Studies on W.B. Yeats|
Michael Robartes and the Dancer
Helicon and ni Houlihan
1Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921) is an odd combination of ballad-history and epithalamion. Its oddity stems from Yeats's caution about publishing his 1916 poems. These lie like his metaphorical stone amidst marriage-poems written up to three years later. Further, both the ballad-history and the epithalamion breach their own conventions. The former is less faithful to Ireland, and the latter to monogamy than is usually the case. Yet the book's incongruities, both historical and literary, fairly represent the context which engendered 'The Second Coming' and 'A Prayer for My Daughter'.
2Harold Bloom finds a single unifying theme in the collection: "hatred, sexual and political". Elizabeth Butler-Cullingford divides this into "two central preoccupations: sexuality and politics". I would like to add a third tier: aesthetics: or the tension between aesthetics and politics. That tension is played out with reference to the images of women which dominate this phase of the Yeatsian dialectic. Or perhaps the formulation should be "woman as image". I am more indulgent than feminist criticism to Yeats's characterisation of his Muse, his anima, as female. After all, a number of women-poets have their animus. The problem arises where such images impinge on the public domain. In February 1916, Eoin MacNeill, nominal head of the Irish National Volunteers, though shut out from the secret inner council, was alarmed by the rising political temperature. Accordingly, he sent round a circular designed to cool the Volunteers' ardour: "what we call our country is not a poetical abstraction, as some of us ... are sometimes apt to imagine – with the help of our patriotic literature. There is no such person as Caitlin ni Houlihan or Roisin Dubh or the Sean bean Bhocht, who is calling upon us to serve her". Yeats was by no means solely responsible for the fabrication of Cathleen Ni Houlihan. But in Michael Robartes and the Dancer he implicitly accepts some responsibility by revising her image as personified by Maud Gonne. I will discuss this revision later on. For the moment I want to stress that there is now conflict rather than identity between woman as Muse and woman as Ireland. And I want to stress too that the female figures in this book – wife, daughter, dancer, witch, flawed goddess – can also be understood as incarnations of the Muse. They project the poetry's own self image.
3That self image had been shocked and shattered by personal and public trauma. The centre which cannot hold in 'The Second Coming' is partly Yeats's own psychic and imaginative coherence. Hence his newly urgent quest for unities of being, culture, philosophy and form. He was perhaps trying to put poetry back together again. 'A Prayer for My Daughter' was written in 1919. The rhythmic crescendo of the first two stanzas condenses the crisis of the past three years:
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream.
4In the first stanza this Lear-like fury has already assailed a first Une of defence. The allusions to Gregory's wood, roof and haystack suggest social structures that stabilise both the mind and the world. But now the storm threatens the whole structure of Yeatsian consciousness – the tower – and it invades the unconscious "under the arches of the bridge". "The elms above the flooded stream", linked with later transactions between nature and art, may stake out an intermediate zone where balance might be rediscovered.
5I will end this paper by returning to 'A Prayer for My Daughter'. But now I want to consider first the personal, then the public components of Yeats's symbolic storm. Both have their bizarre aspect. It's arguable that the Easter Rising belongs to the history of farce as well as to that of tragedy and romance. And the same might be said of Yeats's love life in 1915-1917. He had asked Maud Gonne to marry him in the summer after John MacBride's execution. He later proposed, that year and the next, to her daughter Iseult. The second proposal was by the way of an ultimatum. When again rejected, Yeats proposed to Georgie Hyde-Lees and was accepted. In courting Iseult Yeats was perhaps auditioning a Muse Mark Two. Michael Robartes and the Dancer rehearses this whole drama, with its artistic as well as emotional significance. The book features an imaginative ménage à quatre or cinq if we include Lady Gregory. In effect, Yeats is rearranging his female images, writing a kind of rarefied soap opera which we might call Helicon.
6Yeats as married man had to face a problem that romantic or courtly poets share with writers of soap opera: namely the dullness of bourgeois wedded bliss. A couple of cancelled lines in 'A Prayer for My Daughter' indicate his total inability to strike a domestic note: "Grant her an even temper and good health / A husband, children and a little wealth". It's not just snobbery that makes it impossible for him to imagine his daughter in a suburban semi. So in the last stanza, as in 'Under Saturn' and the poem 'To be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee', he assimilates marriage by transposing the domestic into the dynastic. Even after his marriage Yeats was briefly in "great gloom" (a verbal link with 'A Prayer for My Daughter') due to his brooding on Iseult, the woman or Muse lost. In 'Owen Aherne and His Dancers', tactfully unpublished until The Tower, he represents Iseult as a "wild bird", his wife as possibly "a cage bird", and his own heart as going mad amid "tempest". Critics have speculated as to how deliberately Mrs. Yeats asserted her primacy on Helicon. Certainly she befriended, and thereby demystified Iseult. At the same time, she mystified herself by becoming the medium between Yeats and his supernatural instructors. To use a mythic scheme other than Yeats's, she united Penelope with Circe and thus put paid to Nausicaa. Yeats opted for Solomon and Sheba as pleasingly exotic masks for their relationship. In the poem 'Solomon and the Witch' he fuses mediumistic powers with both love-making and poem-making. Sheba says: "I suddenly cried out in a strange tongue / Not his, not mine". Her utterance nearly but not quite solves the riddle of the universe and its source is linked with Michael Robartes' pronouncement (in A Vision) that "The marriage bed is the symbol of the solved antinomy". The end of the poem wittily connects sexual invitation with the awareness that other phases of the moon must be undergone, other poems written. Sheba appeals: "O! Solomon! let us try again". Thus as Sheba the witch-Muse, Mrs. Yeats takes a power of which some feminists would approve, and becomes high-priestess of the Order of Yeatsian mysteries.
7As he puts his imaginative house in order, Yeats uses sexual adjustment as a metaphor for the adjustment of words, images and vision in pursuing the "single light, / When oil and wick are burned in one". The frustrations and jealousies on Helicon produce mismatches between "real images" and "imagined images". In 'Towards Break of Day' Yeats is unusually ironical at the expense of his own idealisations. This Freudian scenario has the male speaker dream or fantasise about an inaccessible waterfall, the "Cold stone and water" of Yeats's frustrated desires. But the woman's sleep, her sexual fantasy, is bitterer. And we infer that the speaker falls further short of male than she of female perfection. He is not the "marvellous stag of Arthur" leaping "From Mountain steep to steep". As poems about poetry 'Towards Break of Day' centres more on vision; 'Solomon and the Witch' more on language; 'An Image from a Past Life' more on image. In fact image for Yeats usually straddles the visual and the verbal: impressions in the mind and imagery in poetry. Here rival Muses, versions of Mrs. Yeats and Maud Gonne, compete for the poet's attention. Ironically the male speaker cannot even see the past lover whose image haunts his present partner. But this irony implies that Yeats's imagination remains open to possibilities that he cannot now glimpse. Significantly, the poem itself echoes words and images from earlier poems about Maud Gonne. So her starry ghost has not in fact been exorcised for ever.
8In one sense, however, Sheba has permanently ousted her rival. The occult and Irish Nationalism are no longer aligned. Rather, they are at odds. The tension between aesthetics and politics might also be termed one between Vision and Opinion. Opinion clashes with Yeats's current self-projections as magus: seer or dreamer, Robartes, Solomon, the exultant St. Anthony. It is of course no accident that the book begins with Robartes pronouncing: "Opinion is not worth a rush". This title-poem need not only be read as a dialogue between sexist male and ironical feminist – though, as in 'Towards Break of Day', Yeats's irony seems to half-apologise to real women for the compulsions of his Muse. The poem is also concerned with the relation between opinion, thought or argument and the seamless formal entity of art. This follows from the preface's quotation of Goethe: "The poet needs all philosophy, but he must keep it out of his work". The dancer's "beating breast", "vigorous thigh" and "dreaming eye" (rhythm, syntax, vision) symbolise unity of poem as well as of being: the organic poem. Yeats's Muses have fused into one.
9The dancer's anti-type in Michael Robartes and the Dancer is Constance Markievicz, personifying Opinion. In 1918, Markievicz, Maud Gonne and Kathleen Clarke were interned in Holloway Prison. Sinn Fein leaders had been rounded up on the pretext that they were treasonably plotting with Germany. Perhaps Markievicz, whose actions were more extreme than Gonne's, might less disturbingly represent much that Yeats has come to deplore. Nevertheless, she also masks Gonne: Yeats wrote to his wife that he was writing a poem "on Con to avoid writing one on Maud". And Maud and Con together surely mask Cathleen ni Houlihan. I would like to query a point Elizabeth Butler-Cullingford made at the Yeats Summer School, last year, and one she made this year. Last year she argued that "to call the Republican ethos 'a feminine religion' is to imply that feminity and barbarism are inseparable". In fact, one function of Ireland-as-woman is to exonerate Nationalism from any suspicion of barbarism or agression. As suffering female Ireland must always be the passive, virtuous victim of a male (British) bully. And secondly I want to dispute the notion that Cathleen looks any better because she has enabled some contemporary Northern Republican women. The relation between Nationalism and Feminism has not yet been resolved in Ireland as a whole. Thus Yeats's attitudes to Markievicz and Gonne question a still powerful and possibly disabling myth: certainly a myth that excludes many aspects both of women and Ireland.
10Here I want to make a very broad distinction, though it is far from absolute, between female stereotypes, or archetypes, associated with Catholicism and those which derive from literary and mythic sources – the aisling, the Celtic goddess etc. The former implicate both the family and the holy family. Pearse in choosing Easter Monday for the Rising / Resurrection invoked Madonna and Christ together with mother Ireland. He prepared a scenario of women (mothers, widows, sisters) weeping around the (male) Republican cross. Yeats may allude to this pietà configuration in 'Easter, 1916':
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child...
11It has not always been easy for Catholic nationalist women to escape from these supportive roles. Recently in the North they have sometimes turned feminist or freedom-fighter. But there are limits to this. Family traditions and tribal roles are still heavily inscribed. [Rita Ann Higgins wrote a lament for Mairead Farrell which hailed her as "Daughter of the Falls Road".]
12To get back to Markievicz and Gonne, Anglo-Irish and English by birth. At that period it seems to have been easier for women outside Catholicism to take on an active aura. The exotic outsider, useful as a conspicuous convert, is not subject to tribal trammels. And although converted to Catholicism, each became a Madame or grande dame, not a madonna. These women's image, and self-image, linked Cathleen ni Houlihan with Joan of Arc (or reconstituted Maeve, the warrior-queen). Yeats was reluctandy compelled to recognise Gonne as amazon rather than icon: "beauty like a tightened bow". And she played Joan of Arc to her French lover Millevoy, as she played Ireland / Cathleen to Yeats. It might be argued that active models of Cathleen ni Houlihan legitimise aggression in a different manner from the passive: the heroic feminine complements the pathetic. At the same time, Gonne could see her actions as those of A Servant to the Queen. That is the tide of her autobiography, and the book seems to me to exemplify some ways in which militarism (not only Irish) can be at once justified and cloaked by goddesses or warrior-queens. On the one hand, Maud Gonne speaks as "a free agent", a "soldier in the fight for freedom", a "triumphant" leader. On the other hand, she deflects responsibility by calling herself "one of the little stones" under Cathleen ni Houlihan's feet. Her book is in fact the autobiography of a queen rather than a little stone. And it tells us something about what Yeats, in 'A Prayer for My Daughter', means by arrogance. However, Gonne's image may echo Yeats's reference to the queen's "quiet feet" in 'Red Hanrahan's Song About Ireland', her favourite poem. This is a poem in which the warrior-queen and passive-virgin models of Cathleen come together and collude. There is also an element of sexual sublimation akin to Mangan's. However, Yeats's candle and rood derive not from Irish Catholicism, but from the nineties religion of art.
13Markievicz, though generous and courageous, emerges from the biographies as in part a hyperactive exhibitionist, attracted to uniforms, flags and guns. She organised the Fianna, the boy-Republicans, and joined the Citizen Army in 1916. There was a kind of ideological cross-class romance between her and James Connolly for whom she wrote an elegy, hailing him as her "hero love". Lily Yeats, with local Sligo knowledge, wrote caustically:
Madame Markievicz's madness changed its form when she inherited it. In her father it meant looking for the North Pole in an open boat. Very cooling for him and safe for others. Her followers are said to have been either small boys or drunken dock workers out of work... I don't think any others could have followed her. I would not have followed her across the road.
14The title of 'On a Political Prisoner' also implies a prisoner of politics. And to mitigate Yeats's more savage accusations –"Drinking the foul ditch" etc. – I would like to emphasise the extent to which the poem focuses on states of mind. Markievicz's mind –"a bitter, an abstract thing" – is of course aligned with Maud Gonne's "opinionated mind" in 'A Prayer for My Daughter'. But in that poem the speaker represents his own mind too as having "dried up of late". He fears "to be choked with hate". Thus Yeats is not disputing women's right to think, but questioning the tyranny of dogma, and resisting his own "temptations to controversy". Perhaps, indeed, he scapegoats women for aggression in fact predominantly male – which might be as suspect as wrapping up aggression in female images. But this again has to do with the nexus of woman, Ireland, poetry. In 'On a Political Prisoner', as in the title poem, opinion is contrasted with a more complex form of consciousness and expression. The gull suggests how art, poetry negotiates between mystery and storm:
Sea-borne, or balanced on the air
When first it sprang out of the nest
Upon some lofty rock to stare
Upon the cloudy canopy,
While under its storm-beaten breast
Cried out the hollows of the sea.
15That is one of the significant births or rebirths in Michael Robartes and the Dancer. And perhaps it also wistfully restores Yeats's pristine vision of Ireland; or imagines Ireland as Iseult, not Maud as she is.
16Before considering the 1916 poems, I want to go back behind them to analyse more fully what Yeats meant by Opinion. Opinion is a term long associated with his opposition to the literary tradition of Young Ireland. Whereas that tradition had produced identical patriotic verse – ballads still sung in pubs and clubs – Yeats strove to make Irish poetry a matter of "personal style". In 1914 he spoke at a centenary tribute to Thomas Davis founder of the Young Ireland movement. As ever, he emphasised the inadequate language available to Davis: "worn down to mere abstraction by perpetual mechanical use". As ever too, he contrasted the different motivation of his own movement: "it seemed we had to escape by some great effort the obsession of public life". As public life invaded the artistic sanctuary of the Abbey theatre, Yeats continually brooded in his Journal on the dangers of abstraction and opinion. I'll quote from the Journal, a crucial workshop for Yeats's next decade of writing. "Ireland is ruined by abstraction". "All empty souls tend to extreme opinions". And, as in 'A Prayer for My Daughter', it's clear that Yeats is resisting his own lust to join battle with guns blazing. He notes:
All propositions which set all the truth on one side can only enter rich minds to dislocate and strain.
17And most vividly of all:
Opinion is the enemy of the artist because it arms his uninspired moment against his inspiration... A mechanism is created which may attack life itself.
18So Yeats understood the propagandist urge. And he admitted in his tribute to Davis that Davis's "rhymed lesson-book" was still needed in certain respects. Of course he had taken a leaf out of it himself in 'September 1913'. There he deploys the rhetorical tactics of political nationalism in the interests of cultural nationalism. Eg. the exhortation with roll-call of role-models:
Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed.
For this Edward Fitzgerald died...
19Yeats had, in fact, written the best Young Ireland ballad so far. His three 1916 poems are a further culmination. But in making the Davisite tradition, he simultaneously breaks it He sabotages it from within. He encodes the doubts, the reservations, the revisionist questions about the Rising. Here is a recent successor to Yeats's 'Easter, 1916'. Written by Ian Duhig, the poem is just headed by a question-mark:
Of all my questions still unanswered
concerning the heroical-pathetic Easter Rising
Such as whether England would have kept faith
when World War I was all said and done
Or which Castle cretin sent in Lancers
against well-trained urban guerillas,
Whether Constance Markievicz really shot
Police Constable Michael Lahiff,
Whether Ireland would have been better served
if James Connolly had stayed in bed,
If Captain Bowen-Colthurst (who shot Sheehy-Skeffington)
was mad before he was sent to Ireland
And if so why nobody noticed it
or at least some behavioural giveaways
Or if madness was considered acceptable deportment
for officers of His Majesty's forces,
Or why anybody should have been surprised
that starving Dubliners would loot the shops,
My one, persisting, small ignoble nag –
dismissed impatiently by the committed over years –
But I imagine of some consequence to many at the time
weighing up the prospect of a jaunt to Phoenix Park
Is why exactly was the General Post Office
still open on a Bank Holiday?
20An immediately obvious way in which 'Easter, 1916' breaks with Young Ireland practice is that Yeats did not send it (as he had sent 'September 1913') to a newspaper for instant publication. The poem was privately printed by Clement Shorter and circulated among friends. 'Sixteen Dead Men' and 'The Rose Tree', written in late 1916 and 1917, were not published until 1920. In 1918 Yeats indirectly interpreted this caution in a letter to Shorter, whose wife had also written rebellion-poems including one called 'Sixteen Dead Men'. Yeats explains that he has postponed a lecture he was to have given on war poetry, a lecture in which he would have quoted Dora Sigerson Shorter's poems:
Times are too dangerous for me to encourage men to risks I am not prepared to share or approve.
21(That perhaps indicates how poetry and criticism are bound in with the Rising). Dora Sigerson Shorter's ballads were in fact more likely to inflame passions than Yeats's. They are uncomplicated laments in the habitual Young Ireland modes. Cathleen ni Houlihan makes queenly appearances, the Gaelic male is venerated, John Bull attacked and a heroic fulfilment celebrated. There is even a naive appeal entitled A Catholic to his Ulster Brother.
22'Easter, 1916', on the other hand qualifies the Young Ireland ballad as lament, as commemoration and as vision. To begin with lament. There is of course no doubt about Yeats's grief or about his horror at the executions. By executing fifteen leaders, and later Roger Casement, the military authorities brutally and stupidly overreacted to an uprising which was always "heroical-pathetic" in Ian Duhig's phrase, and in a sense designed to fail or to succeed though the martyrdoms it might occasion. During the next year, public opinion, at first against the Rising, began to slip slowly away from the moorings of constitutional Home Rule. I'll quote from Yeats's letters:
The Dublin tragedy has been a great sorrow and anxiety ... I have little doubt there have been many miscarriages of justice... We have lost the noblest and most fine natured of our young men.
23The very title of the poem, in echoing 'September 1913', apologises to these young men for rhetorically burying "Romantic Ireland". "Vivid faces" too makes amends: vitality set against the receding ascendancy past suggested by:
Eighteenth century houses.
24But there is also distance between these faces and the figure of Yeats. Its sociological dimension is brilliantly captured in his phrase "counter or desk". This anticipates Tom Garvin's conclusion in a recent study that the revolution's ideology was largely generated by marginalised men – in commerce, education, bureaucracies – whose status did not, and could not, match their talents. These men (and the ethos was overwhelmingly male) belonged to a cultural consciousness, a hegemonic tendency, which forged links between the continuing Young Ireland tradition, the Gaelic League and Catholicism. There is critical distance too in the poem's early stages, criticism that prepares for the refrain's famous ambiguity. Firstly, Yeats has struck the low key of personal elegy, rather than the high-key of public lament. Compare: "Did they dare – and did they dare to slay Eoghan Roe O'Neill?" However he reserves direct criticism for those revolutionaries of whom he has direct knowledge: the dead John MacBride and of course the living Markievicz. He allows her charity or socialism, but in a paradox that prefigures "terrible beauty" he combines good-will with ignorant. Ignorant is to be Markievicz's adjective as arrogant is Gonne's.
25As Yeats begins by injecting criticism into lament, so he ends by injecting scepticism into commemoration:
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith...
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
26"Excess of love" is Patrick Pearse's own phrase. And before the Rising Yeats had written: "Pearse is a dangerous man, he has the vertigo of self-sacrifice". The word bewildered just hints at both confusion and derangement. It complicates Yeats's tacit approval for "delirium of the brave" in 'September 1913'. "And what if too hovers ambiguously between rhetorical dismissal of doubt and uneasy query. It is also a kind of criticism, or prolonged qualification, that Yeats takes the whole poem to get to this roll-call of names. Then "I write it out in a verse" may not be quite straightforward: does the self-evident statement intend a monument or plain record? Altogether, 'Easter, 1916' seems as alien to Republican commemorations as Wilfred Owen to the ethos of the Cenotaph in London.
27Primarily, the poem sets forth Yeats's intuition that a world has been swept away: "All changed, changed utterly". But it inhabits that moment of change without leaving the present tense. And "A terrible beauty is born" hardly provides the hoped-for closure of Young Ireland balladry. In 'Easter, 1916' Yeats offers his verse (not art) as a medium for unfolding history. At the same time, he distinguishes his singular voice, his "personal style" from the Young Ireland solidarity of first-person plurals. The first stanza features I and them, they and I.
28'Sixteen Dead Men' and The Rose Tree' contain no first-person singular. These poems interpret, but barely comment on, a historical momentum becoming irresistible. Both are dialogues. In 'Sixteen Dead Men' constitutional Home Rule has no reply to revolutionary martyrdom:
And is their logic to outweigh
MacDonagh's bony thumb?
29In the next stanza Yeats refers to
Those new comrades they have found,
Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone.
30But contrast the note sounded by Dora Sigerson Shorter:
Sixteen dead men! Where do they go?
To join their regiment, where Sarsfield leads.
Wolfe Tone and Emmet, well do they know.
There shall they bivouac, telling great deeds.
31Perhaps Yeats's image of "MacDonagh's bony thumb" hints a distaste for martyrs' relics while admitting their power. In his letter to Clement Shorter, Yeats says: "the old historical passion is at its greatest intensity". As 'Sixteen Dead Men' concentrates on "the boiling pot" in the foreground, 'The Rose Tree' suggests what lit the flame. Pearse and Connolly agree on a powerful ideological and symbolic package. First, the liberty tree of 1798 which links the socialist Connolly with the United Irishman Wolfe Tone. Secondly Pearse's Catholicised blood-sacrifice:
There's nothing but our own red blood
Can make a right Rose Tree.
32Yeats's 1916 poems contrast different styles of politics. One style is that of discussion, negotiation, compromise: "logic", "give and take", "politic words". The second style is that of symbolic action, the activating of symbols: "terrible beauty", Rose Tree, the bone and blood of martyrdom. On another level, these poems contrast styles of writing, and continue Yeats's dialectic between aesthetics and politics. It is a considerable irony that the poet Yeats should be marginalised, upstaged, by this symbolism that has become so dangerously popular. The Rose Tree is not his Rose. Beauty is of course a term we associate with the objectives of Romantic poetry. Yeats registers the point that Pearse and MacDonagh wrote poetry themselves. Pearse "rode our winged horse". MacDonagh "might have won fame in the end". Earlier, in his Journal, Yeats had worried that Opinion might kill MacDonagh's talent:
Within his own mind this mechanical thought is crushing as with an iron roller all that is organic.
33One of his obsessions after the Rising was the idea that he might have done something "to turn those young men in some other direction". At the same time he feared that his own movement had been swept to the sidelines by the Davisite tradition and its allies, by a popular poetry that was not "personal style". He wrote to Lady Gregory:
At the moment I feel that all the work of years has been overturned, all the bringing together of classes, all the freeing of Irish literature and criticism from politics.
34Within Easter, 1916 itself, Opinion conflicts with poetry and with life:
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
35Much quoted is Yeats's earlier criticism of Maud Gonne in his Journal (1909):
Women give themselves to an opinion as if it were some terrible stone doll.
36"Enchanted to a stone" characterises Cathleen ni Houlihan as Medusa. But the Journal contains other allusions to stones in the context of aesthetics and states of mind. For instance Yeats describes his antagonist the lawyer John F. Taylor as a machine with
the dread of leaving the mind open among impressions,
37and as probably thinking
me effeminate... A stone is always stronger, more masculine than a living thing... his logic was but... the apologetics of a moment, instead of being like living thought", i.e. an "intricacy of leaf and twig".
38(Yeats's gender-categories for Opinion and Poetry are interesting here.) Six years later, à propos Sinn Féin and the Lane Gallery, he wrote in a sentence that has both political and poetic implications:
All achievements are won by compromise and these men ... expel from their own mind – by their minds' rigidity – the flowing and existing world.
39In 'Easter, 1916' the form itself points the contrast between "stone" or mechanical thought on the one hand, and the "living stream" and the mind susceptible to its impressions on the other. Young Ireland ballads are notable for their mechanical refrains and other structures of rhetorical repetition: structures appropriate to determinism and determination. All Yeats's 1916 poems employ such devices but in an infinitely more sophisticated way. Yeats perhaps calls attention to this in the one section of 'Easter, 1916' that does not produce the expected refrain. Instead of "a terrible beauty" we come up against the image that denotes mechanism or political and poetic rigidity: "The stone's in the midst of all". That conspicuously obstructive line occurs after Yeats has shown what a "living stream" his own techniques can conjure:
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range.
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change...
40The words live, stream, horse, change, minute, cloud, change places in a tumbling kaleidoscope of rhythm, sound and syntax. The syntactical transpositions of "minute by minute", change, and live are particularly to the point: "Minute by minute they change... Changes minute by minute... Minute by minute they live." The word change in fact participates in one of the many ambiguities of 'Easter, 1916'. One the one hand "All changed, changed utterly" – a structure echoed in the back-to-back appearances of "minute by minute they change" etc. On the other hand, the agents of change are themselves unchanging. 'The Leaders of the Crowd' plays a later visit to this mind-set or set mind. It was written in 1918, a year of many Sinn Fein meetings and continuing competition between Sinn Féiners and Home Rulers. Yeats's oppositions are very obvious, even crude in this poem: tyrannical "certainty" versus the poet's solitary quest. This clears and sets the stage for scenarios in The Tower. And of course Helicon gets a mention – strongly opposed to the "abounding gutter".
41Before ending with reference to 'A Prayer for My Daughter', I would like to connect what I have been saying with "The Second Coming'. And since this seems the right place for it, I want to bring in the French Revolution. Critics can sometimes become hypnotised by the apparatus with which Yeats has surrounded 'The Second Coming'. The preface to Michael Robartes and the Dancer may be a more reliable guide than the Notes. It tells us that Yeats's system or myth means that he "is no longer looking for candlestick and matches but at the objects in the room". At what object in what room is 'The Second Coming' looking? What precisely troubles the poem's sight? What circumstances, as opposed to the geometry of the gyres, have made Yeats sense that he was "receiving the revelation of the character of the next age"? Evidently the First World War, and the intensifying "old historical passion in Ireland" count. (Intensity is a word in the poem). The state of the latter in 1918 involved some military action by the volunteers as well as political advance by Sinn Fein. The 1916 prisoners were still in jail and the Volunteers were assassinating crown agents and RIC Men. Robert Kee concludes that there was little British government counter-violence in that year. But to ignore a majority for self-determination in the 1918 general election was asking for further trouble.
42Since 'The Second Coming' has been more accurately dated we know that its writing preceded the arrival of the Black and Tans and the escalation into the Anglo-Irish war. What seems to have confirmed Yeats's perception of "the growing murderousness of the world" was the Russian Revolution of 1917. He wrote to AE in early 1919:
What I want is that Ireland be kept from giving itself (under the influence of its lunatic faculty of going against everything which it believes England to affirm) to Marxian revolution or Marxian definitions of value in any form. I consider the Marxian criterion of values as in this age the spearhead of materialism and leading to inevitable murder. From that criterion follows the well-known phrase "Can the bourgeois be innocent?"
43In this bicentary year we have heard much about how all subsequent revolutions in some sense invoke the French Revolution. This was so in 1917, with the striking parallel between the fate of the Romanoffs and that of the Bourbons. In the drafts of 'The Second Coming' the words Burke and mob appear, as well as the line "The Germans are now to Russia come". The latter ties in the First World War with the Russian situation. Lenin surrendered territory to the Germans on 3 March 1918. But critical comment on Burke and mob has usually referred them to Burke and Ireland. Eg. Malcolm Brown links the words with the role of French Revolutionary ideas in the 1798 rebellion. And in the contemporary context sees the "rough beast" as anticipating the IRA. It seems more obvious that Burke and mob direct us to Reflections on the Revolution in France. Another cancelled line reads: "And there's no Burke to cry aloud no Pitt". Is Yeats then, in one dimension of this poem, "crying aloud" about the Revolution in Russia?
44A quick flip through the Reflections would certainly have given him much matter for "blood-dimmed tide". And that word ceremony, so evocative of courts: "The ceremony of innocence is drowned". Does that echo Burke's most famous cry: "the age of chivalry is gone – That of sophisters, oeconomists, and calculators, has succeeded." More definitely, perhaps: Burke's Reflections were of course immediately sparked off by a sermon from the dissenting minister Richard Price. Price's enthusiasm for the Revolution led him to compare it with the birth of Christ, and to quote the Nunc Dimittis: "Mine eyes have seen thy salvation". Burke subjects Price's use of this text to the heaviest batteries of his irony. And a couple of words in the passage I'am going to quote also connect with 'The Second Coming'. Speaking of Price, Burke says:
A saint and aposde, who may have revelations of his own ... may incline to think it pious and decorous to compare [the Revolution] with the entrance into the world of the Prince of Peace, proclaimed in a holy temple ... and not long before not worse announced by the voice of angels to the quiet innocence of shepherds.
45Here we have terms central to 'The Second Coming': revelation, innocence, the nativity ironised as antithetical to Revolution. Earlier Burke refers to "the Theban and Thracian Orgies, acted in France". Burke's peculiar horror of the women in the mob may be relevant to the Bacchante figures in 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen' and 'Meditations in Time of Civil War' (also to the "crazy salad" eaten in 'A Prayer for My Daughter'). All Yeats's imagery of "mere anarchy" tends towards Bacchanal revels crazily out of control.
46'The Second Coming' begins as a reflection on order and chaos:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold...
47Such disintegration at the very core of civilisation sounds the alarm of Burkean apocalypse. Later, the poem finds embodiment for the speaker's apprehension in the celebrated "rough beast"; "A shape with lion body and the head of a man". This apparition is introduced in terms that derive from Yeats's experience of the occult and mediumistic trance. However, the beast may have an ironical as well as a mystical aspect. "Slouches towards Bethlehem" depends on ironic incongruity as much as on supernatural awe. Now, I believe that the poem and its beast secrete multiple meanings. Like "a terrible beauty" they leave the future ambiguously open. Indeed, Yeats's purpose in both 'Easter, 1916' and The Second Coming' may be to warn. Nevertheless, the poem's tone as well as content seems to have been partly channelled through Burke. Conor Cruise O'Brien describes Burke's oratory as combining "prophetic feeling for the great forces", "rhetorical exaggeration", and a "peculiar kind of furious irony".
48In 'If I Were Four and Twenty', a decidedly Burkean work contemporary with The Second Coming', Yeats uses the words beast and loose and evokes early Christianity, when attacking mechanical Marxist thought:
Logic is loose again, as once in Calvin and Knox ... or in Christianity itself in the first raw centuries and because it must always draw its deductions from what any dolt can understand, the wild beast cannot but destroy mysterious life.
49That echoes Yeats on Opinion and Art ten years earlier in his Journal: "A mechanism is created which may attack life itself. So broadly speaking, Marxist logic – a "levelling wind" – has joined Irish Opinion as the antagonist of life and of Yeats's poetry. 'The Second Coming' might even be read as a pre-emptive strike against Marxist criticism of Yeats, even a troubled prophecy of Terry Eagleton addressing the Yeats Summer School.
50'A Prayer for My Daughter' builds up an alternative, healing vision. The poem is an extraordinary synthesis which again has an aesthetic as well as a social dimension. As I said earlier, Yeats is putting poetry together again. His daughter's birth is the most positive birth in this book of nativities. It assuages the poem's earlier vision of "the future years ... Dancing to a frenzied drum" – Thracian and Theban orgies once more. Her desired qualities of kindness and rootedness conflate mother, daughter and Lady Gregory. Opposing this trio of Muses are Maud and Iseult Gonne, the former associated with "an old bellows full of angry wind", the storm of Opinion, a compound of uncontrolled sound – scream, drum – and violence. In contrast, the Wordsworthian linnet invokes the lyric poem. The woman's thoughts are conceived as:
... dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound
51a line which does what it says. "Magnanimity" – great-minded or souled – contrasts with narrowing "arrogance and hatred". [In a sentence relevant to 'A Prayer for My Daughter' Yeats describes Maud Gonne's state in September 1917 as "a joyous and self-forgetting condition of political hate the like of which I have not yet encountered".] On the social level of the poem Yeats's marriage, parenthood and new house reinstate stabilities which might help against the storm. But this rootedness also has implications for Yeats's aesthetic. The "green laurel" complements the linnet as an image for poetry.
52In the Irish poetic context, Yeats might be preferring – as indeed he did – William Allingham to Thomas Davis. But there is also an English poetic context. Yeats is recruiting literary allies from the English Romantic tradition. The poem conflates images from Wordsworth and Coleridge (Both of these poets, indeed, had to convalesce from the French Revolution.) It's strange for Yeats to depend on values that derive from an English subjectivity that he had attacked. But at the moment Wordsworth's linnet or Lucy seems a more attractive Muse than Helen. But Yeats's developed vision of "radical innocence" owes most to Coleridge's 'Dejection' Ode (more than to 'Frost at Midnight' despite the two poets figuring as unlikely babysitters). A number of words and concepts are common to both poems: eg. scream and frenzy, Coleridge finding a remedy for dejection, as Yeats for "great gloom":
From the soul itself must issue forth
A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud
Enveloping the earth...
A sweet and potent music of its own birth
Of all sweet sounds the life and element.
53Coleridge also refers to "this beautiful and beauty-making power". Compare Yeats's "magnanimities of sound" and soul that learns that it is
54Yeats seems to be refreshing his dried-up mind from the original sources of Romantic feeling, feeling nurtured by Nature. Thus he reconceives his poetry as linnet and leaf, "natural kindness", as opposed to the unnatural unbalancing beauty of goddesses and queens. This restores artistic wholeness and an organic body politic. And it arms poetry against Opinion:
If there's no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.
55However, Yeats hasn't gone completely mushy. If the second last stanza reaffirms poetry as soul, or spirit, the last stanza reaffirms it as form. This also brings the poem back to Ireland, to Coole and the Tower. On one level, the speaker desires for his daughter, and for infant Ireland perhaps, the coherent civilisation that Coole symbolises. At another level, Coole also symbolises poetic form: the custom of literary tradition, the ceremony of technique. A highly concentrated climax adjusts the language of the opening crescendo, of "The Second Coming', of the 1916 poems. In an optimistic version of birth and future, beauty is separated from terror, innocence from murder. Yeats also rallies all his resources by uniting both Art and Nature against Opinion, against
... the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
56Perhaps still more positive is the poem's delight in its own power to name, to arrive at new definitions, to fuse word and image in vision:
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.