“(T)hat shell’s elaborate whorl”: The Sound of the Occult in Yeats’s “Crazy Jane” Poems

Madeleine Scherer, University of Warwick

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“(I)f we make it possible again for the poet to express himself, not merely through words, but through the voices of singers, of minstrels, of players, we shall certainly have changed the substance and the manner of our poetry” (Collected Works 106).

One of the most experimental and novel features of Yeats’s poetics was his intent to revolutionize the nature of poetic expression by an increased emphasis on sounds. Inspired by the Irish culture of orality, he regarded the tone of words as crucial to their meaning as to their literary definition. Consequently, he wrote poems for the purpose of being sung by modern minstrels, which he presented within his anthology Words for Music Perhaps.
In order to create the perfect form to represent the “spirit” of his poetry, Yeats attempted to connect with the Irish past through séances, the art of conversing with ghosts, in which communication was completely limited to the sounds of their voices. As his fascination with both the ghostly and sound systems colluded, he was inspired to recreate his occult invocations of the ancient minstrels within his poetry. This article focuses on the voices and tones in the anthology Words for Music Perhaps, and more specifically, on the “Crazy Jane” poems.
The first work in this sequence is “Crazy Jane and the Bishop”, which introduces tonal concepts that are continued in the later poems. The poem presents two different types of voices, separated only through the length and accentuation of the vowels they feature. The first instance of this duplicity of tone can be found in the imperfect rhyme between “tomb” and “coxcomb”. While the fact that both words finish with the same combination of letters suggests a rhyme between them, this turns out to be an illusion, since reading the poem aloud announces the tonal discrepancy between the syllables. This effect is caused by the elongation of the vowel “o” in “tomb”, contrasting the short vowels in “coxcomb”. As a result, the former creates a haunting echo that lingers over the sounds to follow.
“Tomb” is both orally and contextually separated from the rest of the poetic language through its placement within the bracketed line “All find safety in the tomb”. The speaker of this line proposes a broad statement about the afterlife, whereby his/her confidence in the truthfulness of the testimony is evoked through the presence of a full stop instead of a question mark at the end of the line. Designation of voice is often unclear in Yeats’s “Crazy Jane” poems, and here we find the first example of this: The line could be spoken either by the dead Jack, since he has personal experience with the afterlife, or the bishop who claims to possess knowledge of a “heavenly mansion” which awaits the blessed after death.
Here, Yeats leaves it to our interpretation and recognition of sounds to determine the identity of the bracketed voice. The line “The solid man and the coxcomb” is allocated to the Bishop, as Jane claims that this was his last description of Jack; this “was the last he said”. “Coxcomb” functions as a cacophony, juxtaposing the harsh consonants “c” and “x”, whereby it stands in direct contrast to the euphony within the word “tomb”. This difference in voice tone subsequently suggests that the two lines are worded by different people, deliberately contrasted by their manner of speaking. The illusion of a rhyme scheme further opposes the short vowel sound of the Bishop’s description and the lasting sound the elongated “o” in “tomb” creates. This contrast of longitude is then possibly an indication that Jack’s voice and his teachings about the afterlife might outlast the defamations of the Bishop.
The intentional elongation of carefully picked vowels serves to distort the separation between the past and the present. For example, the Bishop’s “ban” is dominated by the short, mute consonant “b”, whereas the “ou” in “Journeyman” is elongated. Hereby, Yeats implies that Jack’s journey proceeds for longer than the power of the Bishop’s ban, which reverses nominal power dynamics and allows the influence of the dead to exceed the one of the living. With disembodiment, Jack’s presence expands, as language traces an outline around a once solid form, which creates an uncanny discrepancy between the strength of the present voice and its formlessness. When the poem is then read aloud, the howling sounds of Jack’s voice, created through the elongated vowels of “tomb”, “Journey” and “oak” suggest the powerful and lasting nature of a ghostly presence to the reader’s subconscious. Therein, past and present are intermixed: While Jack “had” Jane’s virginity when he was still alive, even after death he “bids me to the oak”. As Jane’s use of the present tense prevents his voice from being misinterpreted as a memory, it is capable of audibly appearing in the present. By the time Yeats wrote “Crazy Jane and the Bishop” he had already been intensely engaged in broadcasting with the BBC (Morin 3), whereby he was confronted with disembodied voices, recorded in the past, but appearing in the present. Yeats’s work with the BBC inspired him to include hauntingly discarnate voices into poetry, and, faithful to the nature of radio, to demarcate them only by the sounds they produce.
However, in his poetic sequence Yeats also introduces such reverberant voices as haunting presences within objects, whereby the reader is alluded to the presence of occult workings within every part of the world. For instance the shell and, more generally, the ocean in “Crazy Jane Reproved” produce sounds which allow them a representative function as symbols for Yeats’s philosophy. Firstly, the “elaborate whorl” of the shell features a long vowel, which emphasizes the temporally elongated quality inherent in the process of “whorling”. As “whorling” describes a movement in a twisted and convoluted fashion, the word’s meaning is very closely related to the more commonly used “whirling”. However, the rhyme between “whorl” and “rol” emphasizes the vowel “o”. The repetition of this vowel recalls Jack’s ghostly howls, which alerts the reader to the potential of disembodied presences existing within this whorl, echoing throughout the poem’s rhyme scheme. As “whorl” describes a twisted movement, it is then possible to argue that its motion describes the same intermixing of the living and the dead, and the present and the past that has been identified in the previous poem.
The voices of the living and the dead are constantly overlapping in “Crazy Jane Reproved”: The voices of the sailors haunt the poem from its past, since they may have been killed by the “storm that blots the day”, however they prompt Jane to claim, in the present tense, that she does not care what they say. The fact that Jane replies to them, in spite of the absence of their physical bodies, indicates that their unrepeated statement still haunts her consciousness. Thereby, the absence of the sailors’ bodies and the unresolved question of their statements’ content create an uncanny vacuum, overpowering the poem’s present. Once more, a lack of body thereby seemingly grants the speaker power over the living and the different states are intermixed in an “elaborate whorl”. As the poetic sequence continues, the separation between life and death is increasingly ill-defined, whereby, as Luftig recognizes, it becomes more and more unclear that, for instance, Jack’s life has already ended or that Jane’s death has not already begun. Instead, the lack of a clear definition of death can lead only to further “wandering” (1130).
In his poetry, the ocean’s tides themselves describes these movements between the living and the dead, since it is moved by the gravitational force of the moon, a celestial body, Yeats saw as responsible for all of life’s developments (Carberg 144). Bohlmann describes how Yeats is influenced by Nietzsche in seeing the world as “a sea of forces” in relentless strife engendered by conflicting wills to power, creating a “continuous ebb and flow” of birth and death. Yeats’s double to Nietzsche’s conflicting forces are his gyres that influence life in their overlapping area, while they themselves are controlled by the moon phases. Thereby they create a “sea of forces”, through which life and death could then be thrown together. In this poem , Yeats thus uses the symbols of shell and ocean to propose that the influence of the moon phases is accountable for creating this intermixing of ghosts and the living.

The sounds “Fol de rol”, which form the poem’s refrain, can thus be argued to recreate the sound of the waves in mapping the growing and declining influence of the moon phases. As the poem simultaneously recounts the ghostly presences of the dead by repeating the elongated vowel “o”, this refrain constantly draws attention to the prevailing influence of the dead over the present. This function becomes especially obvious if one considers that in an earlier version of the poem, the line was spelled “Foll de roll” (Words for Music Perhaps, 337). Since the double consonant used in this spelling shortens the sound of the vowel, Yeats changed the spelling. This explicates that the increasingly haunting elongation of the “o” in the refrain is intentionally included.
Such chant-like repetitive sounds more generally echo Yeats’s belief in reincarnation, which he expresses, for instance, in “Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman”: “My body in the tomb/ Shall leap into the light lost/ In my mother’s womb”. The speaker here describes how his or her body will be reborn, whereby the elongated vowels in especially “tomb” and “womb” (my emphasis) imply that this knowledge is bestowed upon the reader by a ghostly voice that has knowledge of life beyond the grave. Similarly, “Crazy Jane Reproved” can be argued to describe the never-ending development of human lives: the living and the dead are intermixed through the growing and declining influences of the moon phases, until the living are dead and the dead are reincarnated, so that the pattern can start again.

The reason Yeats would choose to convey his teachings in symbolic likenesses concealed within sound systems lies in his belief that “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it” (Letters 922). In “Crazy Jane on the Day of Judgement”, Yeats makes it clear that “(a)ll could be known or shown/ If Time were but gone”, whereby he expresses the idea that among the dead on the Day of Judgement everyone’s knowledge can be shared, while beforehand it could only “remain in God”. In fact, Yeats did not believe in god per se, but in a god-like figure he entitled “Anima Mundi”, which was joined to the “Great Memory” and attuned to the collective unconscious (Gerould 85). In this Anima Mundi everyone’s memories, thoughts and knowledge remain, whereby it embodies the “truth” of human existence. However, through claiming that “(a)ll things remain in God” Yeats makes it clear that “the truth” is not accessible to humans. He himself thus struggled to systematize his occult explanation of the world’s history, entitled A Vision, through using almost exclusive metaphors, symbols and images (Carberg 141): only through such referents was it possible for him to refer back to an unreachable truth.

It thus becomes clear how intricate the soundscape within Yeats’s poetry truly is, and how much meaning he assigns to it particularly in his “Crazy Jane” poems. Through letting his occult convictions influence the presentation of his art to such a degree, Yeats presents himself as a curious mixture between a modern and a Romantic artist. While he expresses traits of Romanticism in presenting a unified philosophy on the workings of the world, he achieves this by employing a system of seemingly fragmented sounds. By using techniques such as coding, patterns and symbolism which became fashionable in the modernist period, and by not explicitly enunciating his occult dogmas within the wording of his poems, Yeats retained his position as a modernist writer, whilst still faithfully representing the essence of his all-encompassing beliefs.


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Madeleine Scherer is a PhD student at the English and Comparative Literature Department of the University of Warwick, specializing on the mnemonically haunted reception of Graeco-Roman mythology in 20th century Irish and Caribbean literature.

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