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OpenEdition Books

Studies on W.B. Yeats

Jacqueline Genet

Yeats's Maturity: The Poems of The Tower (1928)

A. Norman Jeffares

Texte intégral

1It is customary for critics to select The Tower of 1928 as the volume which contains the great poems of Yeats's maturity. The volume consists of thirty poems, some of which had been previously published, in Seven Poems and a Fragment (1922), The Cat and the Moon (1924) and October Blast (1927). In The Tower, as the volume is presented in Collected Poems (1933), Fragments, probably written in 1931, is added, and The Hero, the Girl and the Fool is replaced by The Fool by the Roadside.

2The poems, with the exceptions of 'The New Faces' of 1912 and 'Owen Aherne and his Dancers' of 1917, were written between 1920 and 1927 and these seven years encompassed great achievement, a flowering in Yeats's life.

3Married in 1917, he now had a daughter, Anne Butler Yeats, born in 1919, a son, Michael Buder Yeats, born in 1921, so that the Yeats line would continue, something that had come to mean a lot to him, particularly when he was writing his autobiographies and depicting his ancestry in such poems as the 'Introductory Lines' to Responsibilities (1914). He had his tower in the West of Ireland, Ballylee Castle, which he called Thoor Ballylee; he had bought it for £ 35 in 1917 and restored it into a summer residence. When he returned to Ireland from Oxford it was to own and occupy the kind of house in Dublin that his father might have graced had the artist been successful in the way of his contemporaries, the lawyers, doctors and businessmen who matched the solidity of the Georgian redbrick town houses of Merrion Square with their own comfortable bourgeois way of living. Yeats's father had been delighted when his son acquired the tower. John Butler Yeats had been compelled to sell the family lands at Thomastown in Co. Kildare and the money had immediately been swallowed up by repayment of debts; he had earlier sold a family house in Dorset Street in Dublin. He was not, by nature, a man born to keep house and land, let alone buy a house, but, with an ex-landlord's sense of the joy of owing both a house and land, he now wrote to congratulate his poet son on his acquisition, his actual ownership of a property.

4Yeats, established in 82 Merrion Square in 1922, became an establishment figure in the new Ireland, for he was appointed to the Senate of the Irish Free State, a position not without risk; like other Senators he had a detective to protect him in the Civil War, his windows had bullets through them, and at one stage of the Civil War he and his family were isolated in the tower in Galway in the West of Ireland, something he captured so graphically in "The Stare's Nest by the Window':

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
Yet no clear fact to be discerned.

5He took his Senatorship very seriously, as you will see if you read his contributions to the debates of the Upper House and, in particular, his telling report on the activities of the committee he chaired which was responsible for the new and aesthetically elegant Irish coinage. But while he continued to play his part in the creation of the new Irish State – we are all "like coral insects", he wrote to a friend, describing the work of the Senate – his standing in the world outside Ireland was recognized by the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

6Since his marriage, when his wife George began automatic writing, Yeats was preoccupied by the strange ideas that writing produced. In part, the material echoed some of the thoughts he had put down earlier in the prose of Per Arnica Silentia Lunae, completed in 1917, which he described to his father as "a little philosophical book, a kind of prose backing to my poetry". Later he called it An Alphabet, "part of a religious system more or less logically worked out"; writing it had given him "a new framework and new patterns". Some of these "philosophical" ideas had found expression in the difficult poems 'Ego Dominus Tuus' and "The Phases of the Moon'. He had decided to spend the rest of his life interpreting the material, but the communicators sensibly enough told him not to: "We have come to give you metaphors for poetry" was their message.

7And poetry flowed out of Yeats's new self confidence. Many had thought him finished in 1908 when the eight volumes of his Collected Works appeared and he, too, had wondered at times if his inspiration had dried up. The often puzzled, often despairing, often overly-analytic man who reveals himself in the diaries written before his marriage now understood more of his own life through the automatic writing which answered queries about his personal life, about, in particular, his relations with Maud Gonne, Olivia Shakespear, Mabel Dickinson and Iseult Gonne, as well, of course, as dealing with the process of history and the development of human personality.

8His verse developed a new kind of eloquence; just as he thought "The Lake Isle of Innisfree' was the first poem to create his own kind of music, so such poems as 'Sailing to Byzantium' have a uniquely mature tone. These are poems written with assurance, spontaneous utterance achieved by painstaking toil, the rehearsal of sounds, the rejection of words, lines, stanzas even. 'Sailing to Byzantium' is linked, like many of these poems, to A Vision which provided a scaffolding – in terms of history or personality –allowing the poet to place his masonry within an architectonic response to human life.

9Life is the matter of these poems. 'Sailing to Byzantium' was triggered off when the sixty-one-year-old poet saw a pair of lovers in each other's arms. The present. He has his past, but now the question is how is he to face the future – one of the preoccupations of his life: "a preparation for what never happens", he once wrote. The present crowds in upon him in its vibrating sensuality. From these lovers his attention turns to the birds singing in the trees, generative yet dying generations, the contradiction of death in life. The vigour of giving life presents itself in other terms; the salmon leaping upstream at Leixlip or Galway in all their dynamic strength, the uncoiling power of the Irish hero Cuchulain's salmon leap suggested by the symbolism; the mackerel teeming in their profligate profusion around the Irish shores. Fish, flesh or fowl – a nice recapturing of the salmon, the mackerel; the fleshy human lovers; the fowls of the air in the trees – commend all summer long, in the season of physical heat, whatever is begotten in heat, is born and dies. It is sensual music in which all neglect monuments of unageing intellect; it is the great chime of physical nature. An early MS. version read not "That is no country for old men" but "This is no country for old men". The sensual music prepares us for what is to come: its opposite.

10Yeats found contraries in Blake, who proclaimed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell "that without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human Existence". The soul arrives into the poem to counterbalance the sensual music, to make the aged man more than a paltry thing; it too can sing.

11At this point we realize the poem is not only a matter of contraries. Old men and the young have been contrasted from the start. But the poem contains trebling: the young human lovers, the birds, the fish: whatever is begotten, born and dies. And there is also the doubling of repetition: all summer long all neglect monuments of unageing intellect. Immediately comes the counter-pointing: an aged man. The tattered coat upon a stick is echoed by "every tatter in its mortal dress". The soul can clap its hands and sing, and louder sing. Here the repetition of and sing is intensified by the interposition of louder. The singing school is swept on in studying and the ""monuments of unageing intellect" neglected by the sensual lovers: birds and fish of Ireland – fish, flesh or fowl –are now counterpointed by the "monuments of its own magnificence".

12We realize in the third stanza why the poem opened with the word That – "That is no country for old men" – for the poet has

... sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

13He has arrived; he looks back at the Ireland he has left behind, and can say (dismissively?) "That is no country for old men".

14It is perhaps worth recording that Yeats in the process of writing the poem abandoned several lines and stanzas dealing with the voyager, the transition from Ireland to Byzantium. Here is one fine description of the voyage:

I therefore travel to Byzantium
Among these sunbrown pleasant mariners
Another dozen days and we shall come
Under the jetty and the marble stair.

15The mariners too are singing:

Where all is ancient, singing at the oars
That I may look in the great church's dome
On gold embedded saints and emperors
After the mirroring waters and the foam
Where the dark fins a moment rise
Of fish that carry souls to paradise.

16The third stanza uses its repetition, again to intensify. The sages standing in "God's holy fire" are bidden to come from "the holy fire". The mosaic in the wall is gold, and this word will be caught up in the next stanza.

17This stanza, like the first and second, is concerned with singing: the sages are to be the singing masters of the poet's soul, that soul that entered the second stanza. His heart is to be consumed. We realise that the begotten, born and dies of the first stanza has shifted; we are now considering human age as being born, begetting and dying. His heart is sick with desire, sick because he is aged; the heart is fastened to a dying animal. He seeks the artifice of eternity instead. And the fourth stanza moves the train of thought rapidly forward, assuming that eternity is not out of nature, but that the poet will not take his next bodily form from any natural thing. The echo of nature in natural prepares us for the next repetition, bodily form repeated as such a form. Then gold is repeated in "hammered gold and gold enamelling"; contrast is emphasized by the drowsy Emperor being kept awake; the gold is repeated in the golden bough on which the golden bird is set to sing, again a key word, and to sing of the underlying tripartite division of life: "what is past, or passing, or to come".

18The way in which the thoughts of the poem are tied together by contrasts, parallels, and repetitions, by double and treble entities, is masterly. Though to be surpassed later in the intricacy of 'Byzantium' in The Winding Stair (1933). This is Yeats in charge of his medium, and in charge of his message as well, though it is no easy message to convey: inevitably his concept of eternity returns to the beginning – the young in one another's arms – just as his last cry in 'Politics' was " O that I was young again / And held her in my arms".

19In the midst of the achievement comes the questioning: it is not the sudden tragic downturn of Fortune's wheel in The Tower but the pull between delight in imagination, the soaring imagination "excited, passionate, fantastical", and rage at the decrepitude of the ageing body. This allows an incursion in the poem's second section into descriptions of people associated in the poet's mind with the area around the tower: Mrs. French, about whom he read in Barrington's Memoirs; Mary Hynes, the local beauty celebrated by the blind Irish poet Antony Raftery; Hanrahan whom he had created in his own stories of the nineties, The Secret Rose; an earlier bankrupt owner of the tower. All these people are asked if they, too, raged against old age like the poet. The section ends with an account of the imagination and reverts to a thought of Maud Gonne:

Does the imagination dwell the most
Upon a woman won or woman lost?
If on the lost, admit you turned aside
From a great labyrinth out of pride,
Cowardice, some silly ever-subtle thought
Or anything called conscience once...

20That memory can put the sun under eclipse, blot the day out.

21The third section reverts to an older poem 'The Fisherman', written in 1914, in which he had described the dream of writing for an ideal "wise and simple" man:

The freckled man who goes
To a grey place on a hill
In grey Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies

22He then contrasted this dream with the reality of writing for Ireland:

The beating down of the wise
And great art beaten down.

23'The Tower' draws upon Yeats's boyhood in its first section

...when with rod and fly,
Or the humbler worm, I climbed Ben Bulben's back
And had the livelong summer day to spend

24contrasting this physical energy and the timeless summer of youth (like 'Sailing to Byzantium's "all summer long" in which the delights of physical life were sung) with his being, in his old age, like a dog with a kettle tied to its tail. Now he intends to write his will: his beneficiaries will be

...upstanding men
That climb the streams until
The fountain leap, and at dawn
Drop their cast at the side
Of dripping stone.

25But what has he got to leave them? Pride (translated into the ethos of his protestant background this is not a theological sin but self-respect), which he describes in various effective images ending with the song of the dying swan, fixing its eye upon a fading gleam. The idea of death nearing him leads to an emphasis upon the youth of his legatees with an implied backward glance at his own youthful energy; he leaves both faith and pride

To young upstanding men
Climbing the mountain-side,
That under bursting dawn
They may drop a fly;
Being of that metal made
Till it was broken by
This sedentary trade.

26He will make his soul, reducing his disabilities of body, blood, mind, or loss of friends and beauty, until, echoing the fading gleam where the dying swam floats,

... out upon a long
Last reach of glittering stream,

27all these tribulations

Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades,
Or a bird's sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.

28The 'Meditations in Time of Civil War' begin with a question about the effect of inherited glory; greatness may give way once ancestral houses are created:

The sweetness that all longed for night and day
The gentleness none there had ever known...

29The second poem, 'My House', describes the tower, where his

Bodily heirs may find,
To exalt a lonely mind,
Befitting emblems of adversity.

30After the description of Sato's Japanese sword in 'My Table' the poet reverts to his descendants in the fourth poem, brooding on whether these descendants will continue the poet's vigour of mind, something he inherited from his old fathers. If they do not, he does not care if the tower reverts to ruin, for the stones will remain a monument to him and to Lady Gregory and his wife. The fifth and sixth poems record most sensitively the poet's reaction to participants in the Civil War – whom he envies for their activity, and their disregard for death – and to the possibility of the brutalities that revolution and civil war engender being overcome by love. The final poem returns, after a vision of "phantoms of Hatred and the Heart's Fullness and of the Coming Emptiness", to his ceaseless pondering upon his own life: could he have proved his worth "In something that all others understand or share"? But that would have been no answer:

... The abstract joy,
The half-read wisdom of daemonic images
Suffice the ageing man as once the growing boy.

31'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen' is another passionate musing upon public life, full of a complex mixture of mockery, fatalism, a realisation of the madness of earlier dreams of general amelioration, the poem ending in the imagery of evil – Herodias' daughters and the evil goings-on of witchcraft in Kilkenny. This is a disturbing poem, taking the sacking of Athens and the destruction of the ancient image on the Acropolis, the sacred olive tree, as model for later barbarism. In it Yeats shows his ability to condense agony, to put a question and answer it:

But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes
What more is there to say?

32During the period when he was writing the poems in The Tower Yeats was developing new intellectual interests. As a fervent young nationalist he had steeped himself – after his early poetry which dealt with local places and legends in Irish writing – in Gaelic material reached through translations, and poured it into the moulds of Pre-Raphaelitism gradually adding to the hot metal magical ingredients, drawn from his occult studies, as well as his own brand of vague, twilit romantic melancholia. But the Irish writers who wrote in English were given stiff testing and many were rejected. He excluded Swift; among nineteenth-century Irish writers he seems only to have read the early Lever, for instance, and he rejected firmly, anyway, stage-Irish material of the Lever kind, adventuring among writings which could not have been generally popular in West-British houses, those of Carleton and Griffin. The Anglo-Irish writers who were largely outside his approval had found their audience in England rather than in Ireland. We see his particular commitment to Irish literature in the lists he drew up in the nineties of best basic Irish books.

33There had been a return to folk-lore under the aegis of Lady Gregory in the late eighteen-nineties but in his middle period Yeats was largely concerned with bringing new Irish drama into being on the Abbey Stage. He did, however, spend an increasing amount of time in England, and we find him reading Chaucer and Spenser and keeping up his interest in Shakespeare – particularly, of course, in Richard the Second, a character in whom he and his father were deeply interested. The middle period was one of visiting country houses, receiving his Civil List pension in 1910 and refusing a knighthood in 1915 to avoid any nationalist saying "only for a ribbon he left us".

34Yeats's interest in occultism, so intimately connected with the Order of the Golden Dawn, probably peaked around the turn of the century (at the time of the battles with MacGregor Mathers and Aleister Crowley); spiritualism began to take hold of his attention, witness the essay Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Deserted Places of 1914.

35His interests in human personality and in history, in the other world and in possible survival of personality after death were caught up in the excitement of writing A Vision. And this, of course, had stimulated earlier poems, "The Double Vision of Michael Robartes', 'Demon and Beast', and, of course, "The Second Coming'. In The Tower we find more poems related to the ideas of A Vision. 'Leda and the Swan' contemplates the union of God and human. He had thought that after the individualist demagogue movement founded by Thomas Hobbes, the English utilitarian, and popularised by the Encyclopaedists and the French Revolution the soil was "so exhausted that it cannot grow that crop again for centuries" (compare his attack on Locke in 'Fragments') and he then thought "nothing is now possible but some movement, or birth from above, preceded by some violent annunciation". He began to play with the idea of Leda and the Swan "for metaphor", but, as he wrote, bird and lady "took such possession of the scene that all politics went out of it". So the poem encapsulates the result of this union in terms of the Greek tradition of the fall of Troy:

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
and Agamemnon dead.

36More elaborate are 'Two Songs from a Play' with their emphasis on the historical gyres. They come from Yeats's play Resurrection; they suggest that Christianity terminated one 2,000 year period of history and ushered in the start of another era with radical violence: civilization reverses itself. This is the matter of 'The Second Coming' expanded: the parallel of Dionysus, Greek fertility god, is drawn; the muses sing of Magnus Annus because they see the death and rebirth of the god as a recurring ritual. The poem is linked to Virgil's messianic Eclogue and to Shelley's Hellas, with the recurrence of Troy. So Astraea and Spica, Athena and Dionysus are linked to Mary and Jesus. And the poem has echoes of Proclus, the Neo-Platonic philosopher, as well as the New Testament. Yeats anticipated modem technology by being a synthesiser.

37While A Vision pulled together his ideas about historical change there was a new development. In his third period – if we take that as beginning after his marriage in 1917 – Yeats added to his early interest in Irish literature and to his middle-aged study of English authors an awareness of his own tradition. He came from a line of professional people, like so many Irish writers, people as Swift put it of the middling condition, "downstarts" as Shaw called his family (and Joyce could have called his) who had richer relatives and who had, many of them, to earn a living by their writing. Now Yeats read Swift, Berkeley, Burke, Goldsmith, Grattan, whom he had brushed aside in his days as a cultural nationalist They now became models in their direct speech for his own Senate speeches: they were a prop for his attitudes. No petty people, he called them, and claimed they had created most of the modern literature of Ireland, "the best of its political intelligence". They gave him sanction for investigating his own kind of Irishness. They became his audience, not the imaginary fisherman. The public man, however, could not progress but by autobiographical accounts of moods and reveries, a passionate contemplation of his own nature which led to his questioning of life. In 'Among School Children', for instance, the "sixty-year-old smiling public man", visiting St. Otteran's School in Waterford and approving its use of the Montessori system, dreams of Maud Gonne as a child. His heart is "driven wild" and he embarks upon a contemplation of old age, and ends with the affirmation and characteristically treble question

O chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole,
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

38This strain of autobiography when blended with biography extended to contemplation of friends, W.T. Horton, Florence Farr, MacGregor Mathers, in a poem written in Oxford in a moment "of exaltation", the atmospheric 'All Souls' Night', and this new ability to write of his own experiences extended into the love poems. There is the very revealing 'Owen Aherne and his Dancers', the two parts of which were written in four and seven days respectively, after Yeats's marriage (and not published at the time for obvious reasons since it shows his love of Iseult Gonne intruding upon his marriage). Two days after the second poem was completed Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory that "two days ago" he was in the deepest gloom – the misery had produced the two poems of 'Owen Aherne and his Dancers' – he was telling himself he had betrayed three people. Then the automatic writing began, and he became extremely happy.

39Another poem written earlier and withheld was 'The New Faces', a pondering upon the capacity of Robert Gregory and his wife as successors in Coole to Lady Gregory, a problem which had not to be faced, since Robert Gregory died in action in 1918, and was then praised in the Elegies 'In Memory of Major Robert Gregory', 'Shepherd and Goatherd', and 'An Irish Airman foresees his Death'. Two of them strike a note of dignity, of appreciation of qualities Yeats knew he did not himself possess yet could capture so convincingly in his contemplation of Robert Gregory's life.

40The poems of A Man Young and Old describe in I and II, and probably in VI also, his love for Maud Gonne, while III and V relate to Olivia Shakespear, IV refers to Iseult Gonne, while VII, VIII and IX are possibly more generalized. In these poems the heart has a new strength as an image; this began with the intensity of 'Owen Aherne and his Dancers' where the poet's heart goes mad with strain, then adopts a detached sardonic note. This same vitality erupts into the reverie, the dream in 'Among School Children' when the poet wonders if Maud Gonne as a child was like the school children who stare in momentary wonder on that sixty-year-old smiling public man, "And thereupon my heart is driven wild". The same feeling of poignant reality marks the use of the word heart in A Man Young and Old, I (where Maud Gonne's heart is of stone), II, IV and V.

41There is the jeux d'esprit of 'The Three Monuments'; there is the neatly classic The Wheel; and there is 'The Gift of Harun al Rashid', his tribute to the young wife whose beauty was "a storm-tossed banner" under which wisdom stood.

42Though the communicators did not want Yeats to read philosophy he turned to it with pleasure, once A Vision seemed completed in 1925. Some of his reading in Berkeley and Burke did not eventuate until the poems of The Winding Stair, though they percolated his conversation and some of his speeches. Similarly his reading of contemporary Italian philosophers was mainly being digested in the period of The Tower. But his thought, supported by his wide-ranging reading of history and art history – stimulated by his spending some of the Nobel Prize money on such books as Gibbons' Decline and Fall and the Cambridge Histories as well as on other, largely reference books, was not only expanding but also deepening. His ideas of tragedy, which go back to the Hamlet played by Irving, continued to develop. Yeats had been attempting a translation of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex many years earlier when Gogarty made him a rough translation. In 1911-12 Yeats took up the idea again and listened while Dr. Rynd of Norwich Cathedral Chapter read the Greek text aloud, while Yeats struggled to turn Jebb's version of the tragedy into "speakable English". This version was abandoned – it had begun as an attempt to show, by an Abbey production, the absurdity of the Lord Chamberlain's banning the play in England – when the censorship was withdrawn. Mrs. Yeats found the manuscript of his earlier translation and persuaded him to work on it again. This time he based his version upon Paul Masqueray's translation of Sophocles' Greek into French. Yeats was a poet who had founded much of his work upon translation; this was but a continuance of his ability to build upon the work of others, to get to the heart of original work via the interpretations of others.

  • 1 (1) I deeply regret he did not write a version of The Troades of Euripides; but now Brendan Kennell (...)

43His knowledge of tragedy, tragedy of his particular kind from which he seized upon examples of what he wanted to concentrate upon, the moment of truth, the tragic gesture, had indeed developed, and in this period he wrote his translations of which there are two good examples in The Tower. 'Colonus' Praise' captures the lyric beauty of the original in the flowing natural-seeming language he had mastered, for words obeyed his call and were arranged more nearly to the Sophoclean original than in any other translation1. Yeats's own conception of life breathes through the Greek words of Sophocles. When he finished 'From Oedipus at Colonus' he wrote to Olivia Shakespear that the last line was "very bad Grecian but very good Elizabethan so it must stay"

Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng
The bride is carried to the bridegroom's chamber through torchlight and
tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the
eye of day;
The second best's a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.


1 (1) I deeply regret he did not write a version of The Troades of Euripides; but now Brendan Kennelly has completed one and I look forward enormously to reading it and attending its stage performance.

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1990

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