Archive for April, 2014

“Flashman’s Lady” by George Macdonald Fraser

To recap:

Flashman, the vicious school bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and a nasty a piece of work lacking all moral compass, has found himself involved in some of the most striking and dramatic historic events of the 19th century, and, despite his appalling behaviour, has generally, through comic misunderstandings, been mistaken for a gallant hero. In his old age, he wrote disarmingly honest and gloriously colourful accounts of his various adventures; and George Macdonald Fraser has scrupulously edited these accounts, adding scholarly and well-researched footnotes and appendices, thus presenting them to the public as important historic documents; and, in the process of doing so, he has presented to the public also some of the very finest of adventure stories ever written, easily equalling and possibly at times even surpassing such masters of the genre as Dumas, Stevenson, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle.

Flashman’s Lady is the sixth in a series of twelve. (I am reading through these marvellous novels in the order in which they were written: a quick survey of the first five may be found here.) In this novel, in the first hundred or so pages set still in Blighty, we are given some marvellous set pieces – most notably, cricket at Lords, and a wonderfully vivid and picturesque scene depicting a public hanging at Newgate. But then, we’re off: Macdonald Fraser whisks us off first into Malaysia and Borneo (where Flashman, most unwillingly, becomes involved in warfare against local pirates); and, in the latter part of the novel, into Madagascar, where, as a slave, he is appointed to train the army, and to be lover of the insatiable Queen Ranavalona, who, if Macdonald Fraser’s account is to be believed (and he certainly provides copious references, including several eye-witness accounts), was amongst the most vile and wicked mass-murderers in history.

In dealing with such historic events, there is always the danger that the historic background will overwhelm the story. This possibly happened in the fifth of the series – Flashman and the Great Game – which depicted various events of the Indian Mutiny. The historic events and the personalities involved were depicted with such tremendous vitality and vividness, that it was easy to overlook the fact that Flashman himself, for much of the novel, was little more than an onlooker. But Macdonald Fraser is determined not to let that happen here. To this end, he introduces as a major player Flashman’s wife, Elspeth. In previous novels, she had remained safely ensconced in Britain while Flashman whored and cheated his way through various scrapes, but here, she is in the midst of things, accompanying Flashman first to Malaysia, and later into Madagascar. We are even presented with extracts from her diary. Of course, she is as ignorant and as splendidly airheaded as ever, but, for all that, Flashman has developed an attachment of sorts to her. This doesn’t prevent him cheating on her whenever he can without the slightest pang of conscience; but it does mean that he can’t quite leave her to her fate. It means that he can at times risk even his own safety for her sake. Some readers may complain that this is a dilution, or even a betrayal, of the utterly amoral Flashman we had known from earlier novels: perhaps it is. But there isn’t really enough to his character as presented in the earlier narratives to sustain our interest across an entire series of full-length novels. Flashman from those earlier novels wasn’t capable of development, and to sustain our interest across so many novels, he does, I think, need to develop. I personally did not find this particular development unbelievable.

The presence of Elspeth in the main action also introduces the motif of the “damsel in distress”, thus giving this novel more a feel of the traditional Boys’ Own adventure story than in the previous five. This sense of the Boys’ Own adventure story is heightened by the extraordinary presence of James Brooke, one of the most colourful and remarkable of all historic figures, and who could so very easily have stepped out from one of those traditional Boys’ Own adventure stories. But he was real enough: an appendix tells of his astonishing campaigns to rid the islands of the Malay Archipelago of piracy. The depiction of his character would have appeared utterly fantastic had not Macdonald Fraser, with his usual care for historic authenticity, supplied so many scholarly references in the footnotes: James Brooke really was, it seems, as extraordinarily daring and quixotic a character as is presented here. Macdonald Fraser has a wonderful ability to depict charismatic figures from history, and reading this, one can but shake one’s head in disbelief that such a person could ever have existed.

As ever, Macdonald Fraser admires heroism. Brooke’s associates – some historical, others products of the author’s imagination – are brought superbly to life, none more so than the marvellous figure of Paitangi, half Scots and half Arab, an unlikely Muslim-Calvinist, who ends up sacrificing himself for the good of the expedition. He does so without any self-conscious heroics: it is simply a job he has been engaged to do, and he does it. The narrator Flashman may not value this, but it is precisely this sort of heroism that Macdonald Fraser celebrates throughout this series of novels.

Of course, despite all the elements of the Boys’ Own adventure stories, these are serious novels for grown-up readers. The covers may give the impression of light entertainment, but the covers are misleading. Amongst other things, these are blood-drenched novels. Given the events they relate, they could hardly be otherwise. In children’s adventure stories, characters can be wounded, or can die, without the author having to give any detailed account of their suffering: that is not possible here. Not that Macdonald Fraser wallows in detailed description: far from it. When a pirates’ ship is taken, for instance, he mentions some of the corpses recovered of women who had been tortured to death; but mercifully, he leaves out the details of the torture: it is not the purpose of these novels to nauseate the reader. But the horrors cannot be overlooked either. These are not, after all, children’s books. And horrors don’t really come much more horrific than the reign of Queen Ranavalona in Madagascar.

As with the depiction of James Brooke, but for different reasons, the depiction of Ranavalona can stretch credulity. But once again, copious references, often to eye-witness accounts, are cited. It appears that Ranavalona was a sadistic psychopath, delighting in inflicting upon her subjects the most hideous tortures and executions on a massive scale. Perhaps, with our knowledge of Nazi Germany and of Soviet Russia, or of Khmer Rouge or of Assad or of any of the other brutal despotic regimes with which this world continues to be plagued, we should not be surprised: but it is hard not to recoil in horror in reading these chapters. Once again, it is not Macdonald Fraser’s purpose to nauseate us: he is writing, first and foremost, an adventure story. And he uses all his considerable skills as a narrator to ensure that this novel remains, first and foremost, an adventure story, without descending into torture-porn. Nonetheless, I doubt I have read anything more horrific in fiction.

Ranavalona may be seen as mad, but Flashman has his own views on this:

Her wants are simple: just give her an ample supply of victims to mutilate and gloat over and she was happy – not that you’d have guessed it to look at her, and indeed I’ve heard some say that she was just plain mad and didn’t know what she was doing. That’s an old excuse which ordinary folk take refuge in because they don’t care to believe there are people who enjoy inflicting pain. “He’s mad,” they’ll say – but they only say because they see a little of themselves in the tyrant, too, and want to shudder away from it quickly, like well-bred little Christians. Mad? Aye, Ranavalona was mad as a hatter in many ways – but not where cruelty was concerned. She knew quite what she was doing, and studied to so it better, and was deeply gratified by it, and that’s the professional opinion of kindly old Dr Flashy, who’s a time-served bully himself.


I grew up with Boys’ Own adventure stories, and I suppose I am predisposed towards the genre. But I have never believed in applying different standards to genre literature and to non-genre literature: by any standard, this novel is a triumph, and, like its predecessors in the series, it really makes me wonder whether there has been a more skilled novelist in the last fifty or so years than George Macdonald Fraser. What the likes of Dumas or Stevenson had been to their generations, Macdonald Fraser is, I think, to mine. And the best of it is that I am only half way through this series: there are six more novels to go, and, if reports are to be believed, the standard does not flag.

Gloucester’s mock-suicide

…for, once again, the fierce dispute
Betwixt damnation and impassioned clay
Must I burn through…
– John Keats

“Damnation and impassioned clay…” Keats certainly had a way with words! But impressive though those words are, I particularly love here his use of the word “must”. King Lear is a harrowing play: fierce disputes betwixt damnation and impassioned clay, even at best of times, are unlikely to be anything but harrowing. But no matter: those of us who are under its spell feel that they must keep returning to it. And no matter how many times one sees or reads this play, each new encounter overwhelms with its terror and its pity, and its savage power.

I was eleven years old when I first encountered this play. It was at the Assembly Halls in Edinburgh, during the 1971 Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West played Lear. I am not sure how much I took in, or even how much I was capable of taking in at that age: but I took in enough. I was so excited by what I had seen, that I could not get to sleep that night. There are few single instances that one could describe as “life-changing”, but I think I can with some confidence describe that evening in such terms: my Shakespeare mania can be traced back to that performance.

Timothy West was, I think, only in his forties when he played that role in Edinburgh. Some thirty or so afterwards, I saw Timothy West, now himself closer to Lear’s “fourscore and more”, play the role again, this time in an English Touring Theatre production directed by Stephen Unwin. I am afraid I cannot give a detailed account of how his interpretation had changed over the years, but his performance was every bit as overwhelming as I remember it to have been some thirty years earlier.

I am currently reading the play in two different texts. Last year, I read Hamlet in different texts – the two Quarto texts (the so-called “good Quarto”, and also the “Bad Quarto” for completeness), and the Folio – and convinced myself that when more than one legitimate text exists, then we must treat them as different versions of the work: no purpose is served in conflating them. So now, to King Lear: as with Hamlet there are two good texts – the First Quarto, of 1608, and the First Folio, printed after Shakespeare’s death in the 1623; and there are sufficient differences between the two texts to indicate significant revisions. I’ll try to compare the two texts once I have finished reading them, but for the moment, I am drawn once again into this fierce dispute betwixt damnation and impassioned clay. And there’s one scene in particular in this fierce dispute that, even after forty and more years of repeated reading and viewing, I find puzzling.

It occurs in Act 4, shortly before the famous scene in which the blind Gloucester encounters the mad Lear on the heath. Edgar, Gloucester’s exiled son, leads his eyeless father: the father is unaware of the identity of the man leading him, and, in despair, wants only to die. Edgar pretends that they are at the edge of a cliff, and delivers a magnificent vertigo-inducing description of what it is like to look down from the imagined heights. Gloucester, thinking himself to be on the edge, leaps forward, only to fall on the level ground. When he comes to, Edgar approaches him again, this time pretending to be another person; and he tells Gloucester that he is now at the foot of the cliff, having fallen from the top, and that, but by some miracle, has remained physically unscathed. He adds also that the person Gloucester had been with at the top of the cliff – himself of course – had appeared to him from the bottom as some sort of fiendish supernatural figure.

This episode has always struck me as bizarre. I frankly do not understand it. Edgar playing these games with his sightless father makes no sort of sense at all: what is he trying to achieve? He tells us that he is doing all this to cure his father from despair, but how all this tomfoolery could achieve such an end, or even why he thinks it could achieve that end, is far from clear. It is utterly bizarre.

And yet, it is a scene that haunts the mind. I do not understand it, and I cannot see how it fits with what I understand to be the themes of the play. But I would not even think of cutting it from performance. After all, Shakespeare did not remove it when he revised the work: he clearly thought it important.

Am I missing something here? Or is this scene – like Charmian’s “Ah, soldier!” – one of those Shakespearean miracles that defy analysis? I do not know. Analysis is important, certainly, but it is salutary perhaps to keep in mind that a work of this stature has about it a mystery; and that even the most trenchant of analyses cannot pluck out the heart of that mystery.

“The Girls of Slender Means” by Muriel Spark

Has ever an author been more appropriately named, I wonder? For the novels of Muriel Spark do indeed sparkle. They sparkle and they scintillate with brilliance and high spirits. And yet, neither the brilliance nor the high spirits obscure the very serious nature of her themes. The Girls of Slender Means is, in these respects, very characteristic of Spark. Here, she is writing about very serious themes indeed – about death, about faith and the lack of it, and, I think, about the evil that lurks within the everyday; and yet, none of this diminishes the sheer ebullience of the writing. The characterisations are adroit, the milieu superbly evoked without the need of extended descriptive passages, and the plotline – jumping backwards and forwards in time so insistently that one can never tell whether the scenes set in the past are flashbacks or the scenes set in the future are flash-forwards – is organized and paced to absolute perfection. By the end, one feels like applauding the author for her virtuoso performance. For a Muriel Spark novel is a performance: hers is not an art that hides art, but, rather, an art that draws attention to its own brilliance: display of her novelistic brilliance is, indeed, part of the intended effect. And yet, even given all this, there is something about this novel, something I find difficult to account for, that leaves me vaguely dissatisfied.


There are certain artists whose imaginations are by nature expansive, and there are others whose imaginations contract. As with most such dichotomies, these are not the only possibilities, but, rather, two poles of a spectrum: nonetheless, they can be, I think, useful categories. When it comes to literature, modern taste tends, I think, towards concision: various books, especially those written in ages more leisurely than ours, are castigated for being “too long”, though rarely if ever is any book from any period criticised for being “too short”; and the glib though frequently made criticism “needs a good editor” is based on the hopefully mistaken assumption that a “good editor” always recommends cutting rather than expanding. But whatever modern taste may be on this or on any other matter, each work of art should be judged in terms of the artist’s aesthetics: it is as foolish to criticise a Mahler symphony for being “too long” as it is to criticise a Sibelius symphony for being “too short”.

As a novelist, Muriel Spark is towards’ Sibelius’ end of the spectrum – at least, as far as concision of material is concerned. The one novel of hers amongst those I have read that essays a larger canvas is The Mandelbaum Gate, and this I found her least convincing: having achieved all she can with her characteristic economy, she seems to find vast areas of the canvas that needed still to be filled, and she appears unsure what to fill it with. In consequence, much of the novel is filled with unnecessary and frankly rather tiresome intricacies of plot, equally tiresome knockabout comedy, and depictions of individual psychology that seem, even in a novel that is by the standards of most other writers merely of medium length, over-extended. The characteristic wit and ebullience seem missing, or, at best, diluted.

But here, in The Girls of Slender Means, she is on more familiar ground: the canvas is small, and there is no empty space that requires filling. Most of the action of this novel takes place in London in the summer of 1945, in the months immediately following VE Day. However, given the hithering-and-thithering time scheme, we know almost from the start that one of its central characters, Nicholas Farringdon, later becomes a Catholic missionary and is killed – or “martyred”, as we are told – on some far-flung shore. We see Nicholas Farringdon through most of this novel not as a Catholic missionary, nor even as a particularly religious man: but we know that he will later become a religious man; and we witness the events that change him.

The scene is a boarding house for young ladies in Kensington. The very first sentence tells us that immediately after the war, “all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions”: these were girls of very slender means, but nonetheless maintaining as best they can the gentility of their class. Each of these girls is depicted with but a few of brush-strokes: we are very far here from the intricate probing of characters’ minds that we find in the works of, say, Henry James or Edith Wharton. But these few brush-strokes are all applied with exquisite skill and assurance. And there emerges through all this a picture of evil within the mundane and everyday that is as potent as those which emerges in the much longer works of James or of Wharton – in such works as, say, The Portrait of a Lady, or The House of Mirth.

The novel never loses its lightness of touch and its delicious eccentricity, but none of that prevents the climactic sequence from being truly horrific. An unexploded bomb goes off, and the girls of slender means are trapped inside a dangerously burning building: the only way out is through a very narrow window through which only the girls of extremely physical slender means can escape. Another escape route is found, but for all the girls to escape is a race against time. And it is at this point that Nicholas Farringdon perceives the evil that changes the course of his life.

Both the conception and the execution are beyond reproach: it is not often that such seriousness of matter can be addressed with such unfailing lightness and wit. But there remains something that I continue to find unsatisfactory: why does Nicholas turn to religion after this experience?

It could be said that I find myself puzzled by this question because I do not myself adhere to a religious faith, but I don’t think that’ll do. Yes, Nicholas turns to religion because he is affected by what he sees; but, as far as I can see, what he sees could just as well have turned him into an atheist. Different people can, of course, react differently, often radically differently, to the same thing; but whatever it is in Nicholas that makes him react in this particular manner is not, I think, something that can be understood without a painstakingly detailed examination of the kind of person Nicholas was; and Spark’s novelistic aesthetic does not, I think, allow for such painstakingly detailed examination. Her brilliantly concise style and her scintillating wit and sparkle are all qualities that make this novel so wonderful; but it is also these qualities that prevent a question that seems to me to be of central Importance from being answered, or even, for that matter, addressed.

This is a problem I find myself often running into in novels by writers professing religious faith. It is not the faith that I find problematic, but, rather, the frequent reticence on the part of the author in explaining how this faith affects the characters’ thinking and their outlook. Why, for instance, does Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie become a nun? I can accept that she does; but if the author does not explain to me what goes on in her mind that prompts her to make this decision, it is something I am forced to take merely on trust. There is a point where the author seems to say to the reader: “Unless you subscribe to and understand this particular theology, you are not going to understand this.” And for me, this is unsatisfactory: it is the novelist’s job precisely to make us understand, to take us into the minds of others, even others who may be very different from ourselves: if a character subscribes to a specific faith, the novelist must show us what it is like to live with that faith, what it is like to see the world through its lens; and silence on that aspect leaves, for me at least, a great hole in the middle. There is a great deal to enjoy here, much to admire and even to applaud; but in what seems to me to be the central point of the work – not the stimulus that causes Nicholas to become religious, but, rather, how that stimulus works on him to that end – there is a most disconcerting silence.

“Lapis Lazuli” by William Butler Yeats

Given how much of my reading is verse rather than prose, I have written very little about poetry on this blog. This is because I am not really sure how best to write about poetry. But it has to be done: there’s no point having a blog about my literary interests and banishing poetry. So, with extreme diffidence and with not a little trepidation, I have decided to embark upon what I hope will be a regular feature: Poem of the Month. Each month, I shall be choosing some poem that takes my fancy, and write about it in a manner I hope will not be too boring for the reader.

(I think I had better keep away from modern poems, as I may run into copyright issues, but there’s more than enough richness in what is available in the public domain.)

As ever, these are not scholarly exegeses: I am no literary scholar. These are, as with any other writing on this blog, merely the personal thoughts and impressions of an interested and, I trust, not too imperceptive a reader.

So with all that out of the way, let’s get started. For the first poem in what I hope will become a regular feature, I have chosen a late poem by one of my favourite poets – “Lapis Lazuli” by William Butler Yeats.

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.

Before I start, it is worth saying that a poem expresses thoughts and feelings and sensations that cannot be expressed otherwise; so, naturally, any attempt to express the meaning of a poem in words other than the ones the poet uses is bound to be a failure. This is particularly true of a poem as profound and as complex as this: it is far more than the sum of its possible interpretations. Even to paraphrase any part of this poem is to simplify grotesquely, to iron out its various complexities and ambiguities.

Having got all that out of the way, here goes.

What is this poem about? In a nutshell, it seems to me to be about that paradox of “tragic joy”. We can experience a tragedy as profound and as bleak as Shakespeare’s King Lear or Sophocles’ Oedipus, and yet come out of it strangely exhilarated, uplifted. To Yeats, this curious reaction to the witnessing of human suffering points to rather complex issues not only about human psychology, but about the nature of destruction and of creation, and the elusive interactions between them. In this poem, Yeats juxtaposes the cataclysmic waves of destruction and of suffering that humanity has faced and continues to face, with the joy of rebuilding, of creating out of the ashes. (Perhaps ironically, this poem itself was written on the brink of a worldwide cataclysm: it appeared in 1938.)

A key word in this poem is the word “gay”. As the poem progresses, this word acquires different levels of meaning. But one meaning it doesn’t have here is the meaning we tend to associate nowadays with the word: this poem is not about sexuality.

In this poem, the word “gay” stands as an antithesis of the tragic. When the word first occurs, it denotes merely the bright, the cheerful, the buoyant – perhaps, even, the frivolous. By the end of the poem, it stands for everything that is life-affirming, everything that speaks for the value of humanity, and of human effort, even in the face of the most horrendous facts of death and of suffering.

Throughout this poem, there are changes of tone – almost as if the different sections are spoken by different voices. Yeats does not modulate between one voice and the next: he juxtaposes them. I tend to imagine the opening section spoken by a grumpy old git over brandy and cigars – a sort of bar-room rant of a Telegraph-reading retired-colonel type who’s possibly had a few too many . The derogatory term “hysterical women” is certainly sexist – by our standards, offensively so – but it’s consistent with the tone in this section. The first four lines have simple rhymes, but their rhythms are deliberately clumsy. Most other poets would have gone for “I have heard hysterical women say…”, but Yeats breaks up this easy rhythm with the insertion of an extra unstressed syllable – “I have heard that hysterical women say”. This puts the rhythm a bit off kilter – this is not going to be a traditional tum-ti-tum that we are all so comfortable with. It also changes the meaning: the speaker is having a rant not about what he has heard these women say, but what he has been told they say.

And what do these “hysterical women” say? Effectively, that given the horrors of life, art is frivolous and irrelevant. The whole concept of art is referred to contemptuously as “palette and fiddle-bow”: the contempt is not that of Yeats, nor even that of the brandy-swilling retired colonel, but of the “hysterical women”. There is irony in the fourth line. “For everyone knows or else should now…” This “everyone knows” is akin to Austen’s “It is a fact universally acknowledged”. The seventh line – “Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in” – is a reference to a popular ballad – “The Battle of the Boyne”: we don’t need to know the reference, but we do need to register the colloquial ballad-like tone of this line. It is noticeable also that in the second quatrain, the rhymes almost disappear: previously, we had say/gay, and bow/know: now, we have done/in. out/flat. The pairs of words end with the same consonant sound, but have different vowel sounds leading up to them. Perhaps the brandy is having its effect on the retired colonel.

Through this voice, what is being expressed is clear enough: mankind faces grave horrors, and in this environment, the very idea of art is pointless and frivolous. The retired colonel probably disagrees with such a view (in his opinion, they’re held merely by “hysterical women”), but the poem now moves on to examine these issues in tones very different from the one we have hitherto heard.

Before we go further, let us briefly consider the rhyming and the rhythms of the poem. The whole thing is arranged into units of four lines (quatrains), each with an abab rhyme scheme; and often, these rhymes are half-rhymes, or even quarter-rhymes. Sometimes, as in the first four lines, Yeats emphasises the rhyme scheme by making the rhymes exact rhymes, and often putting pauses (commas, full-stops) at the end of lines; at other times, he goes for a greater sense of fluidity by employing partial rhymes and enjambments. This flexibility allows him to vary the tone as he pleases. There are four beats to each line, but Yeats avoids tum-ti-tum monotony by varying the numbers of unstressed syllables. We could go into more detail on Yeats’ prosody, but since I would very soon be out of my depth were we to do that, let’s move on to the content. (Of course, the impact of what is said depends on how it is being said, but we’ll try to consider this as we go along.)

“All perform their tragic play”. The tone is very different now. It is the tone of serious contemplation, and those two pinnacles of the tragic art, Hamlet and King Lear, are explicitly evoked:

There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia

These great tragic figures can be seen in ordinary, common humanity – “all perform their tragic play”. These are not remote figures on a stage: they are ourselves. The last word of the first line of this section (“play”) recalls that pivotal word in this poem – “gay”. It is not explicitly rhymed with “gay” here – that occurs a few lines later: but the reader’s inner ear should catch the reference. Even when contemplating the profoundest of tragedies, the tragedies of Hamlet and of Lear, Yeats gives us an echo of the word “gay” – an echo of that which is the opposite of tragedy.

But now, Yeats makes the observation that even at the deepest point of human tragedy, Lear and Hamlet don’t “break up their lines to weep”. And he returns to that word “gay” with the astonishing pronouncement: “They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay”. At this point, we have to re-examine how we understand this word. It had appeared first in a dismissive context: “artists who are always gay” – artists who are light-hearted, frivolous. But can Lear and Hamlet be regarded in such terms? Surely not! But Yeats insists on using that word “gay”: he repeats that word in a slightly different form in the next line – “Gaiety transforming all that dread”. Again, there is an element of colloquialism in the expression “all that” (as in, say “…and all that jazz”), but the thought here is startling: Lear and Hamlet are actually the opposite of that which is tragic –they are “gay”; and far from enacting tragedy, they present its opposite, thus transforming tragedy.

The reason Yeats gives for this is simple: even at the moment of greatest tragedy, the tragic protagonists do not break up their lines to weep: they speak their lines clearly, observing their rhythms and sonorities; even here, they delight in the beauty of those lines. And it is this focus on the beauty that “transforms all that dread”: the creation of that beauty is the best, indeed, the only answer humanity has to all that oppresses it.

Yeats is in danger here of sanitising human misery and suffering – or even of trivialising it: it’s as if he is saying “Yes, humans suffer, but look – we can create pretty things out of all this, so all that suffering doesn’t really matter.” It’s important to appreciate, I think, that Yeats isn’t saying this. Indeed, the next few lines of the poem make quite clear that the poet knows and understands the nature of human suffering:

All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.

In that first line, Yeats is not talking about “all men”, but rather, “all that men have aimed at”. The syntax here is more than knotty: it is, indeed, ungrammatical. It is an impressionistic sketch of human tragedy, and its fierce intensity comes as a huge surprise given the colloquial nature of much of what we have read so far. “Heaven blazing into the head” is one of those phrases which, once read, is never forgotten. (And note the echo of the word “gay” in the long “a” sound in the first syllable of the word “blazing”: even when that word isn’t explicitly stated, it is present; and here, the sound is not so much echoed, perhaps, as thundered.) I often wonder if Yeats wasn’t referring here obliquely to the first lines of Euripides’ Medea:

If only a flaming bolt from heaven would pierce my head!
(From the translation by John Davie, published by Penguin Classics)

I have never seen this connection being made, but I can’t help feeling that Euripides’ play is lurking here in the background.

Immediately after these magnificent lines, Yeats brings us down to earth with a bump, as two of the most sublime creations of literature are brought down a few pegs: “Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages.” (I love that internal rhyme – or near-rhyme – of “Hamlet rambles”.) And yes, their magnificent blank verse could, I suppose, be regarded in such terms: Hamlet does ramble, and Lear does rage. And this brings them close to the rest of us – all of us who, according to the first line of this section “act [our] tragic play”. We are, all of us, Hamlet and Lear, Ophelia and Cordelia. If this line brings Lear and Hamlet down to our level, it also raises us up to theirs. We too, like Hamlet and Lear, face sorrow, loss, and death: our lives too are tragic.

In the remaining lines of this section, the syntax is jumbled, and deliberately unclear:

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.

What cannot grow by an inch or an ounce? The extent of the tragedy? The gaiety into which it has been transformed? All of this? Extending that old metaphor of the stage being the world, Yeats imagines the plays all ending at once – i.e. an apocalyptic end of human life itself, when “all the drop-scenes drop at once upon a hundred, thousand stages”; even if this should happen, there is a mysterious “it” which cannot grow: the tragedy is tragic only in human terms, not cosmic: the cosmos will carry on all the same, indifferent quite to the Lears and the Hamlets, the Ophelias and the Cordelias.

And yet, in amongst all this, there lurks an important point: the joy in the creation of beauty “transforms all that dread”. It doesn’t nullify the dread: the dread is still there, and always will be there, and it is horrific. But we also have the ability to transform, to create; and in this act of creation, there is something that is close to a sense of joy – a “gaiety”, as Yeats would put it.

Does this “gaiety” redeem the inevitable tragedy of our lives? That is up to each individual to answer. Much depends, I suppose, on what we mean by “redeem”, or, indeed, whether we believe in the possibility of redemption at all. But Yeats has given us so far a sort of answer to the “hysterical women”: whether or not we believe that the joy of creation can compensate for the inevitable tragedy of human life, that joy, that “gaiety”, is as much a fact of human life as is the tragedy. The act of creation may not abolish the tragedy and the horror, but this tragedy and horror can then give rise to human activity that embodies something that is their opposite.

In the next section, the tone changes yet again. In three lines, Yeats evokes an epic canvas. The change of tone is marked by a first line which, although it still has four beats, seems very far from the underlying iambic tetrameter (ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum):

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.

A picture is evoked of tragedy not merely of individuals – of Hamlet and Lear and Ophelia and Cordelia – but of entire peoples, entire civilisations – catastrophes on the greatest of scales. What happens when a civilisation is destroyed (as ours, too, no doubt will be some day)?

Then they and their wisdom went to rack

Yeats now evokes the legendary sculptor Callimachus, of whose work nothing now remains:

No handiwork of Callimachus
…… stands.

But between the “Callimachus” and the “stands”, Yeats uses his own art to imagine for himself, in a few exquisite lines, the nature of Callimachus’ art:

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.

The next quatrain imagines more of what Callimachus’ art may have been like, and then concludes:

All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Again that word “gay”, and again (the repeated word “again” echoing the word “gay”) it occurs for maximum emphasis at the end of the line. And we have to ponder what the word means here, now, in this context. It certainly doesn’t mean “frivolous”. Neither is Yeats referring here to the aesthetic pleasure one gets from a work of tragic art – where tragedy itself, paradoxically, is transformed to “gaiety”. He is here referring to mankind’s ability to rebuild itself after even the greatest of disasters, the greatest of destructions – just as his own imagination has allowed him to recreate in words what had been lost of Callimachus’ art. The losses are to be lamented; but equally, man’s capacity to rebuild must be celebrated, for it is “gay”.

Now, we enter the final section of the poem. Having considered works of Western art –King Lear and Hamlet and the lost art of Callimachus – Yeats now turns to a work of Oriental art, and describes in detail a Chinese sculpture curved in lapis lazuli. As ever, Yeats does not modulate from the previous section into this: he merely juxtaposes. How this sculpture relates to what he had been talking about earlier is not at first entirely clear.

He takes six lines (one and a half quatrains) to describe the piece.

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.

The tone here is completely neutral – a description of a static scene (carved literally in stone) more or less without comment. We seem suddenly transported from the hurly-burly of change and activity on a vast scale to a scene of calm; from the dynamic to the static; from a world of violent passions to one of equanimity. The very static nature of this Chinese sculpture contrasts with the dynamic imaginings of Callimachus’ sculpture in the previous section, where the very marble had seemed to be in motion.

The next (and final) section starts with two lines that complete the half-quatrain that had finished the earlier section, and relates the calm of this stasis to the themes encountered earlier in the poem:

Every discolouration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent
Seems a water-course or an avalanche….

The small details here can be seen as microcosms of larger events. But still, it remains unclear how this carving relates to the upheavals of tragic power, and destructions of entire civilisations.

The tone now modulates from an impersonal to a personal note, and with this modulation comes a new vowel sound – a sound that had been absent from the poem since the very first word: “I” – the long “i” sound. This is given special force by being placed at the end of the line, and two lines later, we get the word “sky” to rhyme with it. This vowel sound, in the last few lines, seems to establish a new tonality, as it were: in the last two lines, as if to emphasise this new tonality, the word “eyes” appears no less than three times. However, the word “gay”, with its long vowel sound, is not overwhelmed by this new sound: that long “a” sound appears in the last words of lines 2 and 4 in the final quatrain (play/gay), and the very last word of the poem is, of course, “gay”. The repetition of this word relates this static Chinese carving back to the dynamism of King Lear or of Hamlet, for, like those plays, this sculpture too is “gay”. But once again, the word means something a bit different here.

For this Chinese sculpture depicts not the dynamism of tragic passion, but the curious detached equanimity with which these passions can be viewed. Does this detachment imply a lack of feeling, and indifference? Or is it indicative of some transcendent wisdom that senses an elusive gaiety beyond the turmoil of human affairs? Yeats tells us that he “delights” (another repetition of that long “i” sound) in imagining these men looking down from the heights on to a scene of tragedy below, listening to “mournful melodies”, with gaiety in their ancient, glittering eyes. It is a haunting image, and a very uncomfortable one. Should suffering be looked on with equanimity? With gaiety? Most of us, I think, would answer “no”. But is this gaiety too far removed from the aesthetic satisfaction we take in seeing King Lear? Is it not a just celebration of the human ability to create, to rebuild?

The ending of this poem – indeed, the whole poem itself – is disturbing in its many paradoxes, in its relating of human suffering and misery to human creativity, and the human ability to renew itself. As with any great poem, it strikes many different notes all at the same time, and to insist on any one tonality denies the possibility of the others. All these paradoxes seem to me concentrated in that magnificent final quatrain:

One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

As a footnote, I recently watched a DVD of the late Claudio Abbado conducting Mahler’s 6th symphony – among the darkest and most tragic of works – and I couldn’t help noticing that when a passage was particularly well-executed, Abbado would break into a spontaneous smile – even though the music was as dark and as bleakly tragic as may be imagined. There was such an obvious joy in the very act of creation: and yet this did not distract from the tragic nature of the work; somehow, this joy co-existed with the tragedy. And I could not help thinking then of this poem.