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Yeats and a Modern Age That Could not Be Understood Without Him

Yeats and a Modern Age That Could not Be Understood Without Him

Monday, 1 March, 2021 - 13:45
WB Yeats

Mark Twain once joked that Shakespeare’s plays were full of quotations. Even in their own day they probably had a few. The Bard, knowing all about love and theft, could loot the occasional line as well as the odd plot. But, like Bob Dylan, he has by now been far less often the stealer than the one stolen from.


WB Yeats is arguably second only to Shakespeare in the pantheon of cited English-language poets: and he has written almost as many quotable lines. This has put some critics on their guard, as if the lines had been deliberately crafted for the “quote and dote” school of sherry-sipping sensitive souls. More than one tough-minded English analyst has observed that people have reason to be suspicious of poetry that is “quotable”.


“The Second Coming” is often cited as a test case ‑ full of lines that are striking without necessarily being lucid, but with a sense of implication deep enough to have provided the titles for many books: The Widening Gyre; Mere Anarchy; The Ceremony of Innocence; Things Fall Apart; What Rough Beast?; Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Not a bad strike-rate, especially when you tack on the motto-lines such as “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”.


Why all this suspicion? Isn’t good poetry supposed to be memorable? The skepticism may arise because too many glib politicians and public figures have ended shoddy speeches with a looted line about “terrible beauty” taken wholly out of context ‑ much as the recyclers of “To thine own self be true” manage to forget that it was the time-serving idiot in Hamlet who uttered the line.


In Yeats Now, Joseph Hassett seeks always to restore the full poetic and personal context to many famous lines. He often aligns a saying of Yeats with those of other modernist poets (Heaney, Rilke, Eliot), or with handsome pictorials of book illustrations or telling paintings. And when he quotes, he quotes at length, often entire stanzas (he reminds us that stanza was an Italian word for “room”) or full short lyrics. The result is one of the most beautiful and enjoyable books on Yeats ever to call forth the skills of a gifted designer. And of a true critic, for Dr. Hassett has already published two illuminating monographs, Yeats and the Poetics of Hate and Yeats and the Muses.


Here the scholar is in more relaxed and sensuous mode, savoring the cadences and images, yet making the point that people turn to lines oft-quoted because, in their very openness, those lines speak for and to us, especially in times of trouble. Dr. Hassett finds them open to multiple meanings, yes, but also filled with “poetic concentration”. He intuits a prophetic power in “The Second Coming” not only because it is one of the few poems of its age to speak confidently about the future, but also because we are that very future of which it speaks. Written in 1919, it is usually taken as a concerned response to the rise of Bolshevism (so Joan Didion could read it as a prophecy of the “aimless, incoherent” revolts of the 1960s) ‑ but the more immediate context was the Spanish flu pandemic, an illness which killed more people than World War One and which threatened the life of the poet’s new wife and also that of his father. What rough beast? Indeed.


Yeats saw so deeply into the contours of his age that the shape of the future became somewhat discernible. He understood that those who merely reflect the nostra of their times soon go out of fashion (“like an old song”), but that those who oppose the spirit of their age often capture its central energies and come to know it from within. In doing as much, they may imagine the sort of future world to which a dreamer will awaken (“In dreams begin responsibility”).


Hence the exactitude of the title Yeats Now. He may be a poet for all time, but his wisdom is surely needed in our time. Eliot said that he was one of those who had such insights into the modern age that it could not be understood without them. Having early become a master, Yeats managed to remain forever the contemporary, to such a degree that it becomes hard for us to judge just how much of our minds he invented. Hence our strangely ambiguous response to his quotability. Some “resisting” readers might prefer if they felt less indebted.


Dr. Hassett’s sub-title is “Echoing Into Life”. Though he is too deft and subtle for self-assertion, his volume may strike some readers as a self-help book, with such chapter titles as “Working”, “Loving”, “Marrying”, “Learning”, “Growing Old”, “Facing Death”, “Last Words”. This is not a sequence taken from the can-do practical world of Samuel Smiles or Dale Carnegie. However, it does gently suggest, as Alain de Botton did with Proust, that the works of a modernist artist might teach us how to live fuller, more examined, and more creative lives.


Some recent critics, notably Beth Blum, have howled in outrage at the attribution of such an intent to artists who all believed, so her doxology goes, that their work should not mean but be. Yet the fact remains that Yeats considered his life to be an experiment in living, and as such worthy of analysis and record ‑ so he surely saw some exemplary value in his experiences. He did not build all that value into a rigid system. He came close enough to that in A Vision but in the end was dismissive of art in which the will was made to do the work of the imagination. However, he believed that the artist could teach people how to reinvent a self ‑ as had Dante and Keats ‑ and in that process embrace their own hidden self or shadow side, as had so many intrepid souls, from Homer to Jung.


One of the many pleasures of this volume is its refusal of chronology. It may end with “Last Words”, but it prefers to create clusters of quotation around specific themes (cycles, places, friends, war), drawn from Yeats early and late, perhaps to demonstrate the tremendous consistency of a man who nonetheless believed in the power of contradiction. Part of its charm is Joe Hassett’s gift for brief, pointed, surprising comparisons ‑ with Joyce and Beckett ‑ which have the effect of amplifying Yeats’s lines; but it engages us also by the ways in which his deft quotations seem to encourage the reader to link a line from the poetry with one remembered from the prose. “Love’s pleasure drives his love away; / the painter’s brush consumes his dreams” may allude to the ways in which every great movement in art exhausts its initial impulses; but it also recalls for some that letter in which a rather tired poet said “our love letters wear out our love”. Yeats was, after all, the man who was told by Oscar Wilde that he had seen fewer men destroyed by a wife or mistress than by a six-month period of efficiently answering letters.


Lucky Yeats, to have missed the age of helpless availability on the internet. But lucky Yeats too, in having an interpreter as relaxed, authoritative and tender as Joseph Hassett.


(Dublin Review of Books)


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