Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

Studies on W.B. Yeats

Jacqueline Genet

"Packed in ice"

Personal and traditional in the poetry of W.B. Yeats

Colin Meir

Texte intégral

1Yeats can be infuriatingly enigmatic or even obscure in the kind of short-hand imagery he sometimes employs in his prose essays – as indeed the intrepid and gifted translators from the department of English at Caen can testify – and I think that one of the reasons for this occasional obliqueness may be that the form of prose per se does not make demands of coherence and integrity of metaphor as rigorously as the form of poetry; in a sense, to write prose, despite its habitual grammatical controls, is to invite the confessional or what may be merely random and referential. (You will note, I trust, that the sound effects of that last statement point to its deliberate edge of flippancy!). I don't think, however, that there can be any argument about what Yeats means when, in 'A General Introduction for my Work' (1937), he states:

  • 1 (1) Essays and Introductions, p. 522.

All that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt... If I wrote of personal love or sorrow in free verse, or in any rhythm that left it unchanged, amid all its accidence, I would be full of self – contempt because of my egotism and indiscretion, and foresee the boredom of my reader. I must choose a traditional stanza, even what I alter must seen traditional.1

2The fresh fish analogy is not a very attractive one, but it is of course designed to shock us into recognition of the extremely limited shelf-date (or sell-by date) of the purely personal in poetry. However damaging this attitude was to Yeats's assessment of other poets – by an extension of such reasoning Wilfred Owen was excluded from the 1936 Oxford Book of English Verse where Yeats asserted that passive suffering is not a proper subject for poetry – it does provide a vantage point from which to examine certain stages in Yeats's development from 1914 to 1939; that is, the published volumes from Responsibilities to Last Poems from which the aggregation syllabus is drawn. First of all, however, it is helpful to review, if briefly and necessarily rather crudely, the changes which occurred from the beginning of Yeats's career in his views on the relationship between what a poet writes about and how he chooses to do it, between subject and style.

  • 2 (2) Autobiographies, p. 102-103.

3As a young man Yeats had foreseen little difficulty in integrating subject and style (rejecting his father's opinion that personal utterance is only egotism, he had argued that to be personal and natural was all that was needed)2 but up to 1900 he was to exaggerate each of these elements at the expense of the other. His preoccupation with subject matter from the mid 1880's to about 1892 stems directly from his self-imposed rôle as critic and mentor of a renascent tradition in Irish literature written in English. Yeats wanted to capture the wide audience of Thomas Davis's "Young Ireland" movement, whose verse – for the most part political doggerel in the worn-out garb of Scott and Macaulay – appeared in The Nation newspaper between 1842 and 1845, and was published under the title, The Spirit of the Nation, a book which had passed its fiftieth edition by 1870. Yeats knew that – with some few but notable exceptions – this work was not good poetry; what he admired was the passion that sustained it. With a naive enthusiasm, fired in part by his own ambition to become a popular poet, Yeats determined that if the ballad writers changed their subject matter but kept their passion, a new and distinctively Irish style could be created:

  • 3 (3) Essays and Introductions, p. 3-4.

If they had something else to write about besides political opinions, if more of them would write about the beliefs of the people like Allingham, or about old legends like Ferguson, they would find it easier to get a style3.

  • 4 (4) Letters to the New Island, p. 155.

4This idea failed for the principal reason that Yeats had not realised that the subject matter and the feeling in the Young Irelanders' ballads were one and the same thing, and that the passion they evoked was not a transferable commodity. It was nearly 20 years before he came to understand why his efforts "to unite literature to the passion for politics and ennoble both thereby"4 had met with so much resistance in Ireland. In the essay 'Poetry and Tradition' (1907) Yeats draws an illuminating analogy from the plastic arts in order to indicate how a tradition in feeling may persist through the habit of identification with a particular form even when that form is for all other purposes outmoded:

  • 5 (5) Essays and Introductions, p. 257.

When I was at Siena, I noticed that the Byzantine style persisted in faces of Madonnas for several generations after it had given way to a more natural style in the less loved faces of saints and martyrs. Passion had grown accustomed to those narrow eyes... and to those gaunt cheeks, and would have thought it sacrilege to change5.

  • 6 (6) Ibid.

5For John O'Leary, as for Gavan Duffy (whom Yeats records as quoting on his deathbed "one of the worst of the patriotic poems of Young Ireland")6, the poetry of The Spirit of the Nation was deeply moving despite the fact that it was badly written; and Yeats clearly implies that he would have met equal resistance to his scheme for improving the ballad writers had he been content merely to encourage a better standard of writing on political subjects – something which of course at that stage he was not prepared to do. How hard-won the lesson was for Yeats is reflected in the numerous references made to The Nation poets in his critical prose, among which the following quotation is particularly relevant to the ballad poetry in Michael Robartes and the Dancer:

  • 7 (7) Ibid.

Now, after so many years, I can see how natural, how poetical even, an opposition was, that showed what large numbers could not call up certain high feelings without accustomed verses, or believe we had not wronged the feelings when we did but attack the verses7.

6It is not for nothing that 'Easter 1916', perhaps the most complex of the poems in the 1921 volume, contains echoes of two kinds of popular patriotic appeal:

I write out in a verse –
Mac Donagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is wom,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

7Yeats here speaks the names of the Irish heroes in a deliberate litany from the Young Ireland text, including – with no sense of irony or incongruity – a line borrowed from the sentimental tradition of the song The Wearin' of the Green. The inclusion of those "accustomed verses" at the end of the poem signals Yeats's tribute to a history of national feeling: the token names and the manner in which they are named strike to heart of Irish national consciousness.

  • 8 (8) Explorations, p. 372.
  • 9 (9) "Poems by Miss Tynan", The Evening Herald, Dublin, 2 Jan. 1892. This review is not listed in Fr (...)
  • 10 (10) Autobiographies, p. 342.
  • 11 (11) Essays and Introductions, p. 347.

8Outrageous as it may seem – as if an 18th century McGonagle should have influenced Wordsworth – the bad poetry of The Nation taught Yeats two principles of his craft: that the subject of poetry is passion (feeling); and that it is the choice of subject which determines style. But this understanding did not surface until after 1900, and in the interim Yeats was to shift his emphasis from a predominant concern with subject matter to an almost exclusive concern with style. His disillusionment with the idea of serving a popular literature dates from the cultural-political cataclysm of the death of Parneli in 1891, when, as the poet later put it, "Irish imagination fled the sordid scene"8. As he clearly indicates in his Introduction to A Book of Irish Verse (1895), his own work is now deliberately directed to an esoteric audience, and he increasingly affirms in his critical prose that fidelity to feeling is not enough, and that the Irish writer must study models of style in order to "add art to impulse"9 and refine his language. Yeats's concern to get away from the specifically Irish subject matter of the political balladeers of The Nation found affinities with the more widespread, symbolist-inspired movement to get away from Victorian rhetoric, from a servile poetry of mere ideas or opinions (from the Tennyson of In Memoriam, of whom Yeats quotes Verlaine as saying, "when he should have been broken-hearted, he had many reminiscences"10); and in insisting on the response to "fragmentary sensuous beauty", on the "elaborate record of impressions made upon the poet's delicate and delighted senses"11, what was written about became of less importance than how it was done: Yeats emphasised style at the expense of subject matter. Looking back in 1913, he draws an apt analogy from impressionism in painting (again reminding us that he was the son of one painter and the brother of another) which explains that in the 90's style became divorced from subject matter because the eye was not on what was being painted but on the artist's method of recording it:

  • 12 (12) Ibid., p. 353.

The manner of painting had changed, and we were interested in the fall of drapery and the play of light without concerning ourselves with the meaning, the emotion of the figure itself. How many successful portrait painters gave their sitters the same attention, the same interest they might have given to a beer bottle or an apple12.

9What is surprising is not that Yeats between 1895 and 1900 should have so readily accepted such a divorce of style from subject, since after all this was part and parcel of European aesthetics in the 90's, but that the change which came next should have been so abrupt and decisive in both his poetics and his practice.

  • 13 (13) See: Colin Meir, The Ballads and Songs of W.B. Yeats, p. 65-90.

10Principally, this change meant the integration of subject and style. The theory of poetry as the voice of personality expressed through the spoken word became Yeats's solution to the basic problem of how to unite feeling and thought, subject and form, passion and logic. To describe in detail how that theory is based upon Yeats's "discovery" of a model new language for poetry in the Anglo-Irish dialect used in different ways for their different literary purposes by Douglas Hyde and Lady Gregory is quite beyond the scope of this paper13. In any case, of course, while the concept of such integration remains dominant in Yeats's poetics, the manner in which he achieved it differs from volume to volume.

11As early as 1904 Yeats is producing poems which contain dialogue where the logic of what is being said is at least as important as the way it is being said; and instead of the proliferating descriptive and largely phrasal structures of The Wind among the Reeds (1899), we get idiom used as metaphor, as in 'The Folly of Being Comforted'; or as in these lines from 'Adam's Curse':

I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been nought...'

  • 14 (14) The Letters of W.B. Yeats, ed. Wade, p. 570.

12But despite the accomplishment of the verse forms – you can hear in 'Adam's Curse' some of the rhythms of 'A Prayer for My Daughter' – at this stage the stylistic changes are at a somewhat rudimentary level: the ideas, the thought processes carried in the syntax of the poetry, are not very dense or complex; and the idioms are only superficially adequate ("stitching and unstitching", for example, provides a pretty feeble account of the mental and imaginative sweat that goes into making a poem). Neither of these features is of course completely separable from the other: the idioms are part of the syntax, and the image is part of the thought because it helps to express it. The poetry is beginning to achieve the aim Yeats declared to his father in 1913, that of creating "a speech so natural and dramatic that the hearer would feel the presence of a man thinking and feeling"14. In the public poetry of the Responsibilities volume the syntax already carries greater drive as well as more subtle arguments, and the idioms are mordantly pertinent to theme:

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the half pence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone?
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

  • 15 (15) Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats, p. 135.

13The irony of the line "For men were born to pray and save" is all the more telling after the extensively developed rhetorical question whose structure is controlled by the syntactical pattern of What... but. In one of his rare lapses of judgement, the late Richard Ellmann gives this as an illustration of Yeats not writing in a common syntax but in an extremely stylised speech15, whereas it does in fact frequently occur in Anglo-Irish dialect. Yeats later learns to employ such a colloquial form of address in poems that are concerned with much more profound matters than are dealt with here, where the declarative statement concealed in the question cannot be so baldly imposed on the reader. 'September 1913', whose first stanza is quoted above, uses a different tactic in its next rhetorical question (stanza three) by drawing on the bastardised form of the ballad as found in The Spirit of the Nation in such trite stanzas as:

The wild geese – the wild geese – 'tis long since they flew
O'er the billowy ocean's bright bosom of blue.

14(A note explains that recruits of the Irish Brigade were taken to France and entered on the ships' books as Wild Geese).

15Or as in these equally atrocious lines from Thomas Davis's 'The Green Above the Red':

Sure 'twas for this Lord Edward died, and Wolfe Tone sunk serene
Because they could not bear to leave the Red above the Green...

16Yeats's reference to Davis's poem is clear:

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing on every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

17Within this stanza's powerful exhortation the ironic tone of the poem is held in the line, "All that delirium of the brave?", where Yeats uses a word which both defines the changed attitude of his audience to heroism (delirium), and at the same time accuses them of a poverty of imagination which is made explicit in the final stanza:

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You'd cry, 'Some woman's yellow hair
Has maddened every mother's son'...

18Yeats here devastatingly exposes his audience as being incapable of recognising any kind of idealism except that commonly manifested in love as abnormal behaviour. The poem is not, as several critics mistakenly affirm, in praise of political heroism; it names the token names of The Nation balladry merely as an example of its audience's former imaginative capacity, with the understood implication that – in the context of the controversy over the provision of a suitable gallery for the pictures offered to Dublin by Sir Hugh Lane – what is now required is cultural idealism. The longer stanzaic form of 'To a Wealthy Man...' allows for even longer clausal structures which carry the argument, but there is less variety of method than in 'September 1913'. 'To a Shade', another of the group of poems on the same theme, has such subtle changes of tone that it demands very careful reading aloud. Here are its last two sections:

A man
Of your own passionate serving kind who had brought
In his full hands what, had they only known,
Had given their children's children loftier thought,
Sweeter emotion, working in their veins
Like gentle blood, has been driven from the place,
And insult heaped upon him for his pains,
And for his open-handedness, disgrace;
Your enemy, an old foul mouth, had set
The pack upon him.

Go, unquiet wanderer,
And gather the Glasnevin coverlet
About your head till the dust stops your ear,
The time for you to taste of that salt breath
And listen at the corners has not come;
You had enough of sorrow before death –
Away, away! You are safer in the tomb.

19Whereas in The Wind among the Reeds (1899) Yeats's repetitive use of the conjunction And ... And... merely adds – some-times with charming incantatory effects – descriptive detail, here the parallelism in structure intensifies the thought. It's worth noting, too, that the poem accommodates various contrasts, such as the savage implications of "the pack" (of wolves who have set upon Hugh Lane as they did upon Parnell, the "thin Shade" of the poem) and the disturbing address to the "unquiet wanderer"; or the image of the grave as a protective bed, "The Glasnevin coverlet", followed by the concretely specific reference, "till the dust stops your ear". Overall, however, the effect of the public poems of the 1914 volume turns on their logic; here Yeats is already able to carry feeling in the very structure of the sentences, in their syntax and grammar, but he is limited by his subject matter and themes. On the other hand, in a deeply personal poem like 'The Cold Heaven' descriptive imagery has priority and colloquial idiom is in the main avoided. As I have pointed out elsewhere, what happens in Michael Robartes and the Dancer is that Yeats's personal voice is expressed through an investigative syntax which vividly embodies feeling (see, for example, the clausal qualifications which express both meaning and feeling in 'Under Saturn'); in contrast, in the ballad poems in that volume he uses various rhetorical devices together with common idioms. 'Sixteen Dead Men', for example, names the names of political heroes in the manner of The Nation poems, but whereas the Young Irelanders had carried such balladic evocation in a second hand style, full of cliches and crude, generalised description, Yeats intensifies the impact of the rhetorical question which structures each of the three stanzas by employing common idioms in a starker and more specific sense than their standard usage:

O BUT we talked at large before
The sixteen men were shot,
But who can talk of give and take,
What should be and what not
While those dead men are loitering there
To stir the boiling pot?

You say that we should still the land
Till Germany's overcome;
But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?
And is their logic to outweigh
MacDonagh's bony thumb?

How could we dream they'd listen
That have an ear alone
For these new comrades they have found,
Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone,
Or meddle with our give and take
That converse bone to bone?

20Here the metaphoric resonance of boiling pot, deaf and dumb, and bony thumb enables Yeats to escape from the single dimension of meaning to which such poetry is normally restricted; and it is by this basic technique of converting idiom into image that he is able to multiply the levels of meaning in his late songs and ballads. 'Easter 1916' gets its complex texture from its combination of three styles: personal and investigative, lyric, and balladic. It opens with a careful explanation of how the poet's own attitude has been changed by the heroism of particular people; then, after the central lyrically descriptive section, with its metaphor of the stone in the living stream, it explores the dangers inherent in martyrdom to a cause and the validity of its purpose. The sensitive evocation of feeling about the death of the leaders of the Rising is carried through questions which are not rhetorical in any sense:

What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.

21The several changes of tone in this section of the poem delicately expose the ambivalence of Yeats's personal response to the meaning of political sacrifice; but once the balladic note takes over, beginning with "I write it out in a verse" the poem unequivocally declares a public emotion in a public mode. In a different context, the paradox of its last line, which is also its balladic refrain, aptly fits the theme of this paper: "A terrible beauty is born" can be read to mean that passion is given body, feeling given form.

22As an illustration of the variety of methods Yeats employs in unifying thought and emotion, it is worth examining the different ways in which he explores one important theme in his poetry, that of the relationship between body and soul, transience and permanence, nature and art. The pivot poem is of course 'Sailing to Byzantium', whose very title immediately conveys the opposition of the Aristodean mode of becoming (sailing) and the Platonic mode of being (Byzantium). Indeed, throughout Yeats appears to be setting up mutually exclusive categories of art and nature – and even at this level of reading the poem there are some critics who misinterpret the opening stanza as scornful of the physical and sensual: one has only to look at the images of teeming life ("salmon falls and mackerel crowded seas") to contradict such a viewpoint. What is important for our purposes here is that the poem works principally through its rich tapestry of metaphor, not through logical argument; its method is not investigative but declarative. In stressing the increasing urgency to discover spiritual reality as physical reality decays, the poem's theme concerns the nature of the human religious imagination, but it is the irony of its last line which poignantly evokes the unavoidable condition that man can only envisage eternity in terms of time. In this way the supernatural is incontrovertibly informed by the natural.

23If you'll forgive that hasty summary of such a magnificently major poem, I want to look at two earlier and two or three later poems on this theme. In 'The Dolls' from the 1914 volume Yeats objectively relates the antagonism felt by the dolls which, as artifacts, are immune to change, for the human child, that "noisy and filthy thing", subject by its very nature to time and change. All we are given is the opposition; and because the mode is narrative and dramatic, there is no intrusion of the questioning and questing personal voice. The title poem of Yeats's next volume, The Wild Swans at Coole, deals with this subject in a much more profound manner. Its surface meaning is similar to that of the earlier poem in that Yeats measures his ageing self against the apparent agelessness of the swans, but read in the context of the whole poem, the opening stanza immediately intimates a relationship between transience and permanence:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

24On the face of it, the metaphoric implications of this description are limited to an evocation of place which identifies with the mood and age of the speaker; but lodged at the centre of the stanza, and picked up again in the numinous meanings of the last stanza, we have the image of water reflecting the sky. As in Wordsworth's pool "bare to the eye of heaven" (from 'Resolution and Independence'), what is suggested here is that the physical is the region in which the spiritual is identified, thus heralding the meaning of 'Sailing to Byzantium'.

25This same theme is explored in different forms in the 1928 volume: most densely and discursively in 'Among School Children', which contains Yeats's most limpidly beautiful expression of the interdependence of body and soul in the lines: "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance", / How can we know the dancer from the dance?"; and most graphically in the sonnet form of Leda and the Swan. Here the poet gains dramatic effect from the rhetorical question, a device which had earlier been the stock-in-trade of his public and political poetry, which now is used both to intensify the immediacy of the picture of rape and at the same time to incorporate images directly related to the poem's theme:

How can those terrified vague fingers push
the feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

26While at the end of this poem we are left with an unanswered question about the relationship of body and spirit, of the natural and supernatural, two songs from the next volume, The Winding Stair (1933) declare opposite interpretations. In 'A Last Confession', from the sequence 'A Woman Young and Old' in The Winding Stair, Yeats uses the fourteener of the Anglo-Scots ballad, split into eight/six, in four six-line stanzas:

What lively lad most pleasured me
Of all that with me lay?
I answer that I gave my soul
and loved in misery,
But had great pleasure with a lad
That I loved bodily.

Flinging from his arms I laughed
To think his passion such
He fancied that I gave a soul
Did but our bodies touch,
And laughed upon his breast to think
Beast gave beast as much.

I gave what other women gave
That stepped out of their clothes,
But when this soul, its body off,
Naked to naked goes,
He it has found shall find therein
What none other knows,

And give his own and take his own
And rule in his own right;
And though it loved in misery
Close and cling so tight,
There's not a bird of day that dare
Extinguish that delight.

27The argument for the distinct separation of body and soul, which is taken up again in 'The Three Bushes' from Last Poems, is quite plainly stated; but such is Yeats's consummate control of his form that he can invoke both Shakespeare and Swedenborg and introduce a complex word without any sense of stylistic impropriety. As in 'Parting' the earlier dialogue song from this sequence which is echoed in the penultimate line of 'A Last Confession', Yeats juxtaposes a polysyllabic word with several monosyllables

He Daylight already flies
From mountain crest to crest

She That light is from the moon.

He That bird...

She Let him sing on,
I offer to love's play
My dark declivities.

28Both Extinguish and declivities provide density of meaning as well as rhythmic emphasis at each poem's conclusion.

29Perhaps the most dramatic of Yeats's songs on this theme is found in 'Crazy Jane talks with the Bishop', from the sequence 'Words for Music Perhaps' (1933). Again Yeats uses the fourteener in six-eight, the staple of Anglo-Scots ballad narrative; and again the poet forcefully locates the spiritual in the physical. But whereas in 'A Last Confession' the speaker must ironically employ functions of physical love to describe what she claims is the wholly separate union of the soul ("close and cling so tight"), Crazy Jane seizes on the Bishop's own terms of contrast – mansion of the spirit, and foul sty of the body – and asserts their necessary interdependence in metaphors of astonishing anatomic exactness:

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

30This form, so apparently simple and straightforward, is plastic enough here to enable Yeats to copy its first line from a satiric poem by James Clarence Mangan ('The Woman of Three Cows'), as well as to invoke the central theme of Swift's Gulliver's Travels in its emphasis on man as neither Yahoo nor Houyhnhnm but a creature who must perforce partake of each; the spiritual only has its existence by means of the physical: natural supernaturalism.

31Yeats's search for the idioms of common speach, for clarity and for concreteness in poetry, does not mean that he gave up on vision, on Shelleyean spirituality as against what he termed the Robert Burns type of earthiness. A language that expresses the vivacity of common life in the late songs and ballads – found also, though there's no time here to illustrate it today in the major poems of his last period – brings about what he called a re-integration of the mind, a more profound Pre-Raphaelitism. The stress on the vital, the real, gives substance to the visionary, provides its metaphors. In nearly sixty years of development Yeats's style went through many changes – that kind of critical vigilance is the mark of a major writer – but in essence he never changed his concept that poetry is made between sleeping and waking, when – as we might put it – a man's dream is so vivid it peoples the furniture of his waking life. At the beginning of the century, needing to escape from the effeminacy and strained lyricism of the 90's and from the visions which he discovered he had been imagining outside himself, he had turned to Anglo-Irish dialect because its syntax evoked feeling by naming things which directly impinge upon the senses. By 1930, the naming of things within the traditional form of ballad and song provides Yeats with a framework for vision: he is able to combine what Synge had thought of as two distinct kinds of poetry, the vital and the exalted.


1 (1) Essays and Introductions, p. 522.

2 (2) Autobiographies, p. 102-103.

3 (3) Essays and Introductions, p. 3-4.

4 (4) Letters to the New Island, p. 155.

5 (5) Essays and Introductions, p. 257.

6 (6) Ibid.

7 (7) Ibid.

8 (8) Explorations, p. 372.

9 (9) "Poems by Miss Tynan", The Evening Herald, Dublin, 2 Jan. 1892. This review is not listed in Frayne's Uncollected Prose: 1886-1896.

10 (10) Autobiographies, p. 342.

11 (11) Essays and Introductions, p. 347.

12 (12) Ibid., p. 353.

13 (13) See: Colin Meir, The Ballads and Songs of W.B. Yeats, p. 65-90.

14 (14) The Letters of W.B. Yeats, ed. Wade, p. 570.

15 (15) Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats, p. 135.


University of Ulster

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1990

Conditions d’utilisation :