Agile social incentives

A poster at Codexon wrote a blog post bragging about the way he took advantage of the points system on Stack Overflow, the programming Q&A site. Reflecting on Adrian Chan’s recent post about the weaknesses of structured, game-like incentives in social media, I more-than-half-expected a situation where griefers were gaming the points system and messing up the community. I found something else instead.

Stack Overflow is a community for programmers to ask and answer questions. It has a detailed reputation system designed to reward participation and high quality responses. For those unfamiliar with the site, the points system well thought out with respect to the behavior it’s trying to foster really geeky, and rewards those who are feel motivated and amused by thinking quantitatively about the ways their constructive participation gains them more status and powers on the site. The design of the site and its reputation system hits all four attributes in Peter Kollock’s taxonomy of social motivations as cited by Joshua Porter: reputation, reciprocity (you can see who responds to whom), efficacy (it’s intended to reward fast and good answers), and attachment to group.

The reputation troll bragged about his techniques for racking up reputation points: answering quickly, regardless of the quality of response; downrating comments that are ahead of you, and using formatting to make your points stand out.

In the comments to the post itself, a good number of commenters called him out for obnoxious behavior, despite the poster’s insistence that he was merely gaming the system for his own entertainment and to point out its weaknesses. One example: “But isn’t that missing the point? I use SO and gathered some (+2000) rep but my main goal is to provide answers to actual questions and not to abuse the achievement system.” It was mildly encouraging in that the comments thread didn’t reveal a throng of trolls outing themselves for self-serving anti-social behavior. But it was only mildly encouraging. The overall tone in the conversation on the poster’s site was one of frustration that the poster is willing to go through the trouble to decrease the quality of information for the community in order to gain an essentially pointless reward.

Even more interesting was the “meta conversation” on the Stack Overflow site itself. There, participants analyzed the troll’s behavior and identified what about the reputation gaming tactics were actually destructive to the community. In practice, posting a quick low-quality response is not that harmful, since other people quickly comment with better quality responses that get up-rated, and the original low-quality comment will float down below the fold. On the whole, adding formatting and images to posts is a good thing, since the visual emphasis makes the content easier to understand.

The one thing that site participants saw as truly harmful was the strategic downvoting of others’ comments in order to have one’s one comments increase in value. Jeff Atwood, aka @codinghorror, the site’s lead developer, commented on this point, saying this is the one thing they are considering changing the algorithm to discourage.

In reaction to the griefer, you can see the community assessing its own practices and identifying an area to improve. The developer with the power to make changes is participating in the conversation and resolving to make changes to protect against the problem. Watching the StackOverflow community react to an antisocial participant suggest something that is as important in a social system as any particular rule or feature – the ability to evolve the rules.

One of the agile practices that the Socialtext development team uses is the retrospective. We produce software in two week iterations. At the end of each two week period the team reviews the iteration – how people feel about it, what worked well, what needs improvement, and we identify items to improve. For example, we observed that the review of stories for the upcoming iteration had a tendency to fall through the cracks. So we tweaked the use of wiki page tags, which serve as a lightweight workflow reminder to identify when a story is in good enough shape for review.

What’s important here is not the specific process we use, or the specific improvement the process, but the ability of the team to reflect, identify a problem, make a change to address the problem, and assess whether the solution is working. It does help to use lightweight tools that can easily be changed, e.g. define a tag that can be applied when a story needs review. Unlike the StackOverflow community, our team does not calculate and display the team’s metrics on an individual basis – we’re striving for team goals to deliver software that meets customer’s needs, when we said we’d do it. So we look at the team data explicitly, and handle individual variance informally. The point is that we have a system to fit the culture, and we can evolve the system to address problems.

So, in response to Chan’s post, it may matter less what sort of feedback system is used – implicit or explicit, numeric or social – and it matter’s more that the community itself is able to change the rules.

Neal Stephenson on the decline of genre

Thanks to @dbschlosser’s link on twitter last week, I listened to Neal Stephensons’s lecture on the decline of genre. As a writer of what can variously be called speculative fiction and good books, his primary interest is in the fate of the genre and community he’s been associated with. Though I agree with the thesis that genre as we know it is in decline, I have some different perspectives on the nature and causes of the change.

Stephenson sees speculative fiction as fundamentally about intelligence – books and movies about smart people; and about exploring the impact of ideas. The genre has become increasingly mainstream, since it is increasingly cool to be a geek, an intelligent person with an informed passion. Stephenson makes it a point to describe intelligence outside of the framework of social class, of going to a brand-name school, of the signs of high culture; an informed passion for machine shop metal work is also geekery and good.

But there are some key aspects of the transformation of genre that Stephenson doesn’t address. The primary transformation over the last 10-15 years is in distribution, in marketing, and in the creation of publics and communities to engage with art. The existence of a broad “mainstream” and identified “genres” was related to older techniques of marketing and distribution. Powerful, expensive mass marketing was used to promote the biggest hits. More targeted marketing was used to reach narrower but still broad demographic categories of buyers. And, of course, physical distribution in bookstores meant that books needed to be shelved in one place, grouped with other books that people in the audience category would be likely to buy.

Given the limitations of mass media and the more targeted niches of mass media, the categories of audience were broadly demographic. Mainstream movies have tended to be segmented by gender, there are “chick flicks” about relationships targeted at women and “action films” about violence targeted at men. Music in the US was segmented in an invidious fashion by race, with white and black radio stations, and the categorization of similar musicians into differing genre shelves based on melanin. The emergence of internet distribution and the “long tail” means that the formerly cartoon-broad marketing categories are no longer applicable, and the allocation of physical shelf space is no longer relevant. People are free to describe content outside of marketing categories, and to organize themselves in groups that may or may not bear a resemblance to the groupings created by marketing departments.

Around culture in general, and speculative genres especially, fans have an easier time finding each other, creating large and active communities around Harry Potter, the Lost tv series, and much more. There have always been associations of fans; the internet makes it much easier for like-minded fans to find each other and the bond around fictional worlds and other art.

In Stephenson’s talk, he takes a few swipes at the “postmodern” schools of cultural theory, where critics call into question the ability of artists to control their material; related disciplines examined that lack of control with the lenses of gender and politics. Now, postmodern critics can swim slowly in a small barrel. I went to college at one of the hotbeds of postmodernism. It was rather common for grad student teaching assistants and undergrads flaunting scarves and cigarettes to claim that the text deconstructs itself, therefore imply strongly they were smarter than shakespeare. This was annoying. I avoided really engaging with the ideas until my senior year and then after I graduated. The extreme views of the junior disciples notwithstanding, the postmodernists and their economic and political cousins had some valid points.

Stephenson talks about the disappearance of the Western as a genre; the simplest explanation is the decline of social confidence in the “cowboy and indian” narrative. Fewer people were sympathetic to stories about heroic european people fighting native americans. Cultural criticism would identify the pattern. Stephenson makes a really insightful point about crime getting absorbed into television because of the good fit of detective stories to episodic structure. He makes a much less compelling point, I think, about romance being absorbed into everything – there’s still a big divide between chick flicks and action flicks – though I can’t talk about this in huge detail because those are the mainstream hollywood movies that I don’t go to, in part because of lack of identification with either broad gender stereotype. So, another argument explaining why sci-fi themes have broad appeal is that they operated outside the narrow confines of hollywood gender stereotypes.

Stephenson makes fun of the post-modernists, saying that it’s ridiculous to think that, say, Heinlein was not in full control of his material. But Heinlein is notorious as an old-fashioned pre-feminist whose female characters and gender relationships reflected stereotypes. The classical writers of science fiction, who wrote about colonists exploring other planets and experiencing tensions with the beings they found; world-threatening conflicts; male heroes with buxom heroines; in a world with the cold war, colonialism, and sexism, were tightly bound to social structures they could not clearly see. The postmodernists had some valid points.

So, I think that changes in technology, economics and social structure have at least as much to do with the decline of genres as they were constructed 50 years ago.

The value of interface design patterns

Amy Hoy writes a provocative blog post, “screw interface patterns” arguing that following interface patterns leads to boring designs. The thing is that originality is a primary goal only when you are making art. And even artists – especially artists – rely on some combination of established structure and variation – the genius is choosing what to keep familiar and what to vary.

When you are building software that people use, conventions are especially important. People need to recognize the objects and functions, otherwise they will get confused, frustrated, and go away. If a design element isn’t exactly what users are familiar with, it at least needs to be learnable. A completely original signup pattern might be creative, but it’s probably not good design if your users can’t get in to use your software.

Also, in some cases, the existing established patterns are actually unhealthy. For example, in public web applications, using a different username and password per site, and forcing users to enter usernames and passwords for other sites when using integrated services. In this case, adopting OpenID and Oauth are new good patterns to adopt. A design pattern writeup, in this case, can argue for a new solution in place of an old one.

Unless your goal is to clone another existing piece of software, you’re probably trying to add some kind of new behavior, something different from what exists already. At Socialtext, we do this all the time when we seek to adapt social software patterns developed in the public internet for use in companies and organizations. When you do this, you need to make decisions all the time about what conventions to keep, based on the models you’re using, and what new designs to add. For example, when creating a social network for use in organizations, explicit “friending” doesn’t make much sense – what does it mean to “friend” your boss or colleage. We left it out, and implement asymmetrical “following” instead. A key part of the value of design patterns is to help you think, with some richness and nuance, about the items you want to keep conventional vs. the items you want to vary.

The Amy Hoy article criticizes design patterns as if they were intended to be used like a textbook to cram for a test – learn the answers to repeat in the book. But that’s not the goal of patterns, and I’d argue that if anyone uses them that way they’re doing it wrong. One of my favorite quotes: “It’s not a religion, it’s just a technique.” Design patterns are tools for designers to make their own decisions, not an AI module intended to replace decisions.

I am a big fan of the O’Reilly Designing Social Interfaces project (disclosure: I was a reader of the manuscript, but I was a fan first). Not because I agree with everything in the book, but because I use the material to help assess which conventions to use and which to vary.

Test-first development for voting system certification?

At the OSCON session on Hacking Open Government, Secretary of State Debra Bowen talked about the mismatch between the process of certifying voting systems, the changing nature of voting requirements, and the goal of open source voting software.

Currently, voting systems need to be certified in order to be used in elections. The certification process entails submitting code to a testing agency that keeps the code, tests, and results proprietary. The Secretary of State’s office has access to the data. Citizens don’t. The testing process is long and cumbersome. This imposes a significant barrier to new entrants, including open source voting systems. When new requirements are added, the system needs to be re-certified. This imposes a long delay on the adoption of modifications.

This testing process is based on a model that is older than current best practices for software design. The testing process is based on a “waterfall” fall method where software is developed, and testing is done, all in one piece after the fact.

Current best practices are different in a number of ways.
* Software is developed incrementally, and testing is done continuously, as the software is built.
* Tests are written before the software is developed. Tests serve as the detailed specification for the way the software is intended to function
* Tests are written incrementally. New tests are added to govern new behavior.
* There are automated test suites that verify that the system continues to pass tests, with old and new behavior

This suggests a different process for voting system certification.
* Tests are made publicly available. Detailed tests serve as specifications for the behavior of the voting system.
* There is an automated test suite that continually tests the behavior of voting software.
* New functionality can be added to systems and tests incrementally. Tests will verify that the system continues to function correctly, for old behavior and new.
* Results of tests are publicly available.

Using an incremental, test-driven process for voting system development and certification would improve the reliability of the process, by enabling more scrutiny. It would shorten the time needed to introduce new voting system improvements. And it would lower the barrier to new entrants, including open source systems.

This testing would cover only functional behavior of the system – are votes counted correctly, does the administrative process work. There is still a need for security and penetration testing, which goes beyond the function of the code, includes all aspects of the system, including physical security, authentication practices, data integrity, and more. And there is still a need for usability testing – which as far as I know is not yet part of voting system certification. Usability problems result in a larger portion of day-to-day voting system failure than technical failures, although technical failures can have disastrous results.

Still, opening up the functional testing process, and running it incrementally, seems as though it might offer significant benefits.

For practitioners of modern software development and testing – what do you think about this suggestion? Are there any big gaping holes that would make this nonsensical or unfeasable? Feedback most welcome.

Architecture for civic participation

Last week’s brainstorming session on the use of social media for voter education got me thinking about the architecture that is needed for civic participation. The underlying concept is that the government provides basic infrastructure services and data. Citizens can participate in oversight and decision-making, and build tools for additional engagement, through access to services and data.

To facilitate participation, openness is needed in several layers.

  • open code and open data. These are two related families of practices that engage the community in the development and review of technology; and that make public information available to the public. Open data includes basic availability, as well as support for standards and licences that enable re-use and participation.
  • open APIs. Application programming interfaces enable developers to build on basic government infrastructure services, creating a broader ecosystem of applications that deliver value to the public without additional government funding, and that provide services that the government can’t.
  • Effective practices for social participation. Several attendees noted the problems with simple comment systems that devolve into anti-social anarchy, driving away constructive citizen participation. There are many techniques, tools, and social practices to overcome these problems. Solutions are context-dependent – there is no one-size-fits all solution.

It is exciting to participate in discussions such as the Social Media for Voter Education, the Hacking Open Government session at OSCON, and Transparency Camp West, coming up this weekend in Mountain View, that are helping to spread these ideas and encourage their implementation.

On Terence Brown’s bio of Yeats

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:

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.