Yeats Odds and Ends

I felt complimented, or perhaps that’s complemented, that Visible Darkness chose to comment on what I had written about Yeats in the last few days. I’ve always felt that differing opinions, at least well-informed, differing opinions, are a vital part of learning. That’s one of the reasons I invited Diane to join me on commenting on various authors.

That said, I think Visible Darkness sees Yeats from a slightly different perspective than I do. Part of this difference probably comes from where each of us was originally taught. Visible Darkness rightly points out that Yeats has to be seen as link between the Victorian poetry and modern poetry. I was taught at the U.W. under Roethke’s influence, though, and it’s obvious Roethke saw himself as a direct descendent of Yeats. Yeats was seen as a link from past romanticism to modern romanticism. Modern (well, at least moderately modern), confessional poets like Roethke were obviously influenced by Yeats, though they seemed to owe less to older romantic poets like Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, or Shelley.

Visible Darkness also saw the Tower symbol in a different light than I did, and I found his explanation of art practiced for the sake of art and art as an exploration of life itself enlightening.

I still, however, tend to see the tower as a symbol of “reason,” reason as opposed to “intuition.” The rational thinking of scientists and scholars is continually opposed to the inspiration or intuition of the artist in Yeats’ poetry, as it was in almost all forms of romanticism. The tower is a symbol I will need to re-examine and come back to later. Maybe next time around I’ll argue that the tower symbolizes Yeats’ view that art should be practiced as an act of life, not removed from the world.

I have to admit that scholarship at times can lead to new insight into a poet’s work. For instance, I wish I had read Diane’s biographical information about Plath’s father before I discussed the symbolism of the bees last week. Generally, though, my discussion of poems tends to reflect the fact that I took almost all my poetry classes from practicing poets, not from critics. None of those classes required much scholarship, per se, but they did demand a close reading of the poems themselves and an attempt to relate them to your own views. One of my favorite quotes from those days was David Waggoner’s reply when a new student would ask what a poem “meant.” (This is a paraphrase of what he said. I wouldn’t want to offend any Poetry Gods by misquoting David.) People don’t understand their father, their mother, or their brother, but they have to understand a poem. In other words, a poem is a living thing; you don’t have to understand it completely to appreciate and admire it. I treat every poem I meet that way.

Maybe that’s why I particularly like this poem by Yeats:


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.

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

And, no, my head isn’t bald, nor is it particularly respectable, a common complaint among respectable ex-students.

I also tend to most admire poems that follow Yeats’ “five/ That make the Muses sing.”


WHAT if I bade you leave
The cavern of the mind?
There’s better exercise
In the sunlight and wind.

I never bade you go
To Moscow or to Rome.
Renounce that drudgery,
Call the Muses home.

Seek those images
That constitute the wild
The lion and the virgin,
The harlot and the child.

Find in middle air
An eagle on the wing,
Recognise the five
That make the Muses sing.

Somehow “The Hawk” reminds me of that great American romantic poet, Walt Whitman, whose “yawp” still transcends the ages:


‘CALL down the hawk from the air;
Let him be hooded or caged
Till the yellow eye has grown mild,
For larder and spit are bare,
The old cook enraged,
The scullion gone wild.’

‘I will not be clapped in a hood,
Nor a cage, nor alight upon wrist,
Now I have learnt to be proud
Hovering over the wood
In the broken mist
Or tumbling cloud.’

‘What tumbling cloud did you cleave,
Yellow-eyed hawk of the mind,
Last evening? that I, who had sat
Dumbfounded before a knave,
Should give to my friend
A pretence of wit.’

And when you get my age, a poem like “The Wheel” seems more relevant than it did when I was in college.

The Wheel

THROUGH winter-time we call on spring,
And through the spring on summer call,
And when abounding hedges ring
Declare that winter’s best of all;
And after that there’s nothing good
Because the spring-time has not come
Nor know that what disturbs our blood
Is but its longing for the tomb.