Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
(In Memory Of W.B. Yeats: W. H. Auden)
We were familiar with the name of W.B. Yeats since childhood as the writer of “Introduction” to English Gitanjali and revered him as a poet who had such profound understanding of Tagore. We hadn’t read much of Yeats in childhood except one poem in ICSE book titled “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”, a memorial of Robert Gregory who was killed in WW-I where the speaker is given a godlike omniscience and the readers are elevated along with him above the clouds and the very act of war critiqued:
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love
Introduced by such an amazingly balanced poem where the balanced lines seem to mime the very act of flying, William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) the poet, the Nobel Prize winner, the senator, the critic, the man, never really ceased to amaze us even a hundred and fifty years after his birth. His expansive mental faculties explored a range of ideas – from the personal to national to international, critiquing oppression, forging an identity for himself and famously stimulating the Celtic revival. He can be approached as an esoteric dreamer, a caustic modern sceptic, an Irish patriot, an antinationalist, a shrewdly practical man and also as a solitary man, an unrealist, for, living in an era of flux in history, his ideas and aesthetics remained outrageously visionary. Is it this aspect, this human figure caught in a mesh of contradictions that makes us explore him to this day?
Yeats employed diverse frameworks in his work : mythological, with particular reference to Irish myths and legends, he also turned to reality, to theology with ideas gained not from any formal religious education but from his own involvement in mysticism, for, he took interest in the occult, in horoscope, séances, transforming his ideas into aesthetic masterpieces. Yeats reinvented himself persistently: Yeats the dreamer, the lover, the mad old man, the public figure, along with those around him, like Maud Gonne famously becomes Helen in “No Second Troy”. The unleashing of violence fascinated him and he composed poetry finding in it a key to creative power: a terrible beauty is born. In “The Second Coming” he is a seer prophesying the dawn of an evil age. The proud magnificence of “Byzantium” and “Sailing to Byzantium” affirmed that he finally rejected the sensual music for the artifice of eternity. The indignation of “The Dolls” had presented us with the two extremities – the idea of the unbreakable serenity of artifice and the reality of the crude warmth of life. In “Among School Children” as a sixty- year old smiling public man he poses an eternal question: How can we know the dancer from the dance? How can we know the soul apart from the body without which we have never known it, or even know which is the soul and which the body?
The contributors of this volume of The Goldenline Magazine engage with such unresolved anxieties in Yeats, with Yeats the poet, the lover, the playwright, the visionary and the man in all his resentments and generosity. The overwhelming response to this issue provides testimony to the fact that Yeats is relevant even today as he continues to be read and interpreted by readers of English poetry and silently blends with the landscape of Bengal with Jibanananda Das’ falling autumn leaves that ceaselessly tune in a note of longing as the poet laments: “Hay chil /sonali danar chil”- the reader’s at home aren’t far away from Yeats:
O curlew , cry no more in the air,
Or only to the water in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
Passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind.