“Myself must I remake”: Old Age, the ‘Material’ and the ‘Spirit’ in Yeats’ Last Poems

Nilanjan Chakraborty, Panchla Mahavidyalaya, Howrah

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“I find my present weakness made worse by the strange second puberty the operation has given me, the ferment that has come upon my imagination. If I write poetry it will be unlike anything I have done” (Yeats, 1935: letter).

The letter written by Yeats, written four years before his death to Dorothy Wellesley, captures the mood of a poet struggling to cope with the last phase of his mortal existence. Yeats’ last group of poems is grouped under the title Last Poems, written between 1936 and 1939. These poems are thematically linked in terms of debilitation and staticity of old age, both in terms of physical existence and aesthetic production. Unlike the populist mode of linking old age to lamentation, Yeats desires to have more energy and life force at his old age. These poems move away from the earlier poetic creations of Yeats, which were more concerned with Celtic revival and Irish Nationalist politics, and concentrate more on the personal apathy of a poet-speaker who is finding it tough to recreate the energy and passion of youth. Theme of sexuality is a recurrent motif in these poems, since the poet seeks to regenerate the youthful passion in order to relive the moments of aesthetic fulfillment. In The Gyres, Yeats writes:

“Irrational streams of blood are staining earth:
Empedocles has thrown all things about;
Hector is dead and there’s a light in Troy;
We that look on but laugh in tragic joy” (Yeats, 180).

In the arid wasteland of old age and lessened intellectual capacity, Hector and Empedocles serve as distant temporal memory of the poet, who can only cerebrally respond to classical antiquity without participating in the passion emblematized by its ‘heroic culture’. So the speaker-poet can only remain subservient to an oxymoronic “tragic joy”, getting into a catharsis of purgatorial old age redemption. The new found passion and vigour in the Last Poems can be traced to the erotic adventures that Yeats had in his old age. He was romantically inclined to actress Margot Ruddock as also to the journalist and sexual radical Ethel Mannin, both of whom had made considerable influence on the content of Yeats’ Last Poems. Yeats’ concern in these poems is as much about loneliness in the old days, as also for a quest of finding an energy that will refashion the being and ontology of the speaker. He writes in Lapis Lazuli:

“All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.” (Yeats, 181)

For Yeats, time is not an agent of tragedy but the loss of sexual energy is. Going against the accepted norms of social propriety, Yeats challenges sexual morality, constructed by society, and quests for “an old man’s frenzy” (An Acre of Grass) in order to refashion the debilitated and mutated body into a renewed state of passion and intellectual/animal freedom.

After receiving the Nobel Prize in 1923, Yeats opined on stage, “I was good-looking once like that young man, but my unpracticed verse was full of infirmity, my Muse old as it were. Now I am old and rheumatic, and nothing to look at, but my Muse young” (Yeats, 2012: 46-61). This declaration of Yeats is a fascinating insight into a poet’s mind grappling with the struggles of anti-thesis and contradictions of life. However, Yeats’ Muse grows younger with time because the fallacy of the idea of poetic creation is that it becomes more matured with aging. The esoteric quality of poetic passion is emblematized in the phrase “lovers of horses and women” (The Gyres), where Yeats tries to bring about a union between sexual passion and aesthetic recognition of beauty with a stroke of philosophical contemplation on the nature of physical objectification itself. Horses and women are not essentially binaries, they complement each other for the poet’s assertion of beauty in a transient world. There is a sense of pervading emptiness in the imagery that Yeats uses in these poems. In The Curse of Cromwell, Yeats writes:

“I came on a great house in the middle of the night
Its open lighted doorway and its windows all alight,
And all my friends were there and made me welcome too;
But I woke in an old ruin that the winds howled through;…” (Yeats, 186)

A G Stock observes that Yeats “prayed it so earnestly that it kept his mind active to the last days of his life and made him of all poets who have written of old age, the least tranquilizing and the most exhilarating” (Stock, 195). The evocative imagery in the above passage shows the exasperating sense of desolation that the speaker feels while he is at the fringe of death. What comes through from the stylistic aspect is the use of chiaroscuro. The ‘night’ is juxtaposed with ‘windows all alight’, perhaps symbolizing the contradictory proposition of old age that Yeats have- he is acutely aware of the condition of decapitation in the old age, and at the same time, seeks for a renewal of life and energy from the spiritual point of view, via the physical route. Yeats’ reading of Eastern philosophy through his association with Mohini Chatterjee, and later Rabindranath Tagore and Swedenborg might have influenced the Karmic philosophy that he seems to be delineating in his poems on old age. The immersion into sexual energy in order to achieve a certain sense of spiritual objectivity is the centerpiece of Karmic activities, and Yeats seems to have imbibed this part of Occultism for his passion for energy and life force in old age.

Yeats’ Last Poems show a Modernist technique of writing poetry- that is of Imagism and intertextuality. As a kind of manifesto to Imagist poetry, Pound wrote in Des Imagistes: An Anthology in 1914 that there should be a “direct treatment of the ‘thing’, whether subjective or objective”, “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” (Pound, web). As opposed to the Romantic style of poetry in his earlier poems, Yeats appropriates the Modernist style of representation, perhaps because the “shock value” of such a technique suits the theme of sexual and intellectual energy that the poet is seeking for as an antidote for old age’s loneliness. The speaker is caught in a world of such spiritual and bodily stasis that the Dantean hell seems to be recreated in the existential angst of the present. Yeats writes in The Pilgrim:

“All know that all the dead in the world about that place are stuck
And that should mother seek her son she’d have but little luck
Because the fires of purgatory have ate their shapes away;…” (Yeats, 191)

The ritualistic cleansing that is associated with purgation seems to have taken a turn for religious barrenness since both the mother and the son are not able to immerse in the process of the regeneration of the soul. Both the creator and the created are imprisoned in the labyrinth of an endless maze of timeless suffering and as a result the old man can only “lean upon the wall” and look at the smugness of the “learned lovers” (ibid), the petite bourgeoisie lingering on meaningless existence, but he has no case for retribution. For Yeats, “life was exciting, but there was the bother of old age… his remedy for age was a search for intellectual interests” (Jeffares, 233). In the same poem as above, the poet seems to be weaving a pattern of images to form a larger scheme of poetic representation. On one hand, he depicts the public spaces like the stations, public houses and the churches and on the other hand, there are a plethora of images that relate to the psycho-pathological disintegration in the old age- bone marrows, rags of silk, the country shawl and the dumbfounded old man in prayer. These would come close to what Eliot called the ‘objective correlative’ by ‘showing’ or externalizing the emotion through patterns of images. Yeats’ old age therefore achieve a certain sense of objective outlook that seeks to dispense with the notion of sentimentality associated with old age paralysis. In this regard, Yeats comes closer to the more “mainstream” Modernists like Pound, Eliot or Doolittle than is actually thought of. Yeats delves into the question of identity from middle age onwards, reflecting on the loss of essential passion and quest motif of life, as he sarcastically writes in What Then ?:

“All this happier dreams came true
A small old house, wife, daughter, son
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew
Poets and Wits about him drew” (Yeats, 184).

The images here are caustic in their irony; the old man is constricted by a domesticated existence, weighed down by social morality, even though poets and wits flowed in his consciousness- he is crushed by the social expectations of fulfilling social roles, which is detrimental to the intellectual and sexual passion that the poet seeks for in his twilight years.

The Romantic in Yeats is not totally a configurated tradition from the generation of Wordsworth and Keats, but a reoriented version of a seeker, who does not binarised between the material and the spirit. One of the socio-cultural aspects of European Renaissance has been to create an altercation between the ‘spirit’ and the ‘material’, with the hegemonic hierarchy tilting towards the former. The nineteenth century Romantics carry on with the same Episcopian view of reality, but Yeats represents in his poetry a unique blend of the material with the spirit, without hierarchising the two. This is significant because the ‘material’ is considered as a taboo in old age, especially when it comes to the matters of body and physical intimacy for a sexual act. In The Wild Old Wicked Man, Yeats writes:

“Because I am mad about women
I am mad about the hills
Said the wild old wicked man
Who travels where God wills.
Not to die on the straw at home
Those hands to close these eyes,…” (Yeats, 188)

Apart from the adjectives “wild” and “wicked”, which associate the old man with anti-establishment and anti-Puritan tendencies, Yeats also uses the image of the hills to symbolize male erection, which in turn stands for the old man’s desire for using sexual energy to refashion himself to a state of heightened consciousness. In “An Acre of Grass, the poet desires to “remake” himself for an “old man’s frenzy”, “Till I am Timon or Lear/ Or that William Blake” (Yeats, 183). The poet feels the intense need to remake his state of being to transform himself from being unaccomodated to a state of unison with the larger truth and Being. Yeats noted “I am tired and in a rage at being old. I am all I ever was and much more, but an enemy has bound me and twisted me” (Yeats, 1978:17). The old speaker-poet’s position is problematic- at one hand there is an intense desire to break free and transcend into the world of spiritual truth, on the other hand there is an acute awareness of the confines of physical existence and the consequent bound condition that it creates. The pot is not content, he is not meant to accept his dilapidated condition:

“Infirm and aged I might be
In some good company,
I who have always hated work,
Smiling at the sea,…
But I am not content” (Yeats in Are You Content?, 194)

The poet speaker’s discontentment rises from his lack of spiritual and sexual engagement that leads him castrated at different levels. Yeats’ Last Poems therefore successfully portray a schizophrenic modern world that struggles to come to terms with its own paranoia and pathological and neurotic illness, as the old speaker quests for more sexual and spiritual energy to sustain himself. Indeed, it is not for no reason that Eliot called Yeats “the greatest poet of his age”. (Eliot, 613).

Works Cited

Eliot, T.S. “A Commentary.” Criterion 14 (July 1935): 610-613. www.facultyuscupstate.edu/jpellegrino/articles/yeatsarticle.htm Web. 28 July, 2105 1a.m.

Jeffares, Norman. W.B Yeats: Man and Poet. Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., London: 1966. Print.

Pound, Ezra. Des Imagistes: An Anthology. 1914. Web. 25th Nov, 2014. 11 p.m.

Stock, A.G. W. B Yeats: His Poetry and Thought. CUP, Cambridge: 1961. Print

Yeats, WB. An Acre of Grass. Yeats: Selected Poetry. Radha Publishing House, Kolkata: 2004. Print.

————-. Letter to Dorothy Wellesley, 17 June 1935. Cited in Ellman’s “Yeats’ Second Puberty” New York Review of Books, 9 May 1985.

————-. in “W B Yeats’ Poetry of Aging” by George Bornstein. Sewanee review. (Winter 2012) Vol 120 No 1: 46-61.

————-. W.B Yeats: Selected Poetry. Routledge, London: 1978. Print.

Nilanjan Chakraborty is presently working as an Assistant Professor in English in Panchla Mahavidyalaya, Howrah.

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