I just read a book that I had wished existed when I was in college, but wasn’t published until later. Terence Brown’s biography of Yeats put into context the work of a poet I’d found compelling but baffling.
Reading Yeats, one can become captivated by sound, and images, and then the meaning, and back to sound and image. From The Wild Swans at Coole:
The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
Dead gorgeous. And what is this Coole place, which returns again and again in Yeats’ poetry, and how is it important to the poet’s sense of the regret at the the passing of time? Who are the various women who appear and reappear as characters and muse figures in the poetry. What was up with Maud Gonne? Many of Yeats’ poems are political, and deal with events of the time. Where was he coming from, and what was he trying to say? Many of Yeats’ poems are based on some sort of mythological and/or spiritual system. What was that that about? At least for me, endnotes in anthologies provided factoids that didn’t add up to a coherent picture.
Terence Brown is a professor of Irish literature and cultural history at Trinity College in Dublin. His knowledge of historical, social, and literary background fills in the context for Yeats writing. The book is enlightening, helpful in getting more out of the work, and in some respects very discomfiting. Here is a summary of what I learned.
In the mists of history, Yeats has a reputation as a quintessential Irish nationalist. But in his time and place he was an advocate of a highly idiosyncratic and minuscule faction in the midst of a popular movement. The center of gravity of Irish nationalism was the Catholic majority, with a rising middle class. Yeats came from a Protestant family. Though his grandparents’ family were sea-merchants, and his father rejected law practice for a life as an impecunious painter, Yeats disdained his middle-class roots and idolized the aristocracy. Yeats affiliated with the tiny minority-within-a-minority of Nationalist-sympathizing Protestant aristocrats; the Protestant landowning class had implemented English rule and were largely loyal to England.
In his poetry and plays, Yeats reached back to Celtic myth and folklore from the pre-modern past and not-yet-modern countryside, where the world of the spirit was present to people, in an attempt to forge a new culture that would rescue Ireland from the stultifying mediocrity of middle class prosaic realism. Yeats found few followers for his cultural movement. The Abbey theater company, which he co-founded in 1904 and managed in his 40s, with the goal of helping to create the cultural voice and shared self-understanding of a nascent nation, played to uncomprehending and often angry audiences. And even his own theater presented most of its plays in more modes that were more realistic than Yeats’ high ritual style.
With his aristocratic preferences and non-Christian spirituality, Yeats was often viewed, from the perspective of contemporary Nationalist perspective, with suspicion and worse. As theater-manager, and a public figure, Yeats became embroiled in a variety of controversies which didn’t go very well. Later in life, with the reputation of a literary lion, he was appointed to the Senate of the new Irish parliament. There, he advocated for freedom of speech, for separation of church and state, for legal divorce, as well as support for the arts. His goal was to prevent censorship by the Church and the philistine masses, not to facilitate democracy.
Yeats loathed the middle class. His favorite epithets include “shop-keeper” and “greasy till”. Typical examples of the contempt can be found in lines such as: “Indignant at the fumbling wits, the obscure spite/Of our old Paudeen in his shop” (Paudeen), and “What cared Duke Ercole, that bid His mummers to the market place, What th’onion-sellers thought or did/So that his Plautus set the pace For the Italian comedies (To A Wealthy Man, Responsibilities 1916). Given the hostile reception Yeats’ experimental plays received from religious censors and convention-loving audiences, I can sympathize a little bit, but not all that much. James Joyce dealt with the provincial nature of Dublin with more humor, which made for better art on the topic.
In keeping with nostalgia for the old-fashioned social structure dominated by the very rich and very poor, Yeats’ Responsibilities celebrates beggars; in Brown’s words, these representations “as a metaphor of the spiritual freedom the Irish materially minded moneyed class so signally lacks, are without purchase on much beyond the literary salon’s version of mendicancy.” As a reader, Yeats’ prejudices make me want to reach for some good healthy Whitman.
In the 1930s, Yeats looked optimistically to Fascist Italy as a potential model for a dictatorship that would spare Ireland from chaos and rule by the inferior classes. Toward the end of in his life, in the late 1930s, when he had retired from public service and the need to maintain a minimal level of social acceptability had gone, Yeats openly advocated eugenics as a way to purify the declining Irish race. Some of his very late poems look forward to a bloodbath that will purge the race of impure elements. Read without the political background, the poems are dark, disturbing, chilling, nihilist. With the political background, they are worse, and Terence Brown rightly calls them for what they are.
Spirituality and psychology
Yeats’ attraction to Celtic myth and the world of mysticism, came from a rejection of the rationalist mindset that valued Darwin, math and commerce – he considered science the “opiate of suburbia.” The focus of folklore, dominant in his early work and persistent throughout, fits squarely in heart of romantic ideology which has had incarnations ranging from late 18th century Germany through mid-20th century US. What’s distinctive in Yeats is the focus on the spiritual and psychological content of the myths. Brown writes about Yeat’s changelings as an expression of the poet’s lifelong theme of multiple and contradictory aspects of the self.
Yeats was drawn to enact his attraction to the world of spirits in personal experience. In this, he was part of a trend toward mysticism and spiritualism in late Victorian/Edwardian society. He joined the “Theosophist” sect led by Madam Blavatsky in 1887 at the age of 22, and not long after helped found the Order of the Golden Dawn. Things in his poetry; roses, birds, cats, sun, moon, oceans, trees, colors, are all pointers to symbolic meaning in these mystical systems. When the Golden Dawn fell apart due to this-worldly-infighting (Brown has a rather funny story in which Alstair Crowley shows up at the door in regalia as an enforcer for a feuding faction), Yeats turned to the creation of a personal system of mysticism. Yeats and his wife George engaged in automatic writing, where the medium dictated words from a multi-tier cast of shades. Out of this exploration, they created a detailed mystical/psychological system, which is explicated in Visions (annotated online here for those who have the patience. The system surfaces in poems – the well-known “Turning and turning in a widening gyre” from The Second Coming comes from a complex pseudo-geometrical scheme of recurring spirals of time, predicting an impending new messianic cataclypse.
Reconstructing a system of meaning out of scraps of the past was the modernist game to remake meaning in a world where old structures of meaning and social order were collapsing – Eliot captures it with the famous quote, “these fragments I have shored against my ruin.” Yeats literally lived in his rebuilt castle – he created his fantasy-role-playing game and moved in.
As a reader, the explication (and a little Wikipedia) helps me more parse more patiently through Yeats’ allusions. And as a reader, I find that the mythic skeleton works unevenly in adding depth to the poetry. Yeats uses place names, character names to give an incantatory quality and local flavor; so does Newark, Rahway, Metuchen, New Brunswick, and Trenton. When Yeats says the word Rose, or the color Yellow, it has a specific experiential meaning for a Golden Dawn adept. (Sometimes it’s just sound and decor, and I’m not the first to observe this; James Joyce parodies this tendency in early Yeats, when Yeats was live and mid-career.) Yale Prof. Langdon, in the name of the editor of the Norton Anthology says you don’t need to know the mystical correspondences to get the poetry. I think you shouldn’t, but you should get more out of it if you do, and with Yeats I’m finding that that can be more or less the case.
Yeats’ system also included a complex taxonomy of character types which puts the Enneagram to shame. The taxonomy of personality fleshes out Yeats’ psychology of masks, the idea that people, and artists in particular, act out various typed roles. This believe is rather different from the psychological myth of romantic authenticity, that one can unify, reconcile, and find the essential self within conflicting impulses and aspects of identity. Mid-life, Yeats fell hard for Nietzsche. The neurotic, conflicted poet was drawn to Neitzsche’s philosophy whereby a complex and timid man can become a hero by daring to be an asshole. And in fact, in Brown’s telling, this attitude helped Yeats be successful by enforcing his will in the management of the Abbey Theater (but, I suspect, hindered his efforts to play an ongoing role because he made so many enemies.) I appreciate Yeat’s perspective as an esthetic, and see how it helped create depth in his poetry; but not necessarily as a psychologist, moral philosopher, or politician.
With regard to women, the story, at least the way Terence Brown tells it, is somewhat more sympathetic than the mental image that I had. Like many modern writers, Yeats mined his life for his poetry. The love of his life was Maude Gonne, a nationalist radical. She consistently rejected his repeated marriage proposals. The current interpretation of available evidence is that they only had a brief physical affair in a relationship that lasted decades, instead, they had an “occult marriage” where they collaborated in spiritual exploration, state that left Yeats in a state of perennial longing that his poetry saved for us in poems including the Song of Wandering Aengus:
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
Out of a combination of infatuation with Gonne and rather more prosaic poverty which made him an unsuitable partner for women who sought financial stability and weren’t independently wealthy, he didn’t lose his virginity til the age of 31 with a married woman, Olivia Shakespear, who chose him as a refreshing change from her dull husband. As Brown tells the story, having actual sex had a positive influence on Yeats’ his mental health and writing.
Another influential woman in Yeat’s life was Lady Gregory, one of the tiny cadre of nationalist aristocrats. She became a patron to Yeats and her financial support took the edge of his poverty (Brown provides the numbers in Yeat’s annual budget). Brown was a bit dismissive of Gregory’s patronage: “she collected a poet” is the phrase he uses. In an era when financial models for art are up in the air, it is hard to dismiss basic patronage as a model. Coole, the place in the Wild Swans, Coole Park and Ballylee, Seven Woods and other poems, is the Gregory family estate; Yeats spent part of each year at Coole for many years. The poem at the top has the poet in his 50s feeling rueful about the passage of time, and perhaps indirectly here, about a form of life that is slowly dying. Yeats admires the feudal social structure in which peasant are tenant farmers for landlords, but that opinion was not universally shared. During Lady Gregory’s life she had recurrent problems with renter strikes that threatened to become violent. In 1927, the house was sold to the state, and after she died the house was razed to the ground.
At the age of 51, after a strange courtship and proposal to Maude Gonne’s daughter Iseult, Yeats met and married 24-year-old George Hyde-Lees on the rebound, and the marriage was surprisingly successful. The poet had met the young spiritualist through occult circles; as described above, the two collaborated on spiritual exploration and cataloging their discoveries from their ventures into the afterlife. Brown also reads the record of their spirit-world experiments as working through the psychosexual dynamics of their marriage. This story is not near the center of the bell curve, but given the variance of human relationships, it seems churlish to criticize.
Yeats’ relentless pursuit of new lovers to stimulate his libido and artistic creativity, appears, at least in Brown’s telling, to have be a pattern only in the last five years of his life. Before doing the homework, the stereotype that I had of Yeats was of a poet who deliberately and periodically picked his muses, and then stalked them for their impact on his psyche and writing. Perhaps other biographies would support this impression, but Brown does not. Yeats’ early and mid-life romantic unhappiness was transmuted into poetry, but in a less calculated version than my stereotype.
If anything, Brown may be a bit too literal about reading sexual frustration into Yeats’ images of unfulfilled yearning. To use a rather unrelated example, Jewish literature of exile carries a perennial theme of God’s distance; and the rabbis were all married, and their ideology was (often) in favor of regular, pleasurable sex. Yearning for something that is beyond one’s grasp and beyond human life is a human spiritual state, and not entirely reducible to sexual frustration.
If anything, Brown is not quite tough enough with regard to Yeat’s take on women. In the context of Yeat’s modernist peers, Brown praises Yeats’ symbolic representation of the power of female sexuality, compared to Eliot’s “mandarin mysogynistic lament.” But Yeats’ valorization of the spiritual feminine principle is not all that much better – it would take more homework to evaluate, for example, how much George contributed to his late work, unattributed. Yeats saw his lovers and muses as icons of beauty; it would be interesting to find out (and there is probably more in the record) what these interesting and accomplished women thought of him.
In A Prayer for My Daughter, Yeats expresses the hope that that she would stay away from the world of intellectual and political discourse:
An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?
The thought in this late poem did not appear for the first time here; Yeats expressed these ideas earlier, for example in a 1910 diary entry, and an essay on the Death of Synge, published in 1928 in which he refers fairly explicity to Maud Gonne on the unseemliness of political opinion in women. To his credit, Yeats had longstanding friendships and collaborations with interesting and accomplished women throughout his life. It’s not fair to judge by contemporary standards (although there were real live feminists at the time; the choice was available for those who sought it). Given Yeats’ opinion expressed above, it shows good judgement on Maude Gonne’s part to have refrained from marrying the poet.
As feminist, with consciousness raised early by Jane Austen and George Eliot, I can’t simply let it slide when there is a body of art that constructs women as the principle of beauty, and denies women other roles, at least in theory. Unfortunately, a history of art pruned to include only works that take for granted the subjectivity of women would be sadly short.
I found Terence Brown’s biography of Yeats really helpful. I have much better comprehension of the poems, coming out of a basic understanding of the context. If you are interested in the topic, and don’t already know the core context, I strongly recommended the book. Other bios I haven’t read include Ellman’s classic (which I suspect is more personal and poetic, and less historical), and Roy Foster’s magisterial two-volume biography, which has excellent reviews but is over 800 pages long; it was hard enough to make the time for Brown’s 400. There is an entertaining and informative book talk by Foster online, which I also recommend.
And what does this all mean to me. To be honest, I’m troubled by the politics. For an historian, the worst sin for a student of history is present-mindedness – reading and evaluating the past as if the actors were in our world. But art is a bit different. People who experience the social context of art for granted are experiencing indoctrination and propaganda – take cowboy and Indian movies for a start.
It is particularly different when one is not in school, where understanding and explication is the goal, far ahead of the experience of art. Great art hacks upon the operating system of your mind, and when that happens you are better off having a sense of what it is doing, with its ideas and its esthetics. This isn’t to advocate for the kneejerk expression of emotional reaction, the statements of nuance-free subjectivity you’ll find in, say, YouTube comments (wow, that that was the best song ever, I cried all week). Fine for a diary, but communication-free unless you’re the poster’s BFF.
Which is to say that I’m attracted to the writing, still. The early work is seductive, and the later work is terrifying. In a post-post modern era it is considered dubious to be attracted to beauty. For Yeats, who was trying in this respect to be un-modern, beauty conveyed eternity and apocalypse. To us, beauty can imply esthetic cover for conservatism, sometimes in the context of political or commercial kitch. Or romantic sincerity that we’ve learned to distrust and mock. And if not that, it’s opiate receptors and dopamine. Understanding what Yeats is doing, with his symbols and masks, his politics and psychology, helps this reader of his work feel less entranced and more like a partner in the dance.