W.B. Yeats and the Idea of a Theatre
The Cuchulain Plays of W.B. Yeats
W.B. Yeats’s status in modern literature offers a serious challenge to criticism. It is easy to say that he is a major poet and that he holds a crucial position in any account of the modern movement. Think of modern poetry without Yeats: an entire range of experience and a correspondingly authentic style, nuances of austerity and hauteur, would be sensed as missing elements. Yeats’s work is secure, we find ourselves saying. But I am not certain that we can feel the security as irresistibly as the need to assert it. Among the modern poets who exert a major claim upon our attention, Yeats seems to exert a claim indisputable only on grounds that are often questionable, if not suspect. What surrounds Yeats’s name is not the aura of an achieved poetry, a body of work separable from its origins, but an impression of genius fulfilled chiefly in the multiplicity of its life. In “The Choice” Yeats wrote:
The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
I am not certain that it is entirely a question of choice. It is sometimes assumed that Yeats sought perfection of his work and did so at some cost to his life. In fact, he made the other choice. Perfection of the life is compatible, as a personal and profoundly accepted choice, with occasional perfections in the work. Even F.R. Leavis concedes that Yeats wrote three virtually perfect poems, “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Byzantium,” and “Among School Children,” and that there are several other poems which testify to the presence of a “creative habit” in Yeats, if not to the intensity of major art. By “creative habit” Leavis means, apparently, not the routine exercises of a genius but a characteristic possession of diction and syntax which may or may not achieve the degree of organization and intensity required for great poetry. Without the creative habit, the great work could not be done at all, but habit by itself is not enough to achieve the work.
My impression remains that Yeats made the choice in favor of his life rather than his art, and that he thought of perfection chiefly as a matter of diversity, multiplicity of interests and relations. We respond to the choice when we think of Yeats as a presence, a figure in the landscape, a force of attraction drawing to itself preoccupations mainly historical, biographical, political, aesthetic, theatrical, and psychological. The impression is not dispelled if we think it arises more from the poet’s temper than from anything as consciously made as a choice. Choice is Yeats’s word, and if we take his word for the situation we are free to qualify it as much as we like. A choice is compatible with the vacillation it often provokes.
Dr. Leavis seems to me convincing, therefore, in that part of his Lectures in America in which he distinguishes between Yeats and Eliot, arguing that the major status one willingly ascribes to each poet is “differently constituted.” In Eliot, the poetry from The Waste Land to Four Quartets forms “one quintessential poetic work,” each major poem perfected in its mode. This judgment does not rest upon a glib separation of “the man who suffers” from “the mind which creates.” The perfection of the work, in Eliot’s case, is precisely of the kind that impels Leavis to refute Eliot’s famous distinction between suffering man and creative mind: “there can never be a separation,” he insists.
But where Yeats is in question, Leavis says, “while it is because of the poet that we are concerned with the man and the life, we are concerned with them—inescapably: the most resolutely literary-critical study of his poetic career entails biography, personalities, public affairs and history.” Dr. Leavis drops the question at that point, but he has said enough to indicate that he regards the nature of Yeats’s art as regrettable, even though it produced a memorable Collected Poems and at least three great poems. Eliot’s way marked the proper choice.
But there is more to be said. Very little is yet known of Eliot’s life, or at least the knowledge is not common. There are bound to be connections between his life and the poems, but few of them are widely known. Eliot insisted on keeping his life (to use Hugh Kenner’s description) “invisible,” offering his poems as the only visible objects trading under his name. The poems themselves arise from the same motives: they answer only their own questions, discouraging the reader’s curiosity on other matters. The integrity of Eliot’s poetry is the result of precisely such a creative habit. But Yeats’s poems invite the reader’s curiosity, and satisfy it. This explains why Yeats’s creative procedure, when it is merely a habit, issues in poems which seem at once incomplete and shameless: their words leak away into the life as if they intended to whet the reader’s appetite not for poetry but for gossip.
Most of Yeats’s poems about Maud Gonne, for instance, especially those at the beginning of The Green Helmet, are the result of procedures become habitual. In such poems as “Words” and “A Woman Homer Sung” the language is slack, the phrases have an air of frequency and rote. “And trod so sweetly proud” and “In this blind bitter land” come from Yeats’s well-recognized signature tune rather than from an imagination strenuously engaged with its experience. Even a better poem like “No Second Troy” is sustained not by the continuous authenticity of its language but by the reader’s desire to believe that a chain is as strong as its strongest link: “Was there another Troy for her to burn?”
But the really compromising element in these poems is that Yeats is content to offer them as grist to the mill of his own legend; they are diffuse rather than exacting organizations of experience. They minister to the claimed perfection of his life rather than to the scruple which makes nearly every effort of the imagination dissatisfied with itself. These poems are impure in the sense that they invite the reader’s complicity, his gossip-mongering ear and mouth rather than his consciousness.
Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” and Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme” are in that sense pure because they ask from the reader only his intelligence. I do not blur the necessary distinctions to be made between Eliot and Pound, if a full consideration were in question, by saying that in each the poetry is what matters and the life is another story. Yeats is a legend, and there is good reason to believe that he deliberately made himself a legend: the poems matter to him as myths in a personal mythology. Yeats presented himself as he presented Maud Gonne, Robert Gregory, Synge, Con Markiewicz, Eva Gore-Booth, Roger Casement: legendary figures from Romantic Ireland, presences, lives, perfections. I remember a passage from Yeats to the effect that “We love only the perfect, and our dreams make all things perfect that we may love them.” It is in that sense only that Yeats’s creative habit was dream; not a wandering daydream but a process by which mundane things, including most especially himself, were transfigured, set astir as presences among the clouds.
A legend, to be effective, must be diverse, diffuse, offering many different versions of itself rather than a single dogmatic meaning: it must be loose-meshed enough to allow many different feelings to enter and to be appeased. I think this is why the word “Yeats” invokes a loosely formed but extraordinarily potent mythology in which we are discouraged from making the strict discriminations we would normally make between poems, plays, anecdotes, photographs, images, Senate speeches, séances, ideas, love affairs, friendships, and visions.
The most natural study of Yeats, therefore, would be a big biography, finding room for every interest and dealing with each in a spirit not too strict. If you insist on taking him as a poet found only in his poems, you either do what Dr. Leavis has done, ground every discrimination in three superb poems and consign the rest to history, or you make a more generous anthology, twenty or thirty poems to animate your sense of a crucial voice in modern poetry. Either way, you step aside from the Yeats mythology and let post-Romantic Ireland look out for itself.
Scholars, on the whole, have settled for these activities, and the results so far are limited. There are now several biographies of Yeats, the latest being Frank Tuohy’s, and the historian F.S.L. Lyons is at work on the authorized Life, which is bound to be a big book reflecting the range of Yeats’s preoccupations. Meanwhile, most of the current and recent work on Yeats fastens upon him in one or another aspect: the scholarship is partial by definition and of necessity. Even the biographical work must be patient, waiting for the Collected Letters, a work which cannot appear for perhaps ten years yet, despite the energy of its editors, John Kelly and Eric Domville.
In fairness, I should mention that the reception of Yeats has always been partial and often eccentric. Eliot, for instance, regarded Yeats as a freak of nature, a monster of egoism and heresy, a mind almost entirely “independent of experience.” It is commonly believed that Eliot thought Yeats the greatest of modern poets, and that he committed himself to this judgment in his memorial speech at the Abbey Theatre in 1940. But it is clear that Eliot was settling his account, in the Abbey speech, with a writer he could never think of as anything but weird and foreign. In the Criterion for July 1935 Eliot acknowledged Yeats’s presence as a major poet, and it is certainly possible to take the passage in “Little Gidding” about the “familiar compound ghost” as augmenting the impression of a majestic poetry on view. Eliot told Maurice Johnson that the ghost was Swift, whom he associated with Yeats. Reading “Little Gidding,” I keep coming back to the line in which the ghostly master and his pupil are said to be “too strange to each other for misunderstanding.”
But it is my impression that while Eliot was impressed by some of Yeats’s later plays, notably by the language of Purgatory, he thought Yeats’s sensibility was, on the whole, a scandal. In 1934 he included Yeats in the parade of heretics rebuked in After Strange Gods, and deplored the fact that “so much of Yeats’s verse is stimulated by folklore, occultism, mythology and symbolism, crystal-gazing and hermetic writings.” Eliot’s opinion of these stimulants was no higher in 1934 than in 1919 when he reflected in “A Cooking Egg” upon the instruction to be received from Madame Blavatsky in the Seven Sacred Trances. He regarded Yeats’s supernatural world as “the wrong supernatural world,” not a structure of meaning and discipline but “a highly sophisticated lower mythology summoned, like a physician, to supply the fading pulse of poetry with some transient stimulant so that the dying patient may utter his last words.” Yeats was merely indulging himself in “dissociated phases of consciousness,” unembarrassed by contrary evidence issuing from experience. Eliot conceded to Yeats great historical importance. “He was one of those few,” he said, “whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them.” But this praise is compatible with Eliot’s general implication that Yeats’s part in the consciousness of his age was on the whole a corrupt and corrupting part, scandalous because heretical.