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How Yeats Did It

In a recording of his poetry made for the BBC in 1932, William Butler Yeats prefaced his stirring rendition of pieces such as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “The Fiddler of Dooney” by explaining that he would read “with great emphasis upon the rhythm, and that may seem strange if you are not used to it.” “It gave me,” he continues, “a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.” There is indeed nothing prosaic in his incantatory method of delivery—“I will ariiiiiise and gooooo noooow, and gooo to Innisfrreee…”—and it takes him a full five seconds to do justice to the long vowels of the poem’s final line, “I heeeeaar it in the deeeep heeaart’s coooore.”

In his poems as well, Yeats frequently refers to the “devil of a lot of trouble” involved in getting thoughts and feelings into verse. In “Adam’s Curse,” for instance, he presents the business of writing as more onerous than the toughest kinds of manual labor:

We sat together at one summer’s end,

That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,

And you and I, and talked of poetry.

I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

Better go down upon your marrow-bones

And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones

Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;

For to articulate sweet sounds together

Is to work harder than all these, and yet

Be thought an idler by the noisy set

Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen

The martyrs call the world.”

Many of the contradictions inherent in Yeats’s figuration of both poetry and his poetic persona are delicately captured in the stately yet fluent pentameter couplets in which he casts his conversation with the mild woman (based on Maud Gonne’s sister Kathleen) and the silent “you,” Maud Gonne herself. On the one hand, a poem is only successful if it disguises the hard work that went into its creation, but on the other Yeats needs us to know about the intense and unremitting labor required to create an apparently spontaneous line. And yet the more natural and effortless a poetic “moment’s thought” can be made to seem, the less likely it is to impress the industrious professional middle classes, from whom Yeats here carefully distances himself, and who, or so he claims, dismiss him as a mere “idler.”

When Yeats began publishing in the 1880s, Tennyson was poet laureate, and, largely through his influence, poetry was popularly conceived as offering such people as the bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen derided in “Adam’s Curse”—as well as their wives—a means of melodious relaxation, a series of “sweet sounds” that might divert a stray hour of idleness, or console for some loss in the real world. Occasionally Tennyson would rail against the enervating aspects of this situation, most notably in the unpopular “Maud,” but in general he suppressed the urge to berate, in public at least, the poetic taste of an audience whose devotion, after all, kept him in the comfort to which he had become accustomed.

Tennyson rarely draws our attention explicitly to the forms he uses, and certainly wouldn’t have wanted his readers to think it took him “a devil of a lot of trouble” to get his rhymes and meters right. One of the fascinations of Yeats’s choice and handling of forms is his urge both to disguise and to advertise their difficulty, to present a line as but “a moment’s thought” but also to make us aware of the arduous “stitching and unstitching” that went into it; and this labor, he hastens to tell us, lest we think the embroidery metaphor a trifle effeminate, is “harder” than scrubbing a kitchen pavement, or breaking stones in all kinds of weather.

The compositional hard work required to create the grand Yeatsian stanza, poem, sequence of poems, and volume has become increasingly apparent with the publication by Cornell University Press over the last fifteen years of the manuscript materials of nearly all of his major collections of poetry. One of the most striking facets of his working methods was his habit of making prose sketches, which he then worked up into verse. “Cuchulain Comforted,” for example, written a matter of weeks before he died in January 1939, is Yeats’s only use of Dantescan terza rima: it began life as a folktale-ish prose narrative of the kind collected by Lady Gregory. The draft, dictated by Yeats to his wife on January 7, opens:

A shade recently arrived went through a valley in the Country of the Dead; he had six mortal wounds, but he had been a tall, strong, handsome man. Other shades looked at him from the trees. Sometimes they went near to him and then went away quickly. At last he sat down, he seemed very tired.

A week later this became:

A man that had six mortal wounds, a man

Violent and famous, strode among the dead;

Eyes stared out of the branches and were gone.

Then certain Shrouds that muttered head to head

Came and were gone. He leant upon a tree

As though to meditate on wounds and blood.

While the language of the prose sketch verges on the simple, even primitive, that of the poem is laconic and theatrical. Cuchulain is no longer a conventional good-looking hero, “tall, strong, handsome,” but a Yeatsian one, “Violent and famous”; conventional “shades” become unsettling “Shrouds,” as if the dead were so many winding sheets, their weirdness making them fit choric witnesses, as they confer “head to head,” of the mortally wounded hero’s singularity. It is the drama of the scene that excites Yeats, and although the poem is about Cuchulain’s loss of agency and individuality, in these opening stanzas he is still enacting his purposefulness, striding among the muttering dead; when he rests it is not because he is “very tired,” but “to meditate on wounds and blood.”

The narratives dramatized in Yeats’s oeuvre nearly all involve some decisive act of transformation that is in many ways analogous to the process of transforming prose into poetry. His metamorphosis in “Easter 1916” of the Post Office insurrectionists into mythical figures who no longer live where motley is worn is accomplished by the physical act of inscribing their names in the poem:

I write it out in a verse—

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly….

Despite the occasional self-deprecating remark about the “sedentary” nature of his poetic “trade” (“The Tower”), surely no poet has ever represented the physical process of writing in more active, heroic terms. Yeats’s poems are first forged and then hammered into shape, like the bird of “hammered gold and gold enamelling” of the final stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium,” and the reader is in turn actively enjoined to admire the hammering that creates, in this case, what the Yeats scholar Warwick Gould has called a “sonic form of chiasmus”: “[ham] gold/gold [nam].”

Chiasmus, the repetition of words in reverse order, was, as Helen Vendler demonstrates time and again in her superb study of Yeats’s uses of lyric form, a crucial tool in his poetic workshop. The chiasmic appealed to him, she suggests, because it transforms “the spontaneous, linear, ‘driven’ action” into “an intellectually meditated decision,” rather as the Cuchulain of the prose sketch is transformed in this poem from a “very tired” man who sits down out of exhaustion into one leaning against a tree and meditating on wounds and death. Yeats despised above all things passivity, and famously excluded Wilfred Owen from his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse on the grounds that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.” It is by use of chiasmus, as Vendler deftly shows, that the “passive suffering” of another victim of World War I, Robert Gregory, the son of Lady Gregory, is converted into an active Nietzschean embrace of the exhilarating delights of risk undertaken for its own sake:

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

We have here a triple chiasmus (balanced/years to come/waste of breath/ waste of breath/years behind/balance), followed by the monosyllables “this life, this death,” which in turn balance symmetrically as on a seesaw on the pivot of the comma; to an active mind capable of the rhetorical feat of the previous three and a half lines, neither holds any terrors.

As Vendler laments in her preface, poetic form is a discipline whose secrets are becoming increasingly remote from contemporary concerns, and certainly recent Yeats critics have found it more enticing to talk about Yeats as a misogynist or a postcolonial freedom fighter or eugenicist or doomed defender of the Protestant Ascendancy than to describe the rhyme schemes deployed in “Supernatural Songs” or the uses to which he puts tetrameter quatrains. It is notoriously difficult to make gripping the technical aspects of poetry to those who lack a specialized interest in the field, though Dennis Taylor’s illuminating book on Hardy’s prosody and earlier accounts by Vendler of the formal choices made by such poets as Herbert, Keats, and Hopkins amply illustrate the rewards of getting involved in the nuts and bolts of poetic composition.

Yeats’s commitment to the discipline offered by preexisting forms distinguishes his work from that of most Modernist poets; while Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams achieved their individual styles by breaking free of nineteenth-century conventions, Yeats was never tempted by the Modernist discovery of free verse or collage. Indeed, rather than seek to create a style responsive to the fragmentations and disjunctions of modern life, he deliberately set about building a poetry whose structural rigor and solidity would act as a kind of bulwark against what he calls in “The Statues” “this filthy modern tide”:

We Irish, born into that ancient sect

But thrown upon this filthy modern tide

And by its formless, spawning, fury wrecked,

Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace

The lineaments of a plummet-measured face.

In this poem Yeats suggests that Western civilization is fundamentally based on the symmetries of form made possible in the first place by the mathematical discoveries of Pythagoras. Pythagoras’ “calculations” in turn enabled Greek sculptors like Phidias to create images of ideal beauty, and it was these images, rather than the Greek military machine, that really repelled barbarians such as the Persians when they invaded in 480 BC, and were defeated at the Battle of Salamis:

for the men

That with a mallet or a chisel modelled these

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