Denis Donoghue, Yeats [Fontana Modern Masters] (London: Fontana/Collins 1971), Chap. 1: A Kind of Power

CONTENTS: Chronology [7]; Introduction: Toward the Poetry [13; infra]; I. A Kind of Power [21; infra]; 2. The Play of Consciousness [40; infra]; 3. History and the Secret Discipline [70; infra]; 4. His Theatre [95]; 5. The Savage God [116; infra]; Notes [133]; Bibliographical Note [138]; Acknowledgements [140].

In 1937, two years before his death, W. B. Yeats wrote “A General Introduction for my Work”, announcing as his first principle that a poet ‘is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast’. A poet is not merely, like the man at the breakfast-table, the sum of his experiences. Between the man and the poet there is always, as Yeats said, a phantasmagoria; we think of it when we advert to the form of a poem, the role a poet plays, or the transfiguring power of imagination. Wallace Stevens’s word for the same thing is ‘hallucination’. A man is simply a man, and according to some moralists that condition is enough, he lacks nothing. But Yeats ascribed to the poet - ‘more type than man, more passion than type’ - the power of transformation: the poet can make himself anew, become his own God, as Nietszche said Goethe created himself, by the imperative act of his imagination. He can turn accident into design, animate what mere experience has left inert in the power of imagination, Yeats wrote, ‘nature has grown intelligible, and by so doing a part of our creative power’. The message is characteristic of Yeats in several respects; it defines his sense of art as compensation for the chaos of personal life: it expresses his hierarchical feeling for the poet as seer, bringing nature to form and definition; above all, it marks his recourse to the imagination of power. Yeats’s major poems are correlatives of power, their personality attested in a certain tone of voice; he wrote as if he were leading a charge of cavalry. We recognize his style by its tone of command, often in its presence we stand rebuked.

It is my impression that Yeats’s struggle toward an ‘answerable style’ and his determination to achieve self-mastery [21] are versions of the same motive; language is the enabling instrument. He does not speak, as T. S. Eliot does, of separating the man who suffers from the writer who creates; or if he seems to, his intonation is entirely different. Eliot would use art to suppress the demanding self; the suffering man confides his experience to the poetic form, remaining silent in his own person. The separation Eliot proposes is the poetic equivalent of humility, its motive is ascetic, ‘humility is endless’. But Yeats’s phantasmagoria comes from a conviction of his poetic power, a promise of forces to be invoked. Life and work are not the same, their perfections are distinguishable and often at odds, there is always a phantasmagoria. That is to say, there is always the imagination. It is a mark of Yeats’s achievement that his greatest work contains within itself the reasons why it is such and not other; the integrity of the poems meansthat they do not need, for elucidation, the remote charm of biography. The four or five poems which turn chapters of A Vision into verse are demonstrably not those on which his reputation depends. But, so much conceded, Yeats was nonchalant in driving life and work together. He made his poetic coat out of old mythologies, but also out of daily occasions, the chances of ordinary life, abrasions of love and hate. There is risk in referring poetry to the breakfast-table, but in this case the risk is worth taking, he took it on his own behalf, he did not choose to be anonymous. The youth who first saw power in his father, John Butler Yeats, and then took his bundle of accident and incoherence to another man of power, John O’Leary, was already playing what he felt to be a predestined part: only its particular lineaments had yet to be discovered. With hindsight, the only reliable form of wisdom, we can see how the patterns of life and art correspond, and feel the tension between them.

Yeats was born on 13 June 1865, in the house which is now 5 Sandymount Avenue, Dublin. His father was then a law student, and was soon to become a barrister, but [22] eventually an artist, a portrait painter. His mother, for. merly Susan Pollexfen, was the daughter of a prosperous merchant in Sligo. Yeats chose to, think that his paternal ancestors had been influential people, and in “Reveries over Childhood and Youth” he professed himself ‘delighted with all that joins my life to those who had power In Ireland’; he was already making a myth by which the poet might live. His grandfather, John Yeats, had been a Protestant rector in County Down: to come upon power it was necessary to search further among the generations. In the prefatory poem to Responsibilities Yeats lays claim to ‘blood / That has not passed through any huckster’s loin’, a sentiment fundamental to his sense of race and power. The connexion with the Pollexfens was somewhat embarrassing: they were well respected people, but considered ‘purse-proud’, and Yeats was easy with them only when they displayed the saving graces, a taste for abtro. logy, prowess in horsemanship, the ‘wasteful virtues’ which alone ‘earn the sun’. He recalled his father saying,. ‘when I was young, the definition of a gentleman was a man not wholly occupied in getting on’. Normally Yeats would have been expected to identify himself with the Anglo-Irish tradition and with that alone, but he did not. When he went to school in London he felt himself a stranger, his mind filled with Irish images. But in Ireland he was separated from the historical traditions available to him; from the Catholics, because he could not share their faith and he deplored their taste; from the Protestant Ascendancy, for different but equally compelling reasons. ‘I had noticed,’ he writes, ‘that Irish Catholics among whom had been born so many political martyrs had not the good taste, the household courtesy and decency of the Protestant Ireland I had known, yet Protestant Ireland seemed to think of nothing but getting on in the world.’ Besides, Protestant Ireland, considered as an institution of power, was obviously in decline. So there was no question of his committing himself to either of these traditions, [23] although he maintained links with each. He revered the Protestant Ascendancy so long as it manifested itself in Swift, Burke, Grattan, Goldsmith, Molyneux, Berkeley, ‘no petty people’. But this great tradition had now fallen into the hands of Trinity College and Professor Dowden, in Yeats’s eyes the last guardians of ‘West Britonism’. The next turn of the historical cycle seemed to favour the other tradition, largely Catholic and often Gaelic. Yeats supported those patriotic movements which he could reconcile with the strict demands of his taste; the Gaelic League, and other national associations. But he was a somewhat Tory Nationalist. He admired Douglas Hyde, though he rebuked him for maintaining that the soul of Ireland spoke only in Irish. Yeats was interested in the Irish language, short of actually learning it, but he, could not endorse Hyde’s exclusive rhetoric. He envied Hyde his familiar relation to Irish people: ‘You’ve dandled them and fed them from the book / And know them to the bone.’ But he saw that he himself could never become, like Hyde in Ireland, ‘most popular of men’.

Born and reared between two communities, Yeats could not find himself in either, so he sought a tradition deeper than Catholic or Protestant yet native to the spirit of Ireland and more profound, he thought, than either of its great historical versions. He identified himself with that hidden Ireland for which the available evidence is an anthropology of customs, beliefs, and holy places. Many of his early essays and reviews, beginning in 1886, are attempts to persuade that Ireland to reveal itself, now that its time has come. There is a direct relation between Yeats’s calling upon the hidden Ireland to come forth, by myth and personification; and his effort to define himself as a poet. The same imaginative idiom applies to both. Yeats’s Ireland is a fiction; so is his Poet.

What Yeats wanted is clear enough when he writes of Hyde, Thomas - Davis, or Parnell: a powerful relation to ‘the people’. When he read Davis’s poems and other work [24] from The Nation , he saw that they were poor things, and he rejected their bombast, but those poets, he said, ‘had one quality I admired and admire: they were not separated individual men; they spoke or tried to speak out of a people to a people; behind them stretched the generations’. In the account of Phase 10 of A Vision , where Parnell is the example, Yeats writes of ‘a kind of burning restraint, a something that suggests a savage statue to which one offers sacrifice’. Then he continues:

This sacrifice is code, personality no longer perceived as power only. He seeks by its help to free the creative power from mass emotion, but never wholly succeeds, and so the life remains troubled, a conflict between pride and race, and passes from crisis to crisis.

There are differences: Hyde is a popular man, Davis speaks in the voice of simple, strong, perhaps crude feeling, Parnell exemplifies the lonely man of pride. But they are all, in their different ways, men of power, and Yeats responded to them for that capacity. Nearer home, there was Lady Gregory, a commanding person, Anglo-Irish gentry but deeply devoted to ‘the people’. Yeats saw in her the possibility of gaining the best of both worlds; knowing the texture of common life without abandoning the pride of station which Lady Gregory represented. Her work in Irish folklore was crucial in this way because lore was, in Yeats’s phrase, ‘the book of the people’. The feelings and beliefs assembled in Lady Gregory’s Cuchulain of Muirthemne , Gods and Fighting Men , and Visions an Beliefs in the West of Ireland were indisputably Irish, and they came from a source deeper than any Church: they were made by men and women who, having nothing to lose, had nothing to fear. The stories were hospitable to miracle, the occult, and magic, they seemed to promise a revelation, if only their energy could be gathered, and Yeats hoped to gather some of it in his plays of Cuchulain. Jorge Luis Borges has written that ‘music, states of happiness, [25] mythology, faces belaboured by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.’ [ Labyrinths , ed. Donald Yates & James Irby, 1970, p.234.] In the years before and after the publication of The Celtic Twilight (1893) Yeats was waiting for a revelation, the veil was already trembling, but the revelation he sought must take an aesthetic form; in the theatre, perhaps, in a London séance, or in the soul of a nation revealed as gesture. In 1886 he appealed ‘to those young men clustered here and there throughout our land, whom the emotion of Patriotism has lifted into that world of selfless passion in which heroic deeds are possible and heroic poetry credible’. If ‘great nations blossom above’, as he wrote in a late poem, they blossom in people like Lady Gregory, not only in men of great power. Lady Gregory’s strength was her pride, nourished by contact with ancestral feeling, memories, visions, customs transmitted like songs and stories. She was also, in the moral sense, a leader.

It was not a question of practical power. Yeats has sometimes been accused of harbouring political designs, sinister ambitions, as if he planned to become Ireland’s Mussolini. The charge is null. There is no evidence, even in his years as a Senator, that he wanted high office or that if it had come, however improbably, into his hands, he would have used it violently. He wanted moral power, self-mastery, self-definition. All ambitions came down to one, to transform his own experience. In his essay on Berkeley he says that the Romantic movement has now been superseded by a new naturalism ‘that leaves man helpless before the contents of his own mind’ [“Bishop Berkeley”, in Essays & Introductions , p.405]: the only power Yeats wanted was command over that mass. In A Vision he offered The Tower and The Winding Stair as evidence that, in some measure, he had achieved what he sought.

But laws of evidence vary from one culture to another. [26] In Ireland, where the governing art is rhetoric, proof of power is voice. Irish history is elucidated not in books but in speeches; hence the reverberation of the Cyclops episode in Joyce’s Ulysses . Hence, too, the value ascribed to gesture. In “All Things Can Tempt Me” Yeats writes:

When I was young, I had not given a penny for a song
Did not the poet sing it with such airs
That one believed he had a sword upstairs.

Even when a book is allowed, it must be ‘a written speech / Wrought of high laughter, loveliness and ease’. The danger in this tradition is that a man will give himself the airs he lacks, and there are some late poems, such as “Under Ben Bulben”, in which Yeats is too generous in that cause. But for better or worse he committed himself to rhetoric. Invariably the ‘beautiful lofty things’ he celebrates are speeches, gestures, ‘my father upon the Abbey stage, before him a raging crowd’,’ Standish O’Grady speaking to a drunken audience in ‘high nonsensical words’; nonsense does not matter, so the words be fine. Margot Ruddock. the ‘crazed girl’ of Yeats’s Last Poems , is recalled dancing upon the shore, wound ‘in desperate music’, beautiful, because her soul is declared in a splendid gesture. In gesture, there is no distinction betweenj content. and form: gesture is the dance of attitude.

To Yeats, tradition is oral, the continuity of voice from generation to generation. In a visual culture experience is understood as a field of reference, and the important events are ‘ those which alter the configuration of the whole, changing the perspective. ‘The eye altering alters all!’ T. S. Eliot described tradition in this sense in his “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, where masterpieces are deployed like monuments, and tradition is a visual relation. In a visual culture the ‘point of view’ is crucial, and the fundamental question is the relation between subject and object. Seeing is believing. But in an oral culture - and [27] Yeats’s Ireland was one of its farewell performances experience is speech, lore, rumour, anecdote, the tale rather than the novel. Finnegans Wake has Roderick O’Connor talking ‘earish with his eyes shut’. ‘In Ireland today,’ Yeats wrote in “Literature and the Living Voice”, ‘the old world that sang and listened is, it may be for the last time in Europe, face to face with the world that reads and writes, and their antagonism is always present under some name or other in Irish imagination and intellect.’ His own fictive Ireland becomes an antithetical hero, opposed to the primary force of England; the force of ‘Ireland’ in that relation being consonant with the power of poetry. So Yeats’s antagonism is directed against ‘the literature of the “point of view”’, product of isolation and the printing-press. In his poems he sought ‘syntax that is for ear alone’; he wanted the Abbey Theatre to be a place for nuances of voice, and for correspondingly national feeling. He thought of tradition, in its bearing upon Ireland, as an anima Hiberniae , ‘emotion of multitude’ released as an endless tale, motifs, sounds, echoes, the whole ‘story of the night’ deeper, more profound, than those parts of it which are merely Christian or merely pagan. In the “General Introduction” he speaks of ‘a Christ posed against a background not of Judaisrn but of Druidism, not shut off in dead history, but flowing, concrete, phenomenal’. ‘I was born into this faith,’ he adds, ‘have lived in it, and shall die in it; my Christ, a legitimate deduction from the Creed of St. Patrick as I think, is that Unity of Being Dante compared to a perfectly proportioned human body, Blake’s ‘Imagination’, what the Upanishads have named ‘Self’. Tradition was a measure of that Unity of Culture which Yeats invoked to sustain individual Unity of Being.

Nothing in Yeats’s concept of tradition intimidates his sense of power. It could be argued that his version of tradition respected only race, and had little care for society. Man’s two eternities are ‘that of race and that of soul’. Yeats speaks of man, not of men; his mind turns unwillingly [28] to detail, unless the detail is a nuance of feeling. He admired notable people, but his respect for ordinary people as constituting a particular society and living a certain life at a certain time was extremely weak, when he looked beyond the chosen few he saw a fictive race rather than a finite society. He did not think of collective consciousness as the sum of states of individual consciousness - a Marxist criterion described by Lucien Goldmann in Sciences Humaines et Philosophie ; for Yeats, beyond society there was always race, beyond the sum of individual minds Mind itself, beyond the sum of states of individual subconsciousness the anima mundi . Arithmetic was an alien science. It is significant that Yeats disliked the nineteenth-century novel, except for Balzac, whom he revered for the Swedenborgian symbolism: it is hard to think of Yeats as a reader of Middlemarch . When he writes of society, it seems to consist of invisible men, and it is remarkable if he inquires into their lives, works and days, how they make a living, what they think and feel. But his imagination is stirred when the theme is race, kindred, blood, consanguinity, ‘the fury and the mire of human veins’, or ‘honey of generation’. Yeats responded to life when it had reached the pitch of definition, or when it could be brought to such a pitch: and only those moments really counted. He did not conclude that life between those holy moments was a waste sad time without vitality or form; but rather that the intervals were null, because they were not transfigured by a sufficient imagination, no poet had been present to redeem them. This is largely Pater’s legacy to Yeats, the sense of life as aspiring to certain moments of intensity, the flame, ‘the fire that makes all simple’, the ‘blaze’ of Yeats’s “Vacillation”, the conflagration of “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”. It also explains the impression, in Yeats’s early poems, of Nature as a heap of broken images, discontinuous, uncharted; of an abyss between one privileged moment and another. Symbolism offered the possibility of establishing a continuous life of [29] energy at a level beneath that of time and history, but it did not help Yeats to understand his own moment in historical experience.

In fact, Yeats hoped to blur the distinction between history and myth, thinking rather of moments certified by feeling. In A Vision the definitive moments in history are identified with certain great men, heroes because they answered their time with a masterly imagination. Historical events counted for less than the heroic energy which they provoked: events were exalted by the heroes who enacted them. For the grand rhythm of feeling, however, history was not enough, Yeats needed archetypal figures released from history - the Fool, the Harlot, the Hunchback, the King. Such figures were required because they embodied certain perennial motives and visions, heroic in the clarity of their definition. The equivalent of the Poet, in this way, was the Mage, man of power. Speaking of religion and magic in the Epilogue to Per Amica Silentia Lunae , Yeats says, ‘Have not my thoughts run through a like round, though I have not found my tradition in the Catholic Church, which was not the Church of my childhood, but where the tradition is, as I believe, more universal and more ancient?’ The doctrines of this tradition are given in Ideas of Good and Evil : first, that the ‘borders of our mind are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy’; second, ‘that the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself’; and third, ‘that this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols’. In this tradition there is no obstacle between the individual mind and the anima mundi to and from which it flows. If the Catholic Church claims truth, Yeats’s church claims wisdom and power, an immensely rich treasure of images, eikons [sic], symbols. Every mind is priest in its own ceremonies, offering sacrifice, entering into communion with the living dead, interpreting the [30] esoteric signs. The adept, like the poet, seeks an image.

In reading Yeats, then, we are not obliged to separate ourselves from his magic, from the ‘harsh geometry’ of A Vision, from those preoccupations to which W. H. Auden condescended as the Southern Californian element in Yeats. Magic and poetry are forms of power, and they have often been kin. Besides, I am not sure that Yeats’s belief in the anima mundi is more fanciful than a philosopher’s belief in innate ideas, a geneticist’s belief in heredity, or a linguist’s belief in a child’s possession of generative grammar. The mage seeks an image, the poet’s imagination seeks a form, the bundle of accident and incoherence seeks lucidity: three manifestations of a single motive; unity of action, diversity of content. We have no difficulty accepting the third, since it is common in its aim and only notable in its means: or the second, which is the imaginative search at any time. If we disengage ourselves from the first aim, it is because we renounce all that is not history, politics, or sociology; or we resent a doctrine which takes hold of experience by ritual; or we denounce priestly craft as witch-medicine. These reactions will serve a turn, but none is convincing.

The most resolute charge to be brought against Yeats is that he consorted with the archaic, but if we bring the charge, we delude ourselves. What we resent is that he sought companionship among occult images. The case is clear. Instead of endorsing our politics, he made an archaic aesthetic, drawn from occasions imperial rather than liberal or democratic, Italian more often than Irish or English. Instead of our religion, he gathered a fardel of old stories, legends, beliefs established ‘before Christ was crucified’ and never entirely abandoned [them]. Instead of our psychology, he consulted horoscopes, patterns, Brancusi-forms, coincidences. But it would be vain to conclude that his rhetoric, because it resorts to archaic materials, does not bear upon our modern lives, or that we can deflect its force by calling it archaic. Yeats’s wilfulness is his modernity, [31] the poems relate themselves to our time by affronting it. Yeats does not accept the modern world as his conscience, his imagination is his sole law. He thinks little of an object until it conspires with his latent powers, delivering them: so R. P. Blackmur called him ‘an erotic poet, with regards to his objects, not a sacramental poet.’ A sacramental poet respects the object for itself but even more for the spirit which, however mysteriously, it contains: at some extreme point in his relation to the object, such a poet is always willing to ‘let be’, he is merely the spirit’s celebrant. An erotic poet may respect the object in itself, but it is not characteristic of him to do so, and beyond the point of acknowledgement the only relevant spirit is his own and he is never willing to let be. When the erotic poet has done with the object, he may persist in his relation to it, but for his own sake: the object has helped him to define his power, and he is tender toward it for that reason. The distinction holds only for extreme cases: its relevance to Yeats is that a poet who resorts to the idiom of power has to decide, on tendentious occasions, whether his imagination comes first and the natural object second in his favour, or vice versa . Yeats would like to avoid such occasions, but if he must face them, he strikes out for power, and the natural object must fend for itself.

The first evidence of Yeats’s struggle for self-mastery comes in his early poems and plays. Many of them declare a world of ease beyond time, liberating the defeated lover from chains of duty and circumstance. The poet calls his lost beloved (‘white woman’) to ‘numberless islands and many a Danaan shore’, preparing a scene in accordance with his sorrow, the defunctive music now fading toward a ‘gentle silence’. There is no hope, only a dreamsong addressed to eternity, the state of heroic loss made permanent, ideal, essential. History and ‘the despotism of fact’ are sublimed away. Many of these poems are beautiful, some are so fragile that they afflict the mind as murmurs from death’s door. What Yeats said of late [32] nineteenth-century poetry applies to much of his own early work. ‘At once the fault and the beauty of the natur- description of most modern poets is that for them the stars, and streams, the leaves, and the animals, are only masks behind which go on the sad soliloquies of a nineteenth0century egoism.’ He was severe upon himself, too. In 1888 he said that his poetry was ‘almost all a flight into faeryland from the real world, and a summons to that flight ... the poetry ... of longing and complaint - the cry of the heart against necessity’, and he promised himself that he would one day write ‘poetry of insight and knowledge’ [ Letters , Hone, p.63.]

But he had many promises to keep. He was already promised to Symbolism, which he interpreted, mainly under the impact of Arthur Symons’s translations of Mallarmé, as if its only home were faeryland. In “The Symbolism of Poetry” (1900) he considered the change of poetic style which would follow if readers were to accept the theory ‘that poetry moves us because of its symbolism’. It would mean, he said, ‘that we would cast out of serious poetry those energetic rhythms, as of a man running, which are the invention of the will with its eyes always on something to be done or undone; and we would seek out those wavering, meditative, organic rhythms, which are the embodiment of the imagination, that neither desires nor hates, because it has done with time, and only wishes to gaze upon some reality, some beauty.’ The reality, like the beauty, is ideal, it scorns the empirical. Yeats’s early poems are sometimes pitied rather than read: they are so delicate, so fragile, that it seems brutal to test them severely. But in fact they come from a highly sophisticated theory of Symbolism, and from experiences which demanded that theory and that practice. The poems may be read as errors of judgement, but not as failures to achieve some other kind of poetry.

They are also consistent with the kinship between poetry and magic; with the interpretation of alchemy, too, outlined [33] in Rosa Alchemica and elsewhere. Alchemists - les alchemistes, nos ancêstres (the alchemists, our ancestors)’, as Mallarmé said - sought to fashion gold from common metals, Yeats wrote, ‘merely as part of a universal transmutation of all things into some divine and imperishable substance’. This was his justification for making Rosa Alchemica ‘a fanciful reverie over the transmutation of life into art, and a cry of measureless desire for a world made wholly of essences’. [ Mythologies , 267]. In 1895 he spoke of ‘moods’ in the same spirit. Literature is ‘wrought about a mood, or a community of moods, as the body is wrought about an invisible soul’. Whatever the poet uses is merely an existential means, as it were to an essential end: his purpose is ‘to discover immortal moods in mortal desires, an undecaying hope in our trivial ambitions, a divine love in sexual passion’.

The poetic problem was to make a masterful style without denying or even compromising Yeats’s doctrine of Symbolism. It might be impossible, because the doctrine is remarkably pallid, and it often appears as if words were too crude a medium for transmutation and essence. But there are two moments especially in the early poems which mark important stages in the attempt. The first is “The Secret Rose” (1886). The rose is an incorrigible symbol in Yeats’s early poems; sometimes associated with the equally symbolic cross, it generally symbolizes love, the heart’s desire. In “The Secret Rose” it evokes the poet’s Muse, guardian of ideal forms and in that respect the object of sacrifice and worship. The figure is properly ethereal, perfect in the sense which Yeats had in mind when he said that we love only the perfect and our dreams make all things perfect that we may love them. The rose is ‘far-of, most secret, and inviolate’, its devotees ‘dwell beyond the stir / And tumult of defeated dreams’. This country of the mind is Tirnanog, given mainly in rhythms shared with Rossetti. The rose is to ‘enfold’ the poet as she has already enfolded the Magi, Conchubar, Cuchulain and Fand, Caolte, Fergus, [34] and a certain unnamed lover. The lover, hero of an Irish folk-tale, mediates between the poet and the great mythological figures already celebrated, heroes in turn of action, passion, sorrow, and pride. These figures are true because people believe in them, immortal because that belief will never die, therefore ideal and essential but not abstract. So they are appropriately tended, enfolded by the rose. When the story of the human lover has been told, the poet says:

I, too, await
The hour of thy great wind of love and hate.
When shall the stars be blown about the sky,
Like the sparks blown out ofa smithy, and die?
Surely thine hour has come, thy great wind blows,
Far-off, most secret, and inviolate Rose?

The wind of love and hate comes first from the Sidhe, then from the Enchanter in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, destroyer and preserver. It is hailed again in The King’s Threshold when the poet says:

Cry aloud
That when we are driven out we come again
Like a great wind that runs out of the waste
To blow the tables flat …

The stars blown about the sky are seen in Blake’s Four Zoas:

And Man walks forth from midst of the fires: the evil is all consum’d.
His eyes behold the Angelic spheres arising night & day;
The stars consum’d like a lamp blown out, & in their stead, behold
The Expanding Eyes of Man behold the depths of wondrous worlds!
One Earth, one sea beneath. [35]

The sparks and the smithy come from Cabbalistic texts and especially, as Allen Grossman has noted, from a passage in von Rosenroth’s Kabbala Denudata , translated by MacGregor Mathers, about the destruction of prior worlds, worlds formed ‘without conformation’. ‘Surely thine hour has come’: the first of many induced epiphanies in Yeats, here especially the hour when three dreams cross, alchemy, symbolism, and poetry. The poem expresses a poet’s desire to transmute his quotidian loves and sorrows ‘into some divine and imperishable substance’; an ambition hardly more miraculous than that of turning the youth at the breakfast-table into a major Romantic poet. Success in these enterprises would mean the creation of a new and wondrous world.

The poem begins as if its chief object were to receive Cuchulain and the other heroes into the Order of the Golden Dawn: hence the hieratic tone, the movement of figures as in a tapestry. The procession continues, descending from gods to men, and Yeats develops another part of the priestly role, prepares the next revelation: ‘I too await / The hour of thy great wind of love and hate.’ The note of pride comes from Yeats’s association with the Rose, now invoked as the spirit of poetry. Adept of the imagination in a heroic context, he is composing an Ode to the Poetical Character. The context is exalted, but it does not reduce the poet to shame or silence, he is a hero in his role if not in demonstrable achievement. I read the poem as an exemplary moment in Yeats’s career because of the verve with which he declares himself member of a great company; that he carries it off can hardly be disputed. He has gained by pride of role what he could not have achieved by mere pride of station. Yeats is claiming kinship with the Muse on the basis of a great role accepted rather than a great work accomplished; he is a poet,-different from the Muse only in degree. A Romantic poet who deals with such matters is bound to take them gravely. and it is well that he should: if the auspices are [36] good, he gains, if nothing else, a new air of authority. Some poets deem themselves sufficient authority, but Yeats is of the other fellowship; of those poets who must join the visionary company and declare themselves in good standing with the Muse before they can gather their talents about them. Such poets need to become ‘the Poet’ before they can do anything worthy. Many of Yeats’s early verses move in this direction, but “The Secret Rose” is the first occasion on which, by speaking to the Muse as a poet speaks to the spirit of poetry, he adds a new string to his Aeolian lyre. The string, which we recognise in the tone of pride, cannot be found by examining a certain bundle of accident and incoherence, it is a work of pure imagination.

The string is sounded again in “Adam’s Curse”, though the dominant tone is elegiac rather than proud. A poet, who has loved his beloved for years and still loves her but now hopelessly and knowing his hopelessness, speaks to her and her sister, ‘that beautiful mild woman, your close friend’. The themes are love, beauty and poetry, so we think of some Platonic academy and of fine discourse, except that the poet’s conversation is poignant rather than speculative. The time is the end of summer, its emblems the waning moon, the shell of wisdom and prophecy. Its rhythm a dying fall. The structure of the poem embodies its feeling; beginning with forms, speeches, tokens of a brave start, but ending abruptly, when these poor things have failed, and silence is all that remains. “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” is a comparable occasion, so far as structure goes. If moral power is certified by speech, lapse into silence marks its loss and perhaps the poet’s acceptance of that loss or his bewilderment in defeat.

Such poems do not merely come to an end. In “Adam’s Curse” what is enacted is the acceptance of defeat, the failure of a man’s love, in the first instance, and then the failure of the entire terminology which that love sustained -in this case, the force of everything in life which Yeats [37] praised as subjective and antithetical. For the moment, these powers have failed, defeated by the primary world, objectivity, the tyranny of fact. Adam’s curse: in Genesis God said to Adam, ‘cursed is the ground for thy sake, in toil shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life’. In the primary world it is the better part of prudence to bear the curse of Adam as genially as we can: the comforter gave this counsel in Yeats’s beautiful poem, “The Folly of Being Comforted”. “Adam’s Curse” does not sponsor patience, but it moves to a condition in which the poor opposing spirit is worn out; the victory of time and objectivity is evidently complete. Meanwhile the conversation proceeds, setting up a rhetorical conflict between primary and antithetical terms. in beauty, the antithetical element is the beloved’s ‘great nobleness’, as Yeats described it in “The Folly of Being Comforted”, ‘the fire that stirs about her, when she stirs’. The equivalent in poetry is imagination, the inner fire, secret discipline. Poets and beautiful women are in league against ‘the noisy set / Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen / The martyrs call the world’. But poets and beautiful women are subjective spirits, and for them the time is out of phase, they are faces belaboured by time. In “No Second Troy” Maud Gonne’s beauty is ‘a kind / That is not natural in an age like this, / Being high and solitary and most stern’. As for imagination, it courts difficulty and is often defeated by its love: what is ruined, in “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”, is ‘spontaneous joy and natural content’, and the imagination is compelled to ‘shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt’. The pain cannot be eased until Yeats defines a sense of experience which does not depend upon finalities of victory or defeat; and until he devises a corresponding idiom. The values which cry aloud in “Adam’s Curse” are not assuaged until they are taken up in the different contexts of “A Prayer for My Daughter” and later poems. To be specific: these feelings are not released until the word “labour”, epitome of Adam’s curse, is transformed into the blossoming and [38] dancing labour of “Among School Children”.

But it is not enough to say that the poet in “Adam’s Curse” accepts defeat, or persuades himself to accept it; he does not hang his head. The poem is remarkable for the poise which it sustains between fact and value. If the world’s verdict endorses fact, the reader is left in no doubt where value resides. Defeat is not registered as heroic or glorious, but as beautiful, the moral question is answered in aesthetic terms, and Yeats is a master of that resource. Poetry and love meet in the beautiful, which explains why of the three presences in the conversation Maud is contained in silence. Poet and friend have to make a case, but Maud’s beauty is itself a declaration of independence. The poignancy of the poem, especially when we read it with “The Secret Rose” not entirely forgotten, is that in the earlier poem Yeats got whatever he needed from the symbols at hand, and he had merely to find his power in them; but in “Adam’s Curse” the symbols cannot help, beyond providing an appropriate decor for his sorrow. Yeats’s outcry in the later poem is a remarkable achievement of style. and its proof is composure, the dignity of tone with which time’s cruelty is received. It is proper to speak of such poetry as a form of power, even where the official theme is the defeat of that power. The poet is not obliged to report that his values prevail, as a practical matter, in the objective world. In his first poems Yeats knew that he had this power, but he did not know what to do with it, beyond releasing it now in one way, now in another. His progress as a poet had to wait for the discovery that there was at least one way of converting divisions to poetic use, making chance amenable to that degree of choice. [39]

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