I want to reiterate some of the features of the modern as we attempt to place Yeats in the perspective of the early twentieth century. In many ways “modernism” is a revolutionary response to the crisis of the self’s relation to community. Though the first decade of the twentieth century seemed to offer a picture of peace, wealth, and empire, in truth a profound agitation for change was occurring, indicated by the movement toward women’s suffrage, the inclusion of labor parties in governments, the rise of nationalist movements among the colonies, and even by the increasing decay and self-indulgence of upper-class culture. In my first two posts, I mentioned these matters as well as revolutionary new ideas in physics, psychology, philosophy, painting, music, and literature. With regard to the sense of community, there was an increasing fragmentation of culture beyond Matthew Arnold’s worst nightmares about Victorian puritanism as opposed to the “sweetness and light” of classical Hellenism. The breach grew ever wider between the semi-literate consumption of mass-produced popular media and the increasingly alienated artists with their turn toward experimentation; modern artists concertedly pursued aestheticism, abstraction and an intentionally paradoxical fragmentation of effect, as well as primitivism and a subversively frank truth-telling. The exploration of art’s form and content became the emblem and stage of freedom. All this ferment and breakdown was suddenly plunged into Europe’s Great War, the great upwelling of primitive violence which was the First World War from 1914 to 1918 and the millions of deaths which nothing seemed able to avoid. The proud achievements of wildly growing technology and science yielded the horror of modern armaments. Partly as a result, modern literature took up the task of judging the entire span of western civilization, which was suffering such an apocalyptic breakdown. For example, in 1919, Yeats writes in “The Second Coming” that “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” and later in the poem, there is the “revelation” that “a vast image” of mythic Sphinx-like violence “moves its slow thighs” to assault modernity – “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”
From 1910 to 1939, Yeats made his greatest contribution to the flowering of modern art. With the other modernists, he confronted the crisis of how art’s language and consciousness itself can exist in the midst of the chaos of a failed society. What is breathtaking, even overwhelming about Yeats is his capacity under the circumstances to grow into a greater and greater poet, cultivating always new modes and resources of imagination from decade to decade; in this, his true peers are Wordsworth and Milton. Yeats began as a dreamy aesthete and Paterian; his first important imaginative transformation occurred around 1900, at the age of thirty-five. Yeats wrote about this period (in “The Trembling of the Veil”) that Pater’s aestheticism had “taught us to walk upon a rope, tightly stretched through serene air, and we were left to keep our feet upon a swaying rope in a storm.” From the experience of the inevitable fall to earth, Yeats made greater and greater poetry. It is not only that he widened the range of diction beyond conventional “literary” diction, or that he widened the range of tone so that it stretched from personal to public, from formal to vernacular within a phrase, from sorrowful to sarcastic, all the while maintaining a distinctive cadence, a voice. The greatness of that poetic voice also results from its continual laying bare of the power and limits of the imagination; with increasing authority, he probes how the imagination infuses and transforms the reality of that fall to earth. The authority of his voice was earned over decades of writing and living as he opened himself to the aesthetic influence of the French Symbolists and then to the new aesthetic force of a stripped down modernist compression (the first via friendship with Arthur Symons and the second with Ezra Pound; he shared rooms with the former in 1900 and the latter in 1911). Yeats never ceased pitting himself against his weaknesses; from his founding of the Abbey Theatre in 1904 onward, he was a shy man who projected himself into the public arena, weathering its exposures and questioning its integrity as well as his own. Yeats’ voice as a poet possesses an authority based on self-consciousness and critique; his voice of reckoning and self-reckoning infuses each of the characters he creates as speakers, including himself.
Many influences fed the poet’s growth. Beyond the high – indeed, tightrope – ideal of “art for art’s sake” and then the French symbolists’ play with silence and subversive nuance, the Nietzschean aesthetic of self-challenging self-creation increasingly shaped his poetry – “whatever flames upon the night / man’s resinous heart has fed.” There was also the Irish independence movement and Yeats’ participation in its imaginative life, celebrating it in his plays (for example, “The Countess Cathleen”) or questioning it in certain poems – the seeming product of “an Irishman enraged by his Irishness.” There was his admiration for and editing of Blake’s poetry with its blend of spiritual yearning and passionate honesty, as well as its mythologizing systems, a taste for which Yeats maintained into his seventies and which yielded many a poem’s imagery as well as his book “A Vision.” And finally there was the fertile influence of revolutionary modernism, not only resulting from Pound’s model of hewn-down concreteness of image, but also from the search to find the language for the experience of Europe at war and the plummet toward independence and civil war in Ireland.
The awareness of how, in the midst of chaos, the imagination shapes language and life never ceases to mark his work. In “Easter 1916,” he casually introduces the rebel leaders – later executed – of the abortive Easter Uprising against British rule in Ireland; he initially uses realistic, deflating phrases about them (“I have passed with a nod of the head / Or polite meaningless words, / Or have lingered awhile and said / Polite meaningless words”). And yet he writes that even the least worthy of the rebels, a “drunken vainglorious lout,…has resigned his part in the casual comedy; / He, too, has been changed in his turn, / Transformed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” Yeats’ imagery for the rebels’ transformation, the “terrible beauty,” describes the nature of the imagination for him: the fanatic “hearts” of the rebels were “enchanted to a stone / To trouble the living stream” of ordinary life as it changes and lives “minute by minute: / The stone’s in the midst of all” shaping the flux of life. Finally, the stoniness of the verse in the last stanza proclaims that a nation is shaped and lives by such monolithic acts as the rebels’ violent sacrifice. [See Selected Poems And Four Plays of William Butler Yeats.]
Yeats reveals the role of the imagination in shaping society and history, but also in forming the self. In “Among Schoolchildren,” he explores how he – like the children he visits, as an Irish senator – is shaped by the work (the learning and internalization) of images and identities; this is the theme, too, of a late poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” about the need toward the end of life to return to the sources of imagination and identity, “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” The last stanza of “Among Schoolchildren” celebrates the inspired labor of the imagination, potentially uniting life and art, image and reality, drawing together spirit and sense, body and soul: “Labour is blossoming or dancing where / The body is not bruised to pleasure soul…. / O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?” And in “Sailing to Byzantium,” the aging persona would be released from the “sensual” music of “the young [i]n one another’s arms,” for “This is no country for old men.” Instead he yearns for the “monuments” and music of the spirit, but he insists that the icons of the spirit be formed from the stuff of life; though “An aged man is but a paltry thing,” his soul can and must “clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress.” In “Byzantium,” his deepening of the previous poem’s vision, Yeats evokes the mosaics in the walls of Hagia Sophia, where violent generations of soldiers occupied and slept amid the golden, turquoise, bejeweled mosaics of the basilica. Of these glistening, vibrant artworks he writes: “I hail the superhuman; / I call it death in life and life in death.” As these images of religious passion, of saints and symbolic dolphins loom above the soldiery, “All complexities of fury leave, dying into a dance, an agony of trance, an agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve… / These images that yet fresh images beget, that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.”
One of Yeats’ later celebrations of the power of the imagination is voiced by a persona called Crazy Jane; her voice and understanding embody Yeats’ vision with great vitality and audacity, particularly in “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop.” As she argues with the latter, a mouthpiece of conventional mores, she uses springing, pithy epigrammatic phrases to celebrate the full cycle of birth, sex, and death, even welcoming her body’s aging, accepting the death of friends, and affirming that she is “learned in bodily lowliness / And in the heart’s pride… / But Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement; / For nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.” Yeats’ insight – a source of his power – is to accept the full cycling of life as the matter of the imagination, the material and source of his images. Simultaneously he recognizes ruin, death, and a vanishing nothingness as vital elements of the process, and that makes his understanding of the imagination particularly modern – for Yeats shows that the low and uncontrolled, the irrational heart and excremental part, are vital to the process of our noblest, most transcendent desire, of love, and alternatively that culture’s variously hallowed images can shape, even as they are shaped by, the moments of our animality.
In my next post, I hope to turn to the “modernity” of T. S. Eliot’s poetry.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
My newly completed novel is The Fall of the Berlin Wall, about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. My 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962, which is as yet unpublished. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[These blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]