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, but he knew the materials of this allegiance only dimly and at second hand. He never knew precisely what he loved, though he thrived on its atmosphere. But with Georgian Ireland in mind he had only to point to certain great houses, great families, public buildings, works of art, great speeches. In his later years Yeats believed that the intelligence and nobility of modern Ireland depended upon those, “no petty people,” who held in racial memory the days of Grattan’s Parliament and Charlemont’s volunteers. The values to which he appealed were enshrined in Lady Gregory’s great house, Coole Park: “thoughts long knitted into a single thought;/a dance-like glory that those walls begot.”

BUT THE CRUCIAL FIGURES from Georgian Ireland were Swift, Berkeley, Burke, and Goldsmith. The central chapters of Mr. Torchiana’s book are given to these as they are featured in the mythological drama of Yeats’s mind. “Swift haunts me,” Yeats wrote, the most powerful ghost from “that one Irish century that escaped from darkness and confusion.” It was “God-appointed Berkeley” who slew the dragons, Locke and Newton, releasing the century from Newton’s single vision and Locke’s sleep. Burke hated Whiggery, “a levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind,” and offered instead an image of the state as a great tree. And Goldsmith, singing what he saw, joined hut and castle in a single image. Yeats’s way with these heroes was to join their sensibilities with his own and then to extend the line of feeling until it coincided with a modern instance. Swift leads to Parnell, shaming O’Connell, de Valera, and Cosgrave. Burke’s splendor issues in Countess Markievicz, Bryan Cooper, and Kevin O’Higgins, “the one strong intellect in Irish public life.” Berkeley’s great work was completed by Blake and endorsed now by Whitehead, “his difficult scornful ludicity.” Goldsmith, pressed with some insistence, leads to Synge.


Mr. Torchiana would not claim that this is the whole story. But it is remarkable how much of Yeats’s governing rhetoric is implied in his Georgian allegiance. When we find Yeats writing like a cavalry officer, the instigation is usually Swift, Berkeley, or Burke; less often, Goldsmith. We are in Mr. Torchiana’s debt, especially for light cast upon the later poems from The Winding Stair to the Last Poems and Purgatory. Perhaps what emerges most vividly is the impression of Yeats as a doomed warrior, an imagination bound upon its own extremity. It is now quite clear that in his later years the only unity Yeats sought and trusted was the unity of victory in war, war with arms or war with thought and speech. Several allegiances run together: government by “the few,” a moral oligarchy, the flare of personality saved by eugenics and selective education, the new culture of counting house and printing press replaced by the alliance of nobleman and peasant. Senator Yeats offered these mythologies in all seriousness to a new Ireland intent upon bourgeois democracy. It almost seems as if, in those late years, he courted failure and rejection. If your imagination thrives upon conflict as its special mode of consciousness, failure is the next best thing to success. Any function of conflict is better than none, if conflict is your need.

THE PROBLEM IS: how to live, what do. Yeats, I have argued, tried to resolve the social tensions by the simplifying imagery of conflict and war. Another way is by transcending the tensions, suggesting a perspective beyond the local which breaks down the old stiff categories. This was Gay’s way, notably in The Beggar’s Opera. How stiff the categories were, Gay well knew. He started as a draper’s clerk, escaped from his indenture in 1706, and spent most of his later life hanging about the Court waiting in vain for preferment. In 1721 he writes to Francis Colman: “My friends do a great deal for me, but I think I could do more for them.” To Swift in 1722: “I lodge at present in Burlington House, and have received many civilities from many great men but very few real benefits. They wonder at each other for not providing for me, and I wonder at them all.” This note persists to the end, punctuated by the famous letters of gloom to Pope in 1727. It is easy to say that he was merely waiting for bribes, but it was not a question of money. He continued living with the Queensberries long after he could have afforded to move out. In money matters he was remarkably naive. He would not believe there was anything wrong with the India Company until the bubble burst. What he really wanted was a place, a function in the world. Mr. Burgess’s fine edition of the Letters makes this clear.

The social tensions are indisputable. The available letters go from 1705 to 1732, telling their own story. But the remarkable fact is that while Gay lived among these tensions, day by day, he was writing plays and poems which imply that, at some level, the differences between one man and another peter out. In many ways he was so naive that he could hardly tell the difference between a Whig and a Tory. But, in spite of that, he had a profound feeling for the human continuities which persist beneath or beyond difference. Indeed, while his great contemporaries deplored Party and called for a united front. Gay was the man who did the trick: in The Beggar’s Opera, where for sixty nights he had London singing the harmony of rich and poor. The theater cannot do better than this, if this is what it wants to do. William Empson was the first to spot the significance of Gay’s opera in this way. In his study of Pastoral he says:

Clearly it is important for a nation with a strong class-system to have an art-form that not merely evades but breaks through it, that makes the classes feel part of a larger unity or simply at home with each other. This may be done in odd ways, and as well by mockery as admiration. The half-conscious purpose behind the magical ideas of heroic and pastoral was being finely secured by the Beggar’s Opera when the mob roared its applause both against and with the applause of Walpole.

The same motive works in the poems. The Fables cuts across differences of social class by emphasizing differences of nature and character. In the second Book of Trivia the magnificent lines about the brutal coachman invoke the transmigration of souls to insinuate, for the sake of ordinary decency, a critical perspective. In the Beggar’s Opera the moral of the story is that “the world is all alike,” whether we take this in Macheath’s vein or another. At the end the Beggar points the moral:


Through the whole piece you may observe such a similitude of manners in high and low life, that it is difficult to determine whether (in the fashionable vices) the fine gentlemen imitate the gentlemen of the road, or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen. Had the play remained as I at first intended, it would have carried a most excellent moral. ‘Twould have shown that the lower sort of people have their vices in a degree as well as the rich: and that they are punished for them.

Punished, that is, unless they are reprieved, as here they are reprieved. And the last words of the play point up the same mobility: “The wretch of today may be happy tomorrow.” This is the mark of Gay’s comedy. We are all human. Macheath’s courage declines as the liquor falls to the bottom of the bottle, but we are all in the same state. Gay gives Macheath the lordly note in his rakishness because he has earned it. The categories remain, but some of the stiffness is gone.

Still, it was a precarious balance, out in the streets, even before the sixty nights were over. The morality of the piece was immediately attacked. Dr. Herring, the King’s Chaplain, delivered a sermon condemning the Opera for presenting crime in a glamorous light. Swift had to come in with his Vindication. The new play, Polly, was banned by the government in 1729. The public success of Gay’s Opera means something, but it does not undermine a general point which Mr. Empson makes, that after the Restoration the notion of national cohesion lost ground to the notion of manly independence, self-reliance. The Letters shows something of this in Gay. He spent his declining years trying to get used to the idea that you can only depend upon yourself. By temperament, he was of an older school, preferring the ancient sanctities and national harmony. He hated learning the current language.

IN IRELAND, Yeats sometimes thought, the thing could still be done, and he encouraged Synge to try. The Preface to The Playboy of the Western World is a document in the case. In Ireland, Synge wrote, “for a few years more, we have a popular imagination that is fiery, and magnificent, and tender; so that those of us who wish to write start with a chance that is not given to writers in places where the springtime of the local life has been forgotten….” That was in January, 1907. Ireland, a small country, an island, was not yet taken over by the merchants, the hucksters, the Yellow Press. But when the mob rioted at Synge’s play and, in 1913, the Dublin Corporation killed Hugh Lane’s dream, Yeats gave his imagination to conflict. The first poems in Responsibilities were the immediate result, the idiom of The Green Helmet sharpened with a Norman challenge. The Easter Rising is another chapter, but in the whole story it is hardly more than an interlude. With the Civil War and the Free State, Yeats knew that one mythology was destroyed. Thereafter he consulted his own grim pleasure in the violence of imagination.

Mr. Torchiana knows that “On the Boiler” and many of the Last Poems are, in one view, grotesque. He explains, but he does not apologize. Presumably he is aware of the argument against Yeats’s politics, but he does not acknowledge it. He does not mention the celebrated essay by Conor Cruise O’Brien on that theme. He implies that everything in Yeats’s later work can be explained by the clash between modern Ireland and Yeats’s vision of Georgian splendor. I would agree, except that I think many of the later wars came from Yeats’s own imagination. The early poems are limp because Yeats is protecting his magical islands with a smoke screen of forgetfulness and longing. The poetry springs into life when it springs into battle. In the last poems Yeats is like the Cuchulain of On Baile’s Strand, fighting the waves: “My sword against the thunder!”

This Issue

April 6, 1967