William Bonney, ‘He “Liked The Way His Finger Smelt”: Yeats and the Tropics of History’, in Yeats and Postmodernism, ed. Leonard Orr (Syracuse UP 1991), pp.35-63.

W. B. Yeats has much to say about history. He strives much of his life to collect details about the past from sources both occult and scholarly and to assemble these details into a conceptual structure that might salvage them and him from randomness and futility because he claims to perceive “things doubled - doubled in history, world history, personal history.” [1] Thus, for example, he can sweepingly define the very nature of existence and affirm that there are “two living countries, one visible and one invisible”, even as he variously states that ‘All external events ... are ... an externalization of character”, that “all knowledge is biography”, and that history itself is but “the history of the mind.” [2] In this respect, Yeats’s historiography is an extension of attitudes characteristic of the early romantic period as expressed by writers like Wordsworth, who in works like The Prelude used contemplation of the past as a way to pursue ontological unity, to become “conscious of myself / And of some other Being” (bk. 2, II. 32-33) and thereby “enshrine the spirit of the past / For future restoration” (bk. 11, II. 342-43).

Of course, such perceptions of the ultimately subjective essence of the historical process and of human access to vestiges of this process effectively prevent men like Wordsworth and Yeats from being acknowledged as historians by the practitioners of historiography who dominate contemporary centres of academic power, and who typically assume that historical narratives are verbal structures that are adequate simultaneously to the task of uncovering supposedly pre-existent facts and stories and of representing them in such a way so as to create a [35] final correspondence between these verbal structures and some prior but recoverable empirical reality. Wordsworth feared such epistemological pretensions and went so far as to portray the wielders of them rhetorically as satanic persons who by circumscribing the past dare to delimit the future, “who with a broad highway have overbridged / The froward chaos of futurity” (bk. 5, II. 371-72).

But vatic pronouncements are of scant predictive value with regard to effecting a recovery of items for museum showcases, and subjective and self-consciously figurative discussions of temporal process have typically languished in a category deprecatingly called “imaginative” and consequently opposed to traditional and presumably factual historical narratives. Contemporary theory has changed all this and created an intellectual context for skeptical assertions like those made long ago by Charles Lamb: “The mighty future is as nothing, being everything! the past is everything, being nothing!” [3] That is, the very concept “history” has become problematic because the word refers both to an object of knowledge and to an explanatory analysis of this object. Moreover, the object does not exist empirically because past events cannot themselves be studied -only enigmatic remains of them endure in the form of semantically open artefacts, written records, and current social practices, and such inaccessible data can be represented only verbally and fictively. [4]

Appropriately, the very concept of an “historical fact” as an event that “really took place” has been challenged by Claude Levi-Strauss, who asks “but where did anything take place?” “Each episode ... resolves itself into a multitude of individual psychic moments. Each of these moments is a translation of unconscious development, and these resolve themselves into cerebral, hormonal or nervous phenomena, which themselves have reference to the physical or chemical order. Consequently, historical facts are no more given than any other. It is the historian, or the agent of history, who constitutes them by abstraction and ... under the threat of an infinite regress.” [5] This criticism of the naive concept of an “event” echoes Nietzsche’s assertion that the physiology of perception and the creation of metaphor are identical - a declaration made a century ago when Nietzsche observed: “A nerve stimulus, first transcribed into an image! First metaphor! The image again copied into a sound! Second metaphor! And each time [the creator of an utterance] leaps completely out of one sphere right into the [36] midst of an entirely different one.” [6] After this epistemologically dubious perceptual process occurs and Nietzschesque initial metaphors are established within the human mind, the quest for comprehension begins with a further tropological manoeuvre - the identification of what is familiar with what is not, an indefensible assumption, “this is that.” Indeed, even the basic unit of logic, the syllogism, is a consequence of sciential discontinuity that is spanned by troping: “The move from the major premise (All men are mortal) to the choice of the datum to serve as the minor (Socrates is a man) is itself a tropological move, a ‘swerve’ from the universal to the particular which logic cannot preside over, since it is logic itself that is being served by the move.” [7] Considerations such as this lead Michel Foucault to conclude that all semiosis is finally just catachresis, just misuse, since there are no natural means of binding a signifier to any signified. [8] More generally, theories of discourse that illuminate the tropological essence of thought and communication suggest that an existential continuum blurs error into accuracy and invalidates the credulous use of absolutisms with regard to distinguishing fictive from factual.

Nowhere have such theories had more impact in contemporary thought than among professional historians, many of whom, largely as a result of the work of Hayden White, now acknowledge that “historical interpretation, like a poetic fiction, can be said to appeal to its reader as a plausible representation of the world by virtue of its implicit appeal to those ‘pre-genetic plot-structures’ ... that define the modalities of a given culture’s literary endowment.” [9] White suggests that to qualify as “historical”, an event must be “susceptible to at least two different narrations of its occurrence.” [10] Historical narratives, therefore, are “verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found”, essentially “extended metaphors” that fashion the events that they report according to “some form ... familiar in ... literary culture”, admixtures of “established and referred facts”, at once “a representation that is an interpretation and an interpretation that passes for an explanation of the whole process mirrored in the narrative”, always manifested as the aftermath of “a contest between contending poetic figurations of what the past might consist of.” [11] Thus, White declares that “we should no longer naively expect that statements about a given epoch or complex of events in the past ‘correspond’ to some pre-existent body of ‘raw facts.’ For we should recognize that what constitutes the facts [37] themselves is the problem that the historian, like the artist, has tried to solve in the choice of the metaphor by which he orders his world.” [12]

The frequency with which White compares the writing of history to the fabrication of aesthetic structures is a consequence of his rigorous efforts to dissect historical narratives in an attempt to reveal the linguistic means whereby these narratives substitute another sign system for a supposedly extra-linguistic referent that they pretend, with detached precision, merely to describe. White expertly combines his professional knowledge of historiography with modern analyses of the dynamics of language in a way that makes his theoretical work particularly illuminating when it is applied to texts contrived by artists who, like Yeats, repeatedly discuss both historical details and the all-encompassing temporal process that generates them.

In his book, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe , White presents the following analysis of the act of historicizing:

Before the historian can bring to bear upon the data of the historical field the conceptual apparatus he will use to represent and explain it, he must first prefigure the field-that is to say, constitute it as an object of mental perception. This poetic act is indistinguishable from the linguistic act in which the field is made ready for interpretation as a domain of a particular kind. That is to say, before a given domain can be interpreted, it must first be construed as a ground inhabited by discernible figures. The figures, in turn, must be conceived to be classifiable as distinctive orders, classes, genera, and species of phenomena. Moreover, they must be conceived to bear certain kinds of relationships to one another, the transformations of which will constitute the “problems” to be solved by the “explanations” provided on the levels of emplotment and argument in the narrative.[13]

In other words, White assumes that the historian’s task is to “construct a linguistic protocol, complete with lexical, grammatical, syntactical, and semantic dimensions, by which to characterize the field and its elements in his own terms ... and thus to prepare them for the explanation and representation he will subsequently offer to them in his narrative.” Most pertinent to the problem of defining rhetorically a given poet’s version of the historical process is White’s contention that this “preconceptual linguistic protocol will ... be - by virtue of its essentially [38] prefigurative nature - characterizable in terms of the dominant tropological mode in which it is cast.” Thus, “the theory of tropes provides ... a basis for classifying the deep structural forms of historical imagination in a given period.” White defines the trope that dominates nineteenth-century historicism as irony, and goes on to suggest that this is a result of an “ambivalence concerning all the principal problems of ... historiographical representation”, owing to the fact that by the end of the Enlightenment, men such as Gibbon, Hume, and Kant had “dissolved the distinction between history and fiction on which earlier thinkers ... had based their historiographical enterprises.” [14]

There is little need to rehearse the frequency with which critics of Yeats assert that irony is characteristic both of his theoretical discussions of the oscillatory annulments of the historical process and of his poetic portrayals of various narrators experiencing the consequences of this process. Harold Bloom’s comments are typical. He states that “Yeats is too skilled an ironist to allow any poem the burden of [a] simple and drastic ... dualism.” Although Bloom feels that there is such a constituent as “the irony of the Yeatsian dialectic”, it is a “complex irony” generated by “the poet” who “never expects to find anything but endless cycle, the spinning of the Great Wheel by the Gnostic composite god of history, deity of a meaningless death ... and an absurd life.” [15] Such a conception of irony is an invention of nineteenth-century writers such as Friedrich Schlegel, who conceives of “the Observable Irony of nature with man as victim’ and therefore asserts, “It is equally fatal for the mind to have a system and to have none.” [16] This sort of irony Schlegel terms the “amazement of the thinking spirit at itself”, the “only entirely voluntary and nevertheless completely conscious dissimulation” that “incites a feeling of the insoluble conflict of the absolute and the relative, of the impossibility and the necessity of total communication.” [17] Unrelated to traditional eironeia , Schlegel’s irony suggests that “history is nothing more than the result of a temporality which stems from the need of the individual to define ‘what I was’ in order to rationalize ‘what I am,’” [18] a temporality that in the nineteenth century causes “philosophy ... to reside in the gap between history and History, between events and the Origin”, [19] and that Yeats similarly construes as “a mathematical line drawn between hope and memory.” [20] Indeed, Yeats’s adoption of an essentially Schlegelian irony is manifested repeatedly and can be illustrated by the way in which he cancels [39] all hope for authentically cumulative progress by means of references to an implicitly futile mortality: although “all realization is through opposites”, and “the human mind” can contain “all that is significant in human history”, to “die into the truth is still to die.” [21]

It is noteworthy that when Yeats discusses history in the abstract, his interpretive remarks and rhetoric at times echo those of Jacob Burckhardt. Yeats observes approvingly that contemporary “men, for the first time since the seventeenth century, see the world as an object of contemplation, not as something to be remade”, just as Burckhardt affirms “contemplation’ to be “the right and duty of the historian; it is ... our freedom in the very awareness of universal bondage.” [22] Moreover, soon after having read Spengler’s Decline of the West, Yeats enthusiastically announces that “there is no difference in our interpretation of history (an interpretation that had never occurred to anybody before) that is not accounted for by his great and my slight erudition.” [23] All this is suggestive because Yeats’s understanding apparently parallels that of Hayden White, who claims that Burckhardt’s “view ... was precisely the same as Spengler’s, though arrived at by different means”, and that both historians impose interpretively (thus constitutively) the trope of irony upon temporal process. According to White, “the effect of any genuinely Ironic conception of history [is a] de-reifying of language”, an “attempt to lay bare the complexities obscured by premature or imperfect linguistic usage”, a “creative denaming in the interests of moral ambiguity” that makes an alazon (victim of irony) of all men due to “a fatal asymmetry between the processes of reality and any verbal characterization of those processes.” [24]

Yeats frequently indicates that he is aware of both the inevitably linguistic essence of human perception and of the consequently unstable and contradictory qualities thereby introduced into consciousness. History cannot transcend verbiage because “the world only exists to be a tale [for] coming generations”, a tale that is largely incoherent, it seems, for even in the conceptual utopia of Byzantium, according to Yeats, language had been the instrument of controversy.” [25] Linguistic structures generate myth and thought, which, in turn, foster human culture. But Yeats declares, “All civilisation is held together by artificially created illusions”; thought is merely “trash and tinsel”; and myth is without empirical substantiation, consisting only of “Statements our nature is compelled to make and employ as a truth though there [40] cannot be sufficient evidence” and is therefore worthy of annulment because “a myth that cannot be ... consumed becomes a spectre.” Overall, however, “There is no improvement: only a series of sudden fires, each ... as necessary as the one before it.” [26]

Within this context, Yeats deprecatingly judges his own ontic syntheses to be just a “phantasmagoria in which I endeavour to explain my philosophy of life and death’ ( Coll. Poems, 453). Even A Vision is merely “my lunar parable”, “my dream”, although he laments nevertheless the “destructiveness” of the semantic perversions that he witnesses in Ireland, and of the “mechanical logic and commonplace eloquence which give power to the most empty mind ... crushing as with an iron roller all that is organic” and negating thereby vital mythic unity, as being “a most un-Celtic thing.” [27] Yeats’s acultural historical transformations are necessarily violations of linguistic coherence and are signalled, figuratively, by cacophony, “the irrational cry ... the scream of Juno’s peacock”, [28] and, literally, by absurdities such as those that occurred in 1916 when the commandant-general and president of the provisional government, Patrick Pearse, surrendered in the post office, the repository of failed words and thus the monument of futile causes.

Yeats perceives temporal process as being definitively ironic, and, moreover, by means of this rhetorical figure, he manifests skepticism about the adequacy of his own perceptions and definitions. As Hayden White describes historiography composed from this perspective, the “trope of Irony ... provides a linguistic paradigm of a mode of thought which is radically self-critical with respect not only to a given characterization of the world of experience but also to the very effort to capture adequately the truth of things in language.” This kind of irony is “metatropological, for it is deployed in the self-conscious awareness of the possible misuse of figurative language” and “points to the potential foolishness of all linguistic characterizations of reality.” [29] This is the sort of irony that renders history incomprehensible and that Schlegel diagnoses in his essay “On Incomprehensibility” as being controllable only by “an irony that might be able to swallow up all these big and little ironies and leave no trace of them at all.” [30] Large and small ironies for Yeats are results of the humanly unavoidable but intellectually indefensible “assertion of the eternity of what nature declares ephemeral” [31] These ironies can be contained only within poetic structures that mimic the historical process by generating a profoundly unstable [41] tropology that, for instance, portrays a transcendent locale (in “News for the Delphic Oracle”) that paradoxically only celebrates flux and generation and creates a figurative utopia like Byzantium, only later paradoxically to eliminate it completely from an historical panorama summarized by Yeats in this way: “Civilization rose to its high tide mark in Greece, fell, rose again in the Renaissance but not to the same level.” [32]

The repetition of the word “paradoxically” in the previous sentence is meant to stress the way in which Yeats’s figures of speech and thought, like words that have a double antithetical prefix (such as “para”) call into existence seemingly opposed, paired concepts that nevertheless are not strictly self-negating semantically. As Yeats remarks, ‘I imagine everywhere the opposites” that are “no mere alternation between nothing and something ... but true opposites, each living the other’s death, dying the other’s life.” [33] Yeats’s paradoxes are parasitic in the original positive sense of a parallel guest at dinner: the word “parasite” is derived from the Greek parasitos, denoting someone who shares another’s grain (para, signifying proximity, and sitos, meaning grain). [34] Although Yeats uses the word “opposites”, it is inadequate to denote his concept of temporality, every moment of which finally is blightingly unique, for “no disaster is like another”, [35] even though fugitive similarities may encourage phrases like “now as at all times” (Coll. Poems, 124).

The extreme subtlety of Yeats’s unstable tropes of thought eludes semantic frontal assault and is best approached indirectly. Note how Yeats himself contrives to undo even one of his favourite phrases: at one time he observes “all things dying each other’s life, living each other’s death”, while at another time he detects “each ‘living the other’s life, dying the other’s death.” [36] Such rhetorical shifts, suggesting but not confirming simple inversion, constitute what for Yeats is the basis of the pervasively ironic sort of historiography that, as Hayden White puts it, “delights in exposing the paradoxes contained in every attempt to capture experience in language” and “tends to dispose the fruits of consciousness in aphorisms, apothegms, gnomic utterances which turn back upon themselves and dissolve their own apparent truth and adequacy.” [37] Or, to express it in terms of the intellectual anarchy that Yeats ponders at the close of A Vision , “How work out ... the gradual coming and increase of the counter movement, the antithetical multiform influx.” [38]

Narrative such as this, laced with the trope of irony, subverts stable [42] patterns of response, being “consonant with the interest of ... historians who perceive behind ... the welter of events ... an ongoing structure of relationships or an eternal return of the Same in the Different .” [39] For Yeats, “the Same” seems to be a nearly repetitive temporal process that ensures only that “there is no improvement”, no matter how much specific turmoil may be generated by “the Different”, as “every historical phase has its victims, poisoned rats.” [40] Tranquillity at the level of the individual may be accomplished by voluntarily acting out the metaphor of predation that is definitive of temporality. A self-consumptive unity can be sought by offering oneself “to his own soul as Buddha offered himself to the famished tiger”, since “life exists merely through willing and joyous or unwilling and mournful sacrifice of life”, and “all life has the same root.” [41]

Try as he may, Yeats finds it impossible to reconcile the “joyous” and the “mournful.” He can intellectualize and structure the historical process into an exquisite and inevitable geometry that explains and even justifies specific change, its constituents nested “one inside another, each complete in itself, like those perforated Chinese ivory balls” and graphically reduced like the “diagrams in Law’s Boehme , where one lifts a flap of paper to discover both the human entrails and the starry heavens.” But finally, this perception is merely a series of similitudes, “stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis”, a “Tap of paper” indeed. Yeats knows that his patterned cosmic comforts are probably nonexistent, “for ... things return, but not wholly, for no two faces are alike.” [42] This knowledge displaces joy with mourning, darkens universal comedy with personal pain and regret, and leads both to an assertion that “we begin to live when we have conceived life as a tragedy” and to a declaration that I find my peace by pitting my whole nature against something.” [43]

Yeats’s essentially ironic destabilization of language in much of his work is partly a consequence of a radical clash between two quite different perceptions of the historical process. When Yeats contemplates great temporal sequences, he can fabricate aesthetic analogies that permit him an intellectual accommodation to the certain prospect of personal and cultural annihilation. As a result, he can conceive of macrocosmic flux largely as a comedy, offering, like the literary genre, the festive potential for “occasional reconciliations of the forces at play in the social and natural worlds.” But Yeats seldom seems to be emotionally [43] at ease with his gyres and circles, nor with the cyclic patterns of time that they inscribe and describe, for the very trajectories that figure forth superhuman principles of order also denote tragic futility to an individual, and in tragedy “there are no festive occasions, except false or illusory ones.” [44] Thus, Yeats is disoriented and dismayed by specific events of contemporary history, in spite of his repeated affirmations of general and inclusive celestial tidiness. For instance, he defines the Easter 1916 uprising as the “Dublin tragedy” and laments, “I am very despondent about the future. At the moment I feel that all the work of years has been overturned. [45] That is, Yeats’s radically varying comic and tragic expositions of temporality derive from different perspectives taken toward strife. A tragic perspective is generated by an agent who contemplates the conclusion of an action that was performed with a definite design and within the context of a world that collides with and frustrates his desire and annuls his effort, whereas a comic viewpoint is fabricated by an agent who regards such a collision from a resolvent position located in time beyond the experience of annulment that embroils and probably consumes the tragic actor.

The intellectual and emotional stress resulting from the clash of these perspectives is manifested by Yeats as tropological inconsistency. He cannot decide, in effect, whether as temporal emergents “we may ... push ourselves up, being ourselves the tide”, or whether “these things are fate” and “we may be pushed up.” [46] At most, he seems to conceptualize existential ferment merely as an exploding, fecund linearity as his “intellect” struggles to “synthesize in vain, drawing with its compass-point a line that shall but represent the outline of a bursting pod.” Indeed, Yeats even summarizes such struggles: “I have sat in my chair turning a symbol over in my mind, exploring all its details, defining and again defining its elements, testing my convictions and those of others by its unity, attempting to substitute particulars for an abstraction like that of algebra. ... But nothing comes - though this moment was to reward me for all my toil.” [47]

A useful, if perhaps simplistic, way to highlight Yeats’s ultimately unrewarding skirmishes with tropes is to note the relatively crisp vocabulary that he characteristically uses in the titles of poems that elucidate the private lives of narrators who often are the means whereby the author’s most intimate and compelling anxieties and (usually compromised) aspirations are dramatized and contemplated. These titles [44] often consist of distinct common nouns or place names, “the minute particulars of mankind” (Coll. Poems, p.168), and suggest that Yeats’s personal experience of life emplotted as a tragedy at least provides him with a focus for his rhetorical figures, however intense his sardonic despair may be at the lachrymose spectacle of the erosion of all that he loves and is. Such titles can be contrasted with the equivocal, even conceptually paralyzing, titles of poems in which Yeats seeks to articulate (and thereby reveal) comprehensive but evanescent processes of historical change. The vaguery [sic] of designations such as “Easter, 1916”, “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, or “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is symptomatic of the radically fluctuating tropologies that both define these works internally and display Yeats’s own intellectual turmoil as he tries to emplot, as agents of ultimately comic transmutations, the macrocosmic forces that ensure his seemingly tragic destruction. This issue can be approached by contrasting the manner in which human existence is figuratively expressed in the quite private acknowledgment of “tragic buskin”, in the poem “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931” (Coll. Poems, p.239-40), with the tropological obfuscation of the same concept, “the living stream” (Coll. Poems, 179), and in poems such as “Easter, 1916” and “Meditations in Time of Civil War” - works that endeavour to talk about “life” within the framework of the universal comedy of inevitable and disconcerting cultural change.

In “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931”, Yeats’s narrator is tensely situated in a physically and psychologically detached location within the confines of the ancient tower at Ballylee. Below him he sees rushing water that leads his meditation geographically on a declining flow to the environs of Coole Park and figuratively on a descent to the unpleasant subjects of individual and cultural decrepitude. His tension is a negative consequence of his initial choice of metaphor for the human psyche: when the traditional Neoplatonic watery figure for the soul steeped in the imperfect realm of generation is connected to the structural facts of the surrounding landscape, a linear concept condenses that carries the soul through a series of horizontal and vertical vicissitudes to a lake, and onward to an implicitly terminal and annihilatory “drop into a hole.” The narrator’s despondent reaction to his own metaphor causes him in the second stanza to regard the winter season and the leafless trees that border the lake as externalizations of his gloom: “For Nature’s pulled her tragic buskin on / And all the [45] rant’s a mirror of my mood.” The word “for” signifies causality, at once defining the explaining the chill and unadorned landscape as being the result of an hypostatized feminine “nature” having adopted a “tragic” costume and thereby having reflected his melancholy. This judgmental response to the wintry landscape is related in the present tense. It thus exists as part of the narrator’s current state of awareness and contrasts with the remainder of stanza two, which consists of a description of a moment in the past when he stood hidden amidst a “copse” of (presumably leafed) “beeches” and was surprised by the sound of a flock of swans ascending in “sudden thunder” from the lake.

This recollection transforms the narrator’s mood. The white colour of the swans and their ascending motion directly counter the hue and trajectory of the figurative soul-stream of stanza one, “darkening through ‘dark’ to “drop / Run underground”, briefly “rise”, only finally to “drop into a hole.” In response to this memory, he quickly abandons the figure of the stream in order to create a new trope for the soul - the swans” ‘stormy white” that “seems a concentration of the sky” and that “like the soul ... sails into the sight / And in the morning’s gone, no man knows why.” This innovation replaces the depressing, horizontal, linear inevitability of the dark, passive, and merely elemental watercourse with the white swans’ flight - an aesthetic analogy that possesses eidetic colour and a living will that permit it conceptually to transcend the terminal descent of the darkling current and connote an experience of beauty sufficiently extreme and “pure” both to correct post-lapsarian deficiency and deformity (being “so lovely that it sets to right / What knowledge or its lack had set awry”) and reduce formerly dangerous blackness to a mere child’s mistaken perception and a contrary-to-fact verb (”a child might think / It can be murdered with a spot of ink”).

The narrator clearly experiences a certain solace as a result of his modified trope. Although words connotative of horizontality, decline, and death are still present in his meditation, they now seem to have little emotional impact.. the “sound of a stick” signalling Lady Gregory’s halting steps echoes the prior mention of a foundering forest, “dry sticks under a wintry sun” and the swans’ white only “might” be “murdered” by child’s play. The simile joining the concepts “soul” and “swan” seems to overwhelm the earlier metaphoric assertion that “water” is the “generated soul which assertion was qualified severely even as it was made [46] by being cast in the tentative form of a rhetorical question. The soul’s watercourse, running out of darkness into dark, survives to penetrate the artistic subjects that define the middle of the poem (stanzas three and four) only in the form of an indirect reference to a line by Lady Gregory describing the stream that connects Yeats’s property with her estate: “Its transit is as has been said of human life ‘from a mystery through a mystery to a mystery.’”[48] This line, thoroughly revised, becomes a way of stating the negative qualities that are not to be found in the “great rooms” of Coole, “where none” amidst the aesthetic continuities of redemptive “old marble heads, old pictures”, ever “out of folly into folly came.”

But that was years ago, and a past tense in this happy context is painful to acknowledge. For in this poem it repeals with finality both inclusive absolutisms like “every” or “none” or first-person plural verbs (”we were the last romantics”), as well as the authentic aristocracy that was defined by an acuity of perception that made possible entire categories of human experience, such as “content” and “joy” and “ambition satisfied.” Indeed, as “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931” draws to a close, the narrator is forced to connect the pronoun “we” with the uncongenial physical and intellectual concept of nomadic, horizontal randomness (antithesis of landed traditions and upward continuities), admitting that in the odious present “we shift about ... / Like some poor Arab tribesman and his tent”, and thus sadly lack beneficent absolutes (”whatever most can bless”) and redemptive aesthetic qualities (”traditional sanctity and loveliness”).

This absence is figured forth in the poem by means of the word “but”, establishing a conceptual discontinuity and illustrating a hard consequence of the fact that, truly, “all is changed.” In regretful recognition of this fact, the narrator once more revises his figures. He now isolates the concepts of aesthetics and vertical movement (flight) completely from the unacceptable metamorphosis of the phenomenal world and identifies them safely with a winged phantom, Pegasus, the mythic emblem of artistic inspiration and talent, while leaving the former host Of these concepts (the flock of swans) to dwindle into a singular noun and languish perilously without volition, dominated by dim horizontal flow, as “that high horse”, now “riderless”, disdainfully wings above the mundane diminishment located “where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.” Although earlier in the poem the narrator seems to have [47] innovated the vehicle for a simile (the beauty of the swans’ whiteness and vertical ascent) that promises partially to emancipate him from depressing contemplation of mere mortality, this simile, with its dominant aesthetic component, eventually leads him to reflect upon precisely those exquisitely crafted, aristocratic qualities in human civilization that he treasures and that are rapidly vanishing, thus making a confrontation with an overwhelming mortality even more emphatic. As demonstrated, this problem proves to be insurmountable, illuminating an essential constituent of this poem: a dramatization of the ultimate futility of efforts to elude tropologically a blighting consciousness of fatal flux. That is, the tragic emplotment of temporality on the microcosmic level generates a certain anguish, which in “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931” Yeats articulates as a series of displacements: one rhetorical figure follows another during the narrator’s efforts to communicate as he tries ineffectually to avoid conscious encounters with the very tragedy implicit in the preconceptual demarcation of his topic that is effected by the first of these figures. The narrator’s initial identification of the human soul with the plummeting, abyssal current is a metaphor created by means of the verb “to be.” His later abandonment of this figure in order to concoct an evasive elaboration leads him to fashion a simile: “That stormy white / ... like the soul.” Thus, his efforts to elude depressing implications of mortality are negated by the way in which he begins his utterance because a similitude typically indicates a relatively superficial, only partial joining of different ideas, whereas a metaphor denotes a fundamental merging at the level of essences. Just as the narrator’s simile cannot undo the metaphor that at once initiates the poem and defines important aspects of his personality, so his precipitous concluding allusion to a winged mythological beast, that high horse, Pegasus, is also powerless to annul this initiation, for it is in effect the mere citation of a metaphoric vehicle devoid of a tenor, as if such a strategically disabled trope might airily escape all mundane frailties.

Although in “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931” the narrator uses a variety of tropes during his utterance Yeats exercises purposeful manipulative control over these variations and uses them to exemplify one man’s melancholy reaction to the compelling, if vexing, facts of decline and death. A certain degree of tropological destabilization is evident, but its parameters develop sequentially and function as a means of rather precise characterization: reactions to a conception of existence [48] as clad in “tragic buskin” are manifested as the narrator’s quest for adequate figures of speech. Quite different tropological instabilities are typically present in poems that address macrocosmic historical issues.

Consider the metaphor of “the living stream”, which appears in “Easter, 1916” (Coll. Poems, pp.177-80), a figure that seems at first almost to duplicate that of the soul’s torrent in “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931” because both works use the idea of life-as-a-stream to profile the anxiety engendered by the terrors of time within the mind of a thoughtful and troubled, if feckless, narrator. However, in “Easter, 1916”, the speaker seeks to accomplish a compensatory, perhaps even redemptive, orientation toward public slaughter and futility of collective effort within the framework of an all-encompassing, profoundly comic temporality, and the linguistic consequences of this effort make apparent the sort of dubious and catachrestic space that Yeats seems to inhabit mentally whenever he tries to forge such an orientation.

The narrator’s task in “Easter, 1916’ is straightforward. He wants to come to terms intellectually with the deaths by execution of fifteen leaders of the Irish Volunteers of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and to do so he apparently must satisfy himself that the executions have lasting, perhaps transcendent, significance. His strategy superficially recalls that of the speaker in “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931”: he struggles to supplant the vocabulary of purposeless mortal catastrophe with the oracular rhetoric of aesthetic perpetuity, to replace a metaphor denoting terminal linearity (”the living stream”) with a comforting simile suggesting poetic commemoration and domestic nurture “name / As a mother names her child”). But the effort degenerates into a schizophrenic stutter of conflicting rhetorical questions, intermingling first and third person singular and plural points of view as figurative language grows insurgent and opaque.

The narrator begins his statement by describing judgmentally his recent life of superficial social interaction with its degenerate verbiage, its “meaningless words”- symptoms of an inauthentic, trivial comedy “where motley is worn”, consisting of a “mocking tale or gibe / To please a companion / Around the fire at the club.” He proceeds to enumerate the similarly unappealing earlier lives of several of the victims, reiterating his evaluative responses and affirming that his “song” is about men and women who (like he in his more modest way) have just abandoned “the casual comedy.” He then makes it clear that his own recent enlightenment [49] is due to the way in which the violent deaths of these people “transformed utterly” his understanding of the significance of their existences.

However, the basis of the narrator’s judgments is not yet well defined, and in fact seems to lack consistency, for he condemns both his own earlier placid indulgence in trivial and secure social convention as well as the victims’ brash and audacious, if shrill and distorted, lives. In an effort to provide such a definition, he offers the metaphoric specification of authenticity that occupies the third stanza, the intellectual crux of the poem. Here, all phenomena moving through time are compared to the flow of a linear watercourse, and a constant, visible transmutation is identified as the index of authentic existence. This transmutation establishes a principle that unifies all things, both organic and inorganic, because, for example, the “birds that range / From cloud to tumbling cloud, / Minute by minute they change”, even as the “shadow of cloud on the stream / Changes minute by minute.”

Whatever resists change is compared to “a stone / To trouble the living stream.” Of course, a rock is as subject to temporal transformations as are animals and cloud shadows. But for the purposes of this trope, the fact that the changes in the rock are not at all conspicuous seems to be the basis for the narrator’s use of a lapidary metaphor to signify an unacceptable resistance of mutability that is futile anyway because statically obsessed “hearts with one purpose” are only apparently exempt; they only “seem / Enchanted to a stone.” Parallels of vocabulary and syntax virtually prove that in the narrator’s mind rapid and salient change equals legitimate life: “Minute by minute they change” determines that “minute by minute they live.” Furthermore, the repeated use of the word “change” elsewhere in the poem indicates the reason for the narrator’s awed approbation of the recent victims. Sudden death makes starkly visible the normally subtle, yet definitive, cosmic principle of mutability. Through shocking precipitance, an event takes on transpersonal significance and becomes an aesthetically poised beacon, revelatory and paradigmatic. Finally, as if to lend a quality of absolute validity to this idea, the speaker eradicates all evidence of personal narrative perspective from the third stanza, using no pronouns that might suggest the operation of a fallible perceiver’s opinion and thus qualify the import of this metaphoric definition of existential legitimacy.

But the poem does in fact feature a perceiver. And he fallibly [50] fashions a metaphor valorizing raw mutability (”the living stream”), even as he uses an analogy connotative of aesthetic timelessness (”beauty”) to designate the events and moments whereby this principle of change is disclosed. This potentially incoherent perspective is at best difficult to sustain, as is denoted by the immediate detonation of the poem into a series of four rhetorical questions. These disjunctive interrogations, in turn, frame a brief, spasmodic attempt by the narrator to confront the corrosive fact of death in a way that might be consistent with his repeated suggestion that fatal temporality can be emplotted as a profoundly comic process. He asserts that those who survive the political executions should now play a “part” that annuls any “part” played earlier in the “casual comedy”, solemnly commemorate the dead verbally (”utterly”, indeed?), and “murmur name upon name, / As a mother names her child / When sleep at last has come / On limbs that had run wild.”

The development of the narrator’s tropes in “Easter, 1916” strikingly resembles the speaker’s creation of a sequence of rhetorical figures in “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931.” In both poems, a contemplative toil is dramatized with conceptual alternatives as a persona tries to reconcile destructive temporality with a desire for continuity. And in both works, a metaphor is used to express the fact of lethal flux, while a simile is employed to articulate a more appealing conceit that might correctively and comfortingly displace the hostility of the initial metaphor. But the resemblance stops here. In “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931”, the speaker’s fabrication of tropes is pursued with control and determination and is accomplished consciously, even discussed openly - e .g., “Another emblem there!” (Coll. Poems, p.239) - as he works to assimilate a personal and “tragic” (Coll. Poems, p.239) sense of time. In “Easter, 1916”, the narrator grapples in vain with the recalcitrant facts of mass executions and futile effort as he tries to formulate a conciliatory sense of history. His (ropes become incoherent, manifesting the frustration and disorientation that the discontinuities of his rhetorical questions and reflexive negations acknowledge. Note how the similitude of a doting mother in uttering the name of her somnolent child, by means of which the narrator defines analogically the redemptive aesthetic function of commemorative verse, is immediately followed by a subversive doubt as to the adequacy of this simile: “To murmur ... / As a mother names her child / When sleep at last has come / On limbs that had run [51] wild. / What is it but nightfall?” As if this were not sufficiently disruptive, the narrator then answers his own question and denies the trope that he has just produced: “No, no, not night but death.” Still, death, though disconcerting, may nevertheless be incorporated within an ultimately purposeful, resolvent, profoundly comic structure of history - a perspective that has been present in much of the poem all along. However, the next line directly challenges even this assumption, asking, “Was it needless death after all?”

Hereafter, confusion increases, peaking when the narrator asks, “And what if excess of love / Bewildered them till they died?” For when he utters his “what if?” query, he in effect suggests that the narrowly extremist lives of the victims, which in stanza two he condemns specifically by means of the evaluative context that he articulates figuratively in stanza three, are not to be condemned at all. This seemingly inconsequential question, in fact, subverts the judgmental logic of the entire poem as stated in the third stanza, where, by means of the trope of life-as-a-stream, the flow of rapid change is authenticated and petrific obsession, having “one purpose alone”, is denigrated. Small wonder, then, that the narrator proceeds to drop this issue altogether. After having denied the very foundation of his soliloquy, he leaps irrationally to the subject of his role as composer of memorializing “verse” and affirms that the simple gesture of creating such verse is sufficient to cancel the sort of questions that he himself just raised. And had his questions not rendered the content of his verse discontinuous, even different, perhaps his wilful affirmation might suffice. But his poem is internally self-negating and can scarcely compensate by means of the simple fact of its existence for the conceptual disarray that defines the narrator’s final perspective toward both historical process and the significance of individual and cultural dissolution within the context of that process. Conceived in a certain way, the events of this deadly Eastertide perhaps may indeed give birth teleologically to a terrific “beauty”, although, owing to the cumulative tropological and logical collapse of the statement wherein this assertion is made, the legitimacy of the delivery is discredited.

In marked contrast to the proper nouns naming precise geographical locations, and to the controlled, private, “tragic” narration of “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931”, the vagueness of a title like “Easter, 1916” only anticipates the cognitive murk of the poem itself, with its travail to [52] engender by aesthetic means a compensatory teleology. It is possible to comment theoretically upon Yeats’s poems that are contrived as responses to indefinite, inclusive years (or moments) in public history. Although the rhetorical figure, “the living stream”, that dominates stanza three of “Easter, 1916” can loosely be called metaphor, it more precisely should be termed metonymy (or “name change”), and, accordingly, its function can be specified in this way: various observations are made by the narrator of phenomena whose physical attributes are impermanent (from cloud shadows that move to people who are shot and die); the narrator then abstracts from these observations the general concept “change”, treating the specific instances of impermanence as if they were manifestations of a universal principle of mutability lurking behind these instances and functioning as their noumenal cause. This tropological move can be strongly criticized as being the merely linguistic source of all manner of illusory, transcendent agents. Nietzsche expresses such criticism:

popular superstition [for example] divorces the lightning from its brilliance, viewing the latter as an activity whose subject is the lightning. ... But no such agent exists; there is no “being” behind the doing, acting, becoming; the “doer” has simply been added to the deed by the imagination - the doing is everything. The common man actually doubles the doing by making the lightning flash; he states the same event once as cause and then again as effect. The natural scientists are no better when they say that “energy moves”, “energy causes.” For all its detachment and freedom from emotion, our science is still the dupe of linguistic habits; it has never yet got rid of those changelings called “subjects.” [49]

One way to approach the paralogisms and discontinuities in Yeats’s poems that portray a perplexed narrator (who contemplates public events and strives to create and sustain a vision of compensatory order in historical flux) is to understand that, as Hayden White suggests, a metonymic representation of temporality is not a suitable figure whereby to express teleological intimations: “metonymizing of the world. ... preliminary encoding ... in terms of merely contiguous relationships”, guarantees “the removal of ... teleology from phenomena which every modern science seeks to effect.” [50]

The disorienting stress that Yeats causes his narrators to experience [53] in such occasional poems as “Easter, 1916” is a destructively intensified dimension of the opposition that he himself encounters whenever he recalls his own disjunctive definitions of existence - e.g., “life exists ... through willing and joyous or unwilling and mournful sacrifice of life” [51] -since what may be “joyous” and purposeful at the collective, macrocosmic level tends to be “mournful” and drearily metonymic on the personal, microcosmic plane. Yeats can cope inclusively, if not resolvently, with this clash by composing a variety of separate works that project various, even mutually negating, responses to human experience. But the occasional poems often feature a narrator who, confined to the uninviting exclusiveness of a single utterance, only succeeds in generating a maze of recalcitrant, even irreconcilable, concepts and rhetorical figures. It is just such a maze that White explores theoretically with the observation that “dialectical tension” in historiography “usually arises from an effort to wed a mode of emplotment [in this case, teleological or profoundly comic] with a mode of argument [in this case, mechanistic or metonymic] ... inconsonant with it.” [52] Moreover, this sort of tension may indeed be unavoidable, “because history has no stipulatable subject matter uniquely its own; it is always written as part of a contest between contending poetic figurations of what the past might consist of.” [53] And a typical consequence of a metonymic figuration of temporality is the kind of inclusive and destabilizing irony that characterizes Yeats’s work, for, as White notes, such “irony is the linguistic strategy underlying and sanctioning skepticism as an explanatory tactic ... and either agnosticism or cynicism as a moral posture”, [54] and whoever “approaches history as a field of cause-effect [or metonymic] relationships is driven, by the logic of the linguistic operation itself, to the comprehension of that field in Ironic terms.” [55]

Still, further elaboration is called for. To conceive of circumstances as “tragic”, as does the narrator in “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931”, is to conceive of the spectacle of personal experiences and of one’s own life as possessing closure, and to indulge in the luxury of a fantasy of termination, a “drop into a hole” (Coll. Poems, p.239). But one can also mediate in time of civil war, so to speak, define and contemplate a configuration of events as being part of an ongoing process of ruthless mutability that is bewildering in its details but, when understood generally and with detachment, is productive of “abstract joy” (Coll. Poems, p.204). In the latter instance, events are made to function as devices of transition, [54] not as signs of termination, and can be emplotted in a way that conflicts with a tragic sensibility. The characterological and tropological instabilities that appear in Yeats’s poems portraying various meditations in this or that time are a result of the fluctuating purposes served by the events as parts of the narrowly serial, broadly cyclical emplotments of history implicit in these works. Hayden White addresses this issue directly:

it is a fiction of the historian that the various states of affairs which he constitutes as the beginning, the middle, and the end of a course of development are all “actual” or “real” and that he has merely recorded “what happened” in the transition from the inaugural to the terminal phase. But both the beginning state of affairs and the ending one are inevitably poetic constructions, and as such, dependent upon the modality of the figurative language used to give them the aspect of coherence. This implies that all narrative is not simply a recording of “what happened in the transition from one state of affairs to another, but a progressive redescription of sets of events in such a way as to dismantle a structure encoded in one verbal mode in the beginning so as to justify a recoding of it in another mode at the end. This is what the “middle” of all narratives consists of. [56]

Yeats’s poems that articulate meditations-in-progress about temporal transmutations-in-progress are virtual dilations of the “middle”, of that liminal dimension of language and experience that is augured by conjunction, by what Aristotle condemns as a phone asemos and that Jacques Derrida calls “everything that operates between significant members” and therefore “has no sense because it does not refer to an independent unit, a substance or a being.” Such intervals “can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition, but ... inhabit philosophical opposition, resisting and disorganizing it, without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in the form of speculative dialectics.” [57]

If, in fact, “the multiplication of levels of signification” suggests the existence of “a discourse in crisis”- in this case the “analytico-referiential” discourse that emerged during the seventeenth century and that still is a threadbare cincture of twentieth-century semantics - then Yeats’s apparently deliberate subversions of characterological and tropological coherences in his meditations-in-progress-on-process quite possibly reflect [55] the crises that become acute in Western epistemology at the time of Yeats’s writing. During these years, Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr explore the “philosophical and scientific consequences of the input of the experimental instrument of knowledge into the observation, experiment, and knowledge it made possible”; such research bears “marks of a discourse at its limits.” [58] More specifically, Gaston Bachelard asserts that intellectual development in the early twentieth century - e.g., quantum mechanics and the associated principles of uncertainty and complementarity - makes conventional philosophical disquisition obsolete and requires a radically different form of logic that is itself emancipated from the precepts of the excluded middle and non-contradiction that constitute the substrata of Aristotelian thought. Bachelard recommends the development of “dialectical surrationalism”, a tripartite structure that would create a formal provision for the fugitive revelations of the “middle”, the conjunction, the Derridean “third term”, by supplementing the traditional binary absolutes “false” and “true” with an equally legitimate class of “absurd.” [59]

Aristotle insists that absurdity, the alogon , be avoided in discourse. Yet the word “discourse” is itself derived etymologically from the concept “to run back and forth” and thus evokes that untrustworthy conjunctive interval that disturbs post-Baconian analytico-referential modes of communication. [60] And there are few more dramatic examples of “running back and forth” in modern literature than Yeats’s historical meditation, for, in spite of deceptively informative titles that supposedly identify the time and topic of each process of rumination, there usually exists little or no internal evidence whereby a reader might confirm such an identification; and the destabilized points of view and rhetorical figures effectively frustrate the applications of traditional logic whereby any incisive conception might be formed either of the meditator or of the figures that constitute and emplot the subjects of his scrutiny. Just as titles such as “Easter, 1916”, “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, or “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteenth” offer at the outset a promise of specific detail that is immediately betrayed once the poems begin, so the neat numerical ordering of the interiors of the latter two poems implies that some kind of structural clarity and rigidity exists that determine the sequential development of the narrators’ utterances, when actually few, if any, conventional devices signalling continuity can be found. Even the permissive unifying principle of analogy is eroded by the [56] sheer randomness and heterogeneity of the topical proceedings of such poems, so that the term “anasemic” has been used to denote the manner in which these statements evolve according to “an ana-analogy of elements that do not really belong together in the same space .” [61]

Perhaps, indeed, “some unfamiliar kind of discursive class” is emerging here and is challenging such conventions as the “discrete denotated objects of knowledge, analytical knowledge .... discursive transparency, objective grasp”, and even ‘the subject” [62] since, as Morse Peckham notes, the “aim of Romantic and modern historiography has been to dissolve the regnant constructs not merely of the past but far more important the ideologies which these constructs exemplified .” [63] Yeats’s own appeal to concepts such as tradition and the device of a first-person narrator are every bit as misleading as his poetic imposition externally of dated titles and internally of ordinal numbers, for even as he discusses these concepts, he obfuscates them: “I must choose a traditional stanza, even what I alter must seem traditional.... Talk to me of originality and I will turn on you with rage. I am a crowd, I am a lonely man, I am nothing.” [64]

And an “embrace of nothing” ( Coll. Poems , 203) is what the tenuous cohesions of “Meditations in Time of Civil War” seem to dramatize, as once again a narrator wrestles with his own recalcitrant figurations of the concept “life” within an utterance whose content anticipates wholesale ruination even as it attempts to show that a proper grasp of the indifferent processes that induce cultural and individual annihilation can be a (presumably compensatory) source of “abstract joy” (Coll. Poems, p.204).

In closing, consider, for the sake of brevity, only a part of section I of this very complex poem. A speaker contemplates in quite general terms a version of civilization that he assumes is vanishing. But he is not even able to affirm with consistency or confidence that such a culture ever in fact existed, and he therefore begins his statement with the now-familiar schizoid stammer about definitive terms that is the signature of a Yeatsian historiographic meditator. His initiating concept, describing a certain kind of civilization, may indeed be “mere dreams”, although this sudden qualification is itself immediately annulled by an appeal to a mythic author (Homer), the certitude of whose ancient mental contents the narrator assumes he can confirm and then proceed to use in order to eradicate the doubts that he has just expressed regarding the validity of his own conceptual overture: “Mere [57] dreams, mere dreams! Yet Homer had not sung / Had he not found it certain beyond dreams.” As in his other poems of this sort, Yeats causes his narrator to concoct a strategy whereby he seeks to encyst his depressing thoughts of obliteration within a resolvent context composed of aesthetic analogies that connote poise and value in defiance of temporal flux. Thus, he invokes both Homeric certainties and “ancestral houses” rigorously embellished with “levelled lawns ... .. gravelled ways ... .. escutcheoned doors”, and “polished floors”, as though an argument might be constructed from a mere list. Moreover, the items mentioned in the list constitute at last just a series of rhetorical questions because their nominations are bracketed by no less than four repetitions of the anxious phrase “what if?” A daunting syntactic problem looms as a result of this magnified self-doubt: it is difficult to determine whether or not these aesthetic attainments, figuring forth comforting continuity, are as thoroughly impugned by the framing rhetoric of dubiety as was the narrator’s initial description of abundant cultural “life.” And this conceptual stalemate threatens to preclude any discursive progress. However, its effect can be reduced by noting that, uniquely, the allusion to what Homer “found ... certain beyond dreams” does not in fact appear inside a compromising grammatical structure. Although the “now” of the poem, the time at which the speaker formulates his utterance, offers a spectacle suggesting that even inclusive principles of historical continuity are interrupted, the statement that cites this spectacle depends upon a contrary-to-fact verb, and therefore (perhaps) “now it” (only) “seems as if” cosmic discontinuities hold sway.

In any case, characterological discontinuities surely reign supreme. This observation by Morse Peckham illuminates them: “Even when the ... personality shows a high degree of discontinuity in the course of a work, the decisions about what discontinuities to present are ideologically controlled.” [65] As indicated earlier, a controlling idea in much of Yeats’s writing is a post-Schlegelian irony, defined by Hayden White as a “metatropological” device “deployed in the self-conscious awareness of the possible misuse of figurative language” [66] and derived from a basically metonymic portrayal of temporality that is harried by the understanding that alternative and contradictory linguistic protocols can be employed with equal legitimacy to constitute an object of discourse, which object might be figured forth in terms of a tragedy of linear termination or a comedy of cyclical renewal. Within this context, [58] note how at the outset of his meditations in time of civil war, the harried narrator fruitlessly manipulates the tropological gist of his concept “life.” Like the persona of “Easter, 1916”, he generates an essentially metonymic and evaluative figuration of existence: he assumes that the phenomena of aristocratic (i.e., the most esteemed) vitality are manifestations of a noumenal agent of causality, which he calls “life”, and which apparently has its own remote origins, for the analogy he employs to express this agent in tangible terms is that of a lavish fountain. (Yeats’s derivation of this analogy from Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan’ seems obvious.) Thus, on an exemplary aristocratic estate, the accoutrements of “flowering lawns” and “planted hills” are instances of the bountiful way hereabouts 1ife overflows ... / And rains down life until the basin spills, / And mounts more dizzy high the more it rains.” But if indeed an eternal and aqueous principle of causation exists, its timelessness is severely compromised when it is described by means of a rhetorical device that necessarily includes the notion of a linear trajectory. The causal (even mechanistic) sequence implied by metonymic relationships is inconsistent with the synchronic poise of this watery principle’s refusal to “stoop to a mechanical / ... shape.” In “Kubla Khan”, Coleridge uses the figure of terminal oblivion, a “sunless sea”, to resolve such problems at least partially. In the present case, though, the semantic clashes in this passage persist and are embodied in the surpassing inanity of the narrator’s defining assertion that 9ife overflows ... / And rains down life.” They dictate both that a static, concave vessel (”the basin”), which normally does not possess vectored qualities, here must flow (”spills”), and that a placid marine object (the “sea-shell”) be “flung” from an inland body of water that does not contain such objects, from “out ... the obscure dark of the rich streams.” Difficulties like these probably are important, signalling the “profound disruption of the logic of narrative by narratives staging their rhetorical power, displaying causality as a trope, [which] entails the disqualification of basic terms like event and structure, or form and substance, to evoke the disjunction at work.” [67]

It is possible, then, that texts such as Yeats’s meditations-in-time require techniques of reading that are only now being developed. It is a challenge to the fundamental structures of human perception to apply language and binary logic as tools of analysis and comprehension to modes of discourse that are designed to subvert just these tools. [59] Whatever the reasons, it seems that poems like “Easter, 1916” and “Meditations in Time of Civil War” do not even try to make conventionally coherent statements. Perhaps Yeats is demonstrating, by means of his narrators’ semiotic drifting, the very limits of conceptualization that must as yet elude direct description, and he thereby illustrates Peckham’s acute conjecture that recent literature is “marked by exemplifications for which there [is] no existent explanation.” [68] Like his narrators, Yeats, of course, spends much of his own life contending with irreconcilable tropes of thought. He at last seems to be suggesting that decisions to conceive of temporal flux as “mournful” or “joyous”, tragic or comic, are never final or concordant, and thus are only to be made ironically, as analogues of the fishy sort of historiography that Saint Joseph innovated when he at once fathered the Age of Pisces and, inhabiting an unspeakable interval, discovered “he liked the way his finger smelt” (Coll. Poems, p.329). And it is likely that the semantics of Yeats’s (perhaps transcendent, surely generative) piscatorial conjunctions will be inconceivably aromatic for some time to come.


Notes
1. W B. Yeats, Letters on Poetry to Dorothy Wellesley (London & and NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 1940), 149.
2. W B. Yeats, The Collected Plays of W B. Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1953), 301; Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (NY: Macmillan, 1953), 292; Yeats, Explorations (NY: Macmillan, 1962), 397; W B. Yeats, The Letters of W B. Yeats , ed. Allan Wade (London: R. Hart-Davis, 1954), 887.
3. Charles Lamb, The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb , ed. E. V. Lucas (NY: Putnam, 1903-5), 19.
4. Cf. Hayden White, The Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), 101-20.
5. Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966), 257.
6. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche , ed. Oscar Levy (NY: Russell and Russell, 1964), 2:178.
7. White, Tropics , 3.
8. Hayden White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987), 115.
9. White, Tropics , 58.
10. White, The Content of the Form , 20.
11. White, Tropics , 51, 82, 91, 98.
12. Ibid., 47.
13. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1973), 30.
14. Ibid., 30, 31, 48.
15. Harold Bloom, Yeats (NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), 66, 206, 254.
16. See D. C. Muecke, Irony and the Ironic (NY: Methuen, 1970), 23-24.
17. Friedrich Schlegel, Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms , trans. E. Behler and R. Struc (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1968), 31.
18. Eugenio Donato, “Of Structuralism and Literature,” in The Structuralist Controversy , ed. Richard Macksey (Baltimore: johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1970), 169.
19. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (NY: Pantheon, 1970), 219.
20. See Thomas R. Whitaker, Swan and Shadow: Yeats’s Dialogue with History (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1964), 27.
21. W B. Yeats, If I Were Four and Twenty (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1940), 8; W B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (NY: Macmillan, 1961), 440; W. B. Yeats, A Vision (London: Macmillan, 1937), 271.
22. See Whitaker, 94.
23. Ursula Bridge, ed., W. B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore: Their Correspondence 1901-1937 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), 105.
24. White, Metahistory , 227, 232, 263.
25. Yeats, Mythologies (NY: Macmillan, 1959), 301; Yeats, A Vision, 279.
26. Yeats, Collected Plays , 210; W. B. Yeats, The Collected Poems W. B. Yeats (NY: Macmillan, 1966), 284 (hereafter cited as CP); Yeats, Explorations , 392; Bridge, 154.
27. A. Norman Jeffares, A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1968), 159, 228.
28. Yeats, A Vision , 268.
29. White, Metahistory , 37.
30. Friedrich Schlegel, Friedrich Schlegel’s ‘Lucinde’ and Fragments , trans. P. Firhow (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press), 267.
31. W B. Yeats, Pages from a Diary Written in Nineteen Hundred and Thirty (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1944), 8.
32. W B. Yeats, On the Boiler (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1939), 37.
33. Jeffares, 215-16.
34. See J. Hillis Miller, “The Critic as Host,” in Deconstruction and Criticism , ed. Harold Bloom (NY: Seabury Press, 1979), 219-20.
35. W B. Yeats, Per Amica Silentia Lunae , cited in Bloom, 182.
36. Jeffares, 243; Yeats, Explorations , 395.
37. White, Metahistory , 233.
38. Yeats, A Vision , 302.
39. White, Metahistory , 233.
40. Bridge, 154; Wade, 819.
41. Yeats, Autobiography , 328; E. J. Ellis and W B. Yeats, eds., The Works of William Blake (London: B. Quaritch, 1893), 1:273; W. B. Yeats, Plays and Controversies (London: Macmillan, 1923), 161.
42. Yeats, Explorations , 434; Yeats, A Vision , 24-25; Yeats, Essays and Introductions , 288.
43. Yeats, Autobiography , 116; letter to Ethel Mannin, cited in Whitaker, 266.
44. White, Metahistory , 9.
45. Wade, 613.
46. Yeats, On the Boiler , 29.
47. Cited in Whitaker, 97, 113.
48. See Jeffares, 154.
49. Cited in White, Metahistory , 335.
50. White, Tropics , 131-32.
51. Ellis and Yeats, 1:243.
52. White, Metahistory , 29.
53. White, Tropics , 98.
54. Ibid., 73-74.
55. White, Metahistory , 67.
56. White, Tropics , 98.
57. Jacques Derrida, “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” NLH, 6 (1974): 41; Jacques Derrida, Positions, cited in Gregory Ulmer, Applied Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985), 28. Derrida’s work needs to be put into the informative and disturbing context recently provided by John M. Ellis in Against Deconstruction (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989).
58. Timothy J. Reiss, The Discourse of Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982), 357, 366.
59. See Ulmer, 26-27.
60. See White, Content of the Form , 105.
61. See J. Hillis Miller, The Linguistic Moment (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985), 337.
62. Reiss, 382.
63. Morse Peckham, Romanticism and Ideology (Greenwood, Fla.: Penkevill, 1985), 60.
64. Yeats, Essays and Introductions , 522.
65. Peckham, 60.
66. White, Metahistory , 37.
67. Cynthia Chase, Decomposing Figures: Rhetorical Readings in the Romantic Tradition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986), 8.
68. Peckham, 254.

 

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