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 vacillation it often provokes.

Dr. Leavis seems to me convincing, therefore, in that part of his Lectures in America in which he distinguishes between Yeats and Eliot, arguing that the major status one willingly ascribes to each poet is “differently constituted.” In Eliot, the poetry from The Waste Land to Four Quartets forms “one quintessential poetic work,” each major poem perfected in its mode. This judgment does not rest upon a glib separation of “the man who suffers” from “the mind which creates.” The perfection of the work, in Eliot’s case, is precisely of the kind that impels Leavis to refute Eliot’s famous distinction between suffering man and creative mind: “there can never be a separation,” he insists.

But where Yeats is in question, Leavis says, “while it is because of the poet that we are concerned with the man and the life, we are concerned with them—inescapably: the most resolutely literary-critical study of his poetic career entails biography, personalities, public affairs and history.” Dr. Leavis drops the question at that point, but he has said enough to indicate that he regards the nature of Yeats’s art as regrettable, even though it produced a memorable Collected Poems and at least three great poems. Eliot’s way marked the proper choice.

But there is more to be said. Very little is yet known of Eliot’s life, or at least the knowledge is not common. There are bound to be connections between his life and the poems, but few of them are widely known. Eliot insisted on keeping his life (to use Hugh Kenner’s description) “invisible,” offering his poems as the only visible objects trading under his name. The poems themselves arise from the same motives: they answer only their own questions, discouraging the reader’s curiosity on other matters. The integrity of Eliot’s poetry is the result of precisely such a creative habit. But Yeats’s poems invite the reader’s curiosity, and satisfy it. This explains why Yeats’s creative procedure, when it is merely a habit, issues in poems which seem at once incomplete and shameless: their words leak away into the life as if they intended to whet the reader’s appetite not for poetry but for gossip.


Most of Yeats’s poems about Maud Gonne, for instance, especially those at the beginning of The Green Helmet, are the result of procedures become habitual. In such poems as “Words” and “A Woman Homer Sung” the language is slack, the phrases have an air of frequency and rote. “And trod so sweetly proud” and “In this blind bitter land” come from Yeats’s well-recognized signature tune rather than from an imagination strenuously engaged with its experience. Even a better poem like “No Second Troy” is sustained not by the continuous authenticity of its language but by the reader’s desire to believe that a chain is as strong as its strongest link: “Was there another Troy for her to burn?”

But the really compromising element in these poems is that Yeats is content to offer them as grist to the mill of his own legend; they are diffuse rather than exacting organizations of experience. They minister to the claimed perfection of his life rather than to the scruple which makes nearly every effort of the imagination dissatisfied with itself. These poems are impure in the sense that they invite the reader’s complicity, his gossip-mongering ear and mouth rather than his consciousness.

Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady” and Pound’s “Portrait d’une Femme” are in that sense pure because they ask from the reader only his intelligence. I do not blur the necessary distinctions to be made between Eliot and Pound, if a full consideration were in question, by saying that in each the poetry is what matters and the life is another story. Yeats is a legend, and there is good reason to believe that he deliberately made himself a legend: the poems matter to him as myths in a personal mythology. Yeats presented himself as he presented Maud Gonne, Robert Gregory, Synge, Con Markiewicz, Eva Gore-Booth, Roger Casement: legendary figures from Romantic Ireland, presences, lives, perfections. I remember a passage from Yeats to the effect that “We love only the perfect, and our dreams make all things perfect that we may love them.” It is in that sense only that Yeats’s creative habit was dream; not a wandering daydream but a process by which mundane things, including most especially himself, were transfigured, set astir as presences among the clouds.

A legend, to be effective, must be diverse, diffuse, offering many different versions of itself rather than a single dogmatic meaning: it must be loose-meshed enough to allow many different feelings to enter and to be appeased. I think this is why the word “Yeats” invokes a loosely formed but extraordinarily potent mythology in which we are discouraged from making the strict discriminations we would normally make between poems, plays, anecdotes, photographs, images, Senate speeches, séances, ideas, love affairs, friendships, and visions.

The most natural study of Yeats, therefore, would be a big biography, finding room for every interest and dealing with each in a spirit not too strict. If you insist on taking him as a poet found only in his poems, you either do what Dr. Leavis has done, ground every discrimination in three superb poems and consign the rest to history, or you make a more generous anthology, twenty or thirty poems to animate your sense of a crucial voice in modern poetry. Either way, you step aside from the Yeats mythology and let post-Romantic Ireland look out for itself.

Scholars, on the whole, have settled for these activities, and the results so far are limited. There are now several biographies of Yeats, the latest being Frank Tuohy’s, and the historian F.S.L. Lyons is at work on the authorized Life, which is bound to be a big book reflecting the range of Yeats’s preoccupations. Meanwhile, most of the current and recent work on Yeats fastens upon him in one or another aspect: the scholarship is partial by definition and of necessity. Even the biographical work must be patient, waiting for the Collected Letters, a work which cannot appear for perhaps ten years yet, despite the energy of its editors, John Kelly and Eric Domville.

In fairness, I should mention that the reception of Yeats has always been partial and often eccentric. Eliot, for instance, regarded Yeats as a freak of nature, a monster of egoism and heresy, a mind almost entirely “independent of experience.” It is commonly believed that Eliot thought Yeats the greatest of modern poets, and that he committed himself to this judgment in his memorial speech at the Abbey Theatre in 1940. But it is clear that Eliot was settling his account, in the Abbey speech, with a writer he could never think of as anything but weird and foreign. In the Criterion for July 1935 Eliot acknowledged Yeats’s presence as a major poet, and it is certainly possible to take the passage in “Little Gidding” about the “familiar compound ghost” as augmenting the impression of a majestic poetry on view. Eliot told Maurice Johnson that the ghost was Swift, whom he associated with Yeats. Reading “Little Gidding,” I keep coming back to the line in which the ghostly master and his pupil are said to be “too strange to each other for misunderstanding.”


But it is my impression that while Eliot was impressed by some of Yeats’s later plays, notably by the language of Purgatory, he thought Yeats’s sensibility was, on the whole, a scandal. In 1934 he included Yeats in the parade of heretics rebuked in After Strange Gods, and deplored the fact that “so much of Yeats’s verse is stimulated by folklore, occultism, mythology and symbolism, crystal-gazing and hermetic writings.” Eliot’s opinion of these stimulants was no higher in 1934 than in 1919 when he reflected in “A Cooking Egg” upon the instruction to be received from Madame Blavatsky in the Seven Sacred Trances. He regarded Yeats’s supernatural world as “the wrong supernatural world,” not a structure of meaning and discipline 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.” Yeats was merely indulging himself in “dissociated phases of consciousness,” unembarrassed by contrary evidence issuing from experience. Eliot conceded to Yeats great historical importance. “He was one of those few,” he said, “whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them.” But this praise is compatible with Eliot’s general implication that Yeats’s part in the consciousness of his age was on the whole a corrupt and corrupting part, scandalous because heretical.

He was happy to treat Yeats as a foreigner. In his essay on Andrew Marvell, where he speaks of wit and defines it as a quality exhibiting “a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace,” Eliot denied that this quality could be found in Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, or Browning. “And among contemporaries,” he continued, “Mr. Yeats is an Irishman and Mr. Hardy is a modern Englishman—that is to say, Mr. Hardy is without it and Mr. Yeats is outside of the tradition altogether.” Presumably Eliot meant that there was nothing in the Irish tradition which could put Yeats in the possession of the quality called wit, defined in Eliot’s carefully adjudged sense. Eliot regarded Yeats as chiefly a presence, a personality, a genius no doubt, but fortunately for orthodox religion and general good sense a foreigner, a provincial scandal. The truly modern movement in literature could proceed without taking much notice of Yeats or the news from Dublin. Everything would depend upon London and Paris, the real Europe upon which Pound, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and Eliot himself would attend.

Pound’s reception of Yeats did not differ much from Eliot’s. He was closer to Yeats than Eliot was, and there are influences running both ways, but there is no evidence that he thought Yeats’s poetry crucial or that he cared for it as he cared for Eliot’s work and Joyce’s. Most of his later references to Yeats are either smiling reminiscences or reflections upon the Symbolist Yeats, a poet incapable of seeing anything until he had first seen the symbol in it, as Pound says in Canto 83:

   Le Paradis n’est pas artificiel
and Uncle William dawdling around Notre Dame
in search of whatever paused to admire the symbol
with Notre Dame standing inside it.

The tradition of this criticism is still active. The argument is that Yeats’s exorbitant will prevents him from according independent existence to anything: a swan seen is merely ostensibly seen, its place is taken by whatever it symbolizes to an insistent Yeats. Hence, as Robert Lowell has asserted, Yeats couldn’t see anything. The tradition of such comment did not begin with Pound: the gist of it is clear in early essays by Eliot and I.A. Richards. Pound extended the attack because he wanted to speak up for objectivity, sponsoring Objectivists rather than Symbolists. Indeed, it is his objectivist grace or his native good will that allows Pound to acknowledge Yeats, in Canto 83 again, as an unforgettable and unforgotten presence, a personality different but not alien. To Pound, Yeats is different; to Eliot, alien.

I have looked at these matters to emphasize two points; that the recognition of Yeats has always been partial, even though The Tower, published in 1928, was fairly generally received as demanding a far more sustained response than any of his earlier books; and, secondly, that there are critical challenges, implicit in Eliot, Pound, Richards, and Leavis, which the professional scholars have not, by and large, taken up. Critical and scholarly attention to Yeats has been continuous, if not relentless, since about 1949. I am not in a position to plead innocent if a charge is pressed on this count. But it is necessary to say that scholars have taken the nature and scale of Yeats’s achievement largely for granted, unduly impressed perhaps by the range of his occupations. I find it odd, for instance, that relatively little attention has been given to the language of Yeats’s poems, its diction, grammar, syntax, rhythm. There is an excellent essay by John Holloway on the language of The Tower; it is in An Honoured Guest, which J.R. Mulryne and I edited several years ago. And there are a few other essays here and there which study Yeats’s language: but the study is still incomplete. Richard Ellmann and other scholars have drawn attention to certain qualities in Yeats’s language, but they have not yet put us in full possession of it. Yeats’s language seems clear enough at first glance, so a second glance is not provoked as urgently as it is in reading Eliot and Pound. It is easy to take Yeats’s language for granted, but in practice this means taking it superficially.

Moreover, if Yeats’s position in modern poetry is deemed to be “central,” isn’t it strange that no critic, so far as I know, has proposed to understand the essential history of that poetry as influenced by Yeats? Several critics have offered rival accounts of modern poetry as issuing from Whitman or Hopkins or Hardy or Pound or Eliot. No critic has called the early years of the twentieth century The Yeats Era as Hugh Kenner calls it The Pound Era; no critic has made in Yeats’s favor the claims made for Hardy in Donald Davie’s Thomas Hardy and British Poetry. Of course such neglect may tell more against critics than it would against the importance of Yeats, but if he is indeed central rather than marginal to modern poetry, it is time to establish the fact and verify it: the consequences for literary history will be considerable. If he is marginal, however grand in other respects, we should follow up the logic of that judgment.

It would be naïve to think that these are pure inquiries. Literary history, like any other history, is the scene of ideological fervor. The Pound Era and Thomas Hardy and British Poetry are political acts: only a careless reader takes them as neutral or disinterested essays. Let it be so: at least the arguments about Pound and Hardy are conducted in the open. But the argument about Yeats has not really been conducted at all. Or it has been enforced in Yeats’s favor by silence, vested interest, and the partiality of academic scholarship. Some parts of Yeats’s work are difficult. Scholars are attracted to the most difficult task among tasks not impossible. One example: Yeats’s poem “The Statues” is difficult, if left to itself. To make sense of it you have to provide a fairly elaborate gloss upon several passages. The materials for this elucidation are available in Yeats’s prose. The act of elucidation is satisfying, it gives the critic a feeling of having achieved something. Energy spent on the elucidation seems to verify the poem. The fact that the argument of the poem is as unconvincing after the elucidation as before, if reasonably tough criteria of sense are applied, is easily dispelled by the unbroken circuit of interest between poem and elucidation. So commentaries proceed. They are not good enough.

Frank Tuohy’s Yeats is a straightforward biography, sensible, well-written, and beautifully illustrated: the photographs are superb. The background, Ireland in the nineteenth century, is well sketched, with judicious paragraphs on Daniel O’Connell, Thomas Davis, Mangan, the Famine years, the rise and fall of Parnell. Mr. Tuohy is satisfied that Yeats’s life is most accurately seen through his friendships. “And say my glory was I had such friends,” Yeats writes in “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” somewhat coyly. Mr. Tuohy takes Yeats at his word, the account he gives of John Butler Yeats, George Russell, Mohini Chatterji, Dowden, John O’Leary, Hyde, Rolleston, Morris, Madame Blavatsky, Wilde, Florence Farr, Maud Gonne, Lady Gregory, and all the other immortals is in keeping with Yeats’s own version in the Memoirs and Autobiographies. Mr. Tuohy does not insist upon his own reading of these people. In general, he takes Yeats’s word for most things: the accepted Yeats mythology is not strained to accommodate any other interpretations.

There is one exception to this rule: Yeats’s occult interests. On one page Mr. Tuohy writes two skeptical passages as dry as anything I have seen in Yeatsian commentary. On Yeats’s part in the Order of the Golden Dawn, he asks: “No fewer than fourteen medical men had joined the Golden Dawn by 1900; which has lasted better, their medical knowledge or their mystical speculation?” And a few lines earlier: “Yeats’s world, it might be said, comprised everything that is not the case.” Yvor Winters said nothing more astringent than that about Yeats. But I am not convinced that astringency is required: it is a bit late to be scandalized by theosophy and magic. Besides, Yeats’s attitude to such mysteries was a mixture of credulity and skepticism: just when you think he is ready to believe any kind of nonsense, he draws back into a common sense as dry as anyone else’s. I still think that the matter can be explained by Yeats’s desire to fill his mind with congenial images. The element he most admired in esoteric procedures was their air of ritual, pattern, form, and symmetry. Mr. Tuohy is somewhat harsh when these topics arise; but generally he is good-humored, lively, and informative. The book does not pretend to be the first or the last word on Yeats’s life: it is an interim work and will satisfy many readers until Professor Lyons’s big book comes along.

Samuel Levenson’s biography of Maud Gonne is also an interim work, though I think it will have to keep appeased for many years readers who want to understand her place in Yeats’s life and as heroine of a number of his poems and plays. In the introduction he quarrels with me for saying that certain important letters from Maud Gonne to Yeats are still under lock and key in Dublin and that the MacBride family has refused to let them be consulted. But within a sentence he concedes that my statement is true: “it is probable that in some of these letters Maud gave W.B. Yeats instances of her husband’s drunkenness and brutality.” Precisely: and if, as I have been told, the letters were written in the later months of 1903 when Maud’s marriage to John MacBride was already heading for the rocks, they are clearly crucial to any account of that period in her life. If the letters are, as a member of the MacBride family told Mr. Levenson, “in a disorganized condition, impossible to read, and of trivial importance in any case,” there is no reason to withhold them.

The information I have picked up from Senator Michael Yeats and others suggests that the letters in question give a detailed account of John MacBride’s character and behavior during the first months of his marriage to Maud, and that Maud intended this account to be sent through Yeats to John Quinn; it would be useful in the event of MacBride’s contesting a suit for divorce or separation. However, the only reason for mentioning the matter now is that Mr. Levenson’s account of Maud’s marriage is largely speculative. He thinks it probable, for instance, that Maud withheld from her husband the fact that Iseult Gonne was her daughter by Lucien Millevoye; the effect, when MacBride found out the truth, was “shattering.” I think the entire speculation improbable.

Mr. Levenson’s book is designed, apparently, as a popular biography: it is aimed at the common reader rather than the scholar. Most of it is based upon Yeats’s letters, the Memoirs, Maud Gonne’s A Servant of the Queen, and Maud’s letters to John Quinn. Quotations are rarely identified; there are some inaccuracies of transcription, and some minor errors. But it is highly interesting, especially on Maud’s political activities in France. I don’t understand, incidentally, why Mr. Levenson refers to “the unconsummated love of Maud Gonne and Willie Yeats” unless he refuses to believe Richard Ellmann’s statement that “in a journal of Yeats which has not been published, it is made clear that at least once, about 1907, his unrequited love for Maud Gonne found requital.”

But the serious limitation of Mr. Levenson’s book is that it is content to remain upon the surface of Maud Gonne’s life. There are two questions to be asked about that life. The first is Yeats’s question in “A Bronze Head”:

who can tell
Which of her forms has shown her substance right?

Mr. Levenson quotes the passage, but he does not stay for an answer: he merely recites one form after another, as if her substance were equally shown in each of them. And then, and then, and then: so the book proceeds. The second question is more obvious: what part, precisely, did Maud Gonne play in Yeats’s mythology? Mr. Levenson considers some of the evidence, but he does not exert critical pressure upon it; as Mr. Tuohy does, by the way, in arguing that the relation between Yeats and Maud “from the very beginning has something artificial, something voulu about it, as though it does not exist on its own account, but to provide memories and to be celebrated in verse.” Mr. Levenson should have an informed opinion on that question, but he has not offered it or brought the discussion to such a pitch of interest. It seems clear, despite the requital of 1907, that Yeats needed Maud because he needed the exacerbation attendant upon defeat; the torment of love unsatisfied. But there is much more to be said. Mr. Levenson’s book will be found useful for the moment, but it will someday be superseded by a more serious consideration of its themes.

Mr. Flannery’s book is a strange work. I can see why he is annoyed that “Yeats the dramatist has not been taken seriously by either academic critics or theater critics,” and that as a result “the bulk of his plays have yet to be staged with the sensitive and imaginative treatment that they deserve and require in order to be successful in the theatre.” But he himself seems in two minds about the question. He thinks that “Yeats’s dramatic theories are more important than his actual practices”; an opinion which would probably be endorsed by many critics. But when he writes about the plays, he runs to exorbitance in their favor. “By creating a dramatic form in which heroism and its ironic counterpart are interwoven, each balancing and strengthening the impact of the other,” he asserts, “Yeats made an original, indeed unique, contribution to the modern drama.” Again: “I consider The Shadowy Waters to be an almost perfect work of its kind.”

Presumably this opinion refers to the “acting version” of 1908, but in any case it seems unaccountable in its excess. “Nowhere,” Mr. Flannery continues, “does Yeats portray the infinite anguish and ecstasy of love between man and woman with greater tenderness and compassion than in The Shadowy Waters.” Still: “On Baile’s Strand is possibly the finest of all Yeats’s plays.” Again: “The Only Jealousy of Emer is one of Yeats’s most deeply moving plays.” It is hard to believe in these assertions, or to know precisely what value we are to ascribe to such words as “fine,” “moving,” and “perfect.” Yeats’s theory of drama is indeed useful, and Mr. Flannery’s account of it is excellent, especially in its emphasis upon “the actor and the words put into his mouth.”

The book is valuable for its account of Yeats’s understanding of tragedy, conflict, tragic ecstasy, the actor’s body, the word, the oral tradition. Yeats made much of these emphases in his theory of drama, and Mr. Flannery writes of them now in Yeats’s spirit. The effect is to discourage the common notion of Yeats’s plays as merely represented ideas or vague, disembodied aspirations. But Mr. Flannery is so concerned to state a case for Yeats as dramatist that he turns a deaf ear to rival evidence. There is something willful, for instance, in his refusal to hear the gross Shakespearean pastiche in The Countess Cathleen: “And you, proud earth and plumy sea, fade out!” Indeed, he does not apply much critical discrimination to Yeats’s language in the plays. The intention is taken for the deed. What Yeats intended in the plays is clear enough, and Mr. Flannery has helped to clarify it. What he achieved in the plays is more of a problem. My own feeling is that by studying Yeats’s plays we should concentrate upon the unity of dance and dancer; the “perfectly proportioned human body” swayed to music; the presentation of meaning not chiefly as idea but as action. Frank Kermode’s essay in Puzzles and Epiphanies on “The Dancer Before Diaghilev” is a brilliant beginning, but there is more to be pondered.

Indeed, I think Yeats’s plays are successful only when they are animated by the consanguinity of drama and dance. Mr. Flannery’s procedure is to eulogize by association: the comparisons he proposes between Yeats and Wagner, Yeats and Brecht, Yeats and Artaud, Yeats and Grotowski, culminating in a reference to Ted Hughes’s Orghast, are no help at all in keeping the argument coherent. The most interesting part of the book, I find, is the account of the early years of the Abbey Theatre, the dispute with the Fays in 1908, the correspondence between Yeats and Gordon Craig leading to the productions of The Hour-Glass and the revised Countess Cathleen in 1911.

Some of these matters are treated again in Mr. Skene’s book, a study of the five Cuchulain plays, On Baile’s Strand, The Green Helmet, At the Hawk’s Well, The Only Jealousy of Emer, and The Death of Cuchulain. Mr. Skene has a high opinion of these plays, presumably based upon his experience of producing them in sequence on a single evening a few years ago. He has perceptive things to say about the Cuchulain saga, its bearing upon Yeats’s plans for an Irish Mystical Order, its relation to ritual and magic. Several paragraphs deal with Yeats’s theories of acting, music, body, voice, scenery, symbolism. His book is particularly good on the severity of Yeats’s drama, the unified image on the stage. The Cuchulain plays are in that sense more closely organized, and more powerfully imagined as theater than anything else in Yeats’s drama. Mr. Skene also demonstrates that the cycle of Cuchulain plays is closely related to Yeats’s A Vision.

Well and good: but the most useful chapters in the book are studies of the individual plays, indicating how they should be produced and suggesting how their problems may be solved. Mr. Skene’s purpose is more specific than Mr. Flannery’s, and his success is correspondingly more secure. His book is also free from the hectic element which to some extent disables Mr. Flannery’s argument. Mr. Skene would like to see Yeats’s plays more widely performed and appreciated, but he is not strident in his claims for them. It is certainly true that the plays should be produced more often, and that even the “theater of commerce” which Yeats hated so violently should take a look at them. But there is no point in arguing that all of these plays are worth staging. I saw a production of The Herne’s Egg at the Abbey a year or two ago, and I retain a keen memory of the nastiness of the occasion. The dance-plays are worth doing: at Sligo some years ago Mary O’Malley’s company gave a good account of them. But I cannot see any good reason for staging The Shadowy Waters or most of the early plays, which are interesting only to students of Yeats.

What then,” sang Plato’s ghost, “what then?” Well, I dream of an unwritten book with something like the following scenario. Start with a biographical formula, such as the one provided by Yeats in a letter to Olivia Shakespear on June 30, 1932, surveying his entire work up to that date. “The swordsman throughout repudiates the saint,” he reported, “but not without vacillation.” That formula is enough to hold the themes together, and it finds a place for everything. Thereafter, study Yeats’s work, but never take his word for anything or mistake the intention for the achievement. Translate his idiolect into common terms, especially when his argument is high and mighty. Do not let him get away with such words as Daimon, Mask, Soul, Fire, Image: often he is throwing dust in our eyes. Mr. Flannery says: “I believe we must do Yeats, as any great artist, the service of trying to understand him through the terminology that he chooses to employ.” I believe, on the contrary, that we do him a greater service by insisting upon translating his arguments and theories into common terms.

We need not fear that his rhetoric will be overwhelmed. The problem in reading Yeats is to preserve one’s own mind and voice in his presence. It is necessary to study everything. Dr. Leavis is right. Yeats is the sum of his enterprises and what he made of each: politics, history, nationality, love, poetry, action, drama, magic, fiction, criticism. But his poetry is at the center. So I would have the unwritten book concentrate upon swordsman, saint, and poet, allowing for repudiations and vacillations at every point. The poetry is the style. There is a good chapter to be written on Yeats’s rhetoric; how he practiced forms of speech that kept company with the common forms while scorning the vulgarity those forms were ready to entertain. I think of his equestrian style; how he wrote as if he were born to lead a troop of cavalry.

And what if my descendants lose the flower
Through natural declension of the soul,
Through too much business with the passing hour,
Through too much play, or marriage with a fool?
May this laborious stair and this stark tower
Become a roofless ruin that the owl
May build in the cracked masonry and cry
Her desolation to the desolate sky.

But such an emphasis can be misleading. If Yeats seems marginal rather than central in modern poetry, the main reason is that his poems do not, on the whole, resort to the procedures which are deemed peculiarly modern; “juxtaposition without copula,” in Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, or progression by contrast and association. Many of Yeats’s poems were written out in prose before being turned into verse: to the modernist, that is a scandal.

Yeats’s mature style draws far more strength from the vernacular character of language, including its sanctioned continuities of idiom, rhythm, and syntax, than a modernist poet is usually willing to allow. Comparison of The Wild Swans at Coole with a book roughly contemporary, Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, would make the point. The later Eliot and the later Pound move toward the vernacular character of language, making a kind of peace with its neglected values. Yeats never repudiated the vernacular values: he rebuked only their weakness and cowardice and insisted that they rise to their best possibilities. Dr. Leavis had this in mind, I assume, in referring to Yeats’s poetry as being “in touch with the spoken living language and the speaking voice.”

   The Stare’s Nest by My Window

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

To me, this is the clearest proof of Yeats’s strength, that he made an imperial poetry out of the values certified by continuities of voice and body. He showed his mastery not by disowning common speech but by redeeming it, making it responsive to every nuance of attitude and feeling.

This Issue

May 26, 1977