One afternoon in May 1911 W.B. Yeats, visiting his friend and former lover Olivia Shakespear in London, was introduced to an English girl named Bertha Georgiana Hyde-Lees. He was nearly forty-six years old, “George” a few months over eighteen. A friendship soon developed, enthusiastic on her part, warier on his. They had much in common, including an interest in esoteric philosophy, astrology, the Tarot, and magic. They attended seances together. In 1914 George was admitted, with Yeats as sponsor, to the Stella Matutina Section of the Golden Dawn, a secret society devoted to occult science and magic. By November 1915 the question of marriage had arisen, but there were difficulties. Yeats was still enchanted with Maud Gonne, although she had desecrated their love in 1903 by marrying Major John MacBride:
My dear is angry that of late
I cry all base blood down
As if she had not taught me hate
By kisses to a clown.
Maud’s marriage ended in 1905, and a legal separation was effected the following year, but her Catholicism made it impossible for her to think of marrying again. Besides, she didn’t want to marry Yeats.
They had first met on January 30, 1889, and he had fallen in love with her. But Maud was politically and soon to be sexually involved with Lucien Millevoye, a Boulangist campaigner. Millevoye and Maud had a child, Georges, who died in infancy; their second child, Iseult, was born on August 6, 1894, and survived. Maud broke with Millevoye in the summer of 1900. MacBride then entered her life, first as a companion in her fight for the independence of Ireland, then as her suitor. When the marriage came to an end, Maud sought Yeats’s help in getting advice on legal and political questions. In December 1908 Yeats and Maud became lovers, but she soon gave up the sexual part of their intimacy and reverted to its spiritual or ideal mode. To complicate matters, from the spring of 1908 Yeats had been having an affair with Mabel Dickinson: it ended with a row on June 6, 1913, and Yeats felt free thereafter to allude to her as a harlot. Meanwhile he had started to swoon over Iseult Gonne, a beautiful, vivid girl who charmed him by reciting French poems.
By the end of 1915 it was clear to Yeats and his friends that he must do something, he was in an emotional mess. It would be better to marry than to burn; more to the point, better to marry than to run the risk of making a lover pregnant. There had been a scare of that kind with Mabel Dickinson, followed by telegrams and anger. In 1916, while Yeats was worrying about his life, John MacBride was transformed from clown to martyr: the British government executed him for his part in the Easter Rising. Maud was now free. On July 1, 1916, Yeats proposed to her again, but she gave him her usual answers, that she preferred his friendship and that posterity would appreciate her wisdom in letting a great poet concentrate on his poems. A week later, Yeats surprised her by asking whether or not she would object if he were to propose to Iseult. Maud said she did not think her daughter would take his proposal seriously. In the event, Iseult took it seriously enough to keep Yeats dangling for several months. At the end of September 1917 she said no, and he at once thought of George Hyde-Lees. He proposed to her, was accepted, and they were married on October 20, 1917.
The auspices were not good. In the first days of the honeymoon Yeats was miserable, distraught that by marrying he had betrayed three women, Maud, Iseult, and George. Four days after the wedding, according to his account of the episode, he started thinking, “I have lived all through this before.” On October 29 he wrote to Lady Gregory:
Then George spoke of the sensation of having lived through something before (she knew nothing of my thought). Then she said she felt that something was to be written through her. She got a piece of paper, and talking to me all the while so that her thoughts would not affect what she wrote, wrote these words (which she did not understand), “with the bird” (Iseult) “all is well at heart. Your action was right for both but in London you mistook its meaning.”
George was evidently trying to divert him and to bring assurance from the spirits that in marrying her he had done the right and true thing.
Having attempted automatic writing, George found she could do it, and produced a great deal of it. These writings gave Yeats much of the material he arranged in his A Vision (1925). In the introduction to the revised version of A Vision (1937) he has this report:
What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. “No,” was the answer, “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.”
In The Making of Yeats’s ‘A Vision’: A Study of the Automatic Script (1987) George Mills Harper revises the date of the revelation to make it October 27, and explains how Yeats and his wife, seer and medium, engaged in the automatic writing. There were no seances, no darkened rooms, no observers. George did not go into a trance. Over a period of about two and a half years, they had 450 sittings in Ireland, England, and—when George accompanied Yeats on a money-raising lecture tour—the United States. The procedure was that Yeats raised a theme, asked a question—“Is then the knowledge of god easier to the artist than the saint?”—and George transmitted the answer—“Much.” Question: “Is butterfly symbolic of cleared subconscious?” Answer: “No Butterfly symbol of innocence of emotion Eagle complexity & unbalanced emotion anger overcoming wisdom—Butterfly wisdom overcoming anger—the clearing of subconscious destroys anger.”
The Communicators—as Yeats called them—answered his questions to the extent eventually of 3,600 pages. They called themselves by a variety of names, such as “Ameritus.” George found it hard on her wrist, and on her patience. She often got bored. From March 28, 1920, they adopted an easier method by which “George speaks while asleep.” On September 18, 1922, they decided to give up these activities so that Yeats could set about bringing the mass of writing into the order of a philosophic system, “this task [which] has been laid upon me by those who cannot speak being dead & who if I fail may never find another interpreter.” Yeats acted upon Blake’s principle, that he “must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s.” A Vision, dated 1925, was privately printed on January 15, 1926. George’s words to Yeats during her “sleeps” are now published for the first time in the third volume of Yeats’s ‘Vision’ Papers; the automatic scripts are given in the first two volumes.
This may be the place to report that Phillip L. Marcus, in his Yeats and Artistic Power, maintains that all the automatic writing was a fabrication on George’s part. The theme of his book is Yeats’s sense of artistic power, and he wonders why there is virtually no reference to this in A Vision or the automatic writing:
That it occupies no such place in A Vision seems best explained by the fact that the automatic writing and the ‘sleeps’ that eventually replaced it were from first to last a conscious or unconscious fabrication of George’s, and although she carried over into the “spirit” communications most of Yeats’s abiding literary and occult preoccupations she did not give that of artistic power any significant place, perhaps because she did not recognise its importance but possibly rather because the act of collaboration between her and her husband was in fact an expression of her own creativity and thus in a sense a covert act of artistic power that competed with his own.
A bold claim. It is true that some of the communications are wifely. In one, Yeats is told to take more exercise and see his doctor for a check-up. In another, on June 27, 1919, he is warned against having anything to do with the increasing political agitation in Ireland: “That method is most wicked in this country—wholesale slaughter because a few are cruel—The leader should never incite.” That sounds like George rather than the Communicator “Ameritus.” But the sitting goes straight from this admonition into technical questions about “initiatory moments” that are clearly Yeats’s. I don’t suppose that automatic writing is like sitting down to play the piano: there is probably a blurred period before Ameritus calls the meeting to order.
Marcus wrote his book before Yeats’s ‘Vision’ Papers became available, so he had to rely on Harper’s account of them in The Making of Yeats’s ‘A Vision,’ where the notable moments are necessarily detached a little from their contexts. In the Vision Papers I don’t find any sign of fabrication or deception on George’s part. The difference between wifely stuff and the rest is always clear. George had a mind of her own, she was not just taking dictation from the communicators, but this didn’t prevent her from feeling she was a genuine medium.
Not that the writing was always as automatic as it was supposed to be. Yeats wanted to ask about his relations with Maud, Iseult, and George, and to make occasional inquiries about Olivia and Mabel. “Will MG attain a wisdom older than the serpent?” he asked on January 9, 1918, and the Communicator, evidently a student of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell—“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise”—answered: “She will attain to the wisdom of folly.” After a while George wanted to steer Yeats away from these delicate subjects to matter of philosophic import. But the going was often slow.On August 28, 1918, at Ballinamantane House the Communicator was out of sorts:
Today the bucket will draw no water
You have not prepared
I indicate what I wish to do—you choose another topic
Yes but I did not choose definitions
I dont like the atmosphere of this house—better put it right before more writing
At Oughterard on August 1, 1919, the sitting started badly: an imprecise question got a dusty answer in italics “Please attend & dont fidget.” At Oxford on February 1, 1918, the Communicator made it clear that he was not a mere professor:
Do you know Boehmes symbolism?
No I do not know any symbolism from book and I cannot get it from your minds because I am here only to create
When one of the several communicators was especially sluggish, Yeats concluded that the sitting was thwarted by Frustrators. But most of the sessions read like high-brow seminars on passion, emotion, love, sex, genius, memory, the transference of images from one mind to another, reincarnation, and the desirability of having children (two for the Yeatses, no more). In retrospect, Yeats thought that the communicators were
the personalities of a dream shared by my wife, by myself, occasionally by others—they have, as I must some day prove, spoken through others without change of knowledge or loss of power—a dream that can take objective form in sounds, in hallucinations, in scents, in flashes of light, in movements of external objects.
The Communicators may not have read Boehme but they were well versed in Yeats’s writings. Their main service was to enable him to extend and put in systematic form the divinations he had expressed (with Edwin John Ellis) in his edition of The Works of William Blake in 1893, his essays “Magic” (1901) and “Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places” (1914), and the first sketch of his visionary system, the essay published as Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1917).1 In ‘Magic,’ for instance, Yeats said he believed “in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed.” He held to three doctrines:
(1) That the borders of our mind are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.
(2) That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.
(3) That this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols.
Sixteen years later, in Per Amica Silentia Lunae, he placed this mind and this memory in what the neo-Platonist Henry More called the Anima Mundi, a garden of ancestral images, apparitions, and memories that recur again and again, “for passion,” as Yeats said, “desires its own recurrence more than any event.” “The dead,” he continued, “as the passionate necessity wears out, come into a measure of freedom and may turn the impulse of events, started while living, in some new direction, but they cannot originate except through the living.” Hence the merit of seances, evocation of spirits, and automatic writing.
Not surprisingly, one of the first questions Yeats asked the Communicator on November 20, 1917, was: “What is the relation of Anima Mundi to individual or to his subconsciousness.” Answer: “The relation is from human to the anima mundi—not from the subconscious but from the acts which the subconscious stores up.” The answer didn’t close the question; the nature of the Anima Mundi is one of the pervasive themes of the automatic writings.
Yeats’s dealings with magic started when he was boy in Dublin and Sligo. His uncle, George Pollexfen, was an astrologer. His friend the artist George Russell (AE) was a seer. Aunt Isabella Pollexfen gave Yeats a copy of A.P. Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism (1884). On June 16, 1885, Yeats, Charles Johnson, and a few friends founded the Dublin Hermetic Society. After a few months it developed into the Dublin Theosophical Lodge. When the Brahman Mohini Chatterji visited Dublin in the same year, Yeats learned much from him about oriental religion and reincarnation and wrote a few poems under his gentle sway. In London at Christmas 1887, greatly impressed by Madame Blavatsky, Yeats joined the Esoteric Section of her Theosophical Society. On March 7, 1890, at MacGregor Mathers’s invitation, he was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.2 In July 1892, when the old Fenian John O’Leary rebuked him for these interests, he defended himself:
If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write. It holds to my work the same relation that the philosophy of Godwin held to the work of Shelley and I have always considered myself a voice of what I believe to be a greater renaissance—the revolt of the soul against the intellect—now beginning in the world.
In Reveries over Childhood and Youth, more urbanely, Yeats gave a further reason for his recourse to the occult:
It was only when I began to study psychical research and mystical philosophy that I broke away from my father’s influence. He had been a follower of John Stuart Mill and so had never shared Rossetti’s conviction that it mattered to nobody whether the sun went round the earth or the earth round the sun. But through this new research, this reaction from popular science, I had begun to feel that I had allies for my secret thought.
So instead of reading George Eliot, Yeats read Baron Reichenbach on Odic Force. He wanted to turn aside from the official culture of England, mid-Victorian science, his father’s rationalism, and positivism. In Dublin and London he gathered his friends into antinomian fellowship, predicated on individual consciousness and vision. It wasn’t hard to find allies for his secret thought. During those years at the end of the century unorthodox spiritual experiences were deemed worthwhile, and not just by the Society for Psychical Research.
The practice of magic was also, as Yeats said to George’s mother about astrology, “a very flirtatious business.” The most erotic moments in Maud Gonne’s letters to Yeats are those in which the theme is a shared vision, a dream of spiritual union. Maud was always busy with one good cause or another: there were speeches to be made, prisoners for whom amnesty might be arranged, tenants in the west of Ireland who must be helped after their eviction. There was an Order of Celtic Mysteries to be devised, however implausibly, by Maud, Yeats, and Mathers. Someone always arose to be denounced, a race to be vilified, the English, the Jews. But Maud kept up her dreams and reported them to Yeats: he entered the details in his notebook and often quoted them to her, comparing her dreams to his. Sometimes he quoted them in evidence against her.
Early in 1903, making a last-minute attempt to prevent Maud from marrying MacBride, Yeats wrote her three letters, in one of which he transcribed from his diary for December 12, 1898, a dream he had of her coming to him lovingly at Lady Gregory’s Coole Park. He also quoted against her the dream she had on the same night, in which the god Lug (the Celtic sun god who possessed a spear of light) took her hand and put it into Yeats’s and pronounced them married. “Now I claim that this gives me the right to speak,” Yeats wrote with some effrontery, demanding that Maud draw back from infidelity and “become again as one of the Gods.” Not surprisingly, she not only went through with the marriage but conspired with MacBride in a plan to assassinate King Edward VII. They would have their honeymoon in Spain and try to kill the King on his visit to Gibraltar. As might have been expected, MacBride got drunk and forgot about the plan.
The ‘Vision’ Papers is more likely to be consulted than read. The automatic writings and the notebooks are difficult, often arbitrary and harsh, minding the dead’s business, but they are essential to anyone who wants to take possession of A Vision in either of its versions. “I wished,” Yeats said in the first version, “for a system of thought that would leave my imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all that it created, or could create, part of the one history, and that the soul’s.” He had hardly published the book before he became ashamed of it: “I had misinterpreted the geometry, and in my ignorance of philosophy failed to understand distinctions upon which the coherence of the whole depended.” He decided he must read a lot of philosophy and try again. The revised version needed great labor and was not published till October 7, 1937, two years before he died. After his death, George Yeats and Thomas Mark, Yeats’s editor at Macmillan, corrected several errors in the 1937 version and issued the book again in 1956 and with further corrections in 1962. The 1962 text is the one most readers of Yeats consult.
In the introduction to the 1937 version Yeats noted how close the automatic communications were to the original visionary intuitions in his Per Amica Silentia Lunae:
The unknown writer [i.e. the Communicator] took his theme at first from my just published Per Amica Silentia Lunae. I had made a distinction between the perfection that is from a man’s combat with himself and that which is from a combat with circumstance, and upon this simple distinction he built up an elaborate classification of men according to their more or less complete expression of one type or the other. He supported his classification by a series of geometrical symbols and put these symbols in an order that answered the question in my essay as to whether some prophet could not prick upon the calendar the birth of a Napoleon or a Christ.
In a discarded sentence Yeats said that in Per Amica he had described “the whole of human life as man’s attempt to become the opposite of himself or to create the opposite of his fate.” The situation Yeats has in mind is the one Wallace Stevens describes in “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction”:
From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves
And hard it is in spite of blazoned days.
Poetry is the art by which the world is made to appear to be our own and ourselves. Imagination is the means of effecting this appearance. In A Vision and other works Yeats uses the word “primary” to refer to the energy of one’s combat with external circumstances: one’s primary energy accepts that the world is not oneself, and by daily reasoning makes the best of that bad job. He describes as “antithetical,” and associates with the unconscious the energy of one’s combat with oneself. The purpose of this latter combat is to choose other fates for oneself and thereby seem to transfigure the world. Both forms of energy are supposedly necessary and equal, but Yeats favored the antithetical, as a Romantic poet in fellowship with Blake and Shelley would. Most of his leading questions in the occult sittings were designed to establish this preference and to find evidence for it. “The antithetical self is the source of creative power.”3
In either of its versions, A Vision consists of an aesthetic, a poetics, a defense of poetry, a theory of imagination, a treatise of human nature predicated on the freedom of one’s imagination within the necessity of time, space, and history. To the degree to which it recognizes necessity, it is also a horoscope of persons and historical periods, taking for granted the inevitability of conflict and making a virtue of it:
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.4
History and personality are presented as a dynamic exchange of forces, coming into definition as phases and cycles, correlated to the twenty-eight phases of the moon. “A man of, say, Phase 13 is a man whose Will is at that phase.”5 So A Vision includes a description of psychological types and it describes exemplars of each type, mostly artists and writers. Finally, the book is an interpretation of tradition, rejecting the ideology of progress and Enlightenment by invoking the Anima Mundi as a treasury of images, perennial, invulnerable to rationalist irony.
Like many other poets, Yeats was inspired by unofficial lore, he gathered motifs wherever he felt their force and he was indifferent to their being archaic, Ptolemaic, or otherwise frowned upon in the schools. These values are still in force. In our own Age of Aquarius the poet Gary Snyder lists among “what you should know to be a poet—
at least one kind of traditional magic:
divination, astrology, the book of
changes, the tarot:
the illusory demons and illusory shining gods…
The claim Yeats made for A Vision is sensible:
Some will ask whether I believe in the actual existence of my circuits of sun and moon. Those that include, now all recorded time in one circuit, now what Blake called “the pulsation of an artery,” are plainly symbolical, but what of those that fixed, like a butterfly upon a pin, to our central date, the first day of our Era, divide actual history into periods of equal length? To such a question I can but answer that if sometimes, overwhelmed by miracle as all men must be when in the midst of it, I have taken such periods literally, my reason has soon recovered; and now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.6
Responses to the book have often been dismissive. Frank Pearce Sturm, a learned occultist, told Yeats that “all these gyres & cones & wheels are parts of a machine that was thrown on the scrap heap when Ptolemy died.” In Science and Poetry (1926) I. A. Richards maintained that Yeats’s esoteric lore was as regressive as D. H. Lawrence’s dealings in solar myths. T. E. Hulme decided that Yeats was trying to restore to his poems an intuition of infinity without having to believe in any of the accredited religious doctrines. In After Strange Gods (1934) T. S. Eliot had a nasty thing to say:
…It is, I think, only carrying Mr. Richards’s complaint a little further to add that Mr. Yeats’s “supernatural world” was the wrong supernatural world. It was not a world of spiritual significance, no 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.
Eliot thought that Yeats had made himself a great poet by discarding the occult nonsense. It is not true. Yeats retained it to the end, as his last poems and plays show. Hostility to A Vision culminated in W. H. Auden’s contempt for it: “…mediums, spells, the Mysterious Orient—how embarrassing.”
It is my impression that this phase of the reception of the book is over. No one I know of finds it a scandal. Some readers hold that if Yeats needed occult communications to help him write The Tower, The Winding Stair, and his later plays, well and good. They assume that he found the elaboration of a philosophic system useful as homework, scales and arpeggios, or—as R. P. Blackmur said—“for purposes of scaffolding, for hints on how to ad lib, and how to run the frame of the dramatization of an idea.” Or they conclude that only a few poems, and those not the best, notably “Ille Dominus Tuus” and “The Phases of the Moon,” rely on A Vision, and so much the worse for those poems. These readers note, with evident pleasure, that in Yeats’s finest poems, such as “Among School Children,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” “The Second Coming,” and “Leda and the Swan,” the Vision is either unnecessary or the parts of it that count may easily be guessed. To read “The Second Coming,” according to this assumption, all you need is to guess that the displacement of one age by another may take a violent form, as the Christian age may be displaced by some rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.
These attitudes are not, I think, sufficient. It is true that the Vision Scripts clarifies a few difficult poems. “Veronica’s Napkin” becomes clearer, though not pellucid, when the automatic script for November 4, 1919, has Yeats’s Communicator directing his attention to a passage in Frazer’s The Golden Bough and a reference to Berenice. She was Ptolemy III’s wife and she dedicated to the gods a lock of her hair as an offering for his safe return from war. Ptolemy named a constellation “Berenice’s Curls” in her honour. Here is the poem:
The Heavenly Circuit; Berenice’s Hair;
Tent-pole of Eden; the tent’s drapery;
Symbolical glory of the earth and air!
The Father and His angelic hierarchy
That made the magnitude and glory there
Stood in the circuit of a needle’s eye.
Some found a different pole, and where it stood
A pattern on a napkin dipped in blood.
The Heavenly Circuit is the title of an essay by Plotinus. According to Plotinus, God is the center of a perfect circle; heavenly bodies and human souls rotate around Him in concentric circles. Veronica’s napkin is a holy relic, the handkerchief that Veronica gave the suffering Christ on his way to crucifixion on Mount Calvary. He wiped his face with it, and by miracle the imprint of his face is impressed on the handkerchief. On one level, as Professor Harper says in The Making of Yeats’s ‘A Vision’, “the poem contrasts God and Christ, suggesting ironically ‘the ideal man changing into the real man.”‘ On another level, these two figures are symbolic of the two concentric circles representing the world and the individual.” A Vision is Yeats’s attempt, Harper says, “to explain the relationship of these two symbolic spheres.” Berenice’s hair is invoked because the Communicator put the story into Yeats’s mind when the theme was the transfer of images from one mind to another. The first phrases of the poem have only the syntax of putting one phrase after another: there are no verbs or other connectives. No syntax is required, because no further authority than the Communicator’s is needed. Yeats leaves it to readers to make sense of the phrases in sequence.
But the scripts and the book they led to are valuable not merely as annotations to a few poems. If we add the essays “Magic” and “Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places” to Per Amica Silentia Lunae, the Vision Papers, and A Vision, we have an apocalypse, a book of prophecy. It is an “irregular metaphysics,” a phrase I take from Blackmur. In Anni Mirabiles Blackmur says that “where the great novelists of our times have dealt with the troubles caused by the new knowledges (and the erosion of some of the old ones) in a kind of broad and irregular psychology, so the poets have been led to deal with them (or to repel them, or rival them) in a kind of irregular and spasmodic but vitalized metaphysics.”
One reason for this desperate recourse, according to Blackmur, is “the relative disappearance of generally accepted (if only for argument) systematic metaphysics that bears on daily life.” One result is the proliferation of syntaxes in modern poetry, each of them good only for the occasion and issuing from arbitrary force beneath or apart from reason. Blackmur speaks of poets who “quivered with horror at all statements not drawn from dreams.” So, too, Yeats. A Vision is not doctrine or dogma but, in default of those, a testament: it is authoritative only in its origin, and is content thereafter to be merely what it is. It does not ask to be acted upon or even to be believed. It is a work of literature in that respect like The Golden Bough, Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, and Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Each of these is a work of irregular metaphysics.
It is not surprising that Phillip Marcus has largely put A Vision aside, since he deems it mainly George’s work. She must count as a Frustrator in his sense of Yeats’s poetry. He is concerned with the bardic tradition as it reached Yeats through Standish O’Grady, Samuel Ferguson, George Russell (AE), Arthur O’Shaughnessy, and other writers. In Yeats and the Beginning of the Irish Renaissance (1970, revised edition 1987) he made a strong start on this theme, “Yeats’s aesthetic of artistic power,” and in the new book he develops it much further. Some of his most telling chapters are commentaries on several poems and plays including “Blood and the Moon,” “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931,” “Parnell’s Funeral,” and The Death of Cuchulain. In each case his question is: To what extent does Yeats assume in this work, and act upon the assumption, that a poem or a play may have consequences in the world?
His method is to place the poems and plays in their historical and literary settings. “The Tower,” for instance, he relates to Yeats’s Senate speech on divorce, his negotiations with the Free State Government on the release of the Republican hungerstriker Mary MacSwiney, his opposition to “compulsory Irish” in the schools, and his gathering fear that the new middle-class Catholic Ireland would set aside the heroic values he associated with the Protestant Ascendancy of the eighteenth century.
Near the end of the book, Marcus refers to W. H. Auden’s claim in the poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”:
For poetry makes nothing hap- pen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
This is not good enough for Marcus, who wants to see the power of poetry extending through the world. He prefers to quote, as a motto for that power, Yeats’s favorite lines from O’Shaughnessy’s “Ode”:
We, in the ages lying In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing, And Babel itself in our mirth.
Beside these, Marcus puts the sentence from “A General Introduction for My Work” in which Yeats says we adore poets because in them “nature has grown intelligible, and by so doing a part of our creative power.” But although this comes from a late essay, Marcus has to report that Yeats lost confidence in the social and cultural effectiveness of art as he got older and Ireland became more exasperating.
Marcus’s book is formidable in the evidence it offers, but I think he expresses the wrong hope for poetry, that in some local and immediate respect it will change things. I would love poems even if I knew they made nothing happen in the world. I read poems as if I were looking at sculptures by Brancusi, objects in which an artist has discovered aesthetic possibilities, objects added to the world for pleasure. As Stevens said: “Poetry transforms us into epicures.”
M. L. Rosenthal refers to A Vision only in passing, when he notes that the moon imagery in a speech by Cuchulain’s Ghost in The Only Jealousy of Emer is “derived from the system of fatality Yeats and his wife were working out (published in 1925 as A Vision).” Well, it is a system of fatality, but it is also a philosophy of will. Yeats wrote in his diary for 1930: “History is necessity until it takes fire in someone’s head and becomes freedom or virtue.” And in a late poem, “The lot of love is chosen,” Rosenthal says of Yeats that “the body of folk-magical, Rosicrucian, cabalistic, spiritualist, and even theological lore he absorbed lies deep within subjective tradition,” and he seems happy to let it lie there. Rosenthal’s main interest is in what he calls “quality,” and he believes that we are in “an era that challenges the whole idea of artistic quality”:
Among the myriad studies of Yeats (as of other poets) filling the libraries, little attention is given to quality. Yet it is, precisely, quality that must be central to thinking about a great poet’s work: a process of connecting with its pleasures, discoveries, and intrinsic humanity.
The last phrase is eloquent, but it is hardly a definition of quality. Nor does Running to Paradise elucidate the question on any ground of theory or principle. I recall a lecture in which F. R. Leavis maintained that while Yeats wrote several poems that we have reason to admire, he wrote only one, “Among School Children,” that is fully achieved and capable of sustaining any degree of critical attention. Rosenthal would not agree with Leavis there. He thinks “The Tower” “may well be Yeats’s outstanding single poem.” The disagreement is not a hanging matter, but both critics would claim to be concerned with quality. Running to Paradise doesn’t indicate how the issue between them might even be joined. The penury of adjectives makes a difficulty: you can say that one poem is magical, another exquisite, a detail elsewhere lovely or ravishing, but there’s not much readers can do with these adjectives beyond nodding in agreement or shaking their heads in dissent.
Rosenthal’s method of criticism is responsive paraphrase. He doesn’t go in for historical settings or disputed readings. Quoting the last stanza of “Among School Children,” he finds no reason to advert to the problems of interpretation that Paul de Man and other critics found there:
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to plea- sure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Rosenthal comments on this:
The stanza is a last-ditch defense of art, but also of every kind of creative endeavor that the individual ego can lose itself in. It stands as a willful affirmation, a hold (as in “The Tower”) against the preceding stanzas’ accumulated sense of life’s futility. At the same time, it is a reflex of those stanzas in what it implies: namely, that even a poem of increasing ruefulness and despair can be an example of “labour…blossoming or dancing.” “Among School Children” is a perfect model of such a poem.
Paul de Man would not hear of “affirmation.” In Allegories of Reading he acknowledges that the stanza is generally interpreted as implying “the potential unity between form and experience, between creator and creation.” But by reading the last line of the poem literally rather than figuratively, de Man argues, “two entirely coherent but entirely incompatible readings can be made to hinge on one line.” It could mean: Please tell me, because it’s desperately important, how to distinguish the dancer from the dance. Or: Isn’t it wonderful that no such distinction need be sought? De Man didn’t note a further possibility: How can we deduce the dancer from the self-evident existence of the dance? My own view of the stanza is the common one, that it exults in Unity of Being, and that the question in the last line offers this intimation of unity a challenge that doesn’t have to be met. I would put in evidence the rhythmic swell of the stanza, so confident of its power that it can tempt itself with refutation.
Rosenthal goes through Yeats’s poems and plays in more or less chronological order, picking out the works he regards as crucial and leading readers through them. When a passage is especially magnificent as an act of language, he calls attention to its detail, mostly metrical. Rosenthal’s sense of value, reading a poem, is conveyed by his zest, his palpable response to the lines. Reading “The Folly of Being Comforted,” he refers to “the great line ‘The fire that stirs about her, when she stirs”‘ but he doesn’t say why it’s great. I agree with him that it’s gorgeous, but I wish he would tell me why.
The problem with his method is that it’s slow work, takes a lot of time and many pages. Near the end of the book there is helter-skelter. I looked for insight on one of my favorite poems, “Long-Legged Fly,” but the seminar was nearly over, there was no time for more than a quick summary. Rosenthal clearly loves Yeats’s poetry, and thinks him “arguably—although such ranking, if taken too seriously, is a game for innocents only—our greatest poet of this century writing in English.” But his responsiveness to the poems has limits. One of them is reached in his commentary on “Upon a House Shaken by the Land Agitation.” Yeats wrote the poem when he heard that several of Lady Gregory’s tenants at Coole had successfully petitioned in the Land Courts to have their rents reduced. He feared that she would not be able to keep up the house and estate, and he bristled at the thought of such a loss:
How should the world be luckier if this house,
Where passion and precision have been one
Time out of mind, became too ruinous
To breed the lidless eye that loves the sun?
And so on. Rosenthal knows well what the issues are and how acutely they press upon one of Yeats’s prejudices, his cult of lonely, aristocratic values, the more imperious the better. But Rosenthal dismisses the poem as “an incantation against elementary democratic reforms.” Well, yes, but you wouldn’t think that if you were Lady Gregory. Rosenthal’s response raises another hard question. Are we justified in dismissing a poem because, paraphrasing it, we find its argument undemocratic? If we go much further down that road, we reject nearly everything Yeats wrote after 1909. Again it’s a question of quality, but Rosenthal hasn’t given us the words for it.
It may be the case that quality is best not defined or even talked about: let it emerge when the critic is thinking of something else, as in Rosenthal’s book when he’s reading “Demon and Beast” and “The Tower” and letting the pleasure of the reading animate his sentences. I’m not sure that he should throw down a gauntlet on this issue. Appreciation is enough.
April 21, 1994
Translated by Yeats as “Through the Friendly Silence of the Moon” from Aeneid, Book 2, line 255. ↩
Professor Harper is our best guide to these matters. See his Yeats’s Golden Dawn (Barnes and Noble, 1974), the essays he assembled in Yeats and the Occult (Macmillan, 1976), his (with Walter Kelly Hood) A Critical Edition of Yeats’s ‘A Vision’ 1925 (London: Macmillan, 1978), his W.B. Yeats and W.T. Horton: The Record of an Occult Friendship (Humanities Press, 1980), and The Making of Yeats’s ‘A Vision’: A Study of the Automatic Script (Southern Illinois University Press, two volumes, 1987). The poet Kathleen Raine is the most accomplished scholar of the relation between neo-Platonism, Blake, and Yeats. See her Defending Ancient Springs (Oxford University Press, 1967; Lindisfarne Press, 1985), Blake and Tradition (Princeton University Press, 1968), Yeats, the Tarot, and the Golden Dawn (Humanities Press, 1976), and From Blake to ‘A Vision’ (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1979). ↩
Quoted in Harper, Making, Vol. 1, p. 18. ↩
A Vision (1937), p. 214. ↩
A Vision (1937), p. 79. ↩
A Vision (1937), pp. 24–25. ↩