The Drama of Conflict in the Build-up of Unity of Being: A Study of Blake and Yeats’s Poetry

Sahidur Rahaman Lasker, Magrahat College

Rik Sarkar, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata

Tathagata Chanda, University of Calcutta, Kolkata

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Yeats’s penchant for Hinduism is quite known to the literary circle. He delved deep into unwrapping the mysteries of Universe under the impact of occult exercises. Yeats, of course, was much stimulated by Blake’s theory of the progress of the soul in its constant conflict. In his approach to this project he deals with the two conflicting paraphernalia- ‘soul’ and ‘self ‘(body). In the poetic oeuvre of Yeats, ‘soul’ is caught in its critical journey of spiritual development. In the Jainistic theory of the state of ‘soul’, one would find that Yeats’ soul is steeped in worldliness (Bhavaabhinanadita), and is in the conflict between two pervasive polarities- ‘soul’ and ‘self’. This complex march of the soul brings insight into the self-knowledge of the poet, heavily symbolizing the drama of conflict.  

Yeats, inspired by Nietzsche and Blake, devised his poetics on the dialectical opposites. Nietzsche, in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, flashed a focus on the principal concept of the “eternal return” or the “eternal recurrence”, emphasizing the cyclical progress of the Universe in an infinite motion. In fact, Indian religions like Hinduism and Buddhism also stress the same ideas of the ‘recurrence’ of the Universe. Yeats’s symbol of ‘gyre’ shares with the similar concept of Nietzsche. Blake’s symbolic world centres on the theory of Four Zoas. Blake propounded a theory that the actual cause of man’s downfall was not a sin committed against God, but it was the four Zoas of man becoming conscious of one another and falling into disharmony. These four divisions/Zoas make a clash against themselves in their fallen state to gain control over man, resultantly a chaotic state is created that strangulates man’s spiritual advancement. “Blake sometimes creates a mythological world of his own. For example, the giant Los, who represents the human imagination, is set against his opposite Urizen , who represents the restrictions of law and order.” (Carter & McRae: 204)

           Yeats was much influenced by the treatment of conflicts in Blake’s poetry. They are in  plethora of – day and night, life and death, reason and emotion, innocence and experience and so on. Blake articulates in convincing manner his revolutionary thoughts in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In it Blake presents, even celebrates a series of contraries – Heaven and Hell, Angel and Devil, Reason and Energy, Good and Evil and so on. In Blake’s philosophical argument, evil is necessary for the good to exist. Spiritual advancement is impossible without the active engagement of the drama of contraries: “Without Contraries is no progression/Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy /Love and hate are necessary to Human existence.” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: 11-14) The forces of the opposite emotions stress the novelty of thought in both Blake and Yeats’s poetry. In his masterpieces The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience, Blake harps upon the theme of contraries with his greater poetic aplomb. The study of the first song of Introduction from both the collection foregrounds the unified perception of the contraries- innocence and experience. The Introduction from Innocence Songs deals with a child on a cloud who tells the piper to sit down and write songs in a book. It is the child, the innocence incarnate who inspires the piper for poetic creation, the form of beauty. So, the piper wrote:

And I made a rural pen,

And I stain’d the water clear,

And I wrote my happy songs

Every child may joy to hear. ( Introduction: 23-26)

The song in Experience bears the same title Introduction. The piper now figures as a bard who sees present, past and future, and who has heard the holy word. He has now possessed a prophetic vision whose poetic genius is now converted from the simple and the divine into something very complicated. This psycho-aesthetic journey of the poet becomes more prominent in The Lamb in The Songs of Innocence and The Tyger in The Songs of Experience. The Lamb is composed with ease and solemnity, almost in a sing-song fashion:

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,

                       Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee:

                       He is called by thy name,

                        For He calls Himself a Lamb.

                        He is meek, and He is mild;

                       He became a little child.

                        I a child, and thou a lamb,

                        We are called by His name.      ( The Lamb: 31-38)

The Tyger is more difficult a poem involving complicated symbols and mysticism away from the simple rhythmic felicity in The Lamb. The Tyger is both beautiful and fearful, and thus it symbolises a blend of contraries. It has oxymoronic qualities. The Tyger could be contrasted well with innocence of the ‘Lamb’.

Undoubtedly like Blake, Yeats developed his own poetics that reads the drama of conflicts in its aesthetic fervour. Sailing to Byzantium and Byzantium, A Dialogue of Self and Soul, Meru, Lapis Lazuli form an inner structure of Yeats’ poetry. Aping the same track, Yeats wrote in his essay “Poetry and Tradition” that the ‘nobleness of the arts is in the mingling of contraries, the extremity of sorrow, the extremity of joy’. Yeats transforms the actual conflicts of life into an aesthetic expression and endeavours to merge them in art. According to his philosophical mechanism expounded in A Vision, life is a form of two opposing gyres and labels them ‘struggling states’ – the primary and the antithetical tinctures. The primary tincture represents objectivity, concord, the solar, the reasonable, while the antithetical represents subjectivity, discord, the lunar, the natural beauty and the Unity of Being.

Yeats amassed his poetic energy in expressing his occult ideas and weaved them together with poetry and philosophy. To the Rose upon the Rood of Time brings an important concept of eternal beauty. Yeats’s desire for the eternal beauty symbolized by the rose expands in Sailing to Byzantium . Tired of the real world that does not respect the imperishable beauty of art and literature , and dissatisfied with the transient nature of human life , the poet embraces the ancient city of Byzantium: “Yeats’s poetic speakers, unable or unwilling to come terms with life within or around them flee or are summoned to … the golden boughs of Byzantium”.

In other words, the rose is replaced by Byzantium. It is the reason which reigns in Byzantium prevalently, and so the poet wants a release from his embodied state. He yearns to be a golden bird eternally singing to the lords and ladies of Byzantium . The whole poem presents conflicts between the real and the ideal, the temporal and the permanent, between the mortality of human body and the immortality of human soul. In the first stanza of the poem the poet writes:

That is no country for the old men. The young

                         In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

                          Those dying generations – at their song

                           The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas

                           Fish, fish, or fowl, command all summer long

                           Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

                           Monuments of unageing intellects. ( Sailing to Byzantium : 104-110)

The country referred to is Ireland, but more philosophically it is the sensual and mortal world not fit for the old men. The first stanza emphatically showcases the temporality of the poet’s country through a set of romantic scenes – the young remaining in one another’s arms and salmons jumping. But Byzantium does not appear to be a mere repetition of Sailing to Byzantium ; it reflects the more mature vision of the poet. In Sailing to Byzantium the city is dominated by reason, but now Yeats discovers that reason and sensuality must be fused together for a better aesthetic growth. Byzantium, in fact, celebrates the unified vision of the poet. Zwerdling notes: “As a result of the shift from the ‘higher’ faculties to the ‘lower’, the true Vision now seemed possible in ecstatic world.” (Zwerdling : 90)

The first stanza of the Byzantium describes in the background of night the unpurified images of the day. The impurity, images, darkness, drunkenness, sleep, song, gong all are accumulated in the opening set-up:

The unpurged images of the day recede;

                        The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;

                        Night resonance recedes, night-waker’s song

                        After great cathedral gong;

                        A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains

                         All that man is,

                        All mere complexities,

                       The fury and the mire of human veins.         ( Byzantium: 153-60)

The second stanza brings forth an image that floats. The poet is confused whether it is man or shade, shade more than man or more image than a shade. It is not a play of words, but an attempt to paint a chaotic world difficult to understand with senses. The golden bird and cocks of Hades are paradoxically juxtaposed and they create a pattern of conflict between permanent and transitory, the higher and the lower. While the golden bird symbolizes the permanence of art, cocks of Hades symbolize the transience of the embodied being.

Yeats’s poetry continued to centre on the binary opposite of reason and sensibility in Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop which dramatizes the rudimentary conflict between body and soul. Two contrasting characters set the two distinctly opposite viewpoints of life –Bishop is an advocate of soul’s superiority over body, whereas Crazy Jane celebrates the co-existence of the two in her. Bishop puts light on the separation between body and soul, and stands for the latter exhorting a woman called Crazy Jane:

Those breasts are flat and fallen now,

                        Those veins must soon be dry;

                       Live in heavevly mansion,

                         Not in some foul sty.  (Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop: 104-108)

But Crazy Jane celebrates the paradox between self and soul in her being arguing that fair and foul are interrelated and complementary. Fair needs foul for its significance. Crazy Jane establishes her argument against the Bishop:

Fair and foul are of kin,

                        And fair needs foul’, I cried.

                         My friends are gone, but that’s a truth

                         Nor grave nor bed denied,

                        Learned in bodily lowliness

                        And in the heart’s pride.               (Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop : 112-117)

 Yeats emphasized the importance of the material world in his poems like A Dialogue of Self and Soul, the Hawk, and The Balloon of the Mind. A Dialogue of Self and Soul externalizes the conflict between self and soul. The Japanese sword symbolizes the self; like the Japanese sword which shows the embroidery of flowers, life is tied with attachment and attraction. In The Hawk , the high soaring hawk symbolizes soul. The cook and scullion, the common people of earth call down the soaring hawk to assist them in the physical world .The argument is that soul must be subservient to the aid of material world.

Throughout his literary career Yeats was in search of Unity of Being, an aesthetic experience in which mystic felicity comes from reconciliation of the opposites through poetry. In a world where “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”, the search for Unity of Being has led the poet to his own spiritual renewal. An Acre of Grass, one of his last poems, reflects his efforts for his spiritual advancement:

Grant me an old man’s frenzy,

                        Myself must I remake

                        Till I am Timon and Lear

                        Or that William Blake

                        Who beat upon the wall

                        Till truth obeyed his call.

                                                                                       ( An Acre of Grass: 99-104 )

Thus, Yeats’s poetics of dualism showcases the profound meditation of opposites leading to their unified perception. His gamut of poetry captures the internal journey of self-knowledge, through a rigorous process, resulting in the conflicting thoughts and symbols. Unity of being becomes a static element in Yeats’ poetry for strengthening his soul.

Works cited:

Carter, Ronald and John McRae. The Routledge History of Literature in English, London: Routledge, 2011, Print.

Roy, P.K. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. Poetry of William Blake, Jaipur: ABD  Publishers, 2006. Print.

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, New York: OUP, 1989. Print.

W.B. Yeats, Autobiographies, London: Papermac, 1980. Print.

Arra M. Garab, Beyond Byzantium: The Last Phase of Yeats’s Career, Dekalb Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1969.Print

W.B. Yeats, Selected Poetry, Delhi: Book Land, 2010.Print.

Alex Zwerdling, Variations on the Visionary Quest”, Rep. in A Collection of   Critical Essays, (ed.), John Unterecker, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 1963.Print.

W.B. Yeats, Selected Poetry, Delhi: Book Land, 2010.

Norman Jeffares, (ed.) W.B. Yeats. Selected Poetry, London: Macmillan, 1962

W.B. Yeats. Selected Poetry, Delhi: Book Land, 2010,

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