Yeats’ Heart and Soul

Originally I had planned on discussing Yeats’ “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” but quickly realized that there was far more symbolism in that poem than I was willing to discuss in a single day. Instead, I turned to the Yeats’ poem I have loved the longest, one that, like “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” includes the theme of transcendence:

Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.’

‘Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.

‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.

This poem is part of “Words for Music Perhaps,” a sequence of twenty-five poems focused on Crazy Jane, who ain’t quite as crazy as The Bishop would have you believe. The first poem in the sequence, “Crazy Jane and the Bishop,” provides important background to this poem. In that poem the Bishop had banished Jane’s lover Jack the Journeyman because he was a “coxcomb.” Jane’s retorts that the bishop Jack stood straight as a birch tree while the Bishop had “heron’s hunch upon his back” though, implying that Jack was certainly more of a man than the Bishop could ever hope to be.

Years later, the Bishop meets Crazy Jane on the road and argues that now that she’s old and about to die, she must surely be ready to give up lustful desire, that “foul sty,” and live in God’s holy mansion. It’s understandable, he implies, that a young person could be overcome by desire, but surely an older person will be ready to give up bodily desire for the chance of an everlasting life in heaven.

Not Crazy Jane, though, for she believes that “fair and foul are near of kin.” Life can’t be devoted just to the soul or just to the body. There’s no denying that her friends have died, but they, unlike the Bishop, knew all of life, both “bodily lowliness” and “the heart’s pride.” To prove her point, Crazy Jane points out that Love fulfills itself with precisely the bodily organs that rid the body of wastes.

God himself has ordained it by the very way he has designed mankind. In the end, nothing can be “sole or whole” that has not been first torn apart or suffered. Bodily suffering is an essential part of life and is our only hope for true salvation. The body represents the passion that is so essential in Yeats’ philosophy.

5 thoughts on “Yeats’ Heart and Soul”

  1. Do you know exactly where Yeats came up with the idea for the character of Crazy Jane? I can make my own educated guesses, but maybe you’ve studied or researched the topic–either specific mythologies that influenced Yeats’s conception of Crazy Jane or larger archetypes to which she belongs. Thanks!

  2. Unfortunately I don’t know, and that question never came up in the courses where we discussed these poems.

    It’s an interesting question. I have recently purchased two volumes of discussion on Yeats. I will have a quick look at them to see if they discuss this.

    However, I suspect that you’ll find the answer, if there is one, long before I do.

  3. Your exposition of the poem is spot on. I’ve known and liked the “Crazy Jane” poems for a long time. The last two lines of “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop” came to my mind the other day. When I recalled those lines, their meaning, which I hadn’t fully grasped before, hit me with a sort of rush. That’s why I was browsing Yeats tonight. The couplet’s meaning is just as you express it, and it is the heart of the poem — perhaps the heart of wisdom.

  4. But Love has pitched his mansion in
    The place of excrement;
    For nothing can be sole or whole
    That has not been rent.

    An uncomfortable yet very apt truism. Was not Golgotha a rubbish dump?

  5. Apt truism indeed! True wisdom is uncomfortable, always “rents” the heart, and thrives in “The place of excrement” where the mansion is most prevalent.

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