The Magician

W.B. Yeats: The Poems

a new edition edited by Richard J. Finneran
Macmillan, 747 pp., $19.95

Editing Yeats’s Poems

by Richard J. Finneran
St. Martin’s, 144 pp., $20.00

In Yeats’s best-known play, Purgatory (1938), the protagonist is an old man who is at once the murderer of his father and of his son. Yeats’s relation to the poets who were his predecessors and his followers is similar. One finds in his essays and memoirs several references to the poets of “my school,” but by the 1930s Yeats’s school had, apart from his paramours, only one student, who was also the only teacher. The chief poets of the 1880s and 1890s, Rossetti, Morris, Dowson, Lionel Johnson, seem in comparison to Yeats a group of freaks, fizzles, and enthusiasts, while the great modernists seem to establish their university upon a curriculum wholly different from that of Yeats’s school.

Part of this disconnectedness—it is especially strange in a poet who was close to the literary life of Europe for five decades—comes from Yeats’s reliance on the fragmentary and nearly illegible mythology of ancient Ireland, compounded with a disreputable occultism. The occultism is a barrier to the reader today, and during Yeats’s lifetime it estranged him from some of those who might have been the most gifted matriculators in his school. T.S. Eliot wrote in 1933, in After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (later suppressed), that

Mr. Yeats’s “supernatural world” was the wrong supernatural world. It was not a world of spiritual significance, not a world of real Good and Evil, of holiness or sin, 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. [p.50]

But Yeats’s detachment from his contemporaries was perhaps still more a matter of technique than of theme. If one considers verse written in heroic couplets between 1680 and 1740, one knows that even an expert may have trouble in deciding whether to attribute an obscure specimen to Dryden or to Pope or to one of their followers. But where does one find verse that sounds as if it could have been written by the mature Yeats? Occasionally some Yeatsian reverberation catches the ear:

The worm that brings man’s flesh to dust
Assaults its strength in vain:
More gold than gold the love I sing,
A hard, inviolable thing.

Or:

Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young?

In both passages the reader can see something of Yeats’s skill at investing simple diction with metrical impetus, as if certain syllables could be rendered sacred by emphasis. It is no accident that the first passage is a translation from Greek, by “Michael Field,” the collaborative pseudonym of two women, and the second an epitaph by Kipling; Yeats frequently seems to be seeking the austerity, the strength of a Greek epitaph. These poets were among Yeats’s contemporaries; but for the most part …

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Letters

Naming the Dying Lady July 18, 1985