SELECTED POEMS OF YEATS: AN INTRODUCTION
(English version of Introduction to Hakibbutz Hameuchad edition of Yeats’ Poems, translated by Ephraim Broide, published 2001)
Although it is common to introduce the writings of a famous poet with biographical information, in the case of Yeats it is fundamental. Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “My life is the poem I would have writ,/ but I could not both live and utter it,” but for Yeats the interrelationship between his poetry and his life was crucial. For Yeats created his biography and his identity with a mind to his poetry. It was often noted by his contemporaries that Yeats in effect created himself just has he created his poetry. His collected poems were continuously being rewritten in his lifetime to fit into the general pattern of his works as he reconceived them, and he even considered editing his own letters. Louis Untermeyer called Yeats’ Collected Works an “objective correlative for the entirety of Yeats' life and thought, a kind of literary equivalent for the total experience of the man, a total experience shaped, through art, into a form less perishable than flesh, a form freed from accident” Untermeyer also explained the reason for this: "Yeats struggled, - as publicly as possible - to interpret his life and work, to construct a kind of vast gestalt in which his experience, his prose statements, and his art would unite in one complex but vivid thing." Yeats’ search for organic, artistic wholeness, is in his collected works, every individual poem and in every element of his life as well.
It began with a division. Yeats’ parents were extremely ill-matched. A landowning Barrister who became a pre-Raphaelite painter, Yeats’ father, John Butler Yeats, enjoyed nothing more than living in London in the atmosphere of his cosmopolitan English colleagues, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. His mother, Susan Pollexfen, was only really at home with her family in Sligo, in the mystical, provincial west of Ireland, and found herself in the city depressed to the point of numbness. Two years after Yeats was born on 13 June, 1865 in Dublin, his father moved the family to London in 1867, neglecting his lands in Ireland. Because of this and the land wars, the family’s annual income greatly diminished, and his mother was forced to cope with a greatly changed life-style. After that Susan returned as often as possible to Sligo and until his 13th year Yeats grew up with idyllic summers in the country and painful, poor winters in the cultural stimulation of London.
Yeats incorporated this Anglo-Irish antithesis in his poetic identity. Even in his early poems, such as “The Lake Isle of Innesfree,his best-known work, he ‘stands on the pavements grey’ of London and dreams of a Rocky island in Lough Gill, County Sligo,. Although he longs for Innesfree, the language and grammar reflect that his going is in some vague, poetic future. In his last poems, he not only commands his burial “Under Ben Bulben,” the mountain in Drumcliff, Sligo, but writes his own epitaph, imagining his eternity only in the homeland of his mother. But his fame came more easily in England than Ireland.
His education was neither formal, nor organised, nor pleasant – he learned to read only at nine when his father beat him. And although he did go to high school in Dublin, he probably learned more on the way to school, listening in the train to his father talk about the PreRaphaelite painters and poets. This group of poets and painters of the mid-nineteenth century who revolutionized both art and poetry created some basic rules that would permeate English culture until modernism took over in the second decade of the twentieth century. Their manifesto was straightforward: fidelity to nature, democracy of components – equality of attention to details, a yearning for an idyllic past, usually medieval, a respect for the personal and handmade in architecture, and later the feeling of the coming end of an era.
When Yeats decided after a short period in art school that he wanted to be a poet, his father encouraged him, urging him to ignore practical considerations: "A gentleman is not concerned with getting-on,” he said, forgetting that the economic circumstances in which he was raising his children desperately demanded precisely this knowledge of ‘getting-on.’
Yeats’ Pre-Raphaelite background helped him to perceive the value in the native culture of Ireland, but his dreams of a ‘fairy-tale-like’ poetry soon changed as he became involved in Irish nationalism, developing Irish poetry and translating from Irish sources with the idea of creating a national consciousness.
This thematic opposition was complicated by his early and lifelong love for a beautiful Irish terrorist, Maud Gonne. “I was 23 years old when the troubling of my life began,” Yeats writes in his Memoirs. In January 1889 she came to visit him in London, and he wrote: “I had never thought to see in a living woman so great a beauty.” For much of the rest of his life he would remain enamoured of her, and she would reject his proposals with the phrase, “The world should thank me for not marrying you.” She became the subject of his poetry, the reason he needed to write, communicate and succeed. “He wishes for the clothes of heaven” is clearly for her, and more specifically, in “Words,” he points out how he might have given up his entire career as a poet had she been able to understand him. Years later, despite his successful marriage, she was in his mind in lines like those in “After Long Silence,” “young we loved one another and were innocent.”
With Gonne, Yeats developed his interest in Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists, a group who believed that knowledge of God could be attained through spiritual ecstasy and direct intuition, but he eventually was asked to leave because he demanded proof. Yet he remained interested in the Cabbala, Order of the Golden Dawn, mysticism, magic, spiritualism, astrology, and his work is imbued with this duality of spiritualism and the need for verification.
In 1894 Yeats met Lady Augusta Gregory, and soon after began another chapter in his life recorded in his poems. For not only did she act as his patron, supporting him at her estate in Coole Park during the summers (where he wrote “The Wild Swans of Coole” and other works), but she also worked on numerous Irish projects together with Yeats.
Yeats also benefited from the friendship of Ezra Pound with whom he lived for a few winters, and who acted as his secretary, honing Yeats’ style and outlook. Pound was to some extent responsible for the modernization in Yeats’ poetry in the second decade of the century. The poem, “A Coat,” considered by many to be a declaration of a new ‘naked’ style of verse, was a product of this period with Pound. Pound’s mother-in-law, Olivia Shakespeare, was Yeats’ first lover, and he remained connected with her throughout his life. It is not surprising that Pound would later be his best man at his wedding.
After numerous rejections by Maud Gonne, and later by her daughter Yseult, Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees, at the age of 52. It was an act of desperation – he wanted to be settled and to have children, and she was young, cultured and wealthy, and recommended by Augusta Gregory. But on his wedding night he was mortified at having given up his great love. His wife, however, knew how to help him overcome his despair. She began automatic writing, providing Yeats with messages from spirits that gave him a new inspiration and metaphors for poetry. He was reborn, and many of his later poems reflect the complex, historical and spiritual system with which she provided him in the many months he spent transcribing her automatic writing and later her oral communications from the spirits. A major part of the theory is based on the phases of the moon, the cycles of fullness and emptiness, and their implications for history, psychology, politics, as well as the development of the individual per. This cycle is repeatein a dynamic pyramid shape, in what Yeats called “gyres,” which expand from a center of intensity at the beginning to a amorphous cycle at the end, at which point another gyre” is begun. “The Second Coming,” for example, opens with a description of these gyres in terms of the hunting cycle of the falcon, flying in wider and wider cycles and losing contact with its tamer, the falconer.
The looseness of the cycle, the lack of connection with a core here, that characterizes the twentieth century. The poem predicts the birth of a new and terrifying world, based on this system of interlocking spinning gyres. A new center point for a new cycle will begin, a new Messiah. The system, with all its ramifications, is set out in his book “A Vision”
This was a good period for Yeats. His two children were born, and soon after he was awarded the Nobel Prize (1923). His liberal marriage left him free to develop relationships with other women, and with them he developed new ideas for his poetry. “The Three Bushes,” for example, began with a discussion with Dorothy Wellesley about subjects for poetry.
He also felt his responsibility as an aging poet, and as one of the few survivors of the poetry of the nineteenth century. Most of the colleagues of the “Rhymers’ Club” with whom he began to write such as Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde died by 1900. Others, like Arthur Symons, renounced their ‘decadent’ past, ceased to develop as poets or stopped writing.
Yeats’ responsibility was to the next generation of poets to show that there were some extremely vital things that could be learned by the persistent devotion to poetry, that the work of the poet was central to civilization. The idea of the poet as bard, which Yeats had seen in Irish poetry and in the works of the English poet, William Blake (whose works he edited) seems to be the most pervasive and significant idea in his work.
And yet it is coupled with the same duality he presented in his poetry about Maud Gonne. What is his last message – the invocation of “Under Ben Bulben,” to Irish poets to ‘do their work’ or the plaintive words of ‘Politics’ which has in recent years been restored as his final words in his collected poems: “and maybe what they say is true of war and war’s alarms/ but oh that I were young again and held her in my arms…”
When Yeats died on the 28 of January, 1939 he had arranged his Collected Works for publication with this yearning for life as its conclusion. All of his exploration in spirituality, all of his systems of cycle and return, all of his awareness of the necessity of eternity in art and his public image, were all superceded by this one truth – that the hunger for life and love shape the ultimate truth. It is this hunger that is the ultimate attraction and transcendence in his art, this refusal to deceive himself with theories, subterfuges, ideologies and poetics. This hunger shines through every poem in this collection.
Dr. Karen Alkalay-Gut
Tel Aviv University