Seeking Vigour in Myth: a reading of Yeats “On a picture of a black Centaur by Edmund Dalc”

Debadittya Mukhopadhay, Rabindra Bharati University      

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The tendency to relate literature with myth originated chiefly in the Twentieth century. There appeared a number of opinions that argued that literature has basically derived from myth. The way Eliot, while composing his magnum opus The Waste Land gave that apparently shapeless and complex poem a proper structure by joining several myths together to show how seriously the Twentieth century believed in an intimate relation between myth and literature. Eliot himself had talked in detail about this mythical method and its great importance in his essay “Ulysses, Order and Myth”. An even stronger argument in favor of myths being the forefather of literature was made by Northrop Frye, who pointed out that “ not one genre but all genre of literature derive from myth” (Segal 81).

Actually these Twentieth century writers and critics were taking recourse to myths for solving a very basic problem of their age which was created by the reign of disorder all over. Previously, in the Nineteenth century people like Tennyson attempted to cure the growing conflicts in human soul and society but the Twentieth century demanded a new method. In myths the Twentieth century finally found a proper structure of frame and thus, they attempted to use myths for creating an order which they felt was badly needed. Besides, providing such a relieving order, myths also became for the artists a key using which they could go deep into the storehouse of ancient wisdom for seeking solutions to universal and fundamental problems.

One such fundamental answer is found by using a mythical figure in Yeats’ poem “On a Picture of a Black Centaur by Edmund Dulac”. Yeats was trying to find an answer to a problem which troubled poets of all ages. They often stumbled over an almost unsurpassable impediment which was created due to lack of inspiration. The poets attempted to solve this by seeking inspiration in others’ works. This might be welcomed by a classicist but not a romantic. The romantics would reject this option echoing Sidney’s famous sonnet: “look in thy heart, and write.”(Sidney). They would argue that this kind of imitative stance chokes the imagination, it is a fatal threat to the poetic imagination according to them.

Perhaps Yeats felt that such a sterile and stumbling poetic soul was quite similar to the confused and helpless minds of the Twentieth century. These minds were wondering helplessly in search of inspiration inside the labyrinth of their contemporary culture which was unable to provide the necessary vigour to them. In this situation salvation could come only in the form of mythical figures. These ancient forms are so powerful in nature that they can provide stimulus to the gasping poetic soul of any century. Naturally, myths were used as an activator by Yeats who was one of the last romantics stuck within an unromantic age full of the rusts of an unpoetic culture.

This particular poem can be considered as an ideal example of Yeats’ use of mythical forms to control and sculpt the chaotic unconscious mind of his own. Lillian Feder’s immensely interesting analysis of Yeats’ use of myths shows this interesting aspect of Yeats’ poems in general. She perceives that “no critic has shown that most of Yeats’ efforts to build a mythical system constitutes an attempt to reach his unconscious and control it by uniting his own being to a structure beyond himself “(Feder 61). Feder analyzes a handful number of Yeats’ works including this poem to illustrate her argument. Among all the poems referred by her this one seems the most compact embodiment of Yeats’ use of myth in the way she believes him to be doing.

Yeats begins the poem addressing a centaur: “YOUR hooves have stamped at the black margin of the wood,/Even where horrible green parrots call and swing.”(Yeats). Richard Ellmann’s analysis serves as a substantial and lucid explanation of the situation presented in this poem. Ellmann believes that Yeats “…blames his imagination for leading him to the borders of consciousness beyond which all is dangerous and out of control.”(Ellmann 265).

Ellmann interprets the wood as “the area outside normal or everyday experience”. This is indeed, the mysterious unconscious region of the poet’s soul. The mythical figure of the centaur was used by Yeats elsewhere also. Yeats believed that “all art should be a Centaur finding in the popular lore its back and strong legs” ( Unterecker189). The last part of Yeats’ comment had led Unterecker to argue that the centaur was to be identified “ with the sort of national culture Yeats had once hoped to found”(Unterecker 190). Ellmann, however, believes that “the centaur is not so much art in general as his muse or imagination”(Ellmann 264). He also comments that this image “connects with a recurrent image of Pegasus…”(Ellmann 264).

Harold Bloom criticizes both of these observations commenting that “both identifications create as much difficulty as they resolve.”(Bloom 366). In place of the previous two opinions, Bloom offers his own analysis in which he indicates that “ the centaur is another idealized antithetical self, which Yeats has loved ‘better than my soul’”(Bloom 367). Though Bloom’s analysis seems very interesting, he commits a slight mistake by drawing an improper conclusion on the premise that “ The centaur is a persona close to madness”(Bloom 367). He believes that Yeats dismisses this centaur and advises it to join the seven sleepers of Ephesus in “ a long Saturnian sleep”(Yeats). He argues that this centaur has “stamped Yeats’ earlier works down into the ‘sultry mud’”(Bloom 367). Despite Bloom’s emphasis, it seems very unlikely that Yeats was critical of the centaur and its energetic stamping. The cenatur was indeed full of madness but that actually was a help rather than a hindrance to the poet.

In order to argue against Bloom, one needs to go back to the account of Cecil Salkeld about the genesis of this poem that shows how moved Yeats was by the figure of the centaur. Salkeld narrates a very interesting experience he had had on an evening which serves as an anecdote about the genesis of this poem. David A. Ross offers a summary of the account of Salkeld : “In July 1920, Yeats visited Glenmalure,County Wicklow, where Maud Gonne and family were temporarily domiciled … On the morning after his arrival Yeats was preoccupied with a partially written poem… That night Salkeld sat up late finishing a ‘water-colourpicture of a weird centaur at the edge of a darkwood: in the foreground, in the shade of the wood,lay the seven Ephesian ‘topers’ in a drunken stupor,while far behind on a sunny distant desert plain elephants and the glory of a great army passed away into the distance.’”(Ross 182-183).Seeing that picture Yeats became highly thoughful and later he also expressed his indebtedness to this picture for composing this poem. According to Salkeld “‘Your picture made the thing clear’, he said. ‘I am going to dedicate the poem to you. I shall call it ‘The Black Centaur’ ”(Ross 183).

Ross interprets this centaur as “ an aesthetic guardian or standard-bearer.”(Ross 183). He welcomes the fact that the centaur has stamped all of Yeats’ works into mud because so far Yeats “… has harvested mere ‘mummy wheat’—esoteric but dead, born not of the sun, but of the ‘mad abstract dark,’under the unhealthy influence of the green parrots.”(Ross 183). Thus, it seems justified to believe that the centaur was actually helping Yeats out of a situation which he was willing to overcome. Yeats had realized that the only the food for thought ripened by the vigour of “wholesome sun”(Yeats) should be consumed and cultured. He needed to get vigour back to his poetry. Unfortunately, his mind was, at that time “ being driven insane”(Yeats) because he could only find some “old mummy wheat”(Yeats) which was gathered ,grounded “grain by grain”(Yeats) and finally baked “slowly in an oven”(Yeats) by “some green wing”(Yeats).

In order to interpret these lines in a more detailed manner, it is first necessary to analyze this image of the “green parrots” which obviously is the actual threat faced by Yeats in that world of unconscious region of the mind.Nicholas Grene’s observations regarding this image seems highly useful. He comments “These stand in for the sort of representational art that is the ultimate enemy in the Yeatsian aesthetic;they are parrots only because the parrot is identified with the mechanical mimicry of the sounds of others.”(Grene 131-132).

In this poem,thus, the journey of Yeats into his unconscious offers him poetic stimulus which enables him to produce poetry that is described using the image of a barrel filled with “ full-flavoured wine”(Yeats) and besides, this journey cures his poetic soul from the malady caused by the influence of the ideas that are by nature like imitative parrots. This magical cure is offered by the energetic stamping of the hooves of the mythical centaur. The significance of that stamping becomes clearer if one looks at the meaning of the word ‘sultry’. It refers generally to the weather and means hot and humid (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary). It is very interesting that Yeats describes the mud into which his works are stamped using this adjective. Only one kind of mud can be like this, the kind created by volcanic eruptions.

At this point, another valid question may rise, how could Yeats be benefitted so much by a half-beast hybrid creature? Centaurs are, as suggested by Lesley Bolton “brutal and savage.”(Bolton 215). Bolton describes them as a race that “enjoyed devouring raw flesh and were constantly on the hunt for it.”(Bolton 215) and who “show up in several myths, almost always violent and ready for battle.”(Bolton 215). Such an opinion that summarizes the image of the centaurs in general does create a confusion but the answer to this simply is the fact, that Yeats had referred to centaur or centaurs that were exceptional for his/their wisdom and of helpful nature. Moreover, it is the violent aspect of the centaurs that seems to attract Yeats more because from violence it seems he regains his creative vigour, in this poem. This explains the significance of the sultry mud image, that mud, born out of violent volcanic eruptions is the cocoon under which the inferior poetry of Yeats must undergo a metamorphosis before coming out.

Elizabeth Loizeaux ’s comment indicates that this centaur was Cheiron. She points out that this poem was based on a painting by Edmund Dulac called ‘The Good Chiron Taught His Pupils How to Play upon the Harp’,(Loizeaux 139-140). Grene, however counters this commenting that “But the black centaur in Dulac’s ‘The Good Chiron Taught His Pupils How to Play upon the Harp’, which Elizabeth Loizeaux thinks may be the source, is benevolently unlike the frightening beast of Yeats’s poem. It is closer in spirit to Dulac’s much later drawing of ‘The Centaurs and the Lapith Women’”(Grene 131). Loizeaux’s opinion seems to convey that the centaur mentioned in the poem indeed acts like a teacher to Yeats, who becomes his pupil. Grene’s argument is also useful as the violent aspect of the centaurs seems to very useful here. The prophetic aspect of Chiron must have also inspired Yeats as during the time he was composing this poem he was striving to become a prophetic voice more than ever.

In order to realize the significance of Chiron’s myth one must look into the mythical account of Chiron in detail. Jenny March observes that “Cheiron(Chiron) was kindly and humane, and one of the wisest of living beings. He was skilled in archery, medicine, hunting and the arts, especially music, and for this reason many of the great heroes were sent as children to his cave on Mount Pelion to be reared and educated by him.”(March 204). He met his end when he “was accidentally shot by one of Heracles’ arrows”. As he was immortal he did not die instantly but “his agony was so great that he longed to die.”(March 204-205). Along with Chiron, another centaur met his death when Heracles shot his arrows. Pholus is his name and he deserves to be brought under observation in this context because “Pholus possessed a great jar of wine” (March 632) which was desired by Heracles when he visited Pholus. Though neither Yeats nor the two painters whose paintings are related to this poem refer to this centaur directly, the image of the vintage wine used in the poem may owe its origin to this myth of Pholus.

Pholus also died by the same arrow and though unlike the immortal Chiron his demise was instant, it can be easily guessed that both of their deaths were full of excruciating pain as the arrows were “tipped with the HYDRA OF LERNA’S fatal venom”(March 632). Their agony, not their violent nature might have caused them stamping their hooves and because they died, Yeats tells them to go to sleep while he will remain alert hereafter, keeping “Unwearied eyes upon those horrible green birds.” (Yeats). Thus, Yeats uses the myths of these centaurs while writing this poem in which creative and prophetic power arises out of the violent vigour and wisdom of these mythical centaurs.

Works Cited

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. New York: O.U.P., 2005. Print.

Bloom, Harold. Yeats. New York: O.U.P., 1970. Print.

Bolton, Lesley. The Everything Classical Mythology Book : Greek and Roman gods, goddesses,heroes, and monsters from Ares to Zeus. Avon: Adams Media Corporation, 2002. Print.

Ellmann, Richard. The Identity of Yeats. London: Faber and Faber, 1964. Print.

Feder, Lillian. Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971. Print.

Grene, Nicholas. Yeats’s Poetic Codes. New York: O.U.P., 2008. Print.

Loizeaux, Elizabeth Bergmann. Yeats and the Visual Arts. London: Rutgers University Press, 1986. Print.

March, Jenny. Cassel’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology. London: Cassell & Co, 2001. Print.

Ross, David A. Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2009. Print.

Segal, Robert A. Myth A very Short Introduction. New York: O.U.P., 2004. Print.

Sidney, Philp. “”Loving in truth”.” Reading Poems An Annotated Anthology. Ed. Jayati Gupta. Chennai: Macmillan India Limited, 2002. 7. Print.

Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. Yugoslavia: Thames and Hudson, 1988. Print.

Yeats, William Butler. 28th June 2015. Web. 28th June 2015.

Debadittya Mukhopadhay is a Research Scholar in the Department of English, Rabindra Bharati University.

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