The Politics of Poetry

The Letters of John Gay

edited by C.F. Burgess
Oxford: Clarendon Press, 142 pp., $8.00

W. B. Yeats
W. B. Yeats; drawing by David Levine

There is a remarkable passage in Yeats, near the end of the second Book of A Vision, where we are given a clue to the basic strategy of his work:

My instructors identify consciousness with conflict, not with knowledge, substitute for subject and object and their attendant logic a struggle towards harmony, towards Unity of Being. Logical and emotional conflict alike lead towards a reality which is concrete, sensuous, bodily.

It is time we took the instructors at their word. In the Eliot of Burnt Norton consciousness is revealed as “a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,” at once in and out of time. In Stevens it is given as the animation of a still life. But in Yeats it is drama, conflict, a civil war of mind. Nothing is real to him until he has arranged a duel with its opposite. We often forget this, especially when we recall those great images of unity in which all the rivalries are dissolved; the chestnut-tree, the body swayed to music, the Garden. At Galway Races “delight makes all of the one mind,” and in Easter Week, 1916, the “terrible beauty” is a great flare of unity.

These are memorable occasions. But it is the nature of Yeats’s imagination to thrive on conflict, as if his pen were a Japanese sword. To praise Parnell he must denounce O’Connell. The nobility of Hugh Lane is incompletely realized until it is set off against the shoddiness of William Martin Murphy. Whitehead shines in Russell’s darkness. The city is bruised to pleasure the village. Nature conflicts with Byzantium, Ribh denounces Patrick, Life is defined in the shadow of Words. Indeed, it might be argued that the hysterical intensity of Yeats’s last years is the mark of an imagination which has fed itself on violence and now, at last, must invent new violence or starve. “I made my coat out of old mythologies,” he wrote. In fact, he made it by setting one mythology against another.

Donald Torchiana is concerned with one of these mythologies, Yeats’s vision of Georgian Ireland and the values it embodied. To Yeats, Georgian Ireland was the last Utopia, the place and time of unified sensibility. When modern Ireland seemed particularly dreary, systematically offensive to his imagination, he thought of the ancient sanctities and Dublin under the Georges. The Ireland of the eighteenth century was available to his imagination as a critical pressure upon the Free State, de Valera, and the mob. This was only one of his mythologies. Other versions were available in the old bardic Ireland, the Gaelic poets, the Italian Renaissance, the Japanese aristocratic drama. But, as Mr. Torchiana implies, Georgian Ireland figured more easily and more densely in Yeats’s imagination because the historical evidence was thick on the ground. When Yeats aligned himself with continuities of race and folk, the gesture was significant,…

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