Posts Tagged ‘yeats’

Blessed if I understand

For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
– From “The Wreck of the Deutschland” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

My travails with Donne as recorded in my previous post, and, more especially, a Facebook conversation I subsequently had regarding that post, raise some wider interesting questions on how we understand poetry, and, indeed, art in general.

My own academic background is in science and mathematics, and, at least to the levels I attained, understanding in those areas is a very precise thing: each symbol in each equation or formula is precisely defined, and the relationship between these precisely defined symbols is itself precisely defined, and the scientific mind is trained to understand each of these things precisely, so as to leave no room for ambiguity or uncertainty. Even where the formula denotes uncertainty – the famous Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg, say – there is a precisely defined limit on the product of the uncertainties involved. When trying to absorb anything of a mathematical nature, to come to an understanding, one has to understand precisely what each of the elements means, and then understand, again precisely, how they come together, and relate to each other. Now, clearly, this is not the way we take in poetry, which, as T. S. Eliot once said, is something that can be appreciated even before it is understood. There are a great many poems that I love greatly, that haunt my mind, but which I would be at a loss to explain in clear terms: like this poem by Yeats, for instance. Unlike Heisenberg’s formula that puts limits on the product of the standard deviations of the momentum and position of a particle, there seems no limit here even to the myriad uncertainties. Could I explain what is meant by the “gong-tormented sea”? No, not really. It seems to make its impact not at the level of consciousness, exposed to light and to precision, but rather at some mysterious subterranean level of the mind.

All of this makes it difficult to talk about poetry. To define precisely each term, and explain how everything fits together to cohere into a whole, seems to be missing the point. And yet, merely to say how wonderful it is without expanding on what it is that makes it wonderful seems mere pointless burbling.

It is at this point that a scientifically trained mind unsympathetic to the claims of poetry is likely to ask how, if understanding at a conscious level is not the point, one may distinguish between poetry and gibberish. The cynic may say there is no difference, but that won’t do: Yeats’ “Byzantium”, no matter how obscure, is a work of art, and a very great one at that, whereas a few random words and phrases that I may put together is unlikely to be, and there must be some reason for this. Nonetheless, a poem is not a mathematical formula, or a crossword puzzle awaiting a solution: obscurities in a poem are to be absorbed, not explained away, as any explanation is likely to be facile and reductive. Some years ago, I confessed on this blog that I was still “puzzled” by Moby-Dick, but even as I was writing this, I knew I was meant to be puzzled – that, paradoxically, if I wasn’t puzzled, that could only mean that I hadn’t taken it in at all adequately.

Bearing all this in mind, I have to ask myself whether my confessed befuddlement with Donne’s poetry is but an indication that I have been approaching it wrongly – whether, indeed, my desire to “understand” is itself misplaced, and an unfortunate by-product of my scientific background. Although I am not entirely sure on the matter, I am inclined to think not, as my puzzlement relates not to that which lies hidden deep below the surface, but to the surface itself. My puzzlement is not akin to my wondering what the White Whale represents, but, rather, to my not even getting in the first place that Ahab is hunting the White Whale. In short, my lack of understanding, so far, is on a very basic level – too basic, indeed, even to be recorded in a blog that, I like to flatter myself, is sophisticated and cultured. Or something like that.

But I trust that it won’t take me too long to get to a level where I can, at least, grasp the surface. And then will come the really difficult bit.

The Tragic Vision and its Discontents

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 carried 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.

– W. B. Yeats’ magnificent creative rendering (hardly a translation, if all the other translations I’ve encountered of this are anything to go by) of a chorus from Sophocles “Oedipus at Colonus”

In a recent post, I was rash enough to refer to something called a “tragic vision”, without bothering to define the term, or even, for that matter, to indicate what, if anything, I might have meant by it. And, quite rightly, I was challenged: what do I mean by it? My immediate reaction to the challenge was, I admit, to do what is normally done on the net on such occasions – claim that the meaning of the term is obvious in the context, and tell the questioner in no uncertain terms that he was simply being obtuse and awkward in pretending not to understand. But having learnt over the years to think a bit before hitting the “post” button – at least, in most cases – I did think for a bit, and the question after a while seemed entirely valid. If my principal criticism of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is that it lacks this mysterious quality “tragic vision”, then it is surely up to me at least to give at least some indication of what I mean by the term. The question isn’t however an easy one to address, if only because before one can define “tragic vision”, one must first of all define “tragedy”; and even some rather profound thinkers have come a cropper on that one.

There are, broadly speaking, two approaches to this – the prescriptive, and the descriptive: one may set out rules of what does or doesn’t constitute “tragic”, and, using those rules, determine which works are tragic and which aren’t; or one may examine all those works we – or, more precisely in this case, I – instinctively recognise as “tragic”, and then try to identify some common features of these works that lead to this recognition. The latter approach seems more reasonable to me, if only because the former seems remarkably pointless.

So, I started considering various tragic works, and identifying what features they possess that render them tragic, and I soon found that many of the popular conceptions of what constitutes “tragic” are simply wrong. For instance, the idea that tragedy ends with the death of the protagonist: there are any number of tragedies in which the protagonist is very much alive at the end – Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Sophocles’ Oedipus, Euripides’ Medea, and so on, right down to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Sometimes, the tragedy may actually lie in the fact that the protagonist doesn’t die – that he has to go on living even when there is nothing left worth living for: Verdi’s Rigoletto, for instance. Sometimes – as in, say, The Bacchae of Euripides – there appears not even to be a tragic protagonist.

And even in cases where there is a protagonist, and the protagonist dies at the end, the death need not be a disaster, or even a defeat. Take, for instance, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus: Oedipus, at the point of death, is cleansed of pollution and accepted by the gods: his demise is not so much a defeat as a transfiguration. This brings us to another myth about tragedy – that a tragedy must end sadly: once again, that is not always the case. Oedipus at Colonus ends in a state of luminous wonder; Philoctetes, by the same dramatist, ends with harmony end reconciliation; the Oresteia trilogy of Aeschylus ends in triumph. Any definition of tragedy that excludes works such as these is obviously absurd.

We need, I think, to shift our gaze from how the work ends, and look at the work in totality. If I were to offer a definition of tragedy, I think I can do worse than to suggest that a tragedy is a work of art that focuses on and emphasises all those things that may lead us to believe, rightly or wrongly, that life is a Bad Thing, and not worth living; that, as the Ancient Writers say in Yeats’ verse, “never to have lived is best”. This could be because life is cruel and short and nasty and brutish, and full of unmerited suffering; it could be because life is dreary and pointless; or because we are powerless in the face of evil; or because whatever we may gain from life is nullified by the inevitability of death, leaving us with nothing, and robbing us of all our joy; or even because, as with Rigoletto, we have to go on living when there is nothing worth living for. It could be any of these things, or any combination of these things: if comedy is a celebration of life, tragedy questions whether there really is anything worth celebrating.

Of course, defined in such broad (and no doubt crude) terms, comedy and tragedy are not mutually exclusive. Shakespeare frequently blended the two together, so that a tragic drama such as Romeo and Juliet may be seen as essentially a comedy (Tony Tanner classifies it as such in his book Prefaces to Shakespeare), while a play such as Measure for Measure, often classed as a comedy, can appear as dark and as disturbing as the most intense of tragedies. And Shakespeare was by no means the only one to straddle the two: taxonomy becomes very difficult indeed with works as diverse as, say, The Trial, Waiting for Godot, Catch 22. But taxonomy is not, perhaps, the point: simply to label works such as The Trial, Waiting for Godot, or Catch 22 doesn’t, after all, help us come to any enhanced appreciation. The point is more to understand what we mean by “tragic” or by “comic”, and allow that the two may at times occupy the same space – that it may be possible to celebrate life even while questioning whether there is anything worth celebrating: unlike a mathematical theory, a work of art can accommodate many different and seemingly contradictory things at the same time.

But even if we do characterise tragedy in this manner, what do I mean by “tragic vision”? Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is undoubtedly tragic, as it depicts life as short, violent, and brutish, and the world as a stage on which the horrors of existence outweigh any joy that may be found in it; and yet I complained of a lack of “tragic vision”. I know I’d meant something by that, but it’s worth my considering just what it was I’d meant, as it’s far from obvious – even, frankly, to me. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to examine all those various and often disparate works that I recognize as possessing a “tragic vision” – we needn’t go through the entire litany of titles – and try to identify what features they possess that strike me as visionary. In what respect, in short, is King Lear a greater work than Titus Andronicus?

It is difficult to speak of such matters in general terms, as all ordinary tragedies are alike, but each visionary tragedy is visionary in its own way. All ordinary tragedies are alike because they show us life as nasty and violent and brutish; but generally, they don’t go much further. However, tragedies that I would term “visionary” peer deeper: they try to understand what, if anything can be salvaged from the wreckage. Titus Andronicus shows us a picture of humans as irredeemably cruel and wicked and barbarous, and whenever characters are visited by cruelty and wickedness and barbarity, their response is but to return it all in kind: humans here are, essentially, machines programmed merely to inflict grievous hurt on one another. King Lear also shows us a world that is cruel and wicked and barbarous: even the gods, should they exist, are questioned; but the humans in this world emerge as so much more than machines: they are capable of tenderness, of empathy, of love, of self-sacrifice; they are capable of learning the world anew, and taking upon themselves the mystery of things, as if they were God’s spies.

Of course, one may say that none of this lessens the pain, that despite everything, all remains dark and comfortless. Perhaps. We certainly tend to see the play in our post-Beckettian days as essentially nihilistic. But there have been intelligent commentators – Kenneth Muir, for instance – who have gone so far as to see King Lear as a Christian play of redemption, and I don’t know that this perspective, though not perhaps in keeping with modern sensibilities, should necessarily be dismissed. For even the most nihilist-minded of spectators will concede that there is much human goodness in this play, and that this human goodness is as extreme and as unaccountable as is the human evil. Of course, this goodness is utterly ineffective, and while this may lead us towards interpreting the work as essentially nihilist, it may also appear to certain temperaments that the good, by the very fact that it exists at all when there is no conceivable reason for it do so, is a redemptive force. Such matters are best left to the individual temperaments: there is no single way of interpreting works such as this. But however one interprets this, there is more here, far more, than the mere unrelieved brutality of Titus Andronicus. We do not leave a performance of King Lear asking ourselves “Is man no more than this?” We have been given a glimpse into the Mystery of Things that tells us there is far more than we could ever hope to fathom.

Such a view may lead us towards Orwell’s famous formulation in his essay “Tolstoy, Lear and the Fool”, in which he characterises tragedy as a drama in which Man is defeated, but we are left nonetheless with a sense that Man is nobler than the forces that defeat him. This seems an attractive formulation, but like all such formulations, it breaks down after a while. Where, for instance, is the nobility in Euripides’ Medea?

This is always the problem with trying to formulate definitions in literary criticism: just when you think you have the whole damn thing covered, out pops one that simply won’t be tied down by your piddly wee definition. We may spend some time and effort refining our definition to cover Medea as well, but you can be sure there will be something else popping out that doesn’t give a fig for whatever classification you may come up with. Literature is too vast to be tied down by definitions, and doesn’tcare for rules. And yet, if we do not even try to define or to classify, we cannot even begin to analyse, and the very concept of dialogue becomes meaningless. So, bearing that in mind, I will stick, at least for the moment, with my definitions: “tragedy” focuses on the darker aspects of life, and depicts the wreckage; and works possessing “tragic vision” are those tragedies that attempt to discover what, if anything, may be salvaged from the wreck. These latter works may conclude that there is indeed nothing that can be salvaged, but the very fact that the attempt is made indicates that the attempt is at least worth making. Give or take the odd Medea, this classification tends, I think, to hold good, though rarely have I felt so open to being persuaded otherwise.

“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.

The quotation game

Recently, browsing through the net, as one does, I came across this quote:

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

This quote was attributed to William Butler Yeats. I must admit I was surprised. Yeats is one of my favourite poets, and I am reasonably well-read in his works; but I certainly don’t remember anything remotely resembling this. Of course, I haven’t read everything he has written, but this sounds so very un-Yeatsian: the sentiment expressed is fairly trivial, the imagery banal, and the sonorities and rhythms of the aphorism not of a standard one might expect from a supreme master of the English language. Of course, none of this proves that Yeats didn’t write it: he may have had an off day, or was tired, or was drunk, or whatever. So I decided to research this. Is one of my literary heroes responsible for so trite a piece of cod wisdom that might embarrass even a Paolo Coelho or a Deepak Chopra?

On googling it, I find that the quote has appeared all over the internet, and always attributed to Yeats. And always, suspiciously, without a reference. It seems I am not the first person to have harboured suspicions on this quote: the writer of this article has researched this matter far more extensively than I have done, and has failed to find any evidence to trace this quote back to Yeats. He does concede that this does not prove that Yeats never said it, but given that there is no reason to accept any attribution without a reference, it does seem to me a reasonable conclusion to draw. (Unless, of course, someone can provide a reference – in which case I shall be happy to eat my words.)

This kind of thing is quite common on the internet, of course. Make up a saying, and attach a famous name to it. Preferrably the name of someone who is not alive, so they can’t deny having said it. Why? Well, to confer some weight and gravitas on what would otherwise be unremarkable. And also, I think, to convince ourselves that the truth is really a simple and straight-forward matter, capable of being expressed in a few words. Take, for instance, education, the subject of the quote above attributed to Yeats: education is, in reality, a very complex and intricate topic, full of subtlety and nuance; is it really likely that anything worthwhile or profound about it may be said in just a few words?

Poets do not give us moral precepts; they do not give us wisdom that we may live by. Or if they do, that is not what confers greatness upon their work. The world is too complex for simple slogans: nothing that is worth discussing, nothing that deserves to be taken seriously, can be resolved in a few words, no matter how well-chosen those words may be. One should not come to literature to find pat answers to difficult questions: difficult questions don’t have pat answers; and the simpler questions that do are inadequate topics for serious literature.

All this makes serious literature a very troubling matter. It addresses difficult issues, and yet refuses to answer them, telling us instead that there is no answer; or, at best, that there is no easy answer. How much easier to reduce all these messy, intractable complexities to a few easily digestible messages! How much more satisfying to pretend that the unfathomable intricacies of our lives can be pinned down with a few pithy soundbites! Even if we have to make up these soundbites ourselves…

In the meantime, there’s nothing to prevent us joining in the fun, and flooding Facebook and other social media with a few invented quotes – the more trite and portentious, the better – and see how quickly they start spreading. Here are a few for starters that I have just made up off the top of my head – and do please free to add to them:

“A single act of human kindness is of greater value than all the science in the world” – Niels Bohr

“No matter how far the branches of the tree diverge, they grow from the same source” – Emily Dickinson

“The more advanced our means of communication, the less we have to communicate” – Ludwig  Wittgenstein

“Wisdom is more, far more, than merely the sum total of our earthly knowledge” – George Eliot

“There is no evil greater than the failure to see the divine spark in our fellow man” – Dietrich Bonnhoeffer

“Another double scotch please, barman!” – Mahatma Gandhi

My Ideal Bookshelf

It’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit.

There is a book, and, inevitably, a website, called “My Ideal Bookshelf”. In this book, various celebrities are asked to list up to twelve books that are particularly important to them for various reasons. Now, as I like to think I am something of a celebrity myself, I was a bit miffed at not being asked to contribute to this. Sure, we lesser mortals are invited to contribute our ideal bookshelves to the website mentioned above, but I am loftily ignoring this: it’s celebrity or nothing for me!

Fair enough, nothing it is…

If you are thinking that this is an excuse for yet another dreary list, you’d be perfectly correct. But as I say, it’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit!

Here’s my ideal bookshelf:


The reasoning behind the choices of most of the titles is self-explanatory. First of all – going from left to right – comes the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I was eleven when my parents took me to see King Lear at the Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West, then only in his 40s, played Lear on the bare stage of the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. Obviously, at that age, I took in but a fraction of it, but I was so excited by what I had seen, that I remember I could not get to sleep that night. That Christmas, I asked my parents for the Complete Works. There are at least a dozen or so of these plays that remain a constant presence in my mind. To celebrate – if “celebrate” is indeed the word I am looking for – my 50th year, I read through all these plays, in the order (as far as can be ascertained) in which they had been written. And I try to read at least one play each month. Life without these works would be unimaginable.

Then comes Rabindranath Tagore. Someone asked me once whether, given my obviously Bengali name, I knew the works of Tagore. Some of it, I replied: he wrote prolifically for decades, and I certainly haven’t ploughed through it all. Did I like his work? Well, I replied, as an educated Bengali, I don’t really have an option. His songs were probably the first music I ever heard; that extravagantly bearded visage was as familiar to me in my earliest childhood years as were pictures of my own family. Later in life, it did, I admit, come as a surprise to discover that, despite all the idolatry – which for many years put me off – his works actually are rather good. Extraordinarily good, indeed. Despite translations (which I am not qualified to judge, as they are not intended for me), the true extent of his literary greatness will be accessible only to native speakers. And for those native speakers who have come under his spell (and it is hard not to), a volume of Tagore’s poems is virtually a mandatory choice on the Ideal Bookshelf. But which volume? Even restricting oneself to poetry, his vast output cannot be contained in a single volume. After much thought, I chose Geetbitan, a collection of all his song lyrics. Literally thousands of them, covering just about every shade and nuance of human feeling imaginable. Tagore was among the greatest of songwriters (he composed the melodies as well as writing the words), and even when you don’t have the tune running round your head when reading them, these exquisite lyrics stand up perfectly well as poetry. There aren’t many song lyrics that do that.

Then comes Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I won’t write about here as there is already a fairly long and recent series of posts in this blog about this extraordinary novel. And speaking of extraordinary novels, there’s also Dickens’ Bleak House: I won’t write about this either, as I have done so only quite recently. Tolstoy and Dickens are the two novelists whose works mean most to me personally.

Next, I have chosen the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James. I have always wondered why it is I so dislike fantasy literature, find myself bored by science fiction, and yet enjoy the unreality of a creepy ghost story. Not any type of ghost story, though: the ones I like are the ones in which the solidity of the real world is very strongly projected, so that that the intrusion of the irrational, when it appears, is transgressive. The sort of story, indeed, of which M. R. James was the master. Why do I enjoy these stories so much? Well, let’s not go too deeply into self-psychoanalysis: that sort of thing is bound to be a load of simplistic tripe anyway. But the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James remains a constantly on my bedside table.

Piled on top of these books in my picture are six paperback volumes of the major plays of Ibsen, in the translations by Michael Meyer. Yes, I know, it’s cheating: they’re six volumes. But each volume is so indispensible that I couldn’t leave any of them out. And in any case, these volumes could easily be stitched up together into a single large volume.

I came to Ibsen in my twenties, and was fascinated by the strange world he created. He is known primarily as a “social dramatist” – i.e. as a dramatist who dealt mainly with social issues. That is indeed how I used to think of him myself. But reading his plays, I found myself transported into the deepest and most mysterious regions of the mind itself: worlds opened up that were new to me, and which fascinated me. I still probably don’t understand what many of them are about, but, perhaps for that very reason, they continue to fascinate.

Then come two more novels – Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (which I read again some two years ago, and on which I have written a series of posts on this blog) and Joyce’s Ulysses. The latter is widely considered a sort of High Altar of Modernism, and has a reputation of being excessively difficult: that’s rather unfortunate, since, quite apart from anything else, it’s about as fun as any book I have read. I can still dip into it and read passages purely for enjoyment. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, I have rather a difficult relationship with. I first encountered his works as a teenager, and was overwhelmed: the impact these novels had on me was almost visceral. But as I became older, doubts started to creep in: Are these novels not merely hysterical? Aren’t they unstructured, rambling, undisciplined? Was not my love of these novels merely a consequence of my teenage immaturity? And yet … and yet, scenes and themes and characters and images from these novels remained seared into my mind when other novels, apparently much better-written, had vanished without much trace. These novels, in other words, left behind the strongest of aftertastes. So I started, rather guiltily I suppose, to re-enter Dostoyevsky’s world. And I realised that these novels have to be taken on their own terms, and that there is no other novel that is even remotely comparable. Yes, I still frequently find myself wondering what the hell certain passages are about; I still find myself shaking my head at other times and thinking this won’t do. But that excitement I had experienced as a teenager remains. And I’m not sure why,

I suppose if I love Tolstoy because his vision of the world I find enriching; if I like Dickens because I love entering into that idiosyncratic fictional world of his; then I love Dostoyevsky because I enjoy having a fight with him. And I have had some good fights with him, and have come away from them bloodied but invigorated. Dostoyevsky’s novels are exploratory rather than declamatory, and, as with the plays of Ibsen, they explore regions that, had it not been for these works, would have been completely closed to me.

Now, the Sherlock Holmes stories. In the picture above, these appear in a lavish three-volume set (a birthday present from my wife on my 50th birthday); but since they can also be found contained in a single volume, I’m claiming this as one choice. I still have vivid memories of checking out The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from Bishopbriggs Public Library when I was about 12 or so, and it was love at first sight; and this love hasn’t flagged since. These stories have been a constant companion to me for many, many years now, and, as with the ghost stories of M. R. James, have become the best of old friends, and lifelong companions. I tried in this post to explain why I love these stories, but I think I gave up after a while: there are certain things that resist explanation.

I finish with two volumes of poetry – by Yeats, and by Wordsworth – sandwiching Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It strikes me writing this post that a great many of the books that mean most to me reach back into my late childhood, and my teenage years: I suppose those are the years during which my literary taste was formed. And I certainly remember watching on television, aged twelve, the National Theatre production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night featuring Laurence Olivier in one of his legendary roles. I was mesmerised. That play has a hold on me still that I cannot explain: even other plays by Eugene O’Neill don’t resonate with me the way this one does. Once again, I am not sure I understand why.

And, of course, I want some poetry on by ideal shelf. I already have the song lyrics of Tagore, and the plays and poems of Shakespeare; add to these Wordsworth and Yeats, and I think that would keep me happy. As I explained in an earlier post, I like Wordsworth’s tone of voice – civilised and eloquent, the voice of someone conversing with me rather than of someone declaiming to me. But with that conversational tone, he can depict emotions and states of mind that seem transcendent, and contain intimations of immortality. Yes, we all know that we wrote much, especially in his advanced years, that was mediocre and worse; but we should judge each writer by their best, and the best of Wordworth – “Tintern Abbey”, “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”, “The Solitary Reaper”, the 1805 text of The Prelude, some of the finest sonnets since Shakespeare, etc. etc. – would quite easily fill a good-sized volume. And despite their apparent plainness of diction, they affect me more than I think I can explain.

I do not write much about poetry on this blog, and that is mainly because I am not sure how to write about it. Poetry tends to affect me like music: I know what it makes me feel, but am not sure why. I suppose the only way to write about poetry is to provide close analysis of the rhythms, the sounds, the imagery, etc. – but there are many who can do that sort of thing far better than I possibly could. I did try to write about some poems by Yeats once on this blog, but I’ll not provide a link to it: it wasn’t, shall we say, among my best posts on here. So I will restrict myself here to giving some rough impressions of what Yeats’ poetry makes me feel. There’s the early stuff, of course – the “Celtic twilight” poem: these are products of the fag-end of Romanticism, with their alluring sensuality and the infectious folk rhythms. But even here, those rhythms aren’t always what one would expect from folk poetry: they are considerably knottier; and the themes became increasingly complex and ambiguous, the mythology more arcane. And it is fascinating tracing the development of Yeats’ poetic style as it moves almost seamlessly from a youthful Romanticism into a personal and very passionate form of modernism. For the older Yeats got, the more passionate he became. “Give me an old man’s frenzy,” he says at one point; and there is indeed a sort of frenzy in his poetry, a passionate striving and longing for he knows not what. Perhaps he remained a Romantic after all.


Well, that’s it folks – that’s my pre-Christmas indulgence done with. Now, the real indulgence starts: I already have bottles of malt whisky and Armagnac lined up for a most convivial and alcoholic festive season, and am looking forward to two idyllic weeks with the family.

And with my books, of course!

A few (more or less) random thoughts on “The Tower and Other Poems” by W. B. Yeats

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.

The joys of being miserable

How is it that we can witness some three hours of so of the utmost human misery that is King Lear, and still come out of the experience feeling exhilarated? Perhaps Orwell was right: in tragedy, we see human beings destroyed, but nonetheless feel that humanity is nobler than the forces that have defeated it. But, in the works especially of the last couple of hundred years or so, even the consolation of our essential nobility has been stripped away. Flaubert, in his works, presented an utter nothingess at the heart of our very existence, and refused to offer consolation: Emma Bovary’s rebellion is just as stupid and as pointless as that she rebels against; Frédéric Moreau remains as irredeemably mediocre and as unremarkable as ever; and even Félicité’s spiritual ecstasy is focussed upon nothing more exalted than a stuffed parrot that is already falling apart at the seams. Conrad merely saw darkness at the heart of everything; Kafka’s protagonist, when he finally has the knife twisted into his heart, hears before he dies the words “Like a dog”: our shame must outlive us; indeed, pace Larkin (who was actually quite an optimist in this respect), it is the only part of us that does outlive us.

Not very cheery, this modern literature lark, is it? Tragedians of the past told us that we were essentially noble: even if we have our eyes gouged out and even if we run stark staring mad on the blasted heath – as you do – we are still essentially noble, nobler than the forces that destroy us.  But the moderns won’t grant us even that. Between being born on the edge of the grave and falling in, Beckett tells us, there is nothing in that brief interim to make it worthwhile.

So, the obvious thing to do is to turn away from all this. All these Flauberts and Conrads and Kafkas and Becketts  – who needs ‘em? Why not, instead, feel good with some feelgood pieces of fluff? A West End musical? A Hollywood romcom? 

I generally have nothing against feelgood pieces of fluff, but ultimately, they don’t really satisfy. Not me, at any rate. Sooner or later, I know I’ll have to turn back to these Flauberts and Becketts for some sort of deeper satisfaction. But I’m damned if I can even begin to understand what sort of deeper satisfaction it is that I get from these works – works that tell us how utterly stupid, trivial and insignificant we are in every way. 

But there must for all that, be something there that satisfies. How else can I explain my actually reading and re-reading the likes of Flaubert and Conrad of my own free will? How can I account for these works satisfying me more deeply and more completely than even the goodest-feeling of feelgoods? I don’t know that I have an answer to this, but perhaps there is a clue in these lines I came across recently: 

When a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life. When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity. When language does more than enough, as it does in all achieved poetry, it opts for the condition of overlife, and rebels at limit.

– Seamus Heaney 

That boy Seamus does have a way with words, doesn’t he?

I’m not sure where Seamus Heaney said that: I found it quoted in Colm Toibin’s review in The Guardian of Heaney’s new collection Human Chain. But it struck a chord. When a form generates itself, Heaney says, it is already on the side of life. Even when the artist imparts a vision of life that is irredeemably bleak, the work is, nonetheless, on the side of life. Any art that is worth the candle is on the side of life, whether it likes it or not. 

That does not provide a consolation: a depiction of futility can be no consolation for futility. But it satisfies. And it satisfies precisely because it “does more than enough”; and, in doing more than enough, it protests against necessity, it rebels at limits. It says “bollocks” to the universe, that huge chunk of ironmongery against which we are all, apparently, insignificant. So, even when Flaubert tells us of the insignificance of Emma Bovary, even when Kafka tells us of the death “like a dog” of Josef K, they are contradicting what they are saying by the way they are saying it: they are protesting against the necessity, they are rebelling against the limits, even while depicting these same necessities and limits. And this protest, this rebellion, satisfies. 

I am reminded of some lines by another rather good Irish poet:

 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.

Somehow, I don’t think Yeats had “feelgood” in mind when talking about “gaiety”.