The Later Yeats: A Romantic Modernist?

Himadri Lahiri, University of Burdwan, West Bengal, India

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Serious readers of William Butler Yeats usually note a shift of tone in the later part of his poetic career. Those who find a sense of continuity in his works speak of his reversion to ‘the same themes,’ a constant ‘remaking’ of ‘his poems and himself from the old material’ (Press 7). While his later poems, argues Press, appeared to be ‘over-decorative, languorous, shadowy and imprecise,’ his later poems are more precise, direct and complex. In a letter to Katharine Tynan written on 14 March 1888, he characterised his early poetry as one of ‘longing and complaint’ while he hoped to write poetry of ‘insight and knowledge’ later. In another letter written on 21 December, 1888 he observed, his need was to “substitute the feelings and longings of nature for those of art” (qtd. in Press 7).

His interest in nature and ‘longing’ is evident in his romantic poems like “The Stolen Child” (1889),“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (1892) and “When You are Old” (1892). But from around 1908-9 he seemed to be veering away from this trend.Issues related to art occupied much of his attention in his later poetry. The period of wide-eyed wonder and ambitious visions was over; he was now more concerned with revision of the earlier visions in the light of his recent disenchantment with the politics of the new Irish state in which he was directly involved. The visibility of indiscipline and the outbreak of violence in the new Ireland made him look upon democracy with distaste as the ‘evils’ of ‘mobocracy’ became more and more evident to him. His love for Maud Gonne, a beautiful but daring woman whom he first met in 1889, came to no fruition. She married MacBride, a fellow Irish revolutionary activist, in 1903. His relationship with his father too and the ‘inadequacy’ of his formal education, as critics like Miranda B. Hickman point out, created self-doubt which made him seek a way-out.Ideologically,he was drawn to Fascism which, he felt, would be an answer to the growing menace of mass violence. It is in the context of such a situation that his poetry registered changes both in form and content. He now sought his own re-formed ‘romantic’ vision in a direct resolute way that assumed modernist accents. The poetry of this stage was more a poetry of ‘insight and knowledge’ than one of ‘longing and complaint.’

The issue of precision and hardness of images that come with experience in his later poems may be probed in this respect. Although within the short span of this article it may not be possible to explore the intricacies of his images, their main thrust may nevertheless be analysed. In “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (1939) which also features Maud Gonne (“I thought my dear must her own soul destroy, / So did fanaticism and hate enslave it”) Yeats seeks,in vain,for ‘a theme’ and feels that he must instead look within for this theme, that “I must be satisfied with my heart” (Ferguson 1102). His projection of the “circus animals [which] were all on show” (the image of the circus animal suggesting the absurdity and meaninglessness of the life as it is) is carried out through modernist images:

A mound of refuse or the sweeping of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,

I must lie down where all ladders start,

In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart. (Ferguson 1103)

These lines project a barren, decrepit, decadent urban space which is very much the domain of modernist discourse. The street, a space for movement, is here cluttered with dirt, rejected materials which obstruct movement (‘mound of refuse,’ ‘[o]ld kettles, old bottles, and a can/Old iron, old bones, old rags’ etc). Spatially speaking, the city and its streets which clog movements of lives occupy an important position in modernist representations. The images in the above poem remind us of those used by Eliot in his early poems. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” for instance, the street is a dominant image which gestures towards a movement which never takes place because of the overwhelming presence of dirt, decadence and obstruction: ‘half-deserted streets,’ ‘narrow streets,’ ‘restless nights,’ ‘sawdust restaurants,’ ‘fog’ and so on. The evocation of the sense of decadence is overwhelmingly present in both the poems. But the subjects who people this urban world are either zombies or are affected by disease and old age. In Eliot’s poem the motif of the old age as a sign of developing hopelessness (“I grow old… I grow old…/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”) is very much life-threatening while in Yeats’ poem too the same motif of the advent of old age announces loss of vitality and agency. Interestingly, in both the poems a strong ‘I’ element is present. In Eliot, the persona is placed in fragmentally drawn imagined situations but in Yeats this seems to be more relevant to his own personality as it is more direct and the poem is interspersed with veiled personal references. Yeats’s frustration with ‘dying generations’ and the prevalent sterility is more openly – and, it appears, personally – revealed.

In Yeats the absurdity of the old age and its uselessness, as I have indicated earlier, is more direct. There are beautiful lines to express his hopelessness:

WHAT shall I do with this absurdity –

O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail? (“Tower”)

And again

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick,

(“Sailing to Byzantium”)

The lines appear to be the cry of the heart of a nostalgic individual trapped in a tragic situation and is at a loss how to respond. It is a crisis very modern in nature and needs to be expressed in modernist idiom – in a language which must be precise, imagistic, and relieved of all romantic excess or dross. The images underline the contemporary situation which is full of decadence. Examine, for instance the following lines from “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927):

THAT is no country for 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, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

He must circumvent the process indicated by “Whatever is begotten, born and dies.” There is a clear escape motif in this poem, an escape into the ancient city of Byzantium – the city and its art which appropriately‘symbolise a way of life in which art is frankly accepted and proclaimed as artifice. As artifice, as a work of the intellect, this art is not subject to the decay and death that overtake the life of “natural things”’ (Fergusson 1094 n8). One notes the precision of the image of a human life that is “sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal” (1095). Desperate to escape the life of an animal doomed to death, he seeks to relocate permanently to Byzantium. One finds a romantic escape motif in the poem couched in an imagistic language.

Yeats speaks of ‘unpurged images’ in his poem “Byzantium” (1932). While there is no purging of images within the scope of the poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” the purging is carried out in poems like “Sailing to Byzantium” or “Byzantium” by his purported visits to the ancient city. In “Byzantium,” for example, ‘the world of “mere complexities,” the world in which man is in a state of becoming, is banished from the poem at the beginning as the “unpurged images of day” have been banished” (Ferguson 1098 n1). C.K.Stead finds this purging of the romantic dross to be important achievements in poets like Yeats and Eliot. This process of purging is also evident in the modernist poet’s attempt to use a ‘geometric’ vocabulary even while dealing with a mystic experience.

I shall briefly discuss this aspect in Yeats’ volume A Vision which was first published in 1925-6. It was later revised extensively and the second edition came out in 1937. In the in-between period Yeats was involved in editing the volume as he was not certain about how to articulate his own occult experience.A mystical experience is romantic at core because it comes from the depth of a subject but it is also an experience in which the distinction between the subject and object, as Paul Davies maintains, is erased and the communication is secularised. Yeats was here communicating the ‘system’ handed down to him by the ‘Communicators’ through his wife George who acted as the medium. He observes, “Exposition in sleep came to an end in 1920, and I began an exhaustive study of some fifty copy books of automatic script, and of a much smaller number of books recording what had had come in sleep” (Yeats 17-18). Now all these needed to be arranged. The ‘dream materials’ are arranged by him with the help of ‘geometrical symbolism.’ The volume is full of extremely complex geometrical figures like ‘The Great Wheel,’ ‘unshaded cone,’ Gyres, ‘Concords’ and ‘Discords.’ These constitute his ‘mystic Geometry.’ Yeats observes, “…now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawings of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice” (25).The geometric lexicon, it has been pointed out, explores the patterns underlying the history of Western civilisation, the progress of the individual soul through life and death.” It is a narrative of a mystical epistemology. Hickman, referring to Surette, points out the centrality of the occult to the development of modernism. He also refers to Materer’s Modernist Alchemy where the latter“addresses in valuable detail an oscillation between skepticism and credulity that he [Materer] identifies as characteristic of many modernist writers attracted by the occult” (Hickman 192). The use of the geometric lexicon and models, he argues, may be a ‘self-protective strategy’ because Yeats’s “longing for the occult was always checked by his scepticism” (Hickman 219). He identifies a strong Vorticist tendency in this geometric mysticism. He observes that Yeats read both Hulme’s “Modern Art” and Wyndham Lewis’s Time and Western Man both of which influenced his own art. Hulme and Lewis felt that ‘geometric tendency’ would be very useful in visionary arts. Hickman observes, “Geometry, then, seems to signify for Yeats the primary tincture: that which moves towards the direction of objectivity, unity and the extinction of individual personality that which lies beyond the limits of the individual self” (Hickman 238). It is in this sense that Yeats’ later poems transcend the loose romantic idiom and become materials for the modernist ‘poetic.’

Works Cited

Davies, Paul. Romanticism and Esoteric Traditions: Studies in Imagination. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne, 1998.

Ferguson, Margaret, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallworthy. The Norton Anthology of Poetry.

Fourth Edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.

Hickman, Miranda B. The Geometry of Modernism: The Vorticist Idiom in Lewis, Pound, H.D., and Yeats. Austin: U of Texas, 2005.

Press, John. A Map of Modern English Verse. Oxford: OUP, 1969.

Stead, C.K.The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot. 1964. London, Continuum, 2005.

Yeats, W.B. A Vision. 1937. New York: Collier Book, 1966.

Himadri Lahiri is Professor, Department of English and Culture Studies, University of Burdwan.

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