W. B. Yeats: The Poems; Edited by Richard J. Finneran; Macmillan; New York
When Yeats died in 1939 his poetry had not been completely collected and there was some doubt over the right text. His widow was involved in the editing of his work and she had strong and sometimes wrong ideas about its form and content. The result was the book till now in general use, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. This was not the last word in editing, but it was a handy volume of less than 500 pages. It contained the poems and not much else. There was no apparatus — no explanation of either the editing or the meaning of the poems.
The Collected Poems have now been replaced by W B. Yeats: The Poems from the same publisher. This is a much more consequential volume, about half again as thick as the one before it. It is less of a joy to read but it has advantages. There is a preface and 100 pages of textual and explanatory notes. More important, it makes significant changes in form and content. The main points about the new edition are:
— It works from selected copy texts of Yeats. Finneran, the editor, has explained his methods in a previous book, Editing Yeats’s Poems (London, Macmillan, 1983).
— It changes the punctuation and restricts emendation.
— It reorganizes the verse, taking its initiative from what the editor describes as “a manuscript table of contents for a volume of poems and plays projected by Yeats when he died.”
— It adds verse previously excluded from collection.
— In a separate section it includes “new” poems: that is, poems until now published only in Yeats’s separate essays, stories, and plays.
It will be confusing but worthwhile to manage the transition from one edition to another, and to update books based on the old arrangement like the invaluable A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W B. Yeats by A. Norman Jeffares. But, between Jeffares’s Commentary and the explanatory notes in the new volume, most readers will be able to feel their way comfortably. The Commentary has critical notes while the new edition, working in tandem with it, explains all direct allusions.
That Yeats is important as more than a versifier is clear. I write this with today’s New York Times on my desk, its lead editorial on global terrorism ending with an invocation of Yeats’s “poetic forebodings” about our age and with a citation from “The Second Coming.” There is evidently something in Yeats which makes him more than an official poet of the 20th century, something which corresponds to our sense of actuality. That is strange, because Yeats was famously irrational. He was often silly, sometimes mystical, a believer from time to time in spiritualism. What does a man who has faith in gyres, spheres, and Madame Blavatsky have to do with the editorial page of the New York Times?
We might begin by recalling that there were four great Irishmen of approximately the same generation, Wilde, Shaw, Joyce, and Yeats. Shaw, who was the cleverest, although with the lightest specific gravity, might have been thought to have the best sense of historical actuality. His work is a constant assessment of the world’s customs, and a more or less continuous round of advice on setting them right. But people seem not to consult Shaw’s pages as they once did Virgil’s. It turns out that the two most obscure and symbolical of the group, who best knew the uses of silence, have had more to say than the student of economic reform. Every now and then, as in the epilogue to Saint Joan, Shaw would come to grips with things. He would take off the kid gloves and admit that nothing-not enlightenment or education or Fabian socialism—could meliorate the way we were. But, for the most part, he wrote about the social situation improved by remedial doses of Beatrice Webb. This is well and good, but for us Shaw is Rex Harrison.
Yeats was more mysterious than the others and the way through his work is through zodiacs and revelations. But once accepted, his modes seem to serve as no more of a barrier than the distant fervor of Botticelli or the Platonism of Michelangelo. But there is one barrier to Yeats, consisting of neither form nor style. Here it is from “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”:
Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep, a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
This is much less decorous than “The Second Coming,” and much less likely to appear in the Times as an authorized commentary on the human self. It is much less likely to win the approval of the mind of the late 20th century. The barrier in his poetry is not symbolism or spiritualism, it is opinion.
The difference between Yeats and his current audience — between Pound and Eliot and Hemingway and Conrad and the modern audience — is that all these writers believe things self-evidently which are no longer generally believed. The bland rationalism typified by Shaw is now regnant, even though we quote Yeats from time to time.
In one of the good books about Yeats, Richard Ellmann (The Identity of Yeats) says that one of the great themes of his work is the opposition of Asiatic to European civilization, the faceless and formless against (literally) sculptured forms of individual identity. Hence the importance in his work of the nonlively arts: architecture, painting, and sculpture. These things show what Yeats calls,
The self-sown, self-begotten shape that gives
Athenian intellect its mastery.
It is the “intellect” which is so large a subject in his verse, the play of mind over experience. Always in Yeats the exercise of mind is toward consciousness, in formed by discipline, and easy to anger. That is one of the reasons why he links it to the vocabulary of art. Throughout the poems we find words like “order” and “shape” and “art” itself — the discipline of which goes against our grain. And his conception of public beliefs goes violently against the sentimentalism that now passes so widely for liberal thought:
A man in his own secret meditation
Is lost amid the labyrinth that he has made
In art or politics.
This is not of much use in a campaign, except, perhaps, for someone like Eugene McCarthy. When the Times invokes “The Second Coming,” with its brute beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, it does so with the unquestioned belief that something has gone wrong and ought to be set right. It is Shavian in its tropistic responses to things. But in that poem and in the 1919 poem Yeats was not saying that things have gone wrong — only that that was the way things were. He may be the only major poet ever to have given so much thought to politics, and politics for him was not the expression of universalistic hope. It was the manifestation of a view of character that made even Freud’s seem optimistic.
The political poetry of Yeats is dominated by hatred and failure. It is not only that Parnell dies and Maud Gonne becomes a fanatic hag and Yeats himself declines into a 60-year-old smiling public man. He has a theory that, upon closer consideration, the Times will never like. Here is the note from the new edition on one of the most familiar of the poems:
I wrote Leda and the Swan because the editor of a political review asked me for a poem. I thought, ‘After the individualist, demagogic movement, founded by Hobbes and popularized by the Encyclopaedists and the French Revolution, we have a soil so exhausted that it cannot grow that crop again for cenuries.’ Then I thought, ‘Nothing is now possible but some movement from above preceded by some violent annunciation.’
Caveat lector. Yeats goes on to say, “My fancy began to play with Leda and the Swan for metaphor, and I began this poem; but as I wrote, bird and lady took such possession of the scene that all politics went out of it, and my friend tells me that his conservative readers would misunderstand the poem.”
So that there is again the thing that Lionel Trilling, in one of his last books, called the problem of looking into the abyss. Taking the Modernists for credit may mean satisfying the eternal American desire to have the world correspond with one’s self-but it may also mean the recognition, late for all Americans, never for some, that our best modern writers are out of tune. They are not optimists or rationalists; they don’t believe in psychiatry: Yeats was not the only one of them to believe in revelations if we are to go by recent biographical works on the most intelligent and balanced of them, T. S. Eliot. It seems he did not invent some of the nightmare scenes from The Waste Land but that he experienced them. But perhaps one might consult one of the best things ever said about irrational ways of reaching rational conclusions — in Shaw’s prerace to Saint Joan.
It’s hard to deal with a writer of this magnitude in a review — perhaps one can only say that this fine edition reminds us now of how accessible Yeats is. The gyres and zodiacs seem not to matter so much. But Yeats has even foreseen our conversion to his ways, and warned us against making good editions of his work and understanding it:
Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear. cc