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.

A Prayer for Old Age


GOD guard me from those thoughts men think

In the mind alone;

He that sings a lasting song

Thinks in a marrow-bone;

From all that makes a wise old man
That can be praised of all;
0 what am I that I should not seem
For the song’s sake a fool?

I pray-for fashion’s word is out
And prayer comes round again
That I may seem, though I die old,
A foolish, passionate man.
Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats

Here’s another Yeats’ poem that I didn’t really appreciate until recently, perhaps because old age didn’t seem too relevant until now. I suspect, though, that what Yeats seeks in all of his poems are eternal values that can guide our entire life.

Although it is common for Romantic poets to emphasize intuition over logic, to emphasize heart over mind, there does seem to be a certain irony in a man who has devoted his life to letters condemning men whose thoughts are ‘in the mind alone."

I suspect, though, that this is an ambivalence that haunts many of us who enjoy studying ideas and reading literature. Too often literature seems a form of escape rather than a solution to lifeâs problems. Itâs easier to read a romantic novel than it is to build real love in your life. Itâs certainly easier to analyze politics than it is to effect real change in our society. No matter how many environmental books you read, the environment continues to degrade.

As a literature teacher, I was often accused of promoting this. Many students found literature irrelevant, and it was extremely difficult to show them the relevance if they didn’t already see it. Despite my occasional sarcastic remarks that I would hate to marry a person who couldnât even understand the motivation for a character in a novel, too often I felt unable to show students how these ideas were relevant to their lives.

Nor am I denying that reading for escapism isn’t sometimes necessary. My best friend sent me a copy of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 to read while I was stationed in Vietnam. Although this later became one of my favorite 20th century novels, I could barely get through two chapters. Instead, I repeatedly read passages from the Rubiat of Omar Khayyam, a work I haven’t read since.

Still, I would argue that the major goal of reading and thinking should be to empower your life, not avoid it. Reading and thinking should enrich your life, make you happier, and give you the understanding you need to cope with an increasingly complex world. They should unite you with your world, not alienate you from it.

Most of all, though, they should create a passion for life that, no matter how foolish it may appear to others, provides meaning to your life.


‘In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in
political terms!–THOMAS MANN

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But 0 that I were young again
And held her in my arms!
Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats

After a week spent living in the moment and trying to keep the little guy laughing, not crying, I’m finding it difficult to suddenly switch back to "reality."

Thus, I was happy to find links to Pretty Faces Get Men’s Brains Going: Study at wood s lot

Simply put, if you have to start thinking again, it’s much easier to start thinking about girls than it is to think about Afghanistan, the Florida ballot, or, particularly, the airplane crash in New York that greeted me when I re-encountered the "real world" by turning on the television this morning.

A week taking care of a one-year-old didn’t actually make me think about girls, but it did make me think about what it means to be young again.

And for a short while, I could recapture the wonder of seeing things in a new light when we spent fifteen minutes walking ten feet while picking up and discarding fallen leaves in order to find the "perfect" leaf, perfect, at least, until we decided to drop it ten minutes later because we wanted "up." Nothing’s too precious to let go of in a new moment.

What a wonder this world is when you can see it in new ways, whether itâs from the top of a slide sitting next to a child who finds the descent to earth terrifying, even if it is only five feet away, or from a swing, where the world seems in constant motion.

Up close and personal, the world is a miraculous place if we allow it to be.

A Mystical Brotherhood

Mt. Hood from Twin Lakes Trail

When I first encountered W.B. Yeats in the 60’s I dismissed his early pastoral poetry as naive and focused entirely on his later poems like Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop or A Dialogue of Self and Soul. Upon rereading his poetry lately, though, I can certainly see the appeal of these early pre-Raphaelite poems.

Ah, how I long for the good old days, prior to September 11th, prior, even, to the 20th Century when Yeats was able to write:

OUT WORN heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.
Your mother Eire is always young,
Dew ever shining and twilight grey;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.
Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;
And God stands winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the grey twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.
W.B.Yeats from Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats

How delightful, indeed, to be able to escape the bonds of "wrong and right," not to have to worry about the morality or immorality of our country’s retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan, to find jo