The Yeats Knickerbocker Glory Franchise
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On 3 April 2016, W B Yeats: A Fanatic Heart, a TV documentary scripted, presented and improvised by the irrepressible Bob Geldof, was shown on BBC 4. At one point, 42 minutes in, Geldof was in a nail bar and tanning salon, the original site of the first performance of Yeats’s nationalistic play, the ‘appalling’ Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902). The play was co-authored with Augusta Gregory as a vehicle for Maud Gonne. Geldof put on a trembly voice to deliver Ireland’s line about ‘my land that was taken from me’. ‘Peter: Was it much land they took from you? Old Woman: My four beautiful green fields.’ Geldof held his hand histrionically against his brow, ‘which is the pose you see Maud Gonne striking’. Then Geldof looked straight at the camera and shouted ‘Fuck off’ – a succinct, straightforward, refreshing, measured response, commensurate with the bogusness on offer. A great television moment. A great cultural moment.

However. Geldof’s film began in the National Library with the presenter reading Yeats aloud and thumping the desk appreciatively: ‘you get so annoyed, it’s so good, you know.’ He was applauding, in effect, the Yeats we hear in Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night’, a wannabe work of candid emulation. ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’. The Yeats franchise: synthetic saeva indignatio, bombast masquerading as eloquence, an editorial with its eye on its readership, avoiding eye contact with the realities of death. Famous, sweeping all before it, striking an attitude, but insulting to all the weak and bed-ridden using the last of their strength to die. It was written, significantly enough, five years before the death of Thomas’s father, often thought to be the occasion of Thomas’s poem.

The Yeats line in question, repeated and savoured by Geldof, was ‘Their purpose in the labyrinth of the wind’ – a line so histrionic only Brian Blessed could do it justice. It is taken from the close of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ from The Tower (1928), one of Yeats’s worst poems. ‘Worst’, but with two of Yeats’s greatest lines, lines that encapsulate poetry’s capacity for the encapsulating statement: ‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes. / What more is there to say?’ Perfect pitch. Yeats can hit top C unerringly on occasion: ‘Life scarce can cast a fragrance on the wind’ from ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’.

On other occasions, though, the singing line sounds a little flat: ‘Everything that man esteems / Endures a moment or a day’ from ‘Two Songs from a Play’. The sentiment here is the same – rueful recognition of the transience of human achievement – and the alternative on offer is deliberately spurious, yet somehow sits in the ear like equivocation. A moment? Or a day? These are effectively ironic synonyms – what difference is there between the bleak brevity of a moment and a day? – but the ‘alternatives’ look havering. With ‘Life scarce can cast a fragrance on the wind’, there is no hesitation. As we accede to this boldly memorable, lapidary eloquence, we can see what Larkin has learned from Yeats, even as he turns instead to Hardy’s more modest example: ‘What will survive of us is love.’ Larkin’s qualifications – and there are many of them – are swept away by the force, by the reach, by the grandeur of the statement, by the (somewhat ersatz) fearlessness of its generalisation.

Why is ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ one of Yeats’s worst poems? Its argument is straightforward enough: the veneer of civilisation is thin. Underneath our alleged refinement, we are savage, animal, and will revert to feral type at any moment: we ‘are but weasels fighting in a hole’. The specific provocation for this black but uncontroversial view of mankind – common to Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’, Heart of Darkness, Kipling’s ‘Mary Postgate’ and Lord of the Flies – was the internecine fighting between the Irish Republican Army and the Black and Tans, a regiment recruited from the Irish protestant population and deployed on the British side. By 1922, this was a full-blown civil war. Yeats’s pessimism about mankind finds a measure and an analogue in the destruction of various Greek artifacts, artifacts ‘That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude’ – a representation of Athena, carved from olive wood; the sculptor Phidias’s works in ivory; golden bees and grasshoppers. The destruction seems wanton, willful, perverse, inevitable, yet always surprising because the destruction doesn’t make sense. Our equivalent of these miraculous Greek artifacts is an impartial, uncorrupt legal system, a tradition of justice, mature public opinion. Morality and the law seem sorted and settled. At this point, Yeats visits on us the full majesty of his irony. I am being ironic:

O what fine thought we had because we thought

That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.

What a couplet – starting with the half-rhyme. It is difficult to imagine a more inept, maladroit, flat-footed conclusion to what is in any case a pedestrian stanza. What is the difference between ‘rogues’ and ‘rascals’? It is a tautology – as weak as the preceding tautological oubliette of ‘what fine thought we had because we thought’. As weak, too, as the tautology in the final section when Yeats describes a horse’s ear as ‘delicate sensitive’, a good idea, muffed in the execution. And there is something amiss with Yeats’s lexicon here. Rogues? Rascals? This is like ‘every knave and dolt’ in ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’. And also like the ‘self-same dolt and knave’ in ‘Against Unworthy Praise’. Not to mention ‘the knave and dolt’ in ‘A Nativity’. These nouns are not impossible but hardly current. They are taken from a genteel, antiquated register, quite at odds with the feral viciousness summoned elsewhere in the poem.

In the 60s, in his lectures, Lord David Cecil used to tell a story about Yeats visiting Blenheim Palace. Once in the drawing room, Yeats would initiate the small talk with this end-stopped opening gambit: ‘there is a clashing of swords on the floor of heaven.’ Meanwhile, upstairs, the maids were going though his cases to see what outlandish clothes he had brought. Stylistically, Yeats is drawn to the high-end of bespoke diction, flamboyant bow-ties, silk handkerchiefs erupting from his breast pocket: ‘deride’, ‘smitten’, ‘famous’, ‘rammed’, ‘rant’, ‘lofty’, ‘noble’, ‘rage’ as a verb, ‘exultant’, ‘thereupon’. ‘Thereupon’ is an extensive site of recidivism: you can find it in ‘Cuchulain’s Fight Against the Sea’, ‘Adam’s Curse’, ‘The Grey Rock’, ‘Paudeen’, ‘Among School Children’, ‘The Cold Heaven’, ‘An Image from Past Life’, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, ‘The Double Vision of Michael Robartes’, ‘Cuchulain Comforted’, ‘Crazy Jane on the Mountain’ – but I don’t want to labour it any more than Yeats does.

The following stanza in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ belongs to costume drama and fairy tale – Yeats in full flight from the contemporary, the actuality of civil war:

All teeth were drawn, all ancient tricks unlearned,

And a great army but a showy thing;

What matter that no cannon had been turned

Into a ploughshare? Parliament and king

Thought that unless a little powder burned

The trumpeters might burst with trumpeting

And yet it lack all glory; and perchance

The guardsmen’s drowsy chargers would not prance.

Ah yes, the dangers of a standing army, kept for show, but in fact armed. This political topos has no application to the Irish situation in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’. Of course, Yeats is in pursuit of an archetype rather than an accurate and arguably limited set of particulars. But the result is absurd, a poetic fiction – it takes a gun salute to make the horses prance and lend a little plausibility to the ceremonials. ‘Perchance’ is fustian and technically inept: perchance it’s only there for the rhyme in the final couplet. It is also reassuring to know that the trumpeters are trumpeting, as people were thinking thoughts in the previous stanza. You never know for certain. The trumpeters might be diversifying with the trombone. Thinkers might be thoughtless, running on empty.

In stanza 5, it is the taxis that is flawed. The subject (‘He who can read the signs’) has to wait six lines before encountering its predicate (‘Has but one comfort left’):

He who can read the signs nor sink unmanned

Into the half-deceit of some intoxicant

From shallow wits; who knows no work can stand,

Whether health, wealth or peace of mind were spent

On master-work of intellect or hand,

No honour leave its mighty monument,

Has but one comfort left: all triumph would

But break upon his ghostly solitude. [my italics]

In Yeats’s oeuvre, this isn’t a unique instance of sclerotic syntactic closure. For example, the syntactic incompetence of stanzas 4 and 5 of ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’. This is Yeats on Synge’s artistic salvation thanks to his fortuitous encounter with the Aran islanders:

And that enquiring man John Synge comes next,

That dying chose the living world for text

And never could have rested in the tomb

But that, long travelling, he had come

Towards nightfall upon certain set apart

In a most desolate stony place,

Towards nightfall upon a race

Passionate and simple like his heart.

First, we are reminded that the contemporary coinage ‘hype’ derives from ‘hyperbole’. Yeats has a real weakness for impossibly grandiose hyperbole which is the downside of his gift for memorable generalisation: Synge, though dying, could not have rested in his tomb unless he had encountered the islanders and written about them. Not grave, but ‘tomb’. And an assertion common sense rejects. How clumsy is the grammar here as Yeats goes through the gears looking for rhyme: ‘Towards nightfall upon certain set apart / In a most desolate stony place’. Upon certain set apart? ‘Certain’ what? ‘Certain’ who? ‘Towards nightfall’ is a metaphor for encroaching death but Yeats, having botched his exposition, has another desperate go at clarification: ‘Towards nightfall upon a race / Passionate and simple like his heart.’ A hitch, a palpable hitch.

Stanza 5, about George Pollfexen, is, if anything, syntactically worse:

And then I think of old George Pollexfen,

In muscular youth well known to Mayo men

For horsemanship at meets or at racecourses,

That could have shown how pure-bred horses

And solid men, for all their passion, live

But as the outrageous stars incline

By opposition, square and trine;

Having grown sluggish and contemplative.

Pollexfen, Yeats’s argument goes, ceased to be the young man of action, ‘having grown sluggish and contemplative’, and believed the material world of horses and passionate men was governed by astrology. But the qualification – ‘Having grown sluggish and contemplative’ – grammatically qualifies the astrological method, or just possibly the ‘outrageous stars’, not old George Pollexfen. It hangs there like a fallen hem. The sedulous reader of Yeats is forced to tolerate chronic clumsiness, to become inured to awkwardness.

In his chapter on Yeats’s elegy for Robert Gregory in Romantic Image, Frank Kermode, peering over his reading glasses at thematic polarities, appears not to notice these muffed single-sentence stanzas, which are clearly intended to be tours de force. (Elsewhere, Yeats brings off one sentence lyrics: think of ‘Memory’, ‘A Thought from Propertius’, ‘The Witch’, ‘That Night Might Come’, ‘The Magi’. All significantly unburdened with tricky exposition.) For Kermode, the text, the verse itself, is Beerbohm’s mote in the middle distance. He assumes the poem’s greatness. He is more interested in Yeats’s use of Abraham Cowley’s stanza from ‘On the Death of Mr William Hervey’ and Yeats’s deployment of its ‘slow rhythms’. Yeats follows Cowley’s rhyme scheme and the prevalent iambic pentameter with three variant tetrameters per stanza. But it escapes Kermode that he doesn’t copy Cowley’s occasional trimeters (‘Where their hid Treasures ly’, for example). I don’t see how the iambic metre can be described as ‘slow rhythms’, as if it were somehow plural. Of course, the elegy’s most famous line – ‘What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?’ – is notionally an iambic pentameter but can readily be scanned as a line with six stresses, three of them at the end of the line: ‘comb grey hair.’ But were this a repeated ‘slow’ effect throughout Yeats’s elegy, it would not be exceptional. We single it out because it is different, because it is a variant.

There is, too, some imp of disbelief, isn’t there?, that is sceptical of the bogus emotion of Yeats’s close: ‘but a thought / Of that late death took all my heart for speech.’ Hard to credit the poet as choked and speechless after twelve eight line stanzas. 96 lines in all. ‘Took all my heart for speech’: it’s a bit of an ask. We write it off as the reflex flourish of the magniloquent obituarist seeking the sense of an ending, the feel of a finish. And after Roy Foster’s biography of Yeats we know that, far from holding Robert Gregory in ‘warm affection’ (Kermode), the two men cordially loathed each other. Gregory regarded Yeats as a sponger, depleting the wine cellar at Coole Park. Which may explain why Yeats had three attempts to write an elegy for Augusta Gregory’s dead son. I will have something to say about the other two commemorative poems.

* * *

‘Terminate the torment of love unsatisfied, / The greater torment of love satisfied’: Eliot’s poetry of statement in ‘Ash-Wednesday’, soon to flourish as the spinal column of Four Quartets. We readers come to poetry homesick for larger truths, for Arnoldian touchstones. ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / And thou no breath at all?’ Yeats’s temperament is naturally disposed to subsume the random, the contingent, to search for sublime aphorism: ‘the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.’ He has a nostalgia for completion and order. Why else does he write A Vision with its lunatic systematisation? In fact, Yeats’s poetry itself, through all its developments, has its own thematic spine, a thick binary braid, from top to bottom.

On 30 June 1932, Yeats wrote to Olivia Shakespear, a propos a collected edition of his poetry (not printed until 1949 as a Definitive Edition), a gathering and a survey which provoked the following conclusion: ‘My first denunciation of old age I made in Wanderings of Oisin before I was 20 and the same denunciation comes in the last page of the book. The swordsman throughout repudiates the saint, but not without vacillation. Is that perhaps the sole theme – Usheen and Patrick…?’ Yeats continued: ‘I spend my days correcting proofs. I have just finished the first volume, my lyric poetry, and am greatly astonished at myself. As it is all speech rather than writing, I keep saying what man is this who in the course of two or three weeks…says the same thing in so many different ways?’

The key influence here is Nietzsche. On 26 September 1902, Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory: ‘Dear Friend, I have written to you little and badly of late I am afraid, for the truth is you have a rival in Nietzsche, that strong enchanter. I have read him so much that I have made my eyes bad again.’ What made Nietzsche attractive to Yeats was the philosopher’s contempt for Christianity and his avowal that Paganism was a truer account of life as it is lived on earth. Christianity for Nietzsche was a slave-religion, a set of consoling lies, in which the meek inherit the earth, and the last shall be first. Nietzsche was robust in his response to this mis-description: you only had to look to see the meek and the weak being shouldered off the pavement. Nietzsche preferred the tonic truth of paganism: sacrifice, he argued, bribing the cruel gods, was a more accurate account of our survival strategies. Human life was capriciously merciless. Christianity was a lie: ‘God degenerated to the contradiction of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes!’ (The Anti-Christ). The pagan cleaves to life as it really is: ‘What justifies man is his reality – it will justify him eternally. How much more valuable an actual man is compared with any sort of merely desired, dreamed of, odious lie of a man? With any sort of ideal man?’ (Twilight of the Idols).

Now consider this Yeatsian parenthesis in ‘Upon a Dying Lady’: ‘(I have no speech but symbol, the pagan speech I made / Amid the dreams of youth).’ Or the last section of ‘Vacillation’: ‘Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.’ Yeats’s fundamental inclination to paganism is clear. It begins in ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’, where Christian Patrick finally triumphs over Oisin and the pagan Fenians: ‘But now the lying clerics murder song / With barren words and flatteries of the weak.’ The Fenians have comprehensively lost and burn in a Christian hell: ‘Where the flesh of the footsole clingeth on the burning stones is their place’, Saint Patrick answers when Oisin asks the whereabouts of ‘Caoilte and Conan, and Bran, Sceolan, Lomair’. Right at the beginning of Yeats’s career, then, the pagan world is in retreat. Compare the contained lament of ‘The Song of the Happy Shepherd’: ‘The woods of Arcady are dead, / And over is their antique joy.’ This depleted paganism is the subject of Ezra Pound’s ‘The Return’, in which the ‘pallid leash men’ make a muted come-back. Yeats knows he is on the losing side and this defeat is the subject of ‘The Black Tower’ in Last Poems. The tower is under siege by the opposing outside forces and their banners: ‘Those banners come not in.’ This superficially baffling poem is about irrational loyalty to an old, superseded order. The warriors under siege are ‘oath-bound’ and fed on the small birds the cook plucks out of the air. And, of course, they are dead: ‘There in the tomb stand the dead upright.’ Hard to find a cause more belated.

It is difficult now to imagine paganism (or perhaps neo-Paganism is more accurate) was ever a viable force – difficult to imagine ourselves back into the mindset that produced the university pulpit denunciation of Pater’s Renaissance for its pagan instruction to burn with a hard gem-like flame, to relish and affirm the moment because there is nothing else – life being ‘a short day of frost and sun’. Mrs Oliphant thought this ‘elegant materialism’. Colvin thought it ‘Hedonism – a philosophy of refined pleasure’. Even as it was excoriated as dangerous, its adherents were conceding the battle: this is Swinburne on Christ in ‘Hymn to Proserpine’:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean;

The world has grown grey with thy breath…

Yeats alludes to Swinburne pretty obviously in ‘At Galway Races’, where he celebrates the horsemen as if they were pagan Norsemen:

Aye, horsemen for companions,

Before the merchant and the clerk

Breathed on the world with timid breath.

Paganism is already an ubi sunt.

Ted Hughes was the last pagan – represented by the Rev Lumb in Gaudete, a poem whose title means ‘rejoice’, Nietzsche’s ‘eternal Yes!’, an unrepentant affirmation of things as they are: the sexual imperative, sexual competition, cruelty, biology, adultery and revenge in a rural community. Hughes’s title is comparable to the Dionysian affirmation in ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’: ‘I am content to live it all again / And yet again, if it be life to pitch / Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch, / A blind man battering blind men.’ That ‘frog-spawn’ makes a crucial contribution to the reality of the reality that is being affirmed. It may be unpleasant but it is all we have. Embrace it.

Christianity proposes a better, alternative world, a world that Nietzsche denounces as non-existent: ‘To talk about “another” world than this is quite pointless, provided that an instinct for slandering, disparaging and accusing life is not strong within us: in the latter case we revenge ourselves on life by means of the phantasmagoria of “another”, a “better” life’ (Twilight of the Idols). So much for the Christian heaven – seen by Nietzsche as a slander on actual life, as doing dirt on life.

The pagan theme of the swordsman explains many otherwise enigmatic poems. For instance, ‘An Appointment’ in Responsibilities (1912):

Being out of heart with government

I took a broken root to fling

Where the proud, wayward squirrel went,

Taking delight that he could spring;

And he, with that low whinnying sound

That is like laughter, sprang again

And so to the other tree at a bound.

Nor the tame will, nor timid brain,

Nor heavy knitting of the brow

Bred that fierce tooth and cleanly limb

And threw him up to laugh on the bough;

No government appointed him.

On the surface, a poem about animal insouciance, with the squirrel’s laughter deriding Yeats’s political sulk. It isn’t a poem much interested in the actuality of the squirrel. That laughter isn’t something most of us have heard. Squirrels chatter like magpies. They don’t ‘whinny’. And the description is perfunctory where it isn’t implausible – springing and bounding. However, the squirrel is important to Yeats because it is a figure for the warrior in all his untrammelled, unapologetic, unreflective habitation of the self. Compare Ted Hughes’s ‘Hawk Roosting’: ‘my manners are tearing off heads.’ But Hughes is always more interested in the animal than the emblem.

‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ is yet another instance of the swordsman incognito. Yeats isn’t interested in Robert Gregory, except as an emblem of the warrior whose fierce constitution includes the fearless, unworried embrace of death:

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

In ‘Lapis Lazuli’, the squirrel’s laughter is transposed a fraction into Nietzsche’s idea of tragic gaiety:

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.

The gaiety, the calm je m’en foutisme is possible because of the doctrine of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche’s idea that nature is an indestructible continuum, without beginning or end. The individual just has to get over himself. In fact, we are immortal in the race. (Pity, though, about the clumsy placing of the verb ‘stands’, so far from its subject, and its unconvincing rhyme with ‘bronze’.)

In that letter to Olivia Shakespear, Yeats pinpoints his recurrent theme: ‘the swordsman throughout repudiates the saint’, adding ‘but not without vacillation’. So far, my chosen examples demonstrate little vacillation. However, there is another way of expressing the swordsman/saint polarity which shows Yeats’s equivocation: namely, the contest between the purely material world and Yeats’s yen for a spiritual alternative, the desire for some kind of infinity, for immortality. This is no surprise when you consider Yeats’s interest in faeries, in spiritualism, in automatic writing, in Rosicrucianism, in the Golden Dawn – though not Christianity.

In ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’, Oisin and Niamh migrate to the faery land of Danaan, but Oisin finds himself nostalgic for the mortal world. There are poignant reminders. Oisin finds in the ‘dreamy foam a staff of wood / From some dead warrior’s broken lance’. A starling, weak, falls ‘from his miles in the midst of air’, and serves as a reminder and an imperative: ‘For there moves alive in your fingers the fluttering sadness of earth’, says Niamh of the starling, alert to the imperious summons. Oisin returns to an earth where the warriors have long been vanquished, his saddle girth gives way, he touches ground and ages instantly.

This polarised scenario is widely repeated in a series of variants. In ‘The Stolen Child’, the child is spirited away to the land of faery because ‘the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand’. The final stanza records the successful abduction and also the undiminished pull of what has been left behind, the material world’s trivial, powerful pleasures:

Away with us he’s going,

The solemn-eyed:

He’ll hear no more the lowing

Of the calves on the warm hillside

Or the kettle on the hob

Sing peace into his breast,

Or see the brown mice bob

Round and round the oatmeal-chest…

‘Solemn-eyed’ is brilliant. So is the warm hillside. And the mice are incomparable.

In ‘The Happy Townland’, Yeats proposes a Cockayne, Big Rock Candy Mountain alternative to the actual world: ‘Rivers are running over / With red beer and brown beer’ (a nice discrimination). However, in this heaven, the conversation and interest is elsewhere, in the real undramatic world of ‘wet roads where men walk’:

Michael will unhook his trumpet

From a bough overhead,

And blow a little noise

When supper has been spread.

Gabriel will come from the water

With a fish-tail, and talk

Of wonders that have happened

On wet roads where men walk.

‘Sailing to Byzantium’ revisits this theme: the immortal gold bird sings of the temporal world, ‘of what is past, or passing, or to come’. And heaven is shown late in Yeats to be boring compared to real life: this is ‘News for the Delphic Oracle’:

There all the golden codgers lay,

There the silver dew,

And the great water sighed for love,

And the wind sighed too.

Man-picker Niamh leant and sighed

By Oisin on the grass;

There sighed amid his choir of love

Tall Pythagoras.

Plotinus came and looked about,

The salt-flakes on his breast,

And having stretched and yawned awhile

Lay sighing like the rest.

In Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction, Wallace Stevens hits the same note when he invokes ‘the celestial ennui of apartments’. The antidote to this infinite ennui is the Dionysian orgiastic goings on in another more worldly place:

Slim adolescence that a nymph has stripped,

Peleus on Thetis stares.

Her limbs are delicate as an eyelid,

Love has blinded him with tears;

But Thetis’ belly listens.

Down the mountain walls

From where Pan’s cavern is

Intolerable music falls.

Foul goat-head, brutal arm appear,

Belly, shoulder, bum,

Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs

Copulate in the foam.

Yeats’s use of ‘bum’ is often taken as a sign of his new modernity, credited to the influence of Ezra Pound. Pound, though, wasn’t exactly averse to an antique lexis and early on Eliot had some difficulty with the cloak-and-dagger element in Pound. I don’t think Yeats ever truly modernises his diction. He remains, as he wrote in ‘Coole Park and Ballylee’ (1931), one of the ‘last Romantics’. Here ‘copulate’ seems fatally technical and euphemistic in this allegedly unbuttoned context. ‘Fucking in the foam’ – impossible, unprintable, illegal – would have been a departure, delivered a real shock, had it been available.

Yeats can always please us, even as early as ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’, whether it be the ‘long rough hair’ of the dogs Bran, Sceolan and Lomair, or the dead universe in its tomb ‘Folded like a frozen fly’; ‘the slimy flags’; ‘the wave-rusted chain’; ‘mist-cold hair’; ‘the heart in me longing to leap like a grasshopper into her heart’; ‘and the horse went away like a summer fly’. But you have to consider Yeats’s default eloquence, his reflex manner. For example, the dawn: the ‘passionate dawn’ in ‘Oisin’; ‘ignorant and wanton as the dawn’ in ‘The Dawn’; ‘cold / And passionate as the dawn’ in ‘The Fisherman’.

‘The Dawn’ in The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) is a variant of the swordsman/saint antithesis. The old queen is measuring ‘with the pin of a brooch’. The Babylonian magi are also making astronomical calculations. Against this rational calculation, the irrationalism, the unreasonable, self-sustaining, sheer Gestalt of the dawn. The dawn is a version of the swordsman – a blaze of pure being. Not that the theme excuses the self-made cliché of the twice ‘passionate’ and once ‘wanton’ (meaning passionate) dawn.

It is easy to see how ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ can be read as a dialogue of swordsman and saint, in which Yeats, aware of age and decrepitude, ‘not without vacillation’ finally declares for the ignominious life of the body, hampered, tramelled, eternal, in ‘the frogspawn of a ditch’. It is harder to see how ‘Among School Children’ might align with Yeats’s avowedly repetitive (but actually inventively varied) central antithesis. It works like this. Centrally, in stanza V1, the philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras – are aligned against the material world. Platonic Ideas are epitomised by two lines of commendable swiftness and clarity: ‘Plato thought nature but a spume that plays / Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.’ Aristotle, once the tutor of Alexander the Great, launches a less philosophical attack on the pomp of the material world: ‘Solider Aristotle played the taws / Upon the bottom of a king of kings.’ Finally, Pythagoras loses himself in cosmic harmonies, the math of music – an other-worldly pursuit.

These three are then dismissed scornfully: ‘Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.’ Scarecrows: meaning figures showing conspicuous physical decrepitude. (Not for the first time in Yeats.) The implication is that their hostility to the material world is sour grapes. And in this way, the three philosophers represent the culmination of the argument contained in the previous stanzas which are concerned with the depredations of old age – Maud Gonne ‘hollow of cheek’, Yeats himself at 60 ‘a comfortable kind of old scarecrow’.

The conclusion of ‘Among School Children’ is a reconciliation of the material and the spiritual, turning on the actual interpenetration of the two apparently exclusive categories. Gilbert Ryle pointed out that there was a university of Oxford, but, because of the collegiate system, it was dispersed across a large area and could not be said to exist in any particular place. It was not Keble or Christ Church. It was everywhere and nowhere. Yeats’s image for the inextricability of idea and embodiment is:

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

And before that, Yeats invokes another emblem, more eloquent than Ryle’s drier illustration:

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

It may seem, faced with this operatic magnificence, unseemly and irrelevant to haggle over the failure of Stanza V. All the same, Yeats has chosen a demanding rhyme scheme, two alternating triplets and a final couplet. He negotiates the difficulties proficiently, aided by generous use of half-rhymes, but Stanza V is an example of the botched exposition we find everywhere in Yeats:

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap

Honey of generation had betrayed,

And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape

As recollection or the drug decide,

Would think her son, did she but see that shape

With sixty or more winters on its head,

A compensation for the pang of his birth,

Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

One sentence. One fatal sentence. Fighting its way through the rhyme scheme to say ineptly something ludicrous. Any mother would be glad to see her child grown old, to reach 60. No mother would think that a life lived but ending in age was inadequate return for labour pains. So much of Yeats requires the reader to leave his brain in the cloakroom. ‘Honey of generation’ is a spinsterish euphemism for sexual pleasure. But this flaw is as nothing compared to the initial vagueness. The ‘shape’ on the mother’s lap isn’t resolved until four lines later: ‘that shape / With sixty or more winters on its head.’ Shape. Yeats might have written ‘thing’ with as much specificity. Why didn’t he use ‘child’? Presumably because that would have extended the age beyond babyhood. ‘Mite’ might have been better. He could have used ‘baby’, in fact. All he had to do was contract ‘upon’ to ‘on’: ‘What youthful mother, a baby on her lap’. The scansion would be unaffected. But Yeats is wedded to ‘upon’. It is part of the instinctive pomp of his diction.

Is the mother or the shape betrayed by honey of generation? I could pursue my analysis of Yeats’s syntax but its catastrophic failure is obvious. There it is, in the middle of the poem, like unexploded munitions, buried since the Nineteenth Century, and needing a bomb disposal squad to sift its lethal intricacies.

* * *

In 1940, T S Eliot lectured in Dublin on the recently dead Yeats. It is a polite performance of calculated prestidigitation. Now you see the argument, then you don’t. He begins by considering poetic generations and the appearance of a new school of poetry every two decades. Eliot himself, he tells us, was uninfluenced by Yeats, his own style formed by French poetry before he read the later Yeats in 1919. And the later Yeats preceded Eliot’s reading of early Yeats. Yeats’s best poetry was an expression of his personality but the personality expressed was representative of man – so, both personal and impersonal. Yeats is always a contemporary but too individual a poet with too idiosyncratic an idiom to be slavishly copied by the young. His verse plays were the antithesis of the prose drawing room comedies in vogue and would prove to possess more aesthetic stamina than the work of Shaw. The poetic drama was a struggle against the pentameter and Yeats’s plays show laudable signs of initiating that struggle to break free. In sum, Yeats was a public figure, an emblem of poetic longevity we should revere.

What is Eliot driving at? He doesn’t want to state baldly that Yeats isn’t modern. So he tells us Yeats is ‘contemporary’ – true, but misleading, a pragmatic evasion. He hardly comes to cases. He praises ‘The Spur’ warily, especially its last line: ‘What else have I to spur me into song?’ Yeats’s treatment of old age, his honesty, his refusal to expurgate, is couched in acceptable diction. ‘You think it horrible that lust and rage / Should dance attendance upon my old age…’ Lust, then, and rage. Eliot calls these lines ‘impressive’ and ‘unpleasant’. The admission of the unpleasant is a poetic touchstone for Eliot, who once wrote that some of Blake had ‘the unpleasantness of great poetry’. He wants to commend Yeats. But here, despite Eliot’s best efforts, we have to accept that the unpleasantness isn’t transgressive, isn’t potentially damaging. As an admission, it is safe and sanitised. It has nothing of the naked shock we feel when Larkin begins ‘Love Again’: ‘Wanking at ten past three…’ To be doing it and to be clocking the clock captures, perfectly imperfect, the impurity of authentic sexual pain.

* * *

In 1995, I saw Michael Ancram, Marquess of Lothian, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office, in action on the slopes at Klosters – in a pair of tweed plus-fours and a Norfolk jacket. A representative figure of modernism in this context. How can we know the skier from his pants? Knickerbocker glory.








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