Much of the poetry I read is from anthologies, but reading merely the “Greatest Hits” is not, perhaps, the best way of coming to grips with a poet’s work. And neither is it much better merely flicking through an edition of the collected works, and reading whatever catches one’s eye. So, recently, I tried reading through an entire collection of a poet I usually count amongst my favourites, W. B. Yeats, and my suspicion wad confirmed: even the well-known poems – the “greatest hits” – make a greater impact when read in the context in which it had been published. Reading through the 1928 collection The Tower, one can map across the poems recurrent themes and recurrent imagery – until the various fragments seem to cohere together mosaic-like into a greater whole.
Yeats is perhaps best known still for his earlier Romantic poetry, and the ethereal, melancholy music of the Celtic twilight: “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is still, perhaps, the single poem with which he is most closely associated. But while that strain of Romanticism never, I think, quite left him, his later poetry was more knotty, more ambivalent and enigmatic, and more idiosyncratic. And also, I think, more deeply satisfying. Yeats was in his 60s when this collection was published, and the knottiness and complexity of his later style are very apparent here: gone are those sighing cadences and delicate lyricism of his earlier work, gone the folklore-inspired imagery. Indeed, at one point in “The Tower”, he seems to look back on his past work, but, after some initial enthusiasm, he relapses into a sort of weary indifference, the promise of lyricism disappearing abruptly to a somewhat irritable conversational tone:
And I myself created Hanrahan
And drove him drunk or sober through the dawn
From somewhere in the neighbouring cottages.
Caught by an old man’s juggleries
He stumbled, tumbled, fumbled to and fro
And had but broken knees for hire
And horrible splendour of desire;
I thought it all out twenty years ago:
Good fellows shuffled cards in an old bawn;
And when that ancient ruffian’s turn was on
He so bewitched the cards under his thumb
That all but the one card became
A pack of hounds and not a pack of cards,
And that he changed into a hare.
Hanrahan rose in frenzy there
And followed up those baying creatures towards –
O towards I have forgotten what – enough! …
“Horrible splendour of desire”: so much of Yeats’ poetry seems to me to depict not so much the pain of unrequited love, but of unrequited lust! Entering old age, he sees “the young in one another’s arms”, and rages because this is “no country for old men”. He takes stock of himself – an ageing man whose failing physical powers are increasingly at odds with his undiminished desire and passion:
Consume my heart away: sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is …
In “The Tower”, too, he rages:
What shall I do with this absurdity –
O heart, O troubled heart – this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
. Never had I more
Excited, passionate, fantastical
Imagination, nor an ear and eye
That more expected the impossible –
But what’s the good of the imagination so excited, so passionate and so fantastical, when that “caricature” old age nullifies it? What does it matter that one’s heart is “sick with desire” when it is “fastened to a dying animal”? Out of all this questioning, another theme emerges: is there an aspect of one’s self that is distinct from one’s failing flesh? What, indeed, is the essence of one’s self, of one’s being?
In the final verse of “Sailing to Byzantium”, the first poem in this collection, Yeats imagines the essence of his self freed of decaying flesh:
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake…
A golden artefact created merely to keep a drowsy emperor awake, but which does not decay as human flesh decays. It cannot be “sick with desire” because it cannot desire in the first place. It is utterly impersonal. Can such impersonal permanence really contain the essence of one’s self, of one’s identity? This first poem, “Sailing to Byzantium”, is not resolved: it cannot be resolved. On the one hand, there is a desire for immortality; but that desire can only be satisfied in a state in which no desire is possible.
“Only an aching heart / Conceives a changeless work of art”, Yeats writes in a later poem, “My Table” – the third part of “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, itself a sequence of seven distinct poems, a sort of collection within a collection. In this poem, Yeats reflects on another unchanging artefact, a Japanese sword on his table, and tries to find some meaning in it, some symbol in it that would give at least some semblance of meaning to his own apparently pointless life:
That it may moralise
My days out of their aimlessness.
This sequence, “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, introduces another powerful theme in this collection – violence. Yeats was living in a country at war with itself. He had deliberately not written about the First World War, but the theme of violence is inescapable now that the war is on his very doorstep. The glory of the past is evoked, but only to underline the fact of its vanishing: time is seen in forms of cycles – the glory and the decline and the darkness had all come before, and will all come round again. In the final poem of the “Meditations” sequence – which has the extraordinary title “I See Phantoms of Hatred and of the Heart’s Fullness and of the Coming Emptiness” – Yeats speaks of “monstrous familiar images”. For a while, these images recede, as the poet imagines the erotic loveliness of “magical unicorns bear[ing] ladies on their back”, but the nightmare cannot be banished, an soon returns with full force:
Nor self-delighting reverie
Nor hate of what’s to come, nor pity for what’s gone,
Nothing but grip of claw, and the eye’s complacency,
And the innumerable clanging wings that have put out the moon.
The next poem is “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”, which is about as dark a poem as I have come across:
Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
The strain of violence is apparent in many of the following poems, not least in the terse and profoundly disturbing sonnet “Leda and the Swan”, in which the mythological sexual union between Leda and the god Zeus in form of a swan is presented not as a seduction, but as a brutal rape. The physical details are almost pornographic. And this act of a cruel, indifferent divinity brings forth a cycle of carnage and devastation:
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
. Being so caught up
So mastered by the brute blood of the air…
There is something very final about that strongly stressed word “dead” that brings the line to such an abrupt halt in the middle. (The line is completed by another half line, but placing that next half line in the next line on the page accentuates and makes quite shocking the caesura.)
The closing lines are vague and ambiguous:
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
What does Yeats mean by “put on”? The suggestion seems to be that Leda, violated, objectified, and then discarded, powerless in the face of divine wickedness and indifference, took from her violator some of his divine knowledge, and, perhaps, foresaw the cataclysmic consequence of this divine act – “the broken wall, the burning roof and tower, and Agamemnon dead”. But the expression is ambiguous.
But of course, Leda is not the only mortal woman who had borne a divine child. The Classical Age had given way to a new cycle, this time brought on by another child of divinity borne by a mortal woman:
I saw a staring virgin stand
Where holy Dionysus died,
And tear the heart out of his side.
And lay the heart upon her hand
And bear that beating heart away;
Of Magnus Annus at the spring,
As though God’s death were but a play.
Another Troy must rise and set,
Another lineage feed the crow,
Another Argo’s painted prow
Drive to a flashier bauble yet.
The Roman Empire stood appalled:
It dropped the reins of peace and war
When that fierce virgin and her Star
Out of the fabulous darkness called.
The implicit parallel drawn between Leda, raped by an indifferent classical deity, and Mary, impregnated by the Holy Ghost without the stain of original sin, must seem blasphemous indeed, but the closeness of these poems in the collection reinforces the parallel: in each case, a new cycle is brought into being by divine action.
In the midst of these poems on violence and on cycles of time initiated by gods, Yeats places “Among School Children”, a personal, autobiographical poem, and one of his very finest and most moving poetic utterances. In the first verse, he reflects upon himself as an old man as he had done in “Sailing to Byzantium” or in “The Tower”, but the tone is no longer raging and passionate: instead, rather discocertingly, it is comic, and self-mocking:
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way – the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
In the next verse, even more disconcertingly, the myth of Leda and the Swan re-appears. He thinks of a young girl and thinks of her as Leda (“I dream of a Ledean body…”), victim of an act of divine sexual violence. But in the next verse, as he looks “upon one or t’other child there”, and wonders
if she stood so at that age –
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage –
Not Leda, then, but Leda’s daughter, but whether Helen or Clytemnestra is not made clear. I must confess to finding this imagery both disturbing, and confusing: Yeats seems clearly to be referring back to “Leda and the Swan”, but to what purpose, I do not know. But he thinks of that “Ledean body” now, “hollow of cheek”: like himself, this Ledean body he dreams of has also aged. Perhaps the invocation of the myth of Leda and the Swan indicates another sort of violation that humans suffer from the gods – old age, the decline of faculties. For which young mother, asks Yeats, could she but picture her child “with sixty or more winters on its head” could “think it a compensation for the pang of his birth”?
It is from this despair that Yeats attempts to find at least some semblance of meaning. In that glorious final stanza, Yeats tries to picture humanity not as a beautiful child, nor as a aged creature – “a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick”, as he had declared in the first poem of this collection: no, the essence of being human cannot be perceived from such images frozen in time, but, rather, from the entire arc of that person’s life, from the movement, the dance:
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
And so the poem that had began with the poet walking “through the long schoolroom questing” ends with a question: can the essence of what it is to be human separated from the movement it undergoes through life? Can it be extracted from the movement, and reshaped merely into a changeless golden artefact?
This poem (like, indeed, all the other poems in this extraordinary collection) cannot be discussed adequately in a few short paragraphs: its different layers of meaning haunt the mind, and resonate in all sorts of ways. But in many ways, it seems to me Yeats’ version of Wordsworth’s “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”: in both works, the poet laments the decline from the state of childhood, the losses incurred, but then, with an almost superhuman effort, look for some degree of comfort in what is left behind.
(I think, incidentally, that Wordsworth’s poem has already been evoked in the final lines of the last poem of the sequence “Meditations in Time of Civil War”:
The abstract joy,
The half-read wisdom of daemonic images,
Suffice the ageing man as once the growing boy.
“The growing boy” inevitably calls to mind Wordsworth’s lines
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy
I think it highly unlikely that that the echo is unintentional. Those “shades of the prison house” that close upon us as we grow is as much Yeats’ theme as it had been Wordsworth’s.)
Towards the end of this collection is another of those composite poems – this time, eleven separate and distinct poems arranged in a sequence with the title “A Man Young and Old”. In many of these poems, elements of Yeats’ earlier balladeering days seem to return, but the ethereal charm of those early ballads seems curiously knottier than before. In the first poem, for instance, Yeats describes “first love”:
Though nurtured like the sailing moon
In beauty’s murderous brood,
She walked awhile and blushed awhile
And on my pathway stood
Until I thought her body bore
A heart of flesh and blood.
But since I laid a hand thereon
And found a heart of stone
I have attempted many things
And not a thing is done,
For every hand is lunatic
That travels on the moon.
She smiled and that transfigured me
And left me but a lout,
Maundering here, and maundering there,
Emptier of thought
Than the heavenly circuit of its stars
When the moon sails out.
Unrequited love has long been a recurring theme in folk ballads, but it seems to have been given a few idiosyncratic twists here. The “beauty’s murderous brood” in the second line, for instance, is more mature Yeats than folk-ballad. And the imagery of the moon we have had before in “The Tower”:
And certain men, being maddened by those rhymes,
Or else by toasting her a score of times,
Rose from the table and declared it right
To test their fancy by their sight;
But they mistook the brightness of the moon
For the prosaic light of day —
Music had driven their wits astray —
And one was drowned in the great bog of Cloone.
There, the moonlight was imagination, and the “prosaic light of day” reality: and mistaking one for the other les to madness, and to death. In “I See Phantoms of Hatred and of the Heart’s Fullness and of the Coming Emptiness”, the final poem of the sequence “Meditation in Time of Civil War”, Yeats had spoken of “the innumerable clanging wings that have put out the moon”. And now, the deceptive power of the imagination returns, and leaves the young man the poet had been “but a lout”.
The sequence of poems takes us, as the title promises, through various stages of life, and, at the very end of this sequence, we have Yeats’ rendering of one of Sophocles’ blackest and most pessimistic of choruses:
Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.
Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.
In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is catried to the bridegroom’s chamber
through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.
Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.
Classical scholar Peter Levi describes these as “amongthe most Sophoclean lines ever written in English”, although he adds “Sophocles would not have given his thoughts the romantic touches that Yeats gives to these lines” (from “Greece and the Hellenistic World”, published 1986 by Oxford University press). But then again, this is not a translation of Sophocles: though based on a chorus from Oedipus at Colonus, this is very much a Yeatsian poem, the Romanticism of his earlier work never quite extinguished, despite the uncompromising pessimism of the content.
In the final poem of the collection, the magnificent “All Souls’ Night”, Yeats calls upon three ghosts, three dead people, people now freed of their flesh and in a state in which “names are nothing”. Yeats brilliant re-creates them as they had been in life, each striving, in his or her own way, to look beyond their mortal selves into an eternity in which the incompleteness of life may find some sort of resolution. What that resolution can be, Yeats does not of course know: indeed, he knows that he cannot know. All he knows is the incompleteness of this life, and this poem, and, indeed, this entire collection, is a passionate and heartfelt lament for that incompleteness.
Such thought — such thought have I that hold it tight
Till meditation master all its parts,
Nothing can stay my glance
Until that glance run in the world’s despite
To where the damned have howled away their hearts,
And where the blessed dance;
Such thought, that in it bound I need no other thing,
Wound in mind’s wandering
As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.