem Innisfree, my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music.
Yeats’s father, John B. Yeats, was a portrait painter; his sisters Lily and Lolly were accomplished craftswomen; and his brother Jack B. Yeats became one of modern Ireland’s most popular painters. Yeats grew up among people who created, debated, and appreciated art and design. Here are his impressions of Bedford Park, the London “village” designed by Norman Shaw where his family lived for a time:
We were to see DeMorgan tiles, peacock-blue doors and the pomegranate pattern and the tulip pattern of Morris, and to discover that we had always hated doors painted with imitation grain, the roses of mid-Victoria, and tiles covered with geometrical patterns that seemed to have been shaken out of a muddy kaleidoscope. We went to live in a house like those we had seen in pictures and even met people dressed like people in the story-books.
In The Bounty of Sweden, the poet’s impressions of Stockholm when he and his wife traveled there to receive the Nobel Prize in 1923, he praised the Town Hall, which he judged “the greatest work of Swedish art.” It is surprising to learn that he knew the old Penn Station in New York, with which he compares the Stockholm building:
the Pennsylvania terminus, noble in austerity, is the work of a single mind, elaborating a suggestion from a Roman Bath, a mind that—supported by the American deference to authority—has been permitted to refuse everything not relevant to a single dominating idea.
When Auden wrote in his elegy for Yeats, “You were silly, like us; your gift survived it all,” he was probably thinking of Yeats’s explorations of the occult, which put him in contact with such dodgy characters as Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society in London, and MacGregor Mathers, a founder of something called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Eliot parodies characters like Madame Blavatsky in The Waste Land:
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards.
Yeats was more credulous than Eliot—or in any case less orthodox in his credulity. In The Trembling of the Veil, Four Years: 1887–1891 he recounts the following incident:
One day when alone in a third-class carriage, in the very middle of the railway bridge that crosses the Thames near Victoria, I smelt incense. . . . Might it not come from some spirit Mathers had called up? . . . That smell must be thought-created, but what certainty had I that what had taken me by surprise could be from my own thought, and if a thought could affect the sense of smell, why not the sense of touch? Then I discovered among that group of students that surrounded Mathers a man who had fought a cat in his dreams and awaked to find his breast covered with scratches.
Silly? Sure. But Yeats knew how to take such silliness and use it to resonant effect. Maybe we are like practical-minded Hotspur in Henry IV, Part One, who when Owen Glendower claims, “I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” replies, “Why, so can I, or so can any man;/ But will they come when you do call for them?” Yet most of us have things we wish we had said to friends and family members who have died, and dream of communicating with them. Freud would have had no trouble explaining all this as wish-fulfillment. Whether or not such summonings are fictive or fanciful, Yeats put them to good use in poems like “All Souls’ Night,” from The Tower, when he summons the ghosts of dead friends. In responding to the music and exaltation of these poems, most readers easily suspend their disbelief. This summoning, perhaps modeled on what spirit mediums do or pretend to do in their séances, became part of his poetic arsenal. “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” begins with the line “I summon to the winding ancient stair.” In Yeats’s “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” from The Wild Swans at Coole, dead friends are not summoned so much as “brought to mind”—“All those that manhood tried, or childhood loved/ Or boyish intellect approved”—as a lead-in to his elegiac verses for Lady Gregory’s son who had perished in World War I.
I think it helps to see Yeats’s incense and astral cat-scratches and all the rest of it in their historical context. Spiritualism, with its ouija boards and “Oriental masters” and table tappings, was an enthusiasm that affected many others of the period, some of whom you wouldn’t think susceptible. Arthur Conan Doyle was a spiritualist who managed to convince himself that the patently phony photographs of what are called the Cottingley Fairies were genuine. Edith Somerville, who wrote with her cousin Violet Martin (whose nom de plume was Martin Ross) the delightful Experiences of an Irish R.M. and other tales of the hard-riding, hard-drinking Irish gentry, was so convinced that Violet’s spirit was still around after she died from injuries sustained in a riding accident that Edith continued to “consult” her while writing, and to publish her books under both their names. And it may well be that the Irish, generally speaking, are more inclined to credit psychic phenomena than other people are. Conor McPherson’s 1997 play, The Weir, provides a more recent update on that subject.
Turning to his attempts to accomplish the equivalent of what Joyce tried to do—“to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” as Stephen Dedalus puts it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—Yeats envisioned “an Irish literature which, though made by many minds, would seem the work of a single mind.” His vision was of a national literature that, though it grew out of local stories and folklore, might have universal appeal: “Greek tragedy,” as he put it, “spoken with a Dublin accent.” Yeats was keenly aware of the split between his own group, the Protestant Anglo-Irish minority, and the Catholic majority:
I had noticed that Irish Catholics among whom had been born so many political martyrs had not the good taste, the household courtesy and decency of the Protestant Ireland I had known, yet Protestant Ireland seemed to think of nothing but getting on in the world. I thought we might bring the halves together if we had a national literature that made Ireland beautiful in the memory, and yet had been freed from provincialism by an exacting criticism, a European pose.
However condescending these words sound to Irish Catholics, I think today we can see that Ireland has succeeded in creating a modern literature along the lines Yeats had in mind. Words like Protestant and Catholic are better understood in an Irish context as cultural markers than having to do with spiritual practice, and that is how I would use them in relation to such modern “Protestant” writers as Yeats, Wilde, Shaw, Beckett, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor, and Derek Mahon, and such “Catholic” writers as James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Frank O’Connor, Brian Friel, Patrick Kavanagh, Michael Hartnett, and Seamus Heaney. This is a literature that, while staying in touch with its roots, has transcended parochialism.
As for his own efforts at “getting on in the world,” Yeats was not one to ignore the business side of things. Bertie Smyllie, the Irish Times journalist who was the first to inform Yeats of his Nobel, has left the following account of that exchange:
It was fairly late in the evening, getting on to eleven o’clock I suppose, and I rang him up at his house, hoping that he didn’t know the news. I said, “Mr. Yeats, I’ve got very good news for you, a very great honour has been conferred upon you,” and I was rather enthusiastic and gushing at the time, and I said, “this is a great honour not only for you but for the country,” and I could tell that he was getting slightly impatient to know what it was all about, so I said, “you’ve been awarded the Nobel Prize, a very great honour to you and a very great honour to Ireland” . . . and to my amazement the only question he asked was, “how much?, Smyllie, how much is it?”
My favorite part of The Trembling of the Veil, Yeats’s long memoir published in 1922 and included in the Autobiographies, is “The Tragic Generation.” Here Yeats shines as a chronicler, adept at bringing to life friends and acquaintances from his London days. The 1890s were crucial years in English life and letters. The underpinnings of Victorian morality were eroding—this was, after all, the period of Aubrey Beardsley and The Yellow Book—as were the tenets of high Victorianism in literature. If we can imagine Queen Victoria’s reaction to Beardsley’s illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, I rather imagine she would have said something less mild than the usual “We are not amused.”
Wilde’s drawing-room comedies ruled the London stage at the same time that George Bernard Shaw, influenced by Ibsen and Strindberg, was starting to revolutionize it. Shaw’s approach to drama was vexing to Yeats. As someone who had his own plans to revolutionize the theater with stylized verse-drama, he “listened to Arms and the Man with admiration and hatred. . . . Presently I had a nightmare that I was haunted by a sewing-machine, that clicked and shone, but the incredible thing was that the machine smiled, smiled perpetually.”
The two central figures of Yeats’s “Tragic Generation” are not Wilde and Shaw, however, but Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson, poets well known then but largely forgotten now. Close friends, both were tormented souls who drank themselves to death, both were fellow members with Yeats of The Rhymers’ Club, which met nightly at the Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. Johnson is known to readers of Yeats’s poetry as a figure from “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”: “Lionel Johnson comes the first to mind,/ That loved his learning better than mankind,/ Though courteous to the worst.” Extreme, uncompromising personalities appealed to Yeats. Dowson had a platonic devotion to a “restaurant-keeper’s daughter”: “Sober, he would look at no other woman, it was said, but, drunk, desired whatever woman chance brought, clean or dirty.” Johnson was fanatically ascetic, “contemptuous of all that we call human life.” The following declaration of his that Yeats quotes has an undertone of mad hilarity:
I have heard him, after four or five glasses of wine, praise some Church Father who freed himself from sexual passion by a surgical operation, and deny with scorn, and much historical evidence, that a gelded man lost anything of intellectual power. . . . I can remember his saying with energy, “I wish those people who deny the eternity of punishment could realize their unspeakable vulgarity.”
In Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1918 edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, Yeats is represented by five poems, including “When You Are Old” and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Johnson comes in with the utterly forgettable “By the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross,” and Dowson with one poem that contains the famous phrase, “the days of wine and roses,” as well as the wonderfully decadent “Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae,” whose familiar last stanza deserves quoting:
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finish’d and the lamps
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! In my
(This is the poem from which Margaret Mitchell got “gone with the wind.” Cole Porter recycled Dowson’s final line as “I’m always true to you, darling, in my fashion” in Kiss Me, Kate.) It’s not impossible to see why Yeats was so fascinated by these two friends whose lives ended so tragically. His own verse from the 1890s was as lush and mellifluous as Dowson’s, and he characterizes himself as having a “fanatic heart.” But unlike his two friends, Yeats’s passions were more mainstream, and he was a survivor.
I marvel at how fully rounded Yeats’s body of work is: the insightful and entertaining memoirs under discussion here; the great lyric poems; the verse plays; the collections of Irish folk tales; his work as an influential figure in the Irish Literary Revival and as a founder of the Abbey Theatre. The speeches he gave during his two terms in the Senate of the Irish Free State, calling for a more enlightened, less parochial understanding of what it means to be Irish and opposing the Catholic clerical control that stifled Ireland for many years, seem to anticipate many developments in the recent history of the nation. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Yeats is how he navigated the transition from Victorian poetry to the modern period, remaining a major voice of consequence, then and now.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 10, on page 34
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