I have been reading again, arguably, the greatest poet in English of the 20th century, W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). If not him, who? In addition to the verse, I’ve been looking through the second volume of the immense biography by R.F. Foster.
“Why the second volume?” You might well ask. Because Yeats is a remarkable instance of a late bloomer. Though he achieved fame early and is beloved in some quarters for his early poems, of which “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is the most famous, much of it is paltry stuff in an already outmoded style.
Rather like the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, the Yeats of the Celtic Twilight is fleeing from the clangor of modernity into an idealized fantasy past. Nine bean rows, indeed. Yeats grew up in Dublin and London. Only his holidays were spent in the west of Ireland around Sligo which is where his mother’s family originated. It retained a childish romance for him.
His other romance, unrequited, was for the provocateur Maud Gonne, a nasty piece of work in many ways, and also smacks of arrested adolescence or uncritical muse worship. Only in his late forties and fifties did he begin to remake himself into a plainer, tougher, colder-eyed poet. If he’d died at fifty, he would be regarded as a minor poet in a dead-end manner.
The midwives of his rebirth were many including the American poet and modernist cheerleader Ezra Pound under whose prodding Yeats began to modernize and streamline himself. Pound’s mantra was “make it new,” and Yeats did. The violent clash with England that led to Irish Independence also forced Yeats to confront harsh realities. And as he aged, inevitably changes occurred. Friends died, Gonne married another, Yeats himself took a wife and had children.
There is still a lot of nonsense you have to wade through with Yeats, especially his cuckoo mystical system of history and belief in the supernatural. This stuff is catnip to graduate students and folklorists but of zero interest to most readers. Still, it was probably no worse for his poetry that the beliefs of his contemporaries.
At a time when Western Civilization seemed intent on committing suicides, artists fled the chaos in all directions. Eliot famously declared himself a royalist, classicist and Anglo-Catholic. Pound chose fascism and weird economic theories. These were also the years of dada, vorticism and other isms without number.
In the end all that counts is the words on the page. For his last thirty years, among a lot of dross there is a horde of true gold. The poet-critic Randall Jarrell said “a good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be stuck by lightening five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.
By this metric, Yeats is a titan. Among his best poems are “September 1913,” “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death,” “Broken Dreams,” “Under Saturn,” “Nineteen Hundred Nineteen,” “Leda and the Swan,” “All Soul’s Night,” “Coole Park and Ballylee,” “The Three Bushes,” and “Long-Legged Fly.” And then there are the masterpieces.
He writes, as all poets do, on the passage of time sublimely in “The Wild Swans at Coole.” On life’s disappointments in “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad.” On the tragic and ennobling pursuit of freedom in “Easter 1916.” On the hope a loved one may live a civilized life in “Prayer for My Daughter,” and on the threat to civilization itself in “The Second Coming.”
He makes the resigned admission that all his consoling mysticism and philosophical systematizing was ultimately beside the point that all art like our humanity originates in “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” He writes his own calm, proud, serene elegy in “Under Ben Bullen” with its famous call that this epitaph be carved on his stone: “Cast a cold eye/on life, on death./ Horseman, pass by!”
And he repeatedly professes his belief in the proposition that the consolations of art mitigate the pains of reality in “Sailing to Byzantium, “Among School Children” and especially in one of the greatest poems ever written, “Lapis Lazuli.” It catalogs “old civilizations put to the sword,” but concludes “all things fall and are built again,/ And those that build them again are gay.”, it is filled with memorable music, fragments we all can quote, as is so much in Yeats.
Think of, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” “What rough beast…Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” “A girl who knew all Dante once/Live to bear children to a dunce.” “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance.” “Consume my heart away; sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal.” “How but in custom and ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born?” “All changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born.”
And think of those majestic creatures whose “hearts have not grown old.”
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.