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The Living Stream

Warwick Gould

Essays in Memory of A. Norman Jeffares 1920-2005

Yeats’s Shakespeare: ‘There is a Good Deal of my Father in it’

Denis Donoghue

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1The word ‘Shakespeare’ does not appear in any of Yeats’s poems or plays, but ‘Shakespearean’ does, in ‘Three Movements’, a poem included in Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems (Dublin, 1932) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (New York, 1933 and London, 1934). It consists of three lines:

Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from land;
Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand;
What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand? (VP 485)

2Most readers probably find the poem obscure; they wonder what ‘Shakespearean’ means, and what ‘Romantic’ means and what ‘those fish’ denote in the allegory, if the poem is an allegory. They want to have these obscurities clarified, if only for the satisfaction of moving on to the next poem in the Collected Poems. Presumably there are readers who don’t find the obscurity a nuisance; they appreciate it as an extreme form of discretion on Yeats’s part. They may recall that Elizabethan rhetoricians had four words for this figure, they called it aenigma, noema, syllogismus, or intimatio. In Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery Rosemond Tuve explains that there were several ways of ‘beautifying the subject’, one of which was precisely by withholding ornamentation from it. By happy choice she quotes ‘Three Movements’ to illustrate Yeats’s use of enigma, even though few readers would now recognize that this is what he is doing:

A great many figures other than those I have examined were thought beautiful for their lack of elaboration. Such figures were neither more nor less ‘ornaments’ of a poem than were the obvious or the detailed figures, and all found their chief beauty in their suitableness. I quote three lines from Yeats, chiefly to underline this difference in critical vocabulary, with which we must reckon; it would seem to us a misuse of language to comment on Yeats’s ‘beautifying of his subject, through the figure aenigma’, yet this is a normal Elizabethan commendation of just such uses of just such figures.

3Tuve then quotes ‘Three Movements’ and says:

  • 1 Rosemond Tuve, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery: Renaissance Poetic and Twentieth-Century Crit (...)

This tripartite image would have been called aenigma by the slower-minded and allegoria by the quick. If anyone doubts that it ‘beautifies the subject’, let him try to state Yeats’s idea without it.1

4The idea is not at all clear, but there is satisfaction in trying to work it out. If you like the poem by admiring its decorum, you take pleasure in the demands it makes on your quickness: you have to be quick to see what the three lines are doing together. The poem is authoritative, but not perspicuous. The theme is evidently some form of cultural crisis in the twentieth century, but to make sense of it you have to discover or intuit not only what ‘Shakespearean’ and ‘Romantic’ mean, but what the unspecified referent is in the third line, probably the suppressed word ‘Modern’. The more genial aspect of the crisis is expressed in ‘The Nineteenth Century and After’, a poem of four lines, close to ‘Three Movements’ in Words for Music Perhaps and The Winding Stair, that makes the best of the conditions at large:

Though the great song return no more
There’s keen delight in what we have:
The rattle of pebbles on the shore
Under the receding wave. (VP 485)

5That, too, is allegoria, but in a different mood: the sensation of hearing pebbles rattling on the shore is to be enjoyed, assuming we know what it is we are enjoying and the allegory in play.

  • 2 Hugh Kenner: ‘The Sacred Book of the Arts’: reprinted in John Unterecker (editor), Yeats: A Collec (...)

6Readers who find ‘Three Movements’ opaque generally go to A. Norman Jeffares’s A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats (1984) for help. Some readers resent the necessity of going outside the poems, even for the boon of enlightenment. Hugh Kenner, who did not resent having to decipher Pound’s Cantos, apparently thought it more than flesh could bear when the necessity of annotating Yeats’s difficult poems arose. ‘The unspoken premise of Yeats criticism’, he claimed, ‘is that we have to supply from elsewhere— from his life or his doctrines—a great deal that didn’t properly get into the poems: not so much to explain the poems as to make them rich enough to sustain the reputation’.2 I do not recall that Professor Jeffares expressed any reluctance on the matter. I give his report on ‘Three Movements’ in full:

  • 3 A. Norman Jeffares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W.B.Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1984), 279-80.

Yeats wrote a prose version of this poem in his White Manuscript book and dated it 20 January 1932; the poem is dated 26 January 1932 by [Richard] Ellmann (The Identity of Yeats, p. 267). It first appeared in Words for Music Perhaps.
1 Shakespearean fish: the prose draft reads: ‘Passion in Shakespeare was a great fish in the sea, but from Goethe to the end of the Romantic movement the fish was in the net. It will soon be dead upon the shore’. There is a kindred sentiment in the essay on Bishop Berkeley which begins, ’Imagination, whether in literature, painting, or sculpture, sank after the death of Shakespeare’. (Essays and Introductions, p. 396).
2 Romantic fish: Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616; the romantic movement began in the late eighteenth century and continued in the nineteenth. Yeats described Lady Gregory and himself as ‘the last romantics’. (The Poems: A New Edition, ed. Richard J. Finneran (1984) p. 254.3

7Jeffares’s aim was to help readers to construe the poem by removing the main obstacles. He did not recommend any particular interpretation. It was his practice to place selected relevancies in the vicinity of each poem, often companionable passages from Yeats’s poems, essays, speeches, and reviews, sometimes from A Vision. It was as if he said: ‘you will find it helpful if you let these correlative passages inhabit your mind while you’re reading the poem. Of course these readings will not interpret it for you’. It is a mark of Yeats’s books of poetry that one book often replies to its predecessor, corrects its extravagance, and speaks up for a rival set of values. Jeffares was alert to these nuances, but first he tried to guide Yeats’s readers across the rough places of particular poems before letting them proceed on their own. In the present case, he did not think it his business to expound the differences between the poem and its prose version. Differences such as these: in the prose, two sentences imply one fish; in the verse, ‘fish’ is evidently plural throughout the three lines. In the verse, we have parallel lines, each of twelve syllables and seven spoken stresses. A masculine, monosyllabic, end-rhyme binds the three lines, and the metre in each line coincides with the syntax. There are no run-on lines. Each of the first two lines delivers a perception deemed to be beyond question. The first lines are in the indicative mood, past tense and present continuous respectively. The last line, as often in Yeats’s poems, brings the poem to a formal but alarming end on a rhetorical question. The syntactical form that is least an ending—the rhetorical question—confounds the insistences that have preceded it. A rudimentary paraphrase might run: ‘Shakespeare’s heroes lived, acted, and suffered in conditions commensurate with the freedom of their passion. Romantic heroes (as in Goethe, Byron, Blake, and Shelley) lived their passion, subject entirely to the genius of their authors. In Romanticism the creative force posits itself at the centre of experience and goes out to the natural world from that certitude. What, I ask you, is happening to such passion now, in social and political conditions apparently lethal to it?’ Even after this paraphrase, the poem remains to be read as a poem, not as a truncated essay.

8The passage from Yeats’s essay on Berkeley that Jeffares quotes is too brief to be decisive, but when readers read the whole essay, they sense amid further opacities that at least a few sentences clarify the decline, as Yeats saw it, from the Renaissance to modernity. The paragraph that Jeffares quotes in part reads in full:

Imagination, whether in literature, painting, or sculpture, sank after the death of Shakespeare; supreme intensity had passed to another faculty; it was as though Shakespeare, Dante, Michelangelo, had been reborn with all their old sublimity, their old vastness of conception, but speaking a harsh, almost unintelligible, language. Two or three generations hence, when men accept the inventions of science as a commonplace and understand that it is limited by its method to appearance, no educated man will doubt that the movement of philosophy from Spinoza to Hegel is the greatest of all works of intellect. (E&I 396)

  • 4 Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale University (...)

9Yeats meant Idealism, the philosophy that tries to make one’s consciousness account for the whole of one’s experience. In Cassirer’s version: ‘Idealists want to transform the passive world of mere impressions, in which the spirit seems at first imprisoned, into a world that is pure expression of the human spirit’.4 It was the only force that Yeats thought capable of resisting the Empiricism he hated and feared:

When I speak of idealist philosophy I think more of Kant than of Berkeley, who was idealist and realist alike, more of Hegel and his successors than of Kant, and when I speak of the romantic movement I think more of Manfred, more of Shelley’s Prometheus, more of Jean Valjean, than of those traditional figures, Browning’s Pope, the fakir-like pedlar in The Excursion. (E&I 405)

10As for modernity, those fish gasping on the strand:

The romantic movement with its turbulent heroism, its self-assertion, is over, superseded by a new naturalism that leaves man helpless before the contents of his own mind. One thinks of Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle, Pound’s Cantos, works of an heroic sincerity, the man, his active faculties in suspense, one finger beating time to a bell sounding and echoing in the depths of his own mind; of Proust who, still fascinated by Stendhal’s fixed framework, seems about to close his eyes and gaze upon the pattern under his lids. (E&I 405)

11The only cure for this helplessness, Yeats thought, was a Philosophy of the Act, adumbrated by the later Berkeley and articulated— though he does not name him in this essay—by Giovanni Gentile.

Only where the mind partakes of a pure activity can art or life attain swiftness, volume, unity; that contemplation lost, we picture some slow-moving event, turn the mind’s eye from everything else that we may experience to the full our own passivity, our personal tragedy ... (E&I 409)


12What then does ‘Shakespeare’ mean in Yeats’s structure of values? Even if we have some notion of ‘Shakespearean fish’—but how securely have we got this notion?—we can hardly eke it out to the extent of gaining access to Yeats’s Shakespeare. We should try another way.

  • 5 William M. Murphy, Prodigal Father: The Life of John Butler Yeats (1839-1922) (Ithaca and London, (...)
  • 6 Ibid, 100.
  • 7 Ibid., 589-90n, referring to Wade 80, p.90.

13Scholars of Yeats seem to agree that Yeats received his first sense of Shakespeare from his father, John Butler Yeats, presumably in early conversations with him in Dublin and London. Our main authority for this conclusion is William M. Murphy, who maintains that the ideas expressed in Yeats’s essay on Shakespeare, ‘At Stratford-on-Avon’, ‘are completely his father’s, though not specifically acknowledged’.5 John Kelly and Ronald Schuchard, the editors of The Collected Letters of W.B.Yeats: Volume Three, 1901-1904, agree with Murphy that Yeats’ views on Shakespeare, ‘and especially on Richard II, are almost identical with those his father had advanced in an argument with [Edward] Dowden in 1874’ (CL3 74n). I demur at Murphy’s word ‘completely’, and remain unappeased by the editors’ concessive ‘almost’. Murphy also says that in the dispute with Dowden ‘JBY passed his judgments on to his son, who assimilated them so completely that when he expressed them publicly a couple of decades later he forgot where he had received them’.6 This is not quite true. Murphy himself notes that Yeats wrote, in John Quinn’s copy of Ideas of Good and Evil (the 1908 edition), ‘I think the best of these Essays is that on Shakespeare. It is a family exasperation with the Dowden point of view which rather filled Dublin in my youth. There is a good deal of my father in it, though nothing is just as he would have put it’.7 But there is much evidence for Murphy’s initial claim. Building on Phillip L. Marcus’s Yeats and the Beginning of the Irish Literary Renaissance (1970), he elucidates further the context of Yeats’s sense of Shakespeare in early disputes between John B. Yeats and his friend Dowden, the young Professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin, and later an eminent scholar of Shakespeare, Shelley, and other writers. They disagreed first about Wordsworth, then about Shakespeare. In later years John Yeats thought his friend a provincial and let the communications lapse.

14I give the dispute in its main outline. In March 1874, hearing of the success of Dowden’s lectures on Shakespeare, John Yeats wrote to congratulate him. In reply, on March 17, Dowden made the mistake of giving him the gist of his next lecture, on Richard II:

  • 8 Quoted in Murphy, 98-9.

In K[ing] Richard II Shakspere represents the man with an artistic feeling for life, who isn’t an artist of life. The artist of life is efficient and shapes the world and his destiny with strong creative hands. Richard likes graceful combinations, a clever speech instead of an efficient one, a melodious passion instead of one which achieves the deed ... If things can be arranged so as to appeal gracefully or touchingly to his esthetic sensibility, he doesn’t concern himself much more about them. And so all of life becomes unreal to him through this dilettantism with life.8

  • 9 Ibid., 99.
  • 10 Edward Dowden, Fragments from Old Letters E.D. to E.D.W: 1869-1892 (London: Dent, 1914), 55.

15The word ‘dilettantism’ may have struck a nerve in Yeats’s father, who had reason to fear that he himself was a dilettante by comparison with the prolific Dowden. John Yeats immediately denounced Dowden’s values, in relation to Richard II, as ‘a sort of splenetic morality that would be fitter in the mouth of the old gardener’. He maintained, in effect, that lost causes are invariably the better ones. Bolingbroke was only ‘stronger in prudence’ than Richard. Richard ‘had a more mounting spirit, his disdain was nobler, his mirth more joyous, his happiness had a more untiring wing’.9 Not that John Yeats had any hope of changing Dowden’s mind. Dowden already believed that ‘for [JBY] the ethical disappears in the aesthetic’.10 Gratified by that disappearance, he did not feel impelled to reconsider his view of the history plays. In ShakspereA Critical Study of His Mind and Art (1875) he described Richard as boyish, unreal, lacking in authority and ‘executive power’, a mere aesthete, an amateur in the mode of self-presentation:

Life is to Richard a show, a succession of images; and to put himself into accord with the aesthetic requirements of his position is Richard’s first necessity. He is equal to playing any part gracefully which he is called upon by circumstances to enact. But when he has exhausted the aesthetic satisfaction to be derived from the situations of his life, he is left with nothing further to do. He is an amateur in living; not an artist.

  • 11 Edward Dowden, ShakspereA Critical Study of His Mind and Art, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper, 1918), 1 (...)

16Dowden conceded Richard’s charm of person and presence: ‘Hotspur remembers him as “Richard, that sweet, lovely rose”. But a king who rules a discontented people and turbulent nobles needs to be something more than a beautiful blossoming flower’.11 It followed that Henry V ‘is Shakspere’s ideal of the practical heroic character’. But this character is not ‘the highest ideal of Shakspere, who lived and moved and had his being not alone in the world of limitation, of tangible, positive fact, but also in a world of the soul, a world opening into two endless vistas—the vista of meditation and the vista of passion’. For these vistas, we must go to the tragedies and The Tempest:

In these Shakspere is engaged in a series of studies not concerning success in the mastery of events and things, but concerning the higher success and the more awful failure which appear in the exaltation or the ruin of a soul.

17So in Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens:

  • 12 Ibid., 66-67.

And, after exhibiting the absolute ruin of a life and of a soul, Shakspere closed the wonderful series of his dramatic writings by exhibiting the noblest elevation of character, the most admirable attainment of heart, of intellect, of will, which our present life admits, in the person of Prospero. What more was left for Shakspere to say?12

  • 13 Edward Dowden, Letters of Edward Dowden and His Correspondents (London: Dent, 1914), 184.
  • 14 John Eglinton, Preface, in Letters of Edward Dowden and his Correspondents, supra, xi-xvi (p. xiii (...)

18If JBY had two or three reasons for being angry with Dowden, his son had ten. After a first period of social amenity, Yeats became convinced that Dowden was his enemy, an obstacle to his cultural and national motives. Dowden was a Unionist, an Imperialist, the most visible image of the deplored Trinity College, a famous scholar-critic ostentatiously indifferent to the work of Irish Cultural Nationalism to which Yeats had set himself. Dowden liked one or two Celtic legends, that of Deirdre for instance, and he was on visiting terms with some Irish writers, but he told Aubrey de Vere, in a letter of 13 September 1882, that he was ‘infinitely glad that I spent my early enthusiasm on Wordsworth and Spenser and Shakespeare, and not on anything that Ireland ever produced’.13 He also committed the indelicacy of urging the young poet Yeats to read George Eliot. Like Matthew Arnold, Dowden thought that Irish writers should be content to find their destiny by submerging themselves in the greater literature of England, where their small voices would be heard to advantage. In this respect as in his work on Shakespeare— whom in his published work he preferred to call Shakspere— Dowden was immensely influential. John Eglinton wrote of him: ‘he may even be said to have imposed his conception of Shakespeare on modern criticism’.14 It is no surprise, then, that Yeats attacked Dowden in several essays, speeches, and letters to the Editor. The attack was unfair, because Dowden was not entirely the hot gospeller of success that Yeats made him out to be. It is much to his credit that he was one of the first readers of Whitman in Europe. But Yeats was not deflected from rebuke: ‘The more I read the worse does the Shakespeare criticism become’, he told Lady Gregory, ‘and Dowden is about the climax of it. I[t] came out [of] the middle class movement & I feal (sic) it my legitimate enemy’ (CL3 61). In ‘Ireland after Parnell’—the second book of The Trembling of the Veil (1922)— Yeats took the freedom of Dowden’s death to list some of the grievances he cherished against him:

Edward Dowden, my father’s old friend, with his dark romantic face, the one man of letters Dublin Unionism possessed, was withering in that barren soil. Towards the end of his life he confessed to a near friend that he would have wished before all things to have been the lover of many women; and some careless lecture, upon the youthful Goethe, had in early life drawn down upon him the displeasure of the Protestant Archbishop. And yet he turned Shakespeare into a British Benthamite, flattered Shelley but to hide his own growing lack of sympathy, abandoned for like reason that study of Goethe that should have been his life-work, and at last cared but for Wordsworth, the one great poet who, after brief blossom, was cut and sawn into planks of obvious utility. (Au 235)

19Two sources of grievance can be added. Dowden refused to help the Irish Literary movement even to the extent of conceding that others might take it seriously. And when Wilde fell into disgrace and Yeats asked various Irish writers for letters of sympathy, ‘I was refused by none but Edward Dowden, who gave me what I considered an irrelevant excuse—his dislike for everything that Wilde had written’ (Au 287).


20On 22 April 1901, Yeats went up to Stratford-upon-Avon and lodged at the Shakespeare Hotel for a week so that he could attend the Benson Festival of Shakespeare’s History Plays. He saw six of the eight: King John, Richard II, Henry IV, Part II, Henry V, Henry VI, Part II, and Richard III. In his spare time in the Library he read enough Shakespeare criticism to keep him exasperated. He had looked for an opportunity to write an essay on Shakespeare. While the experience of the history plays was fresh in his mind, he wrote ‘At Stratford-on-Avon’ and published it in two parts in The Speaker, May 11 and 18. The essay is in six sections. The first is in praise of Stratford, its ‘quiet streets, where gabled and red-tiled houses remember the Middle Ages’ and one reads in the Library ‘with its oak-panelled walls and leaded windows of tinted glass’. The second part disapproves of the ‘half-round theatre’ and the Naturalism of its sets, and, for contrast and exemplification, speaks warmly of Gordon Craig’s scenery for the Purcell Operatic Society’s production of Dido and Aeneas in London a month or so previously. In the theatre of Naturalism, Yeats says, ‘illusion comes to an end, slain by our desire to increase it’. In the third section, he moves closer to his hatreds, embodied for the moment in George Eliot and the Utilitarian critics of Shakespeare who worked in her shadow. He has not yet named Dowden, but the word ‘efficiency’ indicates that he has him in view:

Because reason can only discover completely the use of those obvious actions which everybody admires, and because every character was to be judged by efficiency in action, Shakespearian criticism became a vulgar worshipper of success. (E&I 103)

21Yeats is writing as a scholar of Blake. He is also, instructed by Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), an adept of the vision according to which the palpable world is no longer a reality, and the unseen world no longer a dream. In Yeats’s version:

In La Peau de chagrin Balzac spends many pages in describing a coquette, who seems the image of heartlessness, and then invents an improbable incident that her chief victim may discover how beautifully she can sing. Nobody had ever heard her sing, and yet in her singing, and in her chatter with her maid, Balzac tells us, was her true self. He would have us understand that behind the momentary self, which acts and lives in the world, and is subject to the judgment of the world, there is that which cannot be called before any mortal judgment seat, even though a great poet, or novelist, or philosopher be sitting upon it. (E&I 102)

22Reading a few books on Shakespeare—or at least turning them over in the Library—Yeats concluded that they conspired in an antithesis, ‘which grew in clearness and violence as the century grew older, between two types, whose representatives were Richard II, ‘sentimental’, ‘weak’, ‘selfish’, ‘insincere’, and Henry V, ‘Shakespeare’s only hero’.’ Gervinus was guilty, but Dowden was closer to the scene and could not be left out of the rebuke:

... Professor Dowden, whose book I once read carefully, first made these emotions eloquent and plausible. He lived in Ireland, where everything has failed, and he meditated frequently upon the perfection of character which had, he thought, made England successful, for, as we say, ‘cows beyond the water have long horns’. He forgot that England, as Gordon has said, was made by her adventurers, by her people of wildness and imagination and eccentricity; and thought that Henry V, who only seemed to be these things because he had some commonplace vices, was not only the typical Anglo-Saxon, but the model Shakespeare held up before England; and he even thought it worth while pointing out that Shakespeare himself was making a large fortune while he was writing about Henry’s victories. (E&I 104)

23In Dowden’s successors, the celebration of Henry V went further, ‘and it reached its height at a moment of imperialistic enthusiasm, of ever-deepening conviction that the commonplace shall inherit the earth, when somebody of reputation, whose name I cannot remember, wrote that Shakespeare admired this one character alone out of all his characters’ (E&I 104-05).

24‘I cannot believe’, Yeats says in the fourth part of the essay, ‘that Shakespeare looked on his Richard II with any but sympathetic eyes’. Richard is shown to fail, ‘a little because he lacked some qualities that were doubtless common among his scullions, but more because he had certain qualities that are uncommon in all ages’ (E&I 106). To suppose that Shakespeare preferred the men who deposed his king ‘is to suppose that Shakespeare judged men with the eyes of a Municipal Councillor weighing the merits of a Town Clerk’. On the contrary, Shakespeare:

saw indeed, as I think, in Richard II the defeat that awaits all, whether they be artist or saint, who find themselves where men ask of them a rough energy and have nothing to give but some contemplative virtue, whether lyrical fantasy, or sweetness of temper, or dreamy dignity, or love of God, or love of His creatures. (E&I 107)

25Shakespeare meditated ‘as Solomon, not as Bentham meditated, upon blind ambitions, untoward accidents, and capricious passions, and the world was almost as empty in his eyes as it must be in the eyes of God’. To support this sad, beautiful verdict, Yeats quoted in full sonnet LXVI, ‘Tir’d with all these, for restful death I cry’.

26In the fifth part of the essay, Yeats brings forward the notion that ‘there is some one myth for every man, which, if we but knew it, would make us understand all he did and thought’. Shakespeare’s myth, ‘it may be, describes a wise man who was blind from very wisdom, and an empty man who thrust him from his place, and saw all that could be seen from very emptiness’. The myth can be seen, he thinks, in Hamlet, Fortinbras, ‘Richard III, that unripened Hamlet, and [in] Henry V, that ripened Fortinbras’. Henry’s purposes ‘are so intelligible to everybody that everybody talks of him as if he succeeded, although he fails in the end, as all men great and little fail in Shakespeare’. It is not clear how Shakespeare’s myth is fulfilled in these antitheses, but we may as well take Yeats’s word for it.

27In the last part of the essay Yeats refers, evidently with some misgiving, to the stories than came into English literature from Italy in the Renaissance:

And yet, could those foreign tales have come in if the great famine, the sinking down of popular imagination, the dying out of traditional fantasy, the ebbing out of the energy of race, had not made them necessary? [. . .] Shakespeare wrote at a time when solitary great men were gathering to themselves the fire that had once flowed hither and thither among all men, when individualism in work and thought and emotion was breaking up the old rhythms of life, when the common people, sustained no longer by the myths of Christianity and of still older faiths, were sinking into the earth. (E&I 109-10)

28Before concluding the essay, Yeats inserted two sentences of explanatory intention that could only be speculative, lacking evidence in their favour. He was not scholar enough to verify them: he could only posit them because of his great desire that they would be found true:

The courtly and saintly ideals of the Middle Ages were fading, and the practical ideals of the modern age had begun to threaten the unuseful dome of the sky; Merry England was fading, and yet it was not so faded that the poets could not watch the procession of the world with that untroubled sympathy for men as they are, as apart from all they do and seem, which is the substance of tragic irony. (E&I 106)

29Yeats returned to the motif a few months later, in his essay on Spenser, where he tried to keep Shakespeare and Spenser in Merry England, an England mostly Norman, Angevin, and officially French, and in which there is a quarrel to the death ‘with that new Anglo-Saxon nation that was arising amid Puritan sermons and Marprelate pamphlets’. The new nation ‘had driven out the language of its conquerors, and now it was to overthrow their beautiful haughty imagination and their manners, full of abandon and willfulness, and to set in their stead earnestness and logic and the timidity and reserve of a counting-house’ (E&I 364-365). Chaucer, Shakespeare, and—equivocally, because he wanted to justify himself to his new masters—Spenser were on the merry side, Langland and Bunyan on the Puritan side. Shakespeare, his commitment to the Tudor myth a strained sentiment far short of conviction, gave his heart to the defeated side and found for its poor victims the most poetic lines, Richard II the most blessed in that respect.


30Yeats’s sense of Shakespeare was equivocal. Shakespeare was indisputably a great writer, but he was born too late, he should have come into the world with Chaucer. Yeats writes, in ‘The Trembling of the Veil’:

[William] Morris had never seemed to care greatly for any poet later than Chaucer and though I preferred Shakespeare to Chaucer I begrudged my own preference. Had not Europe shared one mind and heart, until both mind and heart began to break into fragments a little before Shakespeare’s birth? [...] If Chaucer’s personages had disengaged themselves from Chaucer’s crowd, forgot their common goal and shrine, and after sundry magnifications became each in turn the centre of some Elizabethan play, and had after split into their elements and so given birth to romantic poetry, must I reverse the cinematograph? (Au 191, 193)

31Each of these sundry magnifications becomes a great character in a play by Shakespeare—Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Ophelia—but there is loss, too. In Phase 20 of A Vision—Shakespeare’s phase—‘Unity of Being is no longer possible, for the being is compelled to live in a fragment of itself and to dramatise that fragment’ (AVB 148). As he put it in the first version of A Vision:

Like the phase before it, and those that follow it immediately, [it is] a phase of the breaking up and subdivision of the being. The energy is always seeking those facts which being separable can be seen more clearly, or expressed more clearly, but when there is truth to phase there is a similitude of the old unity, or rather a new unity, which is not a Unity of Being but a unity of the creative act. He no longer seeks to unify what is broken through conviction, by imposing those very convictions upon himself and others, but by projecting a dramatization or many dramatizations. He can create, just in that degree in which he can see these dramatizations as separate from himself, and yet as an epitome of his whole nature. (AVA 70-71)

  • 15 Yeats, Plays and Controversies (New York: Macmillan, 1924) p. 86; EX, 139-140.
  • 16 Peter Ure, Yeats and Anglo-Irish Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1974), 212-13.

32Phase 20 is exemplified by Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Balzac, but mostly by Shakespeare. It is some consolation to Yeats that the groundlings in Shakespeare’s theatre could still ‘remember the folksongs and the imaginative folk-life’, but their sense of those communal experiences could only be residual.15 Shakespeare’s fools and their songs are, as Peter Ure pointed out, ‘the vestiges of the old world of unity before the Renaissance scatterings’, but they are desperate with a sense of loss and dread: that is why the heroic figures they pester can’t abide their pointed nonsense.16 Meanwhile the hero’s imagination—the ‘violence within’ as Wallace Stevens called it—responds with force nearly equal and opposite to the violence it has to endure: nearly, but not quite, there is always the winner, death. ‘Shakespeare’s persons, when the last darkness has gathered about them, speak out of an ecstasy that is one-half the self-surrender of sorrow, and one-half the last playing and mockery of the victorious sword before the defeated world’ (E&I 254). The ecstasy is a play of mind and spirit. Yeats assimilates these beautiful defeated heroes to the tragic joy of ‘The Gyres’ and ‘Lapis Lazuli,’ but they still issue from a broken time. In 1906 Yeats wrote:

One of the means of loftiness, of marmorean stillness, has been the choice of strange and far-away places for the scenery of art, but this choice has grown bitter to me, and there are moments when I cannot believe in the reality of imaginations that are not inset with the minute life of long familiar things and symbols and places. I have come to think of even Shakespeare’s journeys to Rome or to Verona as the outflowing of an unrest, a dis-satisfaction with natural interests, an unstable equilibrium of the whole European mind that would not have come had John Palaeologus cherished, despite that high and heady look, copied by Burne-Jones for his Cophetua, a hearty disposition to fight the Turk. (E&I 297)


33None of these sentiments is beyond the range of John B. Yeats’s rhetoric. I am willing to believe that father and son had many conversations leading to John Yeats’s assertion many years later—long after ‘At Stratford-on-Avon’—on the subject of ‘Elizabethan ways’:

  • 17 J. B. Yeats, Letters to His Son W.B.Yeats and Others 1869-1922, ed. by Joseph Hone (London: Faber (...)

There is another thing to be noted about Elizabethan ways. Getting a living was then a comparatively easy thing; they had not that absorption to interrupt their dreams, and here again let me add, that a people who do not dream never attain to inner sincerity, for only in his dreams is a man really himself. Only for his dreams is a man responsible—his actions are what he must do. Actions are a bastard race to which a man has not given his full paternity.17

34Otherwise put, in the poet’s terms: ‘In dreams begins responsibility’ (VP 269).

35But two other influences are demonstrable: Emerson’s essay on Shakespeare in Representative Men (1876) and Pater’s ‘Shakespeare’s English Kings’ in Appreciations (1889). Yeats alludes to each in different essays. Emerson’s Shakespeare is the genius of universality; there is no talk of the Tudor myth, Queen Elizabeth, or Henry V, but much brooding on the symbolic reach of entities:

  • 18 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1930), 216-17.

Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Chaucer, saw the splendor of meaning that plays over the visible world; knew that a tree had another use than for apples, and corn another than for meal, and the ball of the earth, than for tillage and roads: that these things bore a second and finer harvest to the mind, being emblems of its thoughts, and conveying in all their natural history a certain mute commentary on human life. Shakespeare employed them as colors to compose his picture. He rested in their beauty; and never took the step which seemed inevitable to such genius, namely to explore the virtue which resides in these symbols and imparts this power:-what is that which they themselves say? He converted the elements which waited on his command, into entertainments. He was master of the revels to mankind.18

36In his essay on Spenser, Yeats says that Spenser should not have occupied himself with moral and religious questions: ‘he should have been content to be, as Emerson thought Shakespeare was, a Master of the Revels to mankind’ (E&I 368). As such a master, Shakespeare would be impartial in his performances, not a propagandist for this or that regime but sympathetic to all, the victorious and the defeated alike.

37Pater’s essay was more pervasive than Emerson’s in Yeats’s meditations at Stratford. He must have been turning over the pages of Appreciations or recalling a paragraph from an early reading. The sentence I have in part quoted reads in full:

I cannot believe that Shakespeare looked on his Richard II with any but sympathetic eyes, understanding indeed how ill-fitted he was to be king, at a certain moment of history, but understanding that he was lovable and full of capricious fancy, a ‘wild creature’ as Pater has called him. (E&I 105)

  • 19 Walter Pater, Appeciations, with an Essay on Style (London: Macmillan, 1944), 193.

38Pater called him that, in one of the several passages in which he maintains that Shakespeare’s concern is not with kingship but with the irony of it: ‘the irony of kingship—average human nature, flung with a wonderfully pathetic effect into the vortex of great events; tragedy of everyday quality heightened in degree only by the conspicuous scene which does but make those who play their parts there conspicuously unfortunate; the utterance of common humanity straight from the heart, but refined like other common things for kingly uses by Shakespeare’s unfailing eloquence [...]’.19 The refining act of consciousness makes space, I assume, for the unofficial, antinomian values that otherwise would be suppressed by the official ones. Pater speaks of ‘the person and story of Richard the Second, a figure—“that sweet lovely rose”—which haunts Shakespeare’s mind, as it seems long to have haunted the minds of the English people, as the most touching of all examples of the irony of kingship’.

39Toward the middle of ‘Shakespeare’s English Kings’ Pater breaks into an expostulation, a tone unusual for him:

  • 20 Ibid., 207.

No! Shakespeare’s kings are not, nor are meant to be, great men: rather, little or quite ordinary humanity, thrust upon greatness, with those pathetic results, the natural self-pity of the weak heightened in them into irresistible appeal to others as the net result of their royal prerogative. One after another, they seem to lie composed in Shakespeare’s embalming pages, with just that touch of nature about them, making the whole world akin, which has infused into their tombs at Westminster a rare poetic grace. It is that irony of kinship, the sense that it is in its happiness child’s play, in its sorrows, after all, but children’s grief, which gives its finer accent to all the changeful feeling of these wonderful speeches:—the great meekness of the graceful, wild creature, tamed at last—‘Give Richard leave to live till Richard die!’20


40Yeats’s Shakespeare, it begins to appear, is an antinomian at heart and on principle, even if by force of necessity he is enough of a Tudor mythographer to satisfy the authorities. According to the OED, an antinomian is a person who believes that the moral law is not binding on Christians, under the ‘law of grace’. In The Renaissance and again in Gaston de Latour Pater explains what he takes the word to mean:

One of the strongest characteristics of that outbreak of the reason and the imagination, of that assertion of the liberty of the heart, in the middle age, which I have termed a medieval Renaissance, was its antinomianism, its spirit of rebellion and revolt against the moral and religious ideas of the time. In their search after the pleasures of the senses and the imagination, in their care for beauty, in their worship of the body, people were impelled beyond the bounds of the Christian ideal; and their love became sometimes a strange idolatry, a strange rival religion.

41He associates it with the survival of the pagan gods, such as ‘that ancient Venus, not dead, but only hidden for a time in the caves of the Venusberg, [and] those old pagan gods still going to and fro on the earth, under all sorts of disguises’:

And this element in the middle age, for the most part ignored by those writers who have treated it preeminently as the ‘Age of Faith’—this rebellious and antinomian element, the recognition of which has made the delineation of the middle age by the writers of the Romantic school in France, by Victor Hugo for instance in Notre-Dame de Paris, so suggestive and exciting—is found alike in the history of Abelard and the legend of Tannhäuser. More and more, as we come to mark changes and distinctions of temper in what is often in one all-embracing confusion called the middle age, that rebellion, that sinister claim for liberty of heart and thought, comes to the surface.

  • 21 Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry: The 1893 Text, ed. by Donald L. Hill (Be (...)

42Aucassin and Nicollete contains the most complete example of this antinomian spirit, but it is also found in the Albigensian movement, ‘connected so strangely with the history of Provençal poetry’, in the Franciscan order, ‘with its poetry, its mysticism, its ‘illumination’, from the point of view of religious authority, justly suspect’, and in ‘the thoughts of those obscure prophetical writers, like Joachim of Flora, strange dreamers in a world of flowery rhetoric of that third and final dispensation of a ‘spirit of freedom’, in which law shall have passed away’.21 Pater also ascribed the antinomian disposition to his own Marius the Epicurean, who discovers that to move in the outer world of other people, as though taking it at their estimate, would be possible only as a kind of irony.

43In Shakespeare the antinomian element may be found, if one considers the plays under the guidance of John B. Yeats and Pater, in his sympathy for the defeated, the distinctive poetry and pathos he writes for them, his tenderness toward lost causes known to be lost, certain traces of his Catholic associations, and the fact—which Pater notes in ‘Shakespeare’s English Kings’,—that while Shakespeare ‘was not wanting in a sense of the magnanimity of warriors’ and records monumentally enough ‘the grandiose of war’ as in Vernon’s speech in the first part of Henry IV (IV.1.97-106)—

All furnish’d, all in arms;
All plum’d like estridges that with the wind
Bated like eagles having lately bath’d;
Glittering in golden coats, like images;
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer;
Wanton as youthful goats, wild as young bulls.
I saw young Harry, with his beaver on,
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly arm’d,
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury [...]

44—there is always the afterthought, the figure of tragic irony, this time from Hotspur—

  • 22 Pater, Appreciations, 199.

No more, no more: worse than the sun in March,
This praise doth nourish agues. Let them come;
They come like sacrifices in their trim [...] (IV.1.111-13)22


  • 23 T. S. Eliot, ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’, in Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber (...)

45But a question arises: were not John B.Yeats, Emerson, and Pater superseded in the end, as presences in Yeats’s sense of Shakespeare, by Nietzsche? In September 1902, eighteen months or so after Stratford, John Quinn sent Yeats his own copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra and impersonal copies of The Case of Wagner and The Genealogy of Morals. For several months Yeats appears to have read nothing but Nietzsche, ‘that strong enchanter’, as he called him in a letter to Lady Gregory. Nietzsche entered upon Yeats’s stream of consciousness, and never left it. When death and dying came into his imagination—as it inescapably did in his late years—Nietzsche was never far off, summoned to help him transform his fear into ecstasy. We can be sympathetic toward this device or not. T. S. Eliot said that ‘Nietzsche is the most conspicuous modern instance of cheering oneself up’, a remark provoked by Eliot’s reflection on Othello’s last speech, ‘Soft you; a word or two before you go’. Cheering oneself up seemed to him a symptom of bovarysme, ‘the human will to see things as they are not’, a stoical attitude ‘the reverse of Christian humility’.23 A more sympathetic reader of Yeats would report, without adjudicating the point, that what appealed to Yeats most powerfully was Nietzsche’s figure of the hero, adept of risk, bringing to bear upon his circumstances sufficient intensity of consciousness to defeat them or to be greatly defeated by them. In The King’s Threshold he has Seanchan, dying, say:

I need no help,
He needs no help that joy has lifted up
Like some miraculous beast out of Ezekiel
Dead faces laugh. (VPl 309)

46In his last poems Yeats brought Shakespeare and Nietzsche together, as if talk of the will-to-power and the tragic hero found fulfillment only in Shakespearean tragedy. In these poems, Nietzsche indeed displaces Pater and Emerson: companioned by Blake and Heraclitus, he dominates the scene. Yeats’s Shakespeare is still antinomian, finding in that doom enough resilience and intensity—it could not be held without them—to confront whatever violence life might enforce. In ‘Lapis Lazuli’ the words ‘gay’ and ‘gaiety’ have to do most of the heroic, Nietzschean work of insistence, building castles under Vesuvius:

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread [...] (VP 565)

47Jeffares, elucidating ‘Lapis Lazuli’, draws attention to a passage in Yeats’s ‘A General Introduction for My Work’ (NC 364),including:

The heroes of Shakespeare convey to us through their looks, or through the metaphorical patterns of their speech, the sudden enlargement of their vision, their ecstasy at the approach of death; ‘She should have died hereafter’, ‘Of many thousand kisses, the poor last’, ‘Absent thee from felicity awhile’. They have become God or Mother Goddess, the pelican, ‘My baby at my breast’, but all must be cold; no actress has ever sobbed when she played Cleopatra, even the shallow brain of a producer has never thought of such a thing. The supernatural is present, cold winds blow across our hands, upon our faces, the thermometer falls, and because of that cold we are hated by journalists and groundlings. (E&I 522-23)

48‘Cold’ corresponds in the audience to ‘gay’ in Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines, a sense amounting to a conviction of ‘the sudden enlargement of their vision, their ecstasy at the approach of death’; or the approach of a vision of death, mimed indeed but still to be believed in—lived through—for as long as the play lasts. There are at least two ways of interpreting ‘Gaiety transfiguring all that dread’. It can mean that the momentary self, as Yeats called it, passes beyond its worldly state into a hidden or sublime form, perhaps the form of wisdom. In October 1909, Yeats wrote of this in his journal:

Saw Hamlet on Saturday night, except for the chief ‘Ophelia’ scenes; missed these, as I had to be away for a while at the Abbey, without regret. I know not why, but their pathos, as it [is] played, always leaves me cold. I came back for Hamlet at the grave, where my delight begins again. I feel in Hamlet, as always in Shakespeare, that I am in the presence of a soul lingering on the storm-beaten threshold of sanctity. Has not that threshold always been terrible, even crime-haunted? Surely Shakespeare, in those last seeming idle years, was no quiet country gentleman, enjoying, as men like Dowden think, the temporal reward of an unvalued toil. Perhaps he sought for wisdom in itself at last, and not in its passionate shadows. Maybe he had passed the threshold, and none the less for Jonson’s drinking bout. Certainly one finds here and there in his work—is it not at the end of Henry VI, for instance—praise of country leisure sweetened by wisdom. (Au 522-23)

49This may entail no more, and no less, than the conversion of passion into the skill of music; as Pater says in ‘Shakespeare’s English Kings’:

  • 24 Pater, Appreciations, 208.

As in some sweet anthem of Handel, the sufferer, who put finger to the organ under the utmost pressure of mental conflict, extracts a kind of peace at last from the mere skill with which he sets his distress to music.24

  • 25 Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford (...)

50Or it may mean that the momentary self, by sublime negligence, achieves what Giorgio Agamben calls ‘a self-forgetting in the proper’—which I construe as the proper of the tragic form, the whole in which every part—every part of feeling and dread—is at once lost and saved.25

  • 26 Edmund Wilson, Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 30s, ed. by Lewis M. Dabney (New York: (...)

51The conversion of passion into music, fear into ecstasy, was a late accomplishment in Yeats. When Edmund Wilson published Axel’s Castle in 1931, he was justified in saying that ‘even the poetry of the noble Yeats, still repining through middle age over the emotional miscarriages of youth, is dully weighted, for all its purity and candor, by a leaden acquiescence in defeat’.26 But in the few remaining years of Yeats’s life, and with the provocation of Nietzsche, he transfigured that dread. Not without cost: some of these poems rant and rage more than is good for them, but the best of them—‘The Statues’ and ‘Cuchulain Comforted’—are justly Nietzschean.


52In ‘The Tragic Theatre’ (1910) Yeats wrote that ‘there is an art of the flood, the art of Titian when his Ariosto, and his Bacchus and Ariadne, give new images to the dreams of youth, and of Shakespeare when he shows us Hamlet broken away from life by the passionate hesitations of his reverie’ (E&I 242). Reverie is Yeats’s word for the mind when it is minding its own business, indifferent to the world’s. It occurred to him often, and most tellingly on 26 September 1937 when he attended a performance of Richard II at the Queen’s theatre in London. Displeased with it—although John Gielgud played Richard, Michael Redgrave Bolingbroke, and Peggy Ashcroft Queen Isabel—he complained to Dorothy Wellesley on 29 September that ‘the modern actor can speak to another actor, but he is incapable of revery [sic]. On the advice of Bloomsbury he has packed his soul in a bag & left it with the bar-attendant’. And then he put a question to Lady Dorothy: ‘Did Shakespeare in Richard II discover poetic revery?’ (CL InteLex 7079).

  • 27 Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (London: Fourth Estate, 1999), 268.

53The question comes as close as we are likely to come to Yeats’s Shakespeare. In effect, it anticipates by more than sixty years Harold Bloom’s claim, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1999), that Shakespeare invented us by inventing ‘human inwardness’, ‘personality’, and the ability to change by overhearing ourselves thinking. ‘Overhearing his own reverie’, Bloom says of Richard II in a marginal tribute to Yeats’s reading of that pathetic king and dazzling metaphysical poet, ‘Richard undergoes a change’.27 The human quality that Bloom adds to Yeats on reverie is that of a character’s listening to himself and completing, sometimes in action, sometimes in failure, his own rhetoric. Listening to oneself and turning the listening into theatre make a nuance in the understanding of reverie. Yeats’s sense of reverie makes it an intrinsic form of consciousness: it is never clear what the mind in reverie is thinking about, except that it has exempted itself from conditions and circumstances. Yeats described it most fully in ‘The Irish Dramatic Movement’, where he distinguished it from the common understanding of thought as the efficient form of cognition. He referred to a man who had in mind, when he spoke of thought, ‘the shaping energy that keeps us busy’. The obstinate questionings this man had most respect for were ‘how to change the method of government, how to change the language, how to revive our manufactures, and whether it is the Protestant or the Catholic that scowls at the other with the darker scowl’. Another man had in mind ‘thought as Pascal, as Montaigne, as Shakespeare, or as, let us say, Emerson, understood it—a reverie about the adventures of the soul, or of the personality, or some obstinate questioning of the riddle’. ‘Many who have to work hard’, Yeats continued, ‘always make time for this reverie, but it comes more easily to the leisured, and in this it is like a broken heart, which is, a Dublin newspaper assured us lately, impossible to a busy man’ (Ex 141). Reverie is Yeats’s word for the antinomian form of thinking. In Shakespeare, as in Yeats, it is invariably found where the conditions it faces are the wrong ones, such that in weak spirits or in especially difficult times it makes the mind feel somewhat ashamed of itself. It achieves itself only when the conditions of its thinking are transcended. If we were 7o change ‘broken away’, in that quotation from ‘The Tragic Theatre’, from the passive to the active voice, we would think again of Yeats’s Nietzsche and give Yeats’s Pater an edge he rarely had. Common to these several comparisons is Yeats’s determination not to have Shakespeare—or himself—coincide with his time or act as its spokesman. Yeats considered himself, as he considered Shakespeare and to some extent Spenser, as a man born too late to find his proper company. ‘If we would find a company of our own way of thinking, we must go backward to turreted walls, to Courts, to high rocky places, to little walled towns, to jesters like that jester of Charles V who made mirth out of his own death; to the Duke Guidobaldo in his sickness, or Duke Frederick in his strength, to all those who understood that life is not lived, if not lived for contemplation or excitement’ (E&I 252). Sometimes the excitement was in a turn of phrase, as in one that often occurred to Yeats—his father read it to him in Dublin—when he thought of reverie or of its companion, style; Coriolanus’s answer to one of the impudent servants in Aufidius’s house who demands: ‘Where dwellest thou?’ To which Coriolanus answers: ‘Under the canopy’. (IV.v.41) Reference to the canopy, the sky, rebukes the servant with an irony he could not be expected to appreciate. ‘Under the canopy!’, the servant repeats, ‘Where’s that?’ The OED cites this to mean ‘the overhanging firmament’ and also gives Hamlet’s ‘this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire’ (II.ii.311f.). Yeats referred to the episode in ‘Reveries over Childhood and Youth’. ‘I have seen Coriolanus played a number of times since then, and read it more than once, but that scene is more vivid than the rest, and it is my father’s voice that I hear and not Irving’s or Benson’s’ (Au 80). JBY’s voice, reading high passages from Coriolanus and other plays and poems to his son in Dublin, stayed in the poet’s mind even when other considerations entered to qualify his sense of Shakespeare.


54In ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’ (1927) T. S. Eliot noted that ‘the last few years have witnessed a number of recrudescences of Shakespeare’. Three of them held his attention:

  • 28 Eliot, Selected Essays, 126.

There is the fatigued Shakespeare, a retired Anglo-Indian, presented by Mr. Lytton Strachey; there is the messianic Shakespeare, bringing a new philosophy and a new system of yoga, presented by Mr. Middleton Murry; and there is the ferocious Shakespeare, a furious Samson, presented by Mr. Wyndham Lewis in his interesting book, The Lion and the Fox.28

  • 29 Ibid., 126.

55It seemed to Eliot that ‘one of the chief reasons for questioning Mr. Strachey’s Shakespeare, and Mr. Murry’s, and Mr. Lewis’s, is the remarkable resemblance which they bear to Mr. Strachey, and Mr. Murry, and Mr. Lewis respectively’. ‘I have not a very clear idea of what Shakespeare was like’, he claimed, ‘but I do not conceive him as very like either Mr. Strachey, or Mr. Murry, or Mr. Wyndham Lewis, or myself’.29

56It would be proper to add Yeats’s name to these Shakespeareans, and to say that Yeats’s Shakespeare bears a resemblance, remarkable or not, to Yeats. Like Shakespeare, Yeats was born out of his time: unity of the creative act had to make up for an impossible Unity of Being:

I see in Shakespeare a man in whom human personality, hitherto restrained by its dependence on Christendom or by its own need for self-control, burst like a shell. Perhaps secular intellect, setting itself free after five hundred years of struggle has made him the greatest of dramatists, and yet because an antithetical art could create a hundred plays which preserved whether made by a hundred hands or by one—the unity of a painting or of a Temple pediment, we might, had the total works of Sophocles survived—they too born of a like struggle though with a different enemy—not think him greatest (AVA 9).

  • 30 23 February, 1910 to JBY (L 549, CL InteLex 1308).
  • 31 25 October, 1909 to John Martin Harvey (University of Delaware), CL InteLex 1222, and quoted in Li (...)

57Yeats did not think of Shakespeare, as he thought of Blake and Shelley, as kin to himself; though he claimed that Shakespeare’s imagination, like Blake’s and his own, was Celtic and had the Celtic susceptibilities. He would not concede to Dowden that Shakespeare was a comfortable Tudor. The aspects of Shakespeare which I have called antinomian—Pater’s word—were also aspects of Yeats when he thought of himself as by native genius outside the law. Yeats and his Shakespeare moved, like Pater’s Marius, in the external world and among other people only as a kind of irony. For that reason, Shakespeare was to Yeats ‘always a tragic comedian’.30 And for that reason, I think, Hamlet and Richard II touched him more acutely than the other plays, each of their heroes being, as he said of Hamlet, ‘a soul jagged & broken away from the life of its world’.31


1 Rosemond Tuve, Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery: Renaissance Poetic and Twentieth-Century Critics (1947; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 143-44.

2 Hugh Kenner: ‘The Sacred Book of the Arts’: reprinted in John Unterecker (editor), Yeats: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963) pp. 13-14.

3 A. Norman Jeffares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W.B.Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1984), 279-80.

4 Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), I, 81.

5 William M. Murphy, Prodigal Father: The Life of John Butler Yeats (1839-1922) (Ithaca and London, 1978), 563 n.

6 Ibid, 100.

7 Ibid., 589-90n, referring to Wade 80, p.90.

8 Quoted in Murphy, 98-9.

9 Ibid., 99.

10 Edward Dowden, Fragments from Old Letters E.D. to E.D.W: 1869-1892 (London: Dent, 1914), 55.

11 Edward Dowden, ShakspereA Critical Study of His Mind and Art, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper, 1918), 172-73.

12 Ibid., 66-67.

13 Edward Dowden, Letters of Edward Dowden and His Correspondents (London: Dent, 1914), 184.

14 John Eglinton, Preface, in Letters of Edward Dowden and his Correspondents, supra, xi-xvi (p. xiii).

15 Yeats, Plays and Controversies (New York: Macmillan, 1924) p. 86; EX, 139-140.

16 Peter Ure, Yeats and Anglo-Irish Literature (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1974), 212-13.

17 J. B. Yeats, Letters to His Son W.B.Yeats and Others 1869-1922, ed. by Joseph Hone (London: Faber and Faber, 1944), 189.

18 Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1930), 216-17.

19 Walter Pater, Appeciations, with an Essay on Style (London: Macmillan, 1944), 193.

20 Ibid., 207.

21 Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry: The 1893 Text, ed. by Donald L. Hill (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 18-19.

22 Pater, Appreciations, 199.

23 T. S. Eliot, ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’, in Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), 126-40 (p. 131-32).

24 Pater, Appreciations, 208.

25 Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 98.

26 Edmund Wilson, Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 30s, ed. by Lewis M. Dabney (New York: Library of America, 2007), 835.

27 Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (London: Fourth Estate, 1999), 268.

28 Eliot, Selected Essays, 126.

29 Ibid., 126.

30 23 February, 1910 to JBY (L 549, CL InteLex 1308).

31 25 October, 1909 to John Martin Harvey (University of Delaware), CL InteLex 1222, and quoted in Life 1, 413.


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