The Hard Case of Yeats


by Frank Tuohy
Macmillan, 232 pp., $17.95

Maud Gonne

by Samuel Levenson
Reader's Digest Press, 436 pp., $15.00

W.B. Yeats and the Idea of a Theatre

by James W. Flannery
Yale University Press, 404 pp., $22.50

The Cuchulain Plays of W.B. Yeats

by Reg Skene
Columbia University Press, 278 pp., $15.00

W. B. Yeats
W. B. Yeats; drawing by David Levine

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…

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