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The Magician

King Fergus has abdicated to become a man of imagination; but instead of learning how to be a magician, with dominion over spells and symbols, he finds himself helpless in the toils of his own images. Fergus is the Chameleon’s victim: he has no color of his own, no shape of his own, and must learn as best as he can, like the chameleon in Hamlet, to eat air. Here we see that the disintegration of images into a whirling incoherence is more than impotence: it is damnation.

And yet there is in Yeats’s work a countermovement that suggests that an image, if it is clear-cut, exact, must be somewhat limited, unsublime. In A Vision Yeats mentions that he once knew a man who,

seeking for an image of the Absolute, saw one persistent image, a slug, as though it were suggested to him that Being which is beyond human comprehension is mirrored in the least organised forms of life.

Formlessness, lack of articulation, is by this logic a measure of the degree of approximation to godhead; this is a view opposite to Blake’s, but one congenial to Milton, Burke, and Coleridge. And according to the mythology of Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1917) and A Vision (1925) the highest domain is the Condition of Fire, where all is strict and simple, imageless; images are generated from the reflection of fire onto a lower element, water. It is no accident, then, that when Yeats pictures the intrusion of the divine into the terrestrial—Zeus, the Holy Ghost, the image-man-or-shade from Byzantium—the image tends to grow huge, cloudy. The pictures unpicture themselves, the words unword themselves, for the highest images are those that appeal to some realm beyond the sensuous. As Shelley’s Demogorgon says, the deep truth is imageless.

An editor is likely to be happier with poets whose work does not struggle against its own medium. But there is another reason why Yeats’s poems tend to resist written form: the essentially oral nature of Yeats’s art. The last official bard was dead by the nineteenth century, but there was still in Ireland a tradition of itinerant beggarly poets that much excited Yeats; and it is clear that Yeats saw himself to some degree as a continuer of the line of Anthony Raftery, a blind wandering Gaelic poet of the early nineteenth century. Yeats was not an oral poet to the degree Wordsworth was, who composed most of his earlier verse bellowing in the woods, and to whom the sight of pen and paper brought a kind of fever. But Yeats’s printed poems are nevertheless more or less inexact transcriptions of declamations. During the winters of 1913 to 1916 Pound lived with Yeats in Sussex; and this is Pound’s account in Canto LXXXIII of hearing Yeats composing his poem, “The Peacock” (1914):

   I recalled the noise in the chimney
as it were the wind in the chimney but was in reality Uncle William
downstairs composing
that had made a great Peeeeacock in the proide ov his oiye had made a great peeeeeeeock in the…
made a great peacock in the proide of his oyyee

proide ov his oy-ee
as indeed he had, and perdurable

a great peacock aere perennius…
at Stone Cottage in Sussex by the waste moor

Any accurate text of the poem is bound to seem flat in comparison to this imitation of Yeats’s vocal struts, his thrusts of chest in the act of invention, as if the poet were an instrument puffed up by some eerie pressure of wind. Here one understands something of what Yeats insists upon, the relation between trance and poetry writing. But this is not evidence that Ezra Pound, and not Professor Finneran, should have been the editor of Yeats’s poems.


W.B. Yeats: The Poems is a handsome, well-constructed book, much larger than the book it supersedes, the Collected Poems. It contains, in addition to the poems we are used to, all the original poems that appear in Yeats’s plays, essays, and stories, and also the juvenile or uncollected poems hitherto easily available only in the variorum edition of the poems. (Not all of Yeats’s poems have yet been published, however; I have seen inscribed, on a flyleaf of a presentation copy to Lady Gregory, a poem evidently about the death in infancy of Maud Gonne’s illegitimate son.) One also finds many pages of explanatory notes and glosses on the poems, plus several, pages of explanatory notes on Yeats’s explanatory notes. Byron’s desire, “I wish he would explain his Explanation,” is here gratified.

All these decisions are controversial, but, oddly enough, the first controversy that has arisen over the edition concerns a matter in which the new edition does not deviate from the Collected Poems: Professor Finneran’s retention of the old division of Yeats’s poems into two categories: “Lyrical” and “Narrative and Dramatic.” In his New Commentary on the Poems of W.B. Yeats, now expanded and keyed to the new edition, A. Norman Jeffares devotes most of his preface, well over a thousand words, not to advice about how his commentary might profitably be used, not to a discussion of the features changed from the previous editions, but to a mournful brief concerning Professor Finneran’s ill judgment in preserving the two-part structure of the Collected Poems rather than interspersing the narrative and dramatic poems at their proper chronological places among the published books of lyrics. In his Editing Yeats’s Poems Professor Finneran, like Professor Jeffares, tells the story of how the two-part arrangement came into being and defends his decision.

A case can be made for either order Yeats never conceived of any arrangement but the chronological one—though one must note that the poems within the individual books are not arranged chronologically—and the arrangement into two categories was the idea of his publisher, Harold Macmillan, who thought that a potential buyer, seeing the book begin with the very long narrative poem The Wanderings of Oisin, would flee in disgust. (Macmillan proposed this in 1933 concerning a popular trade edition, not the expensive canonical version of Yeats’s works planned at the time.) According to Professor Finneran, Yeats strongly assented to this scheme. Later, when the publication of a canonical version was broached again—this vexatious project never got anywhere in Yeats’s lifetime—Yeats left instructions suggesting that he wished the edition of the poems to follow exactly the edition of the 1933 Collected Poems.

He did not address himself explicitly to the order of the poems, but certainly Professor Finneran’s belief that Yeats intended the two-part division to be part of all subsequent editions of his poems is defensible. On the other hand, Professor Jeffares is right in feeling that Yeats’s career as a poet properly begins with The Wanderings of Oisin. I would go further and argue that the themes of that poem are so abundant and complicated—should a man accept earthly life as it is, or should he use imagination to make strenuous rectifications of life, rectifications that threaten to immerse him in thorough unreality?—that many of Yeats’s greatest works are but richer ponderings on these themes.

Perhaps more interesting is the question of the alternative endings. If Jeffares’s chronological scheme were adopted, the last poem in the collection would be “politics”:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics…
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

(In the Collected Poems the last poem is “Under Ben Bulben,” but Professor Finneran has rightly altered the order of Last Poems, which was only a publisher’s wretched fantasy, to what Yeats intended.) This makes an attractive ending to Yeats’s canon; with its echoes of the early lyric “Westron Wind” we seem to behold an image of Yeats, as reprobate and sexy as ever, receding into his assured place in the long tradition of English lyric poets. In Professor Finneran’s two-part arrangement, our last glimpse of Yeats is not “Politics,” but the conclusion of “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid”:

All, all those gyres and cubes and midnight things
Are but a new expression of her body
Drunk with the bitter sweetness of her youth….
A woman’s beauty is a storm-tossed banner;
Under it wisdom stands, and I alone…
Can hear the armed man speak.

This poem is a dramatic monologue, which transfers to Baghdad the story of Yeats’s marriage in old age to a young woman engrossed by his spiritualistic research and herself capable of automatic writing; indeed the “armed man” in the last line is the Djinn who speaks through her. This ending, like that of “Politics,” leaves us with the body of a young girl, as if sexual reality were more urgent than philosophy or politics or anything else. But in one way this makes a better ending than “Politics” in that Yeats, according to the Macmillan file (Editing Yeats’s Poems, p. 18), liked to begin his poetic sequences with the “normal love of boy & girl” and to end them with an oracle or a stark quotation from Sophocles. The end of “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid” fuses the personal and the impersonal, the normal girl and the oracle, into one composite being. It is as if Yeats’s poetry and beliefs were at last only a portrait of Georgie Yeats as painted by Picasso.

The commentary attached to the new edition will not please every reader. Possibly Professor Finneran was wise in his extremely chaste decision to offer no interpretative clues; but I am not sure. He seems to have thought that the role of a commentator is to give the accurate from of Gaelic names, some helpful facts about Irish history (the uprising of 1798, the Lane art gallery controversy, and so forth), much detailed information about Irish mythology, and glosses on every proper noun in the text. All of this is commendable, and yet, despite its sobriety, the effect of the commentary on the reader is sometimes bizarre. The student of “Ego Dominus Tuus,” puzzled by the reference in the lines “More plain to the mind’s eye than any face / But that of Christ,” can consult the commentary to learn that it refers to “Jesus Christ, son of God in the Christian religion.”

It is easy, too easy, to make fun of such things, but they do show a certain doggedness. It is certainly appropriate for Professor Finneran to tell us, in a gloss to The Wanderings of Oisin, that Yeats’s notion that Edain was the consort of the god Aengus was based on a faulty reconstruction of an old manuscript, and that new documents in Old Irish discovered forty years after Yeats wrote the poem show that Edain was in fact a fly, not a wife. And it is appropriate for Professor Finneran to note that Yeats’s mythological sources were often sentimental, ignorant nineteenth-century versions by Ferguson and O’Grady. But I wonder whether I am alone in feeling that Professor Finneran is sometimes staring at Yeats with severity or pity, as if Yeats could have been a much better poet if he had had the benefits of modern scholarly technology. Yeats himself might have informed Professor Finneran, in words similar to a footnote in his essay “The Celtic Element in Literature,” that new myths are always arising to modify or replace the old, and that he does not consider that the bards who composed the original stories of the Fenians or the Red Branch kings were his superiors as mythmakers.

But the chief curiosity of the commentary of the new edition is its omission of biography. I doubt that any annotator on earth besides Professor Finneran would consider it irrelevant that “Upon a Dying Lady” (1912–1914), a poem rich in circumstantial detail, is about a real woman, Mabel Beardsley, the sister of the artist Aubrey; but her name is omitted from the gloss, which instead talks about Petronius Arbiter and a warrior mentioned in the Rubáiyát. World history, literature, orthography are real to Professor Finneran; individual lives are not.

For biographical commentary, we turn instead to Professor Jeffares. Professor Finneran has nothing but scorn for this approach; in fact he claims that Professor Jeffares, in the course of a rather mild speculation on the role of Maud Gonne in “A Bronze Head,” carries biographical criticism to its “reductio adabsurdum” (Editing Yeats’s Poems, p. 91). Sometimes the lack of cooperation between the two men injures the new edition: for instance, Professor Finneran says that the reference to the “Wood-of-Wonders” in the poem “Under the Moon” is unidentified but Professor Jeffares identifies it.

I suggest, then, that the new edition could be improved if the commentary included more facts about Yeats and his acquaintances. Whatever space this supplement would fill could easily be created by removing the poems from the plays, which are redundant, for the plays, complete with their songs, are published elsewhere. Still, as is, the new edition is an achievement. Yeats’s canon is now changed (for example, the last line of “Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman” now reads: “Mine would walk being dead”); the ground beneath interpretation has shifted slightly, and interpretation will have to accommodate itself to a new foundation.


One of the great accomplishments of recent criticism has been the description of Yeats as an allegorist of the workings of imagination; Helen Vendler has been particularly successful in this vein. This ought to be pursued further; but I think that a counterinterpretation may find some favor as well. Just as it has been said of D.H. Lawrence that he rejected conventional religion to make a religion of sex, it has been said of Yeats that he rejected conventional religion to make a religion of art. I will admit the truth of both assertions, with the stipulation that, often, Lawrence hated sex and Yeats hated art. In Yeats’s story “Rosa Alchemica” (1897), the narrator is an aesthete wholly imprisoned in art: he does not leave the cell that he has choked with velvet, incense, tooled leather books, peacock tapestries, a Crivelli Madonna: he has refined his sensibility until it is nothing more than a polished mirror; but he is not happy.

All those forms: that Madonna with her brooding purity, those delighted ghostly faces under the morning light, those bronze divinities with their passionless dignity, those wild shapes rushing from despair to despair, belonged to a divine world wherein I had no part….

[Mythologies, p. 269]

To worship art is to be made conscious of one’s estrangement from it. Not until Michael Robartes hypnotizes the narrator, makes him a mask suitable for a god to wear, does the narrator break out of his anesthesia into a world of bright feeling; and the mirror of the narrator’s intellect is broken into a thousand pieces. Art and its images are meaningless except as symbols, inducements to trance; they are only the occasions for a sterile connoisseurship unless they mean something beyond themselves. In the penultimate poem in his canon, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (1938), Yeats seems intent on destroying the great icons of his career, on the ground that their aesthetic intricacies tended to engross him, to deflect him from the more important things for which they stood:

Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.

For Yeats, icon-making and icon-breaking are the two halves of a single act. Art perfects itself in its destruction.

I have said that in some sense Yeats was the only member of his school. Yet his poetic goals are surprisingly close to those of his predecessors and successors. Indeed the history of poetry from 1830 to 1945 might be entitled “The Artful Destruction of the Palace of Art”; and among the chief figures in this tradition are Tennyson, Yeats, and Pound. Pound may not immediately declare himself a member, but Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) is an acute statement on the impoverishing aspects of life in an aesthetic refuge; and a passage in his “Cavalcanti” essay seems almost a gloss on Yeats’s “Rosa Alchemica”:

The best Egyptian sculpture is magnificent plastic; but its force come from a non-plastic idea, i.e. the god is inside the statue.

I am not considering the merits of the matter, much less those merits as seen by a modern aesthetic purist. I am using historic method. The god is inside the stone….

[Literary Essays, p. 152]

In Yeats’s poetry every image is a supplication to a god; and if the god does not come it is insupportable nonsense and blows away; and if the god does come the image must abdicate in favor of the god. There is certainly a sense in which Yeats is an aesthete; but to Yeats the worship of art is still idolatry.

To make a new edition of a poet is to alter his face; for every man’s identity is complicit with his life’s work. Like Walt Whitman, Yeats seems to have felt an uncanny, almost carnal intimacy with his poems:

The friends that have it I do wrong
When ever I remake a song,
Should know what issue is at stake:
It is myself that I remake.

Yeats wrote this quatrain for the comprehensive 1908 edition of his works. Two years before, in Discoveries, Yeats had looked back on the evolution of his career:

I had set out on life with the thought of putting my very self into poetry…I thought of myself as something unmoving and silent living in the middle of my own mind and body…. Then one day I understood quite suddenly, as the way is, that I was seeking something unchanging and unmixed and always outside myself, a Stone or an Elixir that was always out of reach, and that I myself was the fleeting thing that held out its hand.

[Essays and Introductions, p. 271]

I believe that Yeats’s poems are emblems of the unchanging stone or elixir, the personal immortality, the entelechy, that the chameleon always pursues. In daily life a man is a blurred spastic thing; but through art he can attempt a more statuesque version of identity.

A Vision is the invention of a celestial or infernal machine, the celebrated double gyre—two spinning cones screwed into each other in such a fashion that the apex of one touches the base of the other—and it is a machine designed to generate by means of a universal antithesis all possible historical events and all possible human identities. The geometrical absurdities of this scheme always plagued Yeats. Sometimes he eased his distress by hinting that these gyres and cubes and midnight things were themselves works of art; comparing them to Brancusi’s ovoids, Wyndham Lewis’s cubist drawings, and the structure of mathematical permutations of archetypes on which Pound based his Cantos. (A Vision, the book to which all knowledge of Yeats’s poems ultimately appeals, demonstrates that the best commentary on a work of art is another work of art.) But on other occasions Yeats did not try to extenuate the aridity of the basic design of A Vision; he spoke of the “hard symbolic bones” (A Vision, p. 24), “these dry astrological bones” (p. 207), and lamented that

My imagination was for a long time haunted by figures that, muttering “The great systems,” held out to me the sun-dried skeletons of birds, and it seemed to me that this image was meant to turn my thoughts to the living bird. [p. 214]

A Vision is a skeleton that Yeats, through his whole canon of poems, invests with flesh, the sexual flesh of Crazy Jane and the Wild Old Wicked Man, the sinews of Michelangelo that rule by supernatural right. In a passage that Yeats probably knew (A Critical Edition of Yeats’s ‘A Vision’ (1925), p.26), Rémy de Gourmont wrote:

Far from its being his [Flaubert’s] work which is impersonal, the roles are here reversed: it is the man who is vague and a tissue of incoherences; it is the work which lives, breathes, suffers, and smiles nobly….

This is Yeats’s deepest hope. Yeats was a magician and by temperament and by training, and made his work to be a magical image of his body. Professor Finneran has drawn a firmer line around the growling jaw, the eyeglasses that reflect such odd light. He has corrected a voodoo doll.


Naming the Dying Lady July 18, 1985

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