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March 2014 - W. B. Yeats

St. Patrick's Day 2014

During the early spring of 2010 while I was writing the draft of THE DAWN (which was at that time called “Nottingham”) a dear friend insisted that I listen to an audiotape of W.B. Yeats reading selected poems. I usually boycott the reading of any author’s fictional work or poetry while composing my own fiction out of an abundance of caution lest the style and text of the author influence me. This offer, however, was both enthusiastic and insistent, and so I accepted the cassette tape. I own a 1990s-era small “boom box” that is used for this sort of thing. I was interested in hearing what this Irish poet sounded like reading his creations. While I listened, I wrote impressions and opinions of the poems. Several were quite moving, and some not to my liking, but that voice! It was an instrument of indescribable tones, timbre, and sensual quality. The voice of W.B. Yeats did not speak words as much as it caressed them and forged them into tactile sound. You’d never know the man was tone deaf! Within his mind, Yeats obviously heard impeccably and with vibrant color. This gift was perhaps a wondrous compensation for his lacking the ability to distinguish among musical notes in the outside world. I wrapped the pages of impressions around the cassette tape, secured them with a rubber band, and returned the “cadeau” to my dear friend. We then discussed this poet and his Irishness. A few months later, during the drafting of Chapter 90 in Book 6, I could not help but cite the line below, set in bold italics, from within this portion of “Broken Dreams,” one of the poems on that cassette tape. I’d played these lines of the poem several times, so enthralled was I with those glorious words. Sometime within the replays, Arthur Carmichael came to also like Yeats.

“You are more beautiful than any one, And yet your body had a flaw: Your small hands were not beautiful, And I am afraid that you will run And paddle to the wrist In that mysterious, always brimming lake Where those that have obeyed the holy law Paddle and are perfect; leave unchanged The hands that I have kissed For old sake’s sake The last stroke of midnight dies. All day in the one chair From dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme I have ranged In rambling talk with an image of air: Vague memories, nothing but memories.” This Irish poet (and playwright) was born in 1865; he died in 1939. His life straddled two centuries during eras that were quite tumultuous, even brutal. He lived during the machine age, when spirituality tended to be on the decline. It was a void that his Irish spirit sought to fill, amply, without explanation or excuse. Yeats simply breathed the air around him and for this poet the air was filled with more than gaseous elements and vapor. He believed in ghosts, going so far as to join The Ghost Club in 1911.

This organization, founded in London in 1862, is dedicated to paranormal investigation, discussion, and research. The group literally dissolved sometime in the 1870s after the death of one of its members, Charles Dickens. It experienced a revitalization on All Saints Day in 1882. The Ghost Club has known turmoil and trouble and strife, but it is still alive and kicking, with a website and webmaster. It has expanded to include UFOs and cryptozoology in its areas of investigation. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923 and he seems to have survived the event: he composed his most significant works after the formerly great prize was given to him. Although he is considered a major writer of the Irish and of the British literary worlds, Yeats is universal, the hallmark of any true poet. The development of his writing followed his maturing as a man. Early poems were lyrical and ornate, at times a bit contrived and stiff. There was sentiment more than spark. They lacked the “voice” of W.B. Yeats and instead owed their sensibility to the Romantic greats such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Edmund Spenser. And yet, even within the young, polished verses there was the scent of the gift of the poet. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is as beautiful, evocative, and exquisite in simplicity and sentiment as any other poem that this man wrote. Yeats thereafter indulged his keen interest in Irish folklore and mythology, those tales so boldly replete with imagery and symbols. In this way, the early Yeats formed “Yeats, the Irish poet.”

Love then entered the life of this man to complicate matters for good and for worse. Yeats is quoted as saying, "the troubling of my life began,” and he neither understated nor exaggerated any truth within that statement. The troubles included love of various kinds, marriage, politics, and Irish nationalism. Life as he lived it made “Yeats, the personal Irish poet.” Raised for a time in the town of Merville in County Sligo, W.B. Yeats thought of this area as his “country of the heart.” The lush green landscape was for Yeats physical and spiritual, literal and symbolic. This Irish poet was formed by the 19th century but he in turn formed a literary bridge into the 20th century in terms of his symbolism (influenced, of course, by the French Symbolists); allusive imagery; wistful wisdom; concerns with Irish culture; and devotion, in his heart, at least, to Irish nationalism.

Whether or not Yeats was “modern” remains a topic of debate, or argument, among literary critics, scholars, and academicians. They perhaps miss the cogent definition of the word, modern, and employ what I presume is the modern sense of the word, modern. Yeats, the poet; and Yeats, the man, were modern in the sense that the ancients were modern. To quote Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “People always talk of the study of the ancients; but what does that mean, except that it says, turn your attitudes to the real world, and try to express it, for that is what the ancients did when they were alive.”

The real world is “modern,” and that world vitally mattered to Yeats in a way that did not appeal to the “moderns” of his time. Yeats saw the real world as a traditionalist and as a visionary. He composed, or forged, a singular view of that real world. In his later years, his poems unflinchingly expressed the real and the poetic worlds in terms of the physical and immaterial; the sensual and ethereal; the muscular and mystical. By blending these supposed anti-theses, Yeats found the enduring spark of imagination which had often eluded him as a young poet. The sensibility, however, of his early poems, with the lyrical and idealistic vision of the Romantics, made a hearty return in his later works. Nonetheless, his thumbprint of the ideal always retained the impression of the real; his choice of words indicated a “construct” of sound, resonance, and of abstract meanings that surrounded the concrete terms. By harkening back to his early compositions, these later poems completed the circle of his life. Yeats was utterly fascinated by that circle and by the cyclical nature of life; the dualities inherent in man which offer the contrasts, complexities, and complications of emotions that so unavoidably make up the stuff of life. He was also intensely interested in the concept of “the mask” -- the anti-self within the self, the distances between the private and public personas of any individual, the contradictions that compose the struggle which leads to the creation of art. Yeats expressed those beliefs in Anima Hominis, written in 1918. The paragraphing of the following excerpt from that work is mine for strictly visual purposes:

“We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. Unlike the rhetoricians, who get a confident voice from remembering the crowd they have won or may win, we sing amid our uncertainty; and, smitten even in the presence of the most high beauty by the knowledge of our solitude, our rhythm shudders. . . . We must not make a false faith by hiding from our thoughts the causes of doubt, for faith is the highest achievement of the human intellect, the only gift man can make to God, and therefore it must offered in sincerity. Neither must we create, by hiding ugliness, a false beauty as our offering to the world. He can only create the greatest imaginable beauty who has endured all imaginable pangs, for only when we have seen and foreseen what we dread shall we be rewarded by that dazzling unforeseen wing-footed wanderer. We could not find him if he were not in some sense of our being and yet of our being but as water with fire, as noise with silence. He is of all things not impossible the most difficult, for that only which comes easily can never be a portion of our being. ‘Soon got, soon gone,’ as the proverb says. I shall find the dark grow luminous, the void fruitful when I understand I have nothing, that the ringers in the tower have appointed for the hymen of the soul a passing bell. The last knowledge has often come most quickly to turbulent men, and for a season brought new turbulence. When life puts away her conjuring tricks one by one, those that deceive us longest may well be the wine-cup and the sensual kiss, for our Chambers of Commerce and of Commons have not the divine architecture of the body, nor has their frenzy been ripened by the sun. The poet, because he may not stand within the sacred house but lives amid the whirl-winds that beset its threshold, may find his pardon.”

An event in life -- an island mountain over which to climb -- appears to emerge suddenly before our eyes, and yet it is not this island mountain that emerges; it is the waters surrounding it that have receded, revealing the mountain. The water has been receding, unbeknownst to us; and after a certain point of recession, what is revealed is the mountain of mishap and misfortune: there it is, in full view, in front of the horizon. From that mishap and misfortune are born the gifts of life -- its mysteries and its wisdom. William Butler Yeats watched the waters recede, long before the momentous event in life – the mountain of hardship, the calamity of circumstance – made itself known. He was a visionary not because he took an avid interest in various visions – the occult, spiritualism, mysticism. He was a visionary because those various images called forth his unique vision, this innate gift of creation that he possessed and expressed in the art called poetry. His poetry was at once personal and impersonal. It was personal in that it expressed his unique vision; it was impersonal in the sense of being classical: his poems transcended the self and touched universal experience. Like many other writers, Yeats sought to communicate his inner being through art. He grasped the essential quality of art by avoiding the trap of “originality,” the self-expression of excesses and provocative weirdness that passed for art among his peers and persists to this day. Anyone can be original; idiots prove that fact by the hour. W.B Yeats was ahead of his time and timeless: somewhere within his ability to transform his personal vision into art of the highest order, he soared beyond mere communication. He reached the heights of truth -- which is eternal.


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