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The Living Stream

Warwick Gould

Essays in Memory of A. Norman Jeffares 1920-2005

The Tower: Yeats’s Anti-Modernist Monument

Ronald Schuchard

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1When the Year of the Big Wind of Modernism brought the publication of Eliot’s The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, Yeats had only begun to lay the foundation of his own poetic monument, The Tower (1928), quietly and modestly publishing in that year a small Cuala Press volume entitled Seven Poems and a Fragment and a privately printed edition of The Trembling of the Veil, a chapter of his autobiography. It had been five years since he purchased Thoor Ballylee, married Georgie Hyde-Lees, and began the automatic writing with her. Out of the public eye at the tower, working on a vision of historical cycles, disturbed by the Irish civil war, the father of two small children, he was nonetheless strongly aware of what these two authors had achieved. ‘I am reading the new Joyce’, he wrote to Olivia Shakespear—‘I hate it when I dip here & there but when I read it in the right order I am much impressed... It has our Irish cruelty & also our kind of strength & the Martello Tower pages are full of beauty’ (CL InteLex 4085, 8 March [?1922]; L 679). Yeats had actually started reading Ulysses two years earlier when it was serialized in the Little Review, writing to John Quinn both about Joyce and the restoration of Thoor Ballylee, which he described as ‘a setting for my old age, a place to influence lawless youth... If I had this tower when Joyce began I might have been of use, have got him to meet those who might have helped him’. If Yeats had not made an occultist out of Joyce, he was nonetheless intrigued by the new novel—‘an entirely new thing’, he wrote, ‘neither what the eye sees nor the ear hears, but what the rambling mind thinks and imagines from moment to moment. He has certainly surpassed in intensity any novelist of our time’ (CL InteLex 3465, 23 July [1918]; L 651).

  • 1 Yeats published ‘A Biographical Fragment’, an excerpt from The Trembling of the Veil, in the Crite (...)
  • 2 See ‘A Foreign Mind’, Athenaeum, 4653 (4 July 1919), 552-23. In reading Yeats’s The Cutting of an (...)
  • 3 The Letters of T. S. Eliot, vol. I, ed. Valerie Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), 611.

2During the year Yeats moved from Oxford to Dublin, alternating residence between Merrion Square and Thoor Ballylee, his windows shot out in the one, the bridge blown up at the other. In December he had lunch for the first time with another relatively youthful modernist, the author of The Waste Land, and went away promising him some unlikely prose of dreams and visions—a new section of The Trembling of the Veil—for the Criterion.1 Eliot, who had deemed Yeats ‘a foreign mind’ the previous year,2 was greatly impressed by the discussion, telling Ottoline Morrell that he found Yeats ‘really one of a very small number of people with whom one can talk profitably about poetry, and I found him altogether stimulating’.3 The senior poet had just been elected a Senator of the Irish Free State, and his new role in public life made the tower an even more necessary refuge, his ascent and descent of its winding stair a more conscious symbol of poetic and political antinomies, his pursuit of intellectual beauty in the midst of national violence a more pressing concern.

  • 4 See my ‘Hawk and Butterfly: The Double Vision of the Wild Swans at Coole (1917, 1919)’, YA 10, 111 (...)
  • 5 Yeats had kept the poem in its original order for Macmillan’s Edition De Luxe. Initiated in 1930 a (...)
  • 6 In his editorial introduction to The Tower (1928): Manuscript Materials (Cornell: Cornell Universi (...)

3I begin with this portrait of Yeats in 1922, because it is in Seven Poems and a Fragment that we see the first architectural stage of The Tower, a volume that reaches back to retrieve a suppressed poem of 1912 but that is primarily the poetic record of the decade 19171927, from the acquisition of Thoor Ballylee and the first poem of his marriage to the final poem of the volume and his subsequent departure. Yeats had characteristically allowed his sisters to print limited Cuala Press editions of his poems and plays a year or two before the trade editions, as with Responsibilities (1914, 1916) and The Wild Swans at Coole (1917, 1919), but The Tower was to be preceded by no fewer than three Cuala editions: there might have been four, but he chose to include the Cuala edition of Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921) in the new Macmillan edition of his collected works. He did, however, include all the poems from Seven Poems and a Fragment (1922), The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems (1924), and October Blast (1927), so that when the trade volume of The Tower was published early in 1928 there was only one previously unpublished poem, ‘Colonus’ Praise’, a choral lyric from his new play, Oedipus at Colonus. Yeats deliberately changed the titles of some poems and scrambled the chronology and order of the Cuala volumes to diminish the autobiographical element, as he had done in The Wild Swans at Coole, thereby making the relation and context of many poems difficult to discern.4 Moreover, it would prove to be the most unstable of his major volumes; if you do not have a copy of the first edition, you have not read the volume as it was published in 1928. In gathering and revising his separate volumes for his Collected Poems in 1933, he altered the makeup and character of no volume more dramatically than The Tower—most notably the removal of ‘The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid’ to a section of ‘Narrative and Dramatic Poems’, where, separated from its original home and context, it languished for fifty-six years. When the temporary expiration of copyright outside the US occurred in 1989, however, A. Norman Jeffares and Daniel Albright restored it to the The Tower volume in their new editions of the poems, but Richard Finneran kept it separated in his US editions. Such removals, alterations, additions, and conflicting orders have of course had consequences in reading and interpreting the volume.5 In 1999 Penguin published an edition of The Tower in its Poetry First Editions series, and in 2004 Scribner published a so-called facsimile edition, but there has been no sustained discussion of the volume (or many of the poems) in that state, as if critics had not found a way of treating it as a modernist text.6 Thus, in asserting that it is an anti-modernist text, I return to the sequence of Cuala editions that underpin the first unveiling of that unsettled poetic edifice, which was, it will be seen, consciously constructed as a counter-monument to The Waste Land and Ulysses.

4Students of Yeats understand that the poems in his separate volumes do not necessarily represent recent work or coincide with specific periods of his life as a poet, making it dangerous to talk about his development from volume to volume. He frequently held back individual poems and groups of poems for years, reaching into his hoard unexpectedly to bring one or more forward, leaving us to speculate on the grounds of suppression, publication, and arrangement. We thus want to find justification for the presence of the oldest poem in The Tower, ‘The New Faces’, written in early December 1912, on the eve of Lady Gregory’s departure for America with the touring Abbey players. Yeats did not want her to make the trip: ‘I have a sense of ill luck about it’, he wrote in his journal. ‘I wish I had her stars’ (Mem 267-68). Unable to cast her horoscope, and in a melancholic, introspective mood, he wrote the poem instead, imagining that should she precede him in death it would be impossible for him to return to Coole and walk the gravel paths where they had wrought works ‘that shall break the teeth of Time’ (VP 435). The unbearable thought of new faces inhabiting Coole leads him to affirm that his and her ghostly shadows will always inhabit the garden and be more real there than the living, whose presence would seem ‘more shadowy than they’. It is evident that Lady Gregory’s earlier nervous collapse following the struggle for ownership of Coole with her son Robert and his wife Margaret, and the presence there now of the children, playing ‘what tricks they will | In the old rooms’, come into Yeats’s personal image of those undefined new faces (VP 435).

  • 7 See James Pethica, ‘“Upon a House Shaken”: The Struggle for Coole Park 1907-1912’, YA 16, 3-51, es (...)
  • 8 This persistent view has come forward from Jeffares’s first essay on the poem, ‘The New Faces: A N (...)
  • 9 Letter of 9 December 1912 (Berg).
  • 10 CL InteLex 2035 [12 December 1912]; the letter was published but misdated [c. 15 December 1912] by (...)
  • 11 For ‘The New Faces’ and the composition of ‘A Prayer for My Daughter,’ see Jon Stallworthy, Betwee (...)

5But a more immediate context has recently come to light: Robert had actually set in motion the sale of the Coole estate with the Congested Districts Board (a formal offer was received on 17 December), and the ‘new faces’ allude more directly to the new occupants that would have followed a sale that must have seemed a sure and dispiriting thing to both Lady Gregory and Yeats.7 Some readers have deemed Yeats, who addresses Lady Gregory in the first line as ‘you, that have grown old’, supremely tactless in so describing her sixty years—and even in sending the poem to her—but she did not see it that way.8 ‘The lines are very touching’, she replied on receiving it. ‘I have often thought our ghosts will haunt that path and our talk hang in the air—It is good to have a meeting place anyhow, in this place where so many children of our minds were born’.9 What she resisted was not an insensitive image of her age, or even his premature intimation of their mortality, but an indiscreet allusion to a highly sensitive and unresolved domestic situation at Coole. ‘You won’t publish it just now will you?’ she asked, before answering for him imperiously, ‘I think not’. Somewhat abashed, Yeats assured her in response, ‘You need not fear that I shall publish this poem at present—’, but in certainty of the poem’s permanence he informed her that he had ‘written [it] on a blank page of my Collected edition for safety’.10 Ten years later, at a respectable distance, and having toyed with incorporating its images into ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’,11 he rescued it from further tampering and preserved it inconspicuously in Seven Poems and a Fragment. By the time he brought it down into The Tower six years later, far removed from its earlier context and associations, ‘The New Faces’ had finally reached its timely moment, its old intimation reverberating anew in the volume as an integral part of Yeats’s deep preoccupation with age, transience, and ‘approaching night’ (VP 431).

6The second oldest poem in The Tower, ‘Owen Ahern and His Dancers’, was personally so sensitive that it was held back seven years, and yet we can now see it as the poem that marks the true beginning of the tower period. On Robert Gregory’s urging, Yeats had purchased the tower for £35 in March 1917 from the Congested Districts Board, which had itself acquired the property from the Gregory estates for redistribution among the people who were smallholders in the neighbourhood. He was at this time writing his treatise on Anima Mundi and the Antithetical Self, a further development of the theory of the mask, Per Amica Silentae Lunae, which he dedicated to Maud Gonne’s twenty-one-year-old daughter Iseult Gonne (“Maurice”) in May 1917. That summer he took possession of the tower, secured an architect and builder for renovation, and set out for Maud Gonne’s home in Normandy, where with a sense of great urgency he would propose to Iseult in hopes that she would become the lady of Ballylee Castle. The story is well known: Iseult refused him and his ill-advised ultimatum, and in September he returned to England, proposed to Miss Georgie Hyde-Lees, and married her on 20 October. In the first few days of their honeymoon Yeats fell into deep remorse of conscience (Joyce’s agenbite of inwit) over what he had done, suffering great regret for having fled from Iseult in Normandy. On 24 October, amidst despairing feelings that he had betrayed Iseult, Maud, George (as Yeats called her), and himself, he wrote a self-castigating lyric entitled ‘The Lover Speaks’ (now part I of ‘Owen Ahern and his Dancers’), bemoaning the fact that his ‘Heart’ had gone mad with the burden of unrequited love, a love for Iseult that had, he writes, ‘come unsought | Upon the Norman upland’ (VP 449). ‘But O!’, the poet cries of his disappointment and hasty departure, ‘my Heart could bear no more when the upland caught the wind; | I ran, I ran, from my love’s side because my Heart went mad’. Later that afternoon, George, in an attempt to bring him out of his emotional darkness, surprised Yeats ‘by attempting automatic writing’, and he immediately cast a horoscope in awe of the event (YVP1 512). Three days later, still in emotional confusion but in growing astonishment over the phenomenon that George had initially ‘faked’ but irresistibly continued, he wrote a second lyric, ‘The Heart Replies’ (now part II), in which the Heart defends its action of having made a ‘wildly bred’ man of fifty years run from ‘a cage bird’ of a child: ‘“Let the cage bird and the cage bird mate and the wild bird mate in the wild’”. In reply, the poet admits, alluding to George, ‘“I did not find in any cage the woman at my side”’, and painfully laments, ‘“O but her heart would break to learn my thoughts are far away”’. But the reproving Heart remains indifferent to his self-pitying cries and admonishes him to desist: ‘“O let her choose a young man now and all for his wild sake’”.

  • 12 CL InteLex 3350, 29 October [1917]; L 633-34.
  • 13 CL InteLex 3354, 3 November [1917].

7On 29 October (two days later), Yeats wrote to inform Lady Gregory of the ‘miraculous intervention’ that had occurred, describing first the ‘great gloom’ that had possessed him— ‘(of which I hope, and believe, George knew nothing),’ he added naively—and then of George’s automatic writing and the emotional transformation that it had brought about in him. ‘From being more miserable than I ever remember being since Maud Gonne’s marriage I became extremely happy.... The misery produced two poems which I will send you presently to hide away for me, adding ‘they are among the best I have done’.12 The next week he wrote to her again about the poems, saying uneasily that ‘they can hardly be published for years, if ever. I got some peace of mind by writing them & they are quite sincere’.13 They were indeed hidden away, kept out of Seven Poems and a Fragment but eventually included in The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems, brought to light there and in The Tower, latterly under a single distancing but hardly disguising title, ‘Owen Ahern and his Dancers’. It is, however, a pivotal poem in the volume, marking as it does the complex of days and the emotional / intellectual liberation from which the succeeding poems of the volume spring.

8The period of intense misery and unhappiness that began with the marriage of Maud Gonne in February 1903 and ended on the advent of George’s automatic writing in October 1917, as described in his letter to Lady Gregory, coincides exactly with Yeats’s fall from and return to the visionary plane—he had written no visionary poems during those fourteen years, with the possible exception of ‘The Cold Heaven’, though it seems a poem of remembered vision. When the annunciation arrived—when the spirit masters informed him that they had come to bring him new metaphors for poetry— the exhilaration that followed gave rise to a flood of new poems that celebrate his return to magical and visionary life and that see his union with George as a spiritual marriage of the highest order. She becomes the young bride who is Harun Al-Rashid’s gift to his ageing poet-friend, an extraordinary young woman who shares his thirst for ‘those old crabbed mysteries’ and who can give him ‘the best that life can give, | Companionship in those mysterious things | That make a man’s soul or a woman’s soul | Itself and not some other soul’ (VP 465). In the poem Yeats has his persona describe that miraculous moment when his bride began to speak, ‘sitting upright on the bed’:

Or was it she that spoke or some great Djinn?
I say that a Djinn spoke. A livelong hour
She seemed the learned man and I the child;
Truths without father came, truths that no book
Of all the uncounted books that I have read,
Nor thought out of her mind or mine begot,
Self-born, high-born, and solitary truths... (VP 467)

  • 14 Under the title ‘Desert Geometry or the Gift of Harun Al-Raschid’, Yeats included the poem at the (...)

9In ‘childish ignorance’, her nightly voice becomes a source of great wisdom for the poet, but in time he begins to worry that she might lose her ignorance ‘and so | Dream that I love her only for the voice’. He shivers at the thought that she might lose her love for him ‘because she had lost | Her confidence in mine’. More than the metaphorical recreation of their marriage and visionary partnership, the poem is a sincere love poem to a woman who came to him as a gift, unknown and unloved, but who has since become a woman who ‘now | Can shake more blossom from autumnal chill | Than all my bursting springtime knew’ (VP 466). If we read The Tower without ‘The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid’, if it remains isolated among ‘Narrative and Dramatic Poems’, we miss the onset of what becomes one of the most transcendent themes of the volume, the discovery of the power and necessity of human love and affection in the arduous pursuit of a vision of reality, of what Yeats calls in the poem ‘the stark mystery that has dazed my sight’.14 And so, in the midst of writing A Vision, when he came to write poems as prayers on the births of their children, as in ‘A Prayer for My Son’, the poet, invoking the image of the Christ child hunted by the henchmen of Herod, prays that he and George, too, may be worthy of another man and woman who ‘Hurried through the smooth and rough | And through the fertile and waste, | Protecting, till the danger past, | With human love’ (VP 436).

10No sooner did he reclaim his visionary life than he recalled the fictional personae created in his stories of the 1890s, Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne, characters, Yeats explained, ‘who have once again become a part of the phantasmagoria through which I can alone express my convictions about the world’ (VP 852). As he placed them in poems and dialogues with their visions and dancers, he also summoned his heroic persona Cuchulain to take part in a poetic dialogue with a Girl and a Fool about the antithetical self (‘The Hero, the Girl, and the Fool’), a crucial dialogue reduced to the final two stanzas (‘The Fool by the Roadside’) in A Vision (CVA 219) and later in the Collected Poems (restored in the Jeffares and Albright editions). ‘I rage at my own image in the glass’, says the Girl who longs for Cuchulain’s love, ‘That’s so unlike myself that when you praise it | It is as though you praised another, or even | Mocked me with praise of my mere opposite’. Cuchulain, too, rages at his own strength ‘because you have loved it’, having heard that ‘men have reverence for their holiness | And not themselves’. But it is only the Fool listening by the roadside who knows that the failure of lovers to discover and love each other’s opposites, to know the self and the mask, is what brings love’s conflicts, and that only when time has run its course does the Fool think ‘I may find | A faithful love, a faithful love’ (VP 447-9).

  • 15 Dulac’s painting, ‘The Good Chiron Taught His Pupils How to Play upon the Harp’, had appeared as a (...)

11It was necessary for Yeats to summon others from his phantasmagoria as well, especially the creatures of its lunar bestiary, creatures whose presence was essential to his imaginative life and that he thought had abandoned him—the dark leopards, the wild witches, the holy centaurs. A year before the miraculous intervention, in the midst of creative despair, he had written ‘Lines Written in Dejection’ about their absence. ‘When have I last looked on | The round green eyes and the long wavering bodies | Of the dark leopards of the moon?’ he asks. ‘All the wild witches, those most noble ladies... are gone. | The holy centaurs of the hills are vanished; | I have nothing but the embittered sun’ (VP 343-34). So when in his recovered lunar excitement he saw his friend Edmund Dulac’s startling illustration of a black centaur teaching a poet the lyre, the image suggested the symbolic return of his own centaur, whom he addresses in that elusive poem, ‘On a Picture of a Black Centaur by Edmund Dulac’ (Plate 16).15 The centaur appears on the edge of a wood, under a tree on whose branches perch two parrots, which Yeats associates with the hawks and ravens of unresting thought and abstraction that thwart the creative mind, with what he calls elsewhere (‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’) ‘The innumerable clanging wings that have put out the moon’ (VP 427). ‘Your hooves have stamped at the black margin of the wood’, the poet begins, ‘Even where horrible green parrots call and swing. | My works are all stamped down into the sultry mud’ (VP 442). In welcoming the centaur, he describes how in his absence he had been lost in the ‘mad abstract dark’ and been driven ‘half insane’ by a parrot’s green wing, but that now he sips ‘full-flavoured wine’ found in an ancient dream world. ‘Stretch out your limbs and sleep a long Saturnian sleep’, he urges the centaur after its long return journey, regretful that he had lost faith in him: ‘I have loved you better than my soul for all my words’. And the grateful poet is comforted to know that ‘there is none so fit to keep a watch and keep | Unwearied eyes upon those horrible green birds’, birds that have ceaselessly mimicked and mocked an image-barren imagination and left its visionless works to be trampled in the mud.

Plate 16. Edmund Dulac’s ‘The Good Chiron Taught His Pupils How to Play upon the Harp’ in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1918). Private Collection.

12In his new heightened consciousness, Yeats is also moved to conjure the ghostly images and indelible memories of old friends, recently dead, in ‘All Soul’s Night’, written at Oxford while the tower was being refurbished and printed as the opening poem of Seven Poems and a Fragment. He would later append it to the end of A Vision (1925), informing his readers in the introduction that ‘I have moments of exaltation like that in which I wrote “All Soul’s Night”, but I have other moments when remembering my ignorance of philosophy I doubt if I can make another share my excitement’ (CVA xii). Yeats’s exaltation in this poem comes out of his renewed magical life, his re-mastery of the Cabalistic meditation techniques that he had learned from MacGregor Mathers and practiced with William Horton and Florence Farr Emery as adepts and magicians of the Golden Dawn. His excitement derives from his ability to evoke images from the Great Memory and follow the wandering mind into visionary states, for in their aftermath he has ‘a marvellous thing to say, | A certain marvellous thing | None but the living mock’ (VP 471). But this poem is less about his friends and more about his call upon them as spirits to help him keep his mind fixed and undistracted in the meditation process. The opening of the poem is strikingly similar to that of a later visionary poem, ‘Byzantium’. Here, ‘Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell’ summons a ghost that can ‘drink from the wine-breath’. ‘Byzantium’ also begins at midnight, when the ‘great cathedral gong’ (VP 497) of Santa Sophia summons an image, an image of a supernatural, breathless spirit that has the power to lead him to a virtual sea of visionary images. In both poems the movement of the meditating mind on the winding path of vision is likened to mummies wound in mummy-cloth. But whereas in ‘Byzantium’ the confident poet follows the winding mind through trance into a glorious vision of selfbegetting images, in the earlier ‘All Soul’s Night’ he as yet calls upon familiar spirits to help him fully develop and discipline a mind that can not be diverted from vision. After the great Christ Church Bell sounds the moment for evocation to begin, the poet, alluding to the intensified guerilla warfare in Ireland, declares, ‘I need some mind that, if the cannon sound | From every quarter of the world, can stay | Wound in mind’s pondering | As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound’ (VP 471). After calling up the images of his esoteric friends, he knows that ‘No living man can drink from the whole wine’ of the supernatural world, but he declares again, ‘I have mummy truths to tell | Whereat the living mock’. ‘Such thought’, he says— the thought of perceiving and telling those visionary truths, even if less than whole truths, whole wine—such thought he will hold tight ‘Till meditation master all its parts’, and when that mastery is achieved, he is certain,

Nothing can stay my glance
Until that glance run in the world’s despite
To where the damned have howled away their hearts,
And where the blessed dance; (VP 474)

13In calling for this mastery of meditation, the poet further declares that he is prepared to follow the winding, wandering mind wherever it leads, to all visions born of contraries—paradise and hell, the blessed and the damned, good and evil—visions which only the living mock, visions which civil war would surely bring. ‘Such thought’, he says again in closing his invocation, ‘that in it bound | I need no other thing, | Wound in mind’s wandering | As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound’. The poet is finally exalted in the thought that vision can be achieved and sustained ‘in the world’s despite’, excited in his belief that the self can be suspended in a timeless moment even as the cannons roar and mankind mocks, that imagination is superior to the mundanity of violence and mockery. That belief is all he requires as a poet. The poem is, in effect, a new manifesto, a reaffirmation of his belief in the magical, visionary mind in times of political turbulence and destruction. It was thus quite fitting that three years later he retrieved it for the end of A Vision, and that ultimately he chose to make it the concluding poem or epilogue of The Tower.

  • 16 See ch. 10 of Helen Vendler’s Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Cambridge, MA: Belknap (...)

14We see that as Yeats gradually rebuilt Thoor Ballylee, he gradually built The Tower volume, making of his new emotional and visionary life the poems that make up its preliminary volumes. In the summer of 1918 he wrote some cornerstone verse, ‘To Be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee’, originally in eight lines (CL InteLex 3465, 23 July [1918]; L 651). He had experimented with the eight-line stanza in ‘September 1913’, but suddenly in the summer of 1918 he also carved the major building block of the great poems to come—the octave, and especially Tasso’s ancient Italian form, ottava rima. That June, Yeats and George were living in a nearby house lent by Lady Gregory while alterations to Thoor Ballylee ensued. There he wrote ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ in octaves. When they moved into the tower, he returned to the stanza for ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’. As he employed it, he began to depart from and return to the stanza as needed, finding in it a kind of architectural support for certain poems. He wrote five stanzas of ottava rima for the first section of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, before moving on to a variety of stanza lengths in the remaining sections, writing to Lady Gregory during composition: ‘The first poem is rather in the mood of the Anne poem but the rest are wilder’ (CL InteLex 3900, 10 April [1921]; L 669). Thus, we see him moving freely in and out of eight-line forms, using an octave for section II of ‘The Tower’, ottava rima for sections I and IV (with separate octaves in VII) of ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, and ottava rima for the whole of ‘Among School Children’ and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. In the course of writing The Tower he recharged the form in English; where Byron had made ottava rima his vehicle for satire and comedy, and Shelley for philosophical musing, Yeats made it serve a greater range of occasion and emotion—elegy, valediction, prayer, meditation, reverie, remorse, bitterness, rage, ecstasy. It was the mastery of the eight-line stanza, as well as the mastery of meditation, that brought Yeats to the ‘self possession and power’ (AVB 8) that he felt he had achieved in The Tower.16

15Inevitably, the growing violence in Ireland intruded more and more immediately upon Yeats’s visionary resurgence, marring his ‘ghostly solitude’ (VP 429), and in February 1921 he was moved to publicly denounce British policy in Ireland at the Oxford Union. One particular atrocity that had been gnawing upon his conscience was the senseless shooting of a young mother, sitting on her porch with a child in arms, by drunken Black-and-Tan soldiers passing in a lorry near Gort in September 1919. When in April 1921 he came to write ‘Thoughts upon the Present State of the World’, the original title of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, he described its first two sections to Olivia Shakespear: ‘They are not philosophical but simple & passionate, a lamentation over lost peace & lost hope. My own philosophy does not much brighten the prospect, so far as any future we shall live to see is concerned’ (CL InteLex 3899, 9 April [1921]; L 668). ‘Now days are dragon-ridden’, he writes passionately in section I, bitterly recounting the Gort murder, ‘the nightmare | Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery | Can leave the mother, murdered at her door, | To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free’ (VP 429). In the middle of section III, where he compares the solitary soul to a swan, he wrote to Lady Gregory, expressing his uncertainty about the poem’s merit ‘or whether I have now enough emotion for personal poetry’ (CL InteLex 3900, 10 April [1921]; L 668). In this poem and its sequel, ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, Yeats summons, as we know, tremendous personal emotion to address the claims of violence on his art.

16‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ does begin simply with a subdued meditation in ottava rima on the impermanence of great works of art: ‘Many ingenious lovely things are gone | That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude’, he begins, thereby striking one of the most recurring themes in the volume and of his later work (VP 428). Here he points to ‘An ancient image made of olive-wood’ (that of Athene in the Acropolis), to ‘Phidias’ famous ivories | And all the golden grasshoppers and bees’, just as in ‘Lapis Lazuli’, where in recounting the cycles of passing civilizations he reminds us that ‘No handiwork of Callimachus | Who handled marble as if it were bronze, | Made draperies that seemed to rise | When sea-wind swept the corner, stands’ (VP 566). The beautiful opening stanza could be a free-standing lyric, but it suddenly shifts from the plight of art in time to the plight of the ‘pretty toys’ of the Irish cultural revival in the present— how its ‘fine thought’ and philosophy were eroded by bitterness and swept away by the coarse broom of political violence. The visionary philosophy of the automatic writing was certainly shaping the poem, for as he wrote it he informed Olivia Shakespear that he was ‘searching out signs of the whirling gyres of the historical cone as we see it & hoping that by their study I may see deeper into what is to come’ (CL InteLex 3899, 9 April [1921]; L 668). His prophetic poem ‘The Second Coming’ had already been published, and in a continuing prophetic mode Yeats sees the turbulence and darkening thought in Ireland as a national manifestation of a larger historical cycle. Yeats thus wrote the poem in ‘deep gloom’ over the political violence that had come to reign and that had sundered a cultural vision, but he also wrote with an equal concern for the effect of violence on his personal vision; indeed, the primary focus of the poem is on the poet’s relation to his imagination, his soul, and his monuments in the midst of historical violence. ‘He who can read the signs’ of historical cycles, he writes in the fifth stanza (and Yeats himself could read them well),

knows no work can stand,
Whether health, wealth or peace of mind were spent
On master-work of intellect or hand,
No honour leave its mighty monument (VP 429)

17Were it otherwise, were he able to still the ravages of time on art, it would take its toll on the creation of art in a tragic world, would ‘break upon his ghostly solitude’, would interfere with the highest aim of the poet—to transmute his soul into art, his only victory over time and ‘approaching night’, the developed theme of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. The artists and the men of culture who can read the signs of history dare to admit that at any time in history ‘Incindiary or bigot could be found | To burn that stump on the Acropolis, | Or break in bits the famous ivories | Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees’ (VP 430), but in their creative enterprise and tragic awareness those artists are not diverted by violence from the pursuit of beauty. ‘Come’, cries Yeats, putting imperious words in the mouths of bigots, ‘let us mock at the great’, at those artists ‘That had such burdens on the mind | And toiled so hard and late | To leave some monument behind, | Nor thought of the levelling wind’ (VP 432). ‘I won-der’, Yeats wrote to Olivia after finishing the poem and while working on ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, ‘will literature be much changed by that most momentous of events, the return of evil’ (CL Intelex 4117, [23 Aprl, 1922]; L 680). The reality of that cyclical return is manifest in the final stanza, ‘Violence upon the roads: violence of horses; |... evil gathers head: | Herodias’ daughters have returned again’, and out of fourteenth-century historical memory appears ‘Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks, | That insolent fiend Robert Artisson’ (VP 433). But even as an evil figure rides upon the dark turning of the Great Wheel, we know that the poet is in the tower, locked in ghostly solitude: ‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes , | What more is there to say?’ (VP 429-30)

18Yeats was of course continuing to write plays as well as poems related to A Vision, and he excerpted separate lines of verse from his new play The Cat and the Moon and gave them to T. S. Eliot as a counterpoise for the Criterion, published there in July 1924 as ‘The Cat and the Moon’, just before the Cuala edition of The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems. Yeats’s preface to the volume was written in the form of a letter to Lady Gregory, in which he writes that ‘the other day when I read that strange “Waste Land” by Mr. T. C. Eliot I thought of your work and of Synge’s; and he... writes but of his own mind. That is the kind of insoluble problem that makes the best conversation, and if you will come and visit me, I will call the Dublin poets together, and we will discuss it until midnight’ (VP 854). Musing on Eliot’s monumental poem, and on the nature of art, Yeats had come to the conclusion, borne of Per Amica and A Vision, that Eliot had sought his self rather than his opposite, and ironically had failed to achieve, in Eliot’s word, impersonality (in Yeats’s, the mask). He had also thought more about Joyce. It was the beginning of a criticism in progress to be developed in A Vision, where he would relate Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Waste Land to seemingly dissimilar writings of Pound and Pirandello as exhibiting the fragmentation of a unified consciousness, of unity of being:

I find at this 23rd Phase which is it is said the first where there is hatred of the abstract, where the intellect turns upon itself, Mr Ezra Pound, Mr Eliot, Mr Joyce, Signor Pirandello, who either eliminate from metaphor the poet’s phantasy and substitute a strangeness discovered by historical or contemporary research or who break up the logical processes of thought by flooding them with associated ideas or words that seem to drift into the mind by chance; or who set side by side as in ‘Henry IV’, ‘The Waste Land’, ‘Ulysses’, the physical primary — a lunatic among his keepers, a man fishing behind a gas works, the vulgarity of a single Dublin day prolonged through 700 pages — and the spiritual primary delirium, the Fisher King, Ulysses’ wandering. (CVA 211-12)

  • 17 Richard Ellmann, Eminent Domain (Oxford: OUP, 1970), 51.

19‘It is as though myth and fact’, Yeats observes, ‘united until the exhaustion of the Renaissance, have now fallen so far apart that man understands for the first time the rigidity of fact, and calls up, by that very recognition, myth— the Mask— which now but gropes its way out of the mind’s dark but will shortly pursue and terrify’ (CVA 212). As Richard Ellmann comments, ‘Yeats implies that in these writers myth, instead of merging with fact in a symbolic whole, has collided with it to produce a frenzied miscellany. This is a prelude to the manifestation of myth in some fearful, dehumanized form’.17 As Yeats had written of French poets in the 1890s in The Trembling of the Veil, he might also say again of Joyce and Eliot, ‘after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm... what more is possible? After us the Savage God’ (Au 349).

20‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, begun almost immediately after ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ as the war and the Irregulars encroached upon the tower, was temporarily separated from its companion poem in The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems. As he read proofs for The Trembling of the Veil, he wrote to Sturge Moore that when he was not reading proofs he was working on ‘a series of poems about this Tower and on the civil war at which I look... as if it were some phenomenon of nature’ (LTSM 46). Indeed, that natural phenomenon was the tumultuous historical cycle in which he placed the previous poem, but in the midst of violence he is also attracted by processes in the natural world around him, of birds and bees, and of supernatural images—some monstrous, some magical—as he meditates again upon art and upon the alternating fullness and emptiness of the human heart.

21This poem, too, begins simply in ottava rima: ‘Surely among a rich man’s flowering lawns... Life overflows without ambitious pains’, choosing what shape it will (VP 417). ‘Mere dreams’, he contradicts himself as he sees the image of the fountain of life and the ‘abounding glittering jet’ of the imagination displaced by an empty sea-shell, yet hoping in these violent times that ancestral spirits might still ‘take our greatness with our violence’. As he considers his predecessors in the tower, men of active life now forgotten, he wishes to take his place in their ancestral procession as a poet, ‘that after me | My bodily heirs may find, | To exalt a lonely mind, | Befitting emblems of adversity’ (VP 420). What constitutes the nature and making of such a poetic emblem occupies much of the poem, but in considering his heirs and descendants, in affirming that in life ‘love and friendship are enough’, he declares that ‘whatever flourish and decline’ in the cycles of their lives, ‘These stones’—the stones of the tower and of his poems, ‘remain their monument and mine’ (VP 423).

22He has before him as he writes, the magnanimous gift of Junzo Sato, a five-hundred-year old ancestral sword, ‘a changeless sword’, that leads him to declare in awe of its beauty and artistry that ‘only an aching heart | Conceives a changeless work of art’ (VP 421). And he is sure that centuries of artists—who know that it is the ‘Soul’s beauty’ that is most adored in art, and who know that ‘none could pass Heaven’s door | That loved inferior art’—all of them, he is certain, had ‘such an aching heart’. As in Dante’s great love for Beatrice, if the poet’s soul cannot be united with the beloved object, then it must be sublimated in art. And we sense that he brings back into consciousness here the unremitting ache of his heart, Maud Gonne, whose presence intensifies in the later poems of the volume.

Plate 17. Edmund Dulac’s woodcut of a unicorn in A Vision (1925). Private Collection, London. It also appeared on the title-page of Stories of Michael Robartes and his Friends (1932), and in Last Poems and Two Plays (1939). Copies in Private Collection.

Plate 18. Charles Ricketts’s endpapers for the 1920s Macmillan Collected Edition of the Works of W. B. Yeats. Private Collection.

Plate 19. Thomas Sturge Moore’s ‘Candle in Waves’ sigil on the title-page of Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1920). This emblem of ‘the soul in the midst of the waters of the flesh or of time’ also appeared in Seven Poems and a Fragment (1922) and October Blast (1927). Private Collection.

Plate 20. Yeats’s bookplate, by Thomas Sturge Moore, showing the candle in waves motif above Sturge Moore’s gates, his visual pun on the origins of Yeats’s name in the Middle English and northern and north-midland dialectal word ‘yeat’ or ‘yate’ meaning ‘gate’, Senate House Library, University of London.

23Images of art and violence continuously displace each other in the poet’s consciousness, and he knows in his meditations that as a poet he must turn from the violence. ‘I must nourish dreams’, he says, even as conscience pulls him toward being a man of action. When an affable Irregular and his men come to the door cracking jokes of civil war and talking of the weather, he has to distract himself with the motion of a moor-hen to silence his envy of them, wishing he was one among them. But finally the poet returns to his chamber, as he must, ‘caught | In the cold snows of a dream’ (VP 424). It reminds us of an earlier poem, ‘The Cold Heaven’, a visionary paradise which the poet had been shut out of for years, but it also illuminates what he was writing in a draft of A Vision: ‘The [poet’s] soul ... is afflicted because it cannot find in life ... some charm or virtue, and therefore, finds it in a dream and makes of that dream its art’ (YVP4, 14).

24Yeats writes out of his determination not to let the civil war and ‘the world’s despite’ remove him from his dream or sense of beauty. In his Nobel address on ‘The Irish Dramatic Movement’ the following year, he tried to convey in prose something of the emotional situation of the poem:

In the country you are alone with your own violence, your own ignorance and heaviness, and with the common tragedy of life, and if you have any artistic capacity you desire beautiful emotion; and, certain that the seasons will be the same always, care not how fantastic its expression. (Au 562)

  • 18 See my ‘The Legacy of Yeats in Contemporary Irish Poetry’, Irish University Review, 34 (Autumn / W (...)

25In explaining this sentence, he writes that he was in the tower during the first months of the civil war: ‘the railway bridges blown up and the roads blocked with stones and trees.... One felt an overmastering desire not to grow unhappy or embittered, not to lose all sense of the beauty of nature’. He goes on to describe how he had discovered an old stare’s nest in a hole outside his window, and how he was suddenly moved to write a poem about it, a fair copy of which he wrote in Lady Gregory’s copy of Seven Poems and a Fragment in July 1922, two years before The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems appeared (the former lacking the final five-line stanza). In the midst of men being killed and houses burned, he makes an invocation to the honey-bees, like an invocation to a muse, ‘Come build in the empty house of the stare’ (VP 424). ‘Presently a strange thing happened’, Yeats continued in his Nobel address. ‘I began to smell honey in places where honey could not be, at the end of a stone passage or at some windy turn of the road, and it came always with certain thoughts’ (Au 579-80). This mental phenomenon, that out of the intensity of creative thought would come the palpable smell of honey whenever that thought was recalled, was the ultimate physical sign of the answering call of beauty and the muse in violent times. It was this poem, and this affirmation, that had such a moving and lasting effect on Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, and other Irish poets who came into their poetic maturity with the rise of the Troubles in the late 1960s; they have written of it and lived by it as they have themselves struggled with the conflicting claims of art and history on the poetic conscience.18 Yeats showed them, as he had been shown in ‘The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid’, ‘how violent great hearts can lose | Their bitterness and find the honeycomb’ (VP 463).

  • 19 Sturge Moore’s woodcut of the plunging unicorn would be used in subsequent Cuala editions of Two P (...)
  • 20 After Dulac completed his woodcut of The Great Wheel for A Vision, he remembered that Yeats had wa (...)
  • 21 CL InteLex 3787 [September 1920]; L 662. Another image of the soul that Yeats used for selected Cu (...)

26The images of the stare’s nest and the honey-bees give way to ‘phantoms of hatred’, and ‘Monstrous familiar images swim to the mind’s eye’. In the street-mob’s cries for vengeance, and in the ‘senseless tumult’, the poet’s wits all but go astray as he too almost cries for vengeance on the murderers of Jacques Molay. But suddenly among the violent cries appear the magical unicorns, ‘Their legs long, delicate and slender, aquamarine their eyes’. As students of Yeats, we might observe that the Cuala edition of The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems appeared with Robert Gregory’s design of the “Charging Unicorn”, pulled forward seventeen years from its original appearance on the title-page of Discoveries (1907), and that he also commissioned Sturge Moore’s plunging unicorn, Monoceros de Astris (Pls. 8 & 10, between pp. 108-09) for the title-page of Reveries Over Childhood and Youth (1915).19 Moreover, Dulac had made a woodcut of a unicorn for A Vision (CVA 8), a woodcut that would be used again for later Cuala editions (Plate 17).20 Two years earlier he had commissioned Charles Ricketts to draw an emblem of a unicorn by a fountain, resting under a brazen hawk that looks back upon a waning moon, for the Macmillan edition of his work (Plate 18). When he received the design from Ricketts, he described the complex image as ‘a masterpiece’, ‘a decoration of which one will never tire’ (CL InteLex 4200, 5 Nov. [1922]; L 691). ‘My own memory proves to me’, he continued, ‘that at 17 there is an identity between an author’s imagination and paper and book-cover one does not find in later life’, but Yeats maintained that identity all his life, as his book-covers and emblematic designs show. When his sister asked him about the unicorn’s meaning, Yeats replied, ‘The truth is that it is a private symbol ... It is the soul’.21 And so for an image of the soul he summoned his memory of Gustave Moreau’s ‘Les Licornes’ (Plate 10, between pp. 108-09), which he had seen in Paris in 1908. It is the purest image in the poem; all is perfectly still, timeless, free from historical cycles and prophecies. The ladies close their musing eyes, and the stillness of the scene, the sweetness of their full hearts, and the loveliness of their beautiful bodies are sealed off in the imagination from the external world. But such a perfect, singular image of self-delighting reverie cannot hold; it is swiftly displaced by ‘an indifferent multitude’ of images, of brazen hawks and perhaps horrible green parrots, those ‘innumerable clanging wings that have put out the moon’. The stanza sharply dramatizes the conflict of Yeats’s visionary life: without antitheses, as Blake had written and as Yeats reiterated in the drafts of A Vision, is no progression, no art.

27In the final octave that ends this moving meditative poem, Yeats turns away from the tumult and the men of action and shuts the door of the tower, still conscience-struck and wondering ‘how many times I could have proved my worth | In something that others understand or share’ (VP 427). ‘But O! ambitious heart’, says his Antithetical Self, ‘had such a proof drawn forth | A company of friends, a conscience set at ease, | It had but made us pine the more’. And so the poet in his mask ascends the winding stair once again, his embattled soul intact, self-assured that in his magical pursuit of soul’s beauty ‘The abstract joy, | The half-read wisdom of daemonic images, | Suffice the ageing man as once the growing boy’. But of course it could not fully suffice, nor could conscience or envy ease: a month after completing the poem, the subjective poet became a Senator, assumed his objective mask, and descended the winding stair into the world.

  • 22 A rush, a sudden wheel and hovering still
    The bird descends, and her frail thighs are pressed
    By the (...)

28Set like a gemstone among the octaves and ottava rima of the longer poems is the great sonnet in the volume, ‘Leda and the Swan’, which he wrote as an annunciation poem. In fact, its first title was ‘Annunciation’ (Mem 272-75), though when he wrote about it to an editor he described it, with his inimitable spelling problem, as ‘a classic enunciation’ (CL InteLex 4744, 25 June, 1925; L 709). When he included the poem in The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems, the opening lines were still unstable, but when it appeared in A Vision as an epigraph for Book III, ‘Dove or Swan’, it was in final form, though the title there was simply ‘Leda’ (CVA 179).22 In the poem, he informed his readers, ‘I imagine the annunciation that founded Greece as made to Leda... But all things are from antithesis, and when in my ignorance I try to imagine what older civilisation she refuted I can but see bird and woman blotting out some corner of the Babylonian mathematical starlight’ (CVA 181). In the revision he had intensified the violent visitation—no longer ‘A rush, a sudden wheel’, but ‘A sudden blow’, and thus he imagines the historical moment of an archetypal event—the incursion of a supernatural being into the world and his impregnation of a mortal woman—an event that signals the beginning of a new Magnus Annus, a two-thousand-year cycle of civilization, a cycle symbolized by a Great Wheel, tragic in its relentless turning downward into darkness after rising to the moment of a civilization’s greatest cultural light, its Unity of Culture. Yes, Leda puts on his power to give rise to the new Graeco-Roman civilization, but she is denied the knowledge to stop the burning of Troy and the murder of Agamemnon, all set in action at the moment of conception. As Yeats indicates in ‘Two Songs from a Play’, she is powerless to keep the achievement of ‘Platonic tolerance’ and ‘Doric discipline’ in place (VP 438), powerless to keep the Great Wheel from turning downward toward intellectual darkness and violence. Out of that darkness a Holy Ghost as Dove will make a new Annunciation, and a human Virgin impregnated by a supernatural being will give rise to the Judaeo-Christian civilization, reaching its Unity of Culture in Byzantium before the Wheel turns downward toward yet another second coming. ‘Leda and the Swan’, ‘Two Songs from a Play’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, and ‘The Second Coming’ are among the great poetic metaphors of Yeats’s vision of historical cycles, the fulfilled promise of his spirit masters in October 1917.

29Yeats brought two poems each from Seven Poems and a Fragment and The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems into A Vision when it was published in 1925, but in his ‘Dedication’ to the work he confessed that ‘I am longing to put it out of reach that I may write the poetry it seems to have made possible’ (CVA xii). He had been recovering from a serious illness, and now it was no longer violence but a sense of old age that threatened his imagination, which became more excited and fantastical than ever after the completion of A Vision. Out of his mounting rage came three great poems in steady succession—‘The Tower’, ‘Among School Children’, and ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. Out of that rage comes his identification with Sophocles’ blind Oedipus—he wrote two versions of Sophocles’ Oedipus plays and placed two of the choral lyrics with his poems to ensure that identification, which he extended to Homer and Raftery, all blind seers raging in the dark in their search for truth. But his illness had also generated poems filled with personal images and memories, as in those that comprise ‘A Man Young and Old’, an old man’s wild regrets for youth and love. He sent a letter to Olivia that he was in the tower writing poetry, ‘as I always do here, and as always happens, no matter how I begin, it becomes love poetry before I am finished with it’ (CL InteLex 4871, 25 May [1926]; L 714-15). And so in June 1927 he gathered his few new poems and personae together in the third Cuala edition, October Blast, his autumn-of-life rage at the limits of time and the body’s betrayal of intellect and imagination. His fear is that his muse, his wandering mind, his cold dream will be replaced by abstraction and argument, a life-long fear now redoubled. His desire is to make his soul, to arrest it from its journey in a work of art, in such a form as Sato’s ancestral sword, or Phidias’ famous ivories, or Callimachus’ bronze-like marbles, or a smithy’s golden tree and bird.

  • 23 In a seventieth-birthday tribute to Yeats in 1935, Eliot stated that ‘it should be apparent at lea (...)

30The reader will not be surprised to know that the poem ‘The Tower’ had its first public appearance in Eliot’s Criterion in June 1927. Surely it is one of the poems (and volumes) that led Eliot to praise Yeats’s development as a poet and to appraise him as the greatest poet of the century, that led Joyce to puzzle his Paris friends with his passion for Yeats, reciting the poems from memory and saying, ‘No surrealist poet can equal that for imagination’.23 There, in defiance of age, Yeats sends imagination forth into both personal memory and the Great Memory, summoning all images to ask two questions of them all: ‘Did all old men and women... Whether in public or in secret rage | As I do now against old age?’ And then, ‘Does the imagination dwell most | Upon a woman won or woman lost?’ (VP 413). These unanswered questions are preliminary to his moving declaration of faith in the limitations and disappointments of human life over abstract thought and philosophical argument: ‘I mock Plotinus’ thought | And cry in Plato’s teeth, | Death and life were not | Till man made up the whole, | Made lock, stock and barrel | Out of his bitter soul’. Man’s bitterness and his ‘memories of love, | Memories of the words of women’—these, he declares, are among ‘those things whereof | Man makes a superhuman | Mirror-resembling dream’. And so in this faith he determines to make his soul in his cold dream until the body fail, ‘Or what worse evil come —| The death of friends, or death | Of every brilliant eye | That made a catch in the breath | Seem’—and here he summons natural images of declining day to characterize the mind’s fading memories and light—‘Seem but the clouds of the sky | When the horizon fades | Or a bird’s sleepy cry | Among the deepening shades’ (VP 416).

31In ‘Among School Children’, in answer to his own question, the imagination dwells most upon a woman lost, a woman of Ledaean kind, until his thoughts of Maud Gonne as a schoolchild drive his evoking heart wild; there in the schoolroom, ‘She stands before me as a living child’ (VP 444). And this image triggers a succession of images before his scarecrow body, leading to thoughts of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and their similar attempts to construct a philosophy of reality: ‘Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird’, the concluding line of a stanza which he described as ‘a fragment of my last curse upon old age. It means that even the greatest men are only scarecrows, by the time their fame has come’ (CL InteLex 427, 24 Sept., [1926]; L 719). Yes, but it also means that for all their greatness they, like him, knew not reality either. When he sent Maud Gonne a copy of The Tower, he wrote with some apprehension, ‘You will find a reference to your self in “Among School Children”... I do not think it will offend you’ (G—YL 445). ‘Why should I be offended at the references to me in Among school children?’ she replied.

It is very kind. Oh how you hate old age—well so do I, I see no redeeming features in it, but I, who am more a rebel against man than you, rebel less against nature, & accept the inevitable & go with it gently into the unknown—only against the sordidness & cruelty of small ambitions I fight until the long rest comes (G—YL 445).

32For all his rage, there is a greater acceptance of his dilemma than Maud Gonne recognizes. In addressing the collective ‘Presences’ held in the imaginations of longing human minds, the self-born mockers of man’s enterprise to know reality in a lifetime, he recognizes that in their supernatural world ‘Labour is blossoming or dancing’; there ‘The Body is not bruised to pleasure soul, | Nor beauty born out of its own despair, | Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil’. But Yeats accepts the bruising, the midnight oil, the despair of seeking beauty, as human privilege and tragic emotion denied the mocking Presences, so that in his closing apostrophe to and questioning of objects in the natural world—the multiform reality of the chestnut tree and the expressions of the dancing body—he looks for no answer; he delights in posing again, after Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras, an unknowable human question, ‘O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, | How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ There is enough to be known of the dance from the dancer’s eye, which brightens as she feels and expresses in mind and body that portion of the dance that suffuses her being in an exalted moment.

  • 24 CW10 286. Yeats cancelled the following statement in his BBC script: ‘Now I am trying to write abo (...)
  • 25 Thomas Sturge Moore Collection, Senate House Library, University of London. The photograph has bee (...)

33Yeats informed his listeners on BBC radio that he wrote “Sailing to Byzantium” when he ‘first felt the infirmity of old age’ (CW10 286), and he informed Olivia Shakespear that he wrote it ‘to recover my spirits’ (CL InteLex 4920, 5 Sept. [1926]; L 718). He further explained to his listeners that the bird alluded to in the final stanza was ‘a symbol of the intellectual joy of eternity, as contrasted with the instinctive joy of human life’.24 Thus, his sudden sense of infirmity was overcome by a spirit-lifting belief that he was moving away from one kind of natural, sensual joy toward a supernatural, intellectual joy, from a procreative world to a spiritual world, toward the embodiment of his soul in a lasting lyric work. Yeats knew that ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ was the capstone of his tower poems, and he gave it pride of place in October Blast as he planned The Tower. Once again he called on his friend Sturge Moore to design the cover. Concerned that it look like his tower and not like that of anyone else, he sent him a photograph of Thoor Ballylee as it appeared in the summer of 1927. On the back of this photograph Yeats penned a descriptive note: ‘The cottage at back is my kitchen. In front you will see our parapet of the old bridge, the other was blown up during our Civil War’.25 Sturge Moore, who knew Yeats’s poems and symbols well, transformed Yeats’s black and white photograph into a magnificent cover of olive-green cloth and gold-stamped handiwork, portraying the tower and its reflection in the river, one of the most strikingly beautiful books of modern literature (see cover design). When the volume appeared, Yeats was in Rapallo, seriously ill with congestion of the lungs and physical exhaustion, but he was ecstatic about the cover. ‘Your cover for The Tower is a most rich, grave and beautiful design’, he wrote to Moore, ‘admirably like the place, and I am all the more grateful because I may see little of that place henceforth’ (LTSM 123). Soon after leaving the tower, he resigned from the Senate.

  • 26 In criticizing English poets of the 1930s in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse ( (...)

34Yeats knew that the tower period was over when that shining edifice was unveiled. When he read it straight through, he was, he wrote to Olivia, ‘astonished at its bitterness’ (CL InteLex 5104, 25 April, 1928; L 472), and came to believe that the bitterness had given the book its power. But when we ask ourselves wherein lies its power and greatness, the bitterness does not prevail. As Yeats ascends and descends the stone steps of the tower over a decade, as he moves among the natural, the preternatural, and the supernatural worlds, and among personal relations and national violence, we see that the poems are deeply rooted in the human heart, of which bitterness is but one in the wide range of emotions that we have witnessed between despairing self-doubt and ecstatic self-transcendence. That transcendence is where the building of the tower ends, and where the gilded volume begins. When we open it, we encounter ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, a masterpiece in ottava rima, a Renaissance form that invites the reader not into a modernist poetic world but into a metaphorical culture of the creative mind where a unified consciousness is achieved through a mastery of meditation, the evocation of images, and an exaltation of mind in magical visions of ‘where the blessed dance’ (VP 474). In building The Tower, Yeats was never envious of the minds that created The Waste Land and Ulysses; his volume resurrects another world where myth, history, and fact are united, where wholeness and Unity of Being are sought not in the fragmented consciousness of the ‘naked mind’, as Yeats would call it, but in the mask of the Antithetical Self, and where, with an aching heart and a lonely mind, he could pursue in the midst of civil strife the supreme artistic aim of arresting the journeying soul in works of art that embody and reflect the soul’s magnificence.26 In building his tower, he remained true to his vision twenty years earlier of an aged Ariosto standing in the door of his tower in completion of his art:

He was the poet who had at last, because he had done so much for the word’s sake, come to share in the dignity of the saint. He had hidden nothing of himself, but he had taken care of ‘that dignity... the perfection of form... this lofty and severe quality... this virtue.’ And though he had but sought it for the word’s sake, or for a woman’s praise, it had come at last into his body and his mind. Certainly as he stood there he knew how from behind that laborious mood, that pose, that genius, no flower of himself but all himself, looked out as from behind a mask that other Who... He has in his ears well-instructed voices, and seeming-solid sights are before his eyes, and not, as we say of many a one, speaking in metaphor, but as this were Delphi or Eleusis, and the substance and the voice come to him among his memories which are of women’s faces... (E&I 291).

  • 27 Eliot, who respected Yeats’s craftsmanship and development but not the esoteric underpinnings of h (...)

35For all the praise and admiration expressed by Eliot and Joyce for Yeats’s later work, they knew, as Yeats knew, that he was not a modernist writer in spirit, that he was out of his time, and not of theirs.27 Yeats had earlier dramatized that reality in ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’ and ‘The Phases of the Moon’, where critics (Hic and Robartes), who pur-sue the ‘modern hope’ of finding the self, mock his personae (Ille and he) as a deluded poet who futilely pursues ‘Magical shapes’ and ‘Mere images’ in search of his anti-self (VP 367-69, 373). In A Vision and in The Tower, Yeats attempted to build monuments to an ancient esoteric mind and its way of wisdom and seeing. If the two intertwined volumes constitute a prophecy—as yet unfulfilled—of its resurrection and continuance, they stand nonetheless as Ozymandian stones in the vast sands of modernism.


1 Yeats published ‘A Biographical Fragment’, an excerpt from The Trembling of the Veil, in the Criterion of July 1923, the first of six contributions of prose and poetry through July 1935. Through the Criterion, Eliot would play a minor role in the construction of The Tower over the next five years.

2 See ‘A Foreign Mind’, Athenaeum, 4653 (4 July 1919), 552-23. In reading Yeats’s The Cutting of an Agate, Eliot declared, ‘we are confirmed in the conviction— confirmed in a baffling and disturbing conviction—that its author, as much in his prose as in his verse, is not “of this world”—this world, of course, being our visible planet with whatever our theology or myth may conceive as below or above it’ (552).

3 The Letters of T. S. Eliot, vol. I, ed. Valerie Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1988), 611.

4 See my ‘Hawk and Butterfly: The Double Vision of the Wild Swans at Coole (1917, 1919)’, YA 10, 111-34.

5 Yeats had kept the poem in its original order for Macmillan’s Edition De Luxe. Initiated in 1930 and abandoned in 1939, its order became the basis for the limited and signed edition of the two-volume The Poems of W. B. Yeats, which was published posthumously in 1949, and for the Variorum Edition of the Poems (1957; revised 1966). The Jeffares and Albright editions drew on the order of these volumes, but the Finneran editions drew on the order of Collected Poems. See Jeffares’s Yeats’s Poems (1989, revised 1991; YP 335-41), Albright’s W. B. Yeats: The Poems (1990), and Finneran’s The Poems: A New Edition (1983) revised as The Poems (1989) and as The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, second edition revised (1996). To date there is no standard critical edition of The Tower: see Warwick Gould, ‘The Definitive Edition: A History of the Final Arrangements of Yeats’s Work’ (YP 706-49), and ‘W. B. Yeats and the Resurrection of the Author’, The Library, June 1994, 101-34.

6 In his editorial introduction to The Tower (1928): Manuscript Materials (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2007), Finneran observes the interpretive problem created in the Collected Poems: ‘It could be argued that transferring “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid” to the Narrative and Dramatic section makes Yeats’s final version of The Tower a far less esoteric volume. In the earlier versions of the collection, the concluding sequence of “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid” and “All Soul’s Night” gave the impression of a poet quite dedicated to “meditations upon unknown thought”... But in the Collected Poems we understand this side of Yeats as but one among many; indeed,... perhaps not even an essential side, perhaps something now firmly in the past’ (xxxvi). George Bornstein has traced the changing bibliographical, contextual, and linguistic codes and their effect on the interpretation of the poems from Seven Poems and a Fragment through The Tower to Collected Poems in his Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 65-81. Bornstein argues that these changing codes and meanings themselves ‘are part of the modernist project’ (79) and make The Tower a ‘paradigmatic modernist text’ (81).

7 See James Pethica, ‘“Upon a House Shaken”: The Struggle for Coole Park 1907-1912’, YA 16, 3-51, especially 43-47.

8 This persistent view has come forward from Jeffares’s first essay on the poem, ‘The New Faces: A New Explanation’, where he reports that ‘Mrs. W. B. Yeats suggests that Yeats kept the poem back for reasons of tact’, and where he adds that Yeats ‘might even seem to be commenting on her age’. Review of English Studies, 23 (October 1947), 351-53.

9 Letter of 9 December 1912 (Berg).

10 CL InteLex 2035 [12 December 1912]; the letter was published but misdated [c. 15 December 1912] by Donald T. Torchiana and Glenn O’Malley in ‘Some New Letters from W. B. Yeats to Lady Gregory’, A Review of English Literature, ed. A. Norman Jeffares, 4 (July 1963), 11-12. Yeats inscribed a revised draft of ‘The New Faces’, dated December 1912, in vol. I of his copy of CW, ix; see YL 321, item 2325.

11 For ‘The New Faces’ and the composition of ‘A Prayer for My Daughter,’ see Jon Stallworthy, Between the Lines: Yeats’s Poetry in the Making (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 29-45, and Wayne K. Chapman, ‘The Annotated Responsibilities: Errors in the Variorum Edition and a New Reading of the Genesis of Two Poems, “On Those that Hated ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, 1907” and “The New Faces”’, YA 6 (1988), 108-33.

12 CL InteLex 3350, 29 October [1917]; L 633-34.

13 CL InteLex 3354, 3 November [1917].

14 Under the title ‘Desert Geometry or the Gift of Harun Al-Raschid’, Yeats included the poem at the beginning of the second part of A Vision (CVA 121-27).

15 Dulac’s painting, ‘The Good Chiron Taught His Pupils How to Play upon the Harp’, had appeared as an illustration to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1918). On 7 October 1920 Yeats wrote to Dulac that ‘about two months ago I wrote the poem on the Black Centaur & forgot that I had ever written it & it is still untyped’ (CL InteLex 3793). The poem first appeared in Seven Poems and a Fragment as ‘Suggested by a Picture of a Black Centaur’, the titular attribution to Dulac delayed until The Tower. The Irish artist Cecil ffrench Salkeld later claimed that the inspiration for the poem was a watercolour by him; his account of the composition in September 1920 is reproduced in Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats 1865-1939 (London: Macmillan, 1942), 326-28.

16 See ch. 10 of Helen Vendler’s Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007) for a comprehensive study of Yeats’s use of ottava rima in The Tower and later volumes.

17 Richard Ellmann, Eminent Domain (Oxford: OUP, 1970), 51.

18 See my ‘The Legacy of Yeats in Contemporary Irish Poetry’, Irish University Review, 34 (Autumn / Winter 2004), 291-314.

19 Sturge Moore’s woodcut of the plunging unicorn would be used in subsequent Cuala editions of Two Plays for Dancers (1919), The Words upon the Window Pane (1934), and New Poems (1938). In 1918 Yeats had Sturge Moore design for George a bookplate with a unicorn plunging out of a lightning-split tower, later describing it as ‘a masterpiece’ (LTSM 54, Plate 11). In 1908 he had co-authored with Lady Gregory The Unicorn from the Stars.

20 After Dulac completed his woodcut of The Great Wheel for A Vision, he remembered that Yeats had wanted a unicorn in the centre of the wheel. On 30 April 1925 he sent this separate design for the unicorn, saying that he would incorporate it if absolutely necessary (LTWBY2 462). Yeats did not press for the correction, and the separate image (Plate 17) appeared not only in A Vision but on the title-page of the Cuala edition of Stories of Michael Robartes and his Friends (1932), and posthumously in the Cuala edition of Last Poems and Two Plays (1939).

21 CL InteLex 3787 [September 1920]; L 662. Another image of the soul that Yeats used for selected Cuala editions was that of ‘candle among waves’, a woodcut taken from the top circular area of the bookplate designed for him by Sturge Moore in 1915 (Plates 19 and 20). Yeats described it to Lily Yeats on 18 February 1915 as ‘an emblem of my own the soul in the midst of the waters of the flesh or of time’ (CL InteLex 2609). It appeared on the title-pages of Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1920), Seven Poems and a Fragment (1922), and October Blast (1927).

22 A rush, a sudden wheel and hovering still
The bird descends, and her frail thighs are pressed
By the webbed toes, and that all powerful bill
Has laid her helpless face upon his breast (VP 441 v.).

23 In a seventieth-birthday tribute to Yeats in 1935, Eliot stated that ‘it should be apparent at least that Mr. Yeats has been and is the greatest poet of his time.... At no time was he less out-of-date than today, among men twenty and forty years his juniors. Development to this extent is not merely genius, it is character; and it sets a standard which his juniors should seek to emulate, without hoping to equal’. Criterion, 14 (July 1935), 612-13. Joyce’s recitation of Yeats’s poems in Paris is recounted in Eugene Jolas, ‘My Friend James Joyce’, in James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism, ed. Seon Givens (New York: Vanguard Press, 1963), 14.

24 CW10 286. Yeats cancelled the following statement in his BBC script: ‘Now I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts upon that subject I have put into a poem called “Sailing to Byzantium”. When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells... Byzantium was the centre of European civilisation and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolise the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city’ (Ibid., 392).

25 Thomas Sturge Moore Collection, Senate House Library, University of London. The photograph has been printed in YA 17, facing 255, and the note in T. Sturge Moore (1870-1944): Contributions to the Art of the Book & Collaboration with W. B. Yeats, comp. & ed. Malcolm Easton (Hull: The University of Hull, 1970), facing 40. See also Warwick Gould’s ‘Designs by Thomas Sturge Moore for Books by W. B. Yeats’ in Christopher Pressler and Karen Attar, eds., Senate House Library, University of London (London: Scala, 2012), 54.

26 In criticizing English poets of the 1930s in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), Yeats wrote that ‘I too have tried to be modern’, but that they, like Eliot, ‘have pulled off the mask, the manner writers hitherto assumed, Shelley in relation to his dream, Byron, Henley, to their adventure, their action. Here stands not this or that man but man’s naked mind’ (OBMV xxxvi).

27 Eliot, who respected Yeats’s craftsmanship and development but not the esoteric underpinnings of his work, had continued to develop his view of Yeats’s ‘foreign mind’ in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London: Faber and Faber, 1933): ‘No one can read Mr. Yeats’s Autobiographies and his earlier poetry without feeling that the author was trying to get as a poet something like the exaltation to be obtained... from hashisch or nitrous oxide. He was very much fascinated by selfinduced trance states, calculated symbolism, mediums, theosophy, crystal-gazing, folklore and hobgoblins... but you cannot take heaven by magic, especially if you are, like Mr. Yeats, a very sane person’ (140). And in After Strange Gods (London: Faber and Faber, 1934), he extended I. A. Richards’s criticism of Yeats’s esotericism by stating that ‘Mr. Yeats’s “supernatural world” was the wrong supernatural world, not a world of real Good and Evil, of holiness or sin, but a highly sophisticated lower mythology summoned, like a physician, to supply the fading pulse of poetry with some transient stimulant so that the dying patient may utter his last words’ (46).

Table des illustrations

Légende Plate 16. Edmund Dulac’s ‘The Good Chiron Taught His Pupils How to Play upon the Harp’ in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1918). Private Collection.
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Légende Plate 17. Edmund Dulac’s woodcut of a unicorn in A Vision (1925). Private Collection, London. It also appeared on the title-page of Stories of Michael Robartes and his Friends (1932), and in Last Poems and Two Plays (1939). Copies in Private Collection.
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Légende Plate 18. Charles Ricketts’s endpapers for the 1920s Macmillan Collected Edition of the Works of W. B. Yeats. Private Collection.
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Légende Plate 19. Thomas Sturge Moore’s ‘Candle in Waves’ sigil on the title-page of Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1920). This emblem of ‘the soul in the midst of the waters of the flesh or of time’ also appeared in Seven Poems and a Fragment (1922) and October Blast (1927). Private Collection.
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Légende Plate 20. Yeats’s bookplate, by Thomas Sturge Moore, showing the candle in waves motif above Sturge Moore’s gates, his visual pun on the origins of Yeats’s name in the Middle English and northern and north-midland dialectal word ‘yeat’ or ‘yate’ meaning ‘gate’, Senate House Library, University of London.
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