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The Living Stream

Warwick Gould

Essays in Memory of A. Norman Jeffares 1920-2005

Vacillation: Between What and What?

Helen Vendler

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1This essay is in memory of Derry Jeffares and his writings on Yeats, especially his Commentary on the poems, with its helpful notes and its quotations of applicable remarks by Yeats. When ‘Vacillation’ was first published (in the 1932 Cuala Press volume Words for Music Perhaps), Yeats tried to stabilize the content of the parts by affixing a title to each, each thereby becoming a stage of a vacillating journey toward wisdom and joy. His subtitles (some of them revised) were, in order:

I: ‘What Is Joy’:
II and III: ‘The Burning Tree’ (originally ‘Tree’):
IV: ‘Happiness’ (originally ‘Aimless Joy’):
V: ‘Conscience’ (originally ‘Remorse’):
VI: ‘Conquerors’ (originally ‘The Meaning of All Song’):
VII: ‘A Dialogue’ (originally ‘Dialogue of soul & heart’):
VIII: ‘Von Hügel’ (originally ‘The Choice’). (NC 299-302)

2In the 1933 printing of ‘Vacillation’ in The Winding Stair, Yeats dropped all his subtitles, and left the parts of his sequence to speak for themselves.

3Yeats perhaps decided to delete the early subtitles because he had not reached a consistency of naming. Some subtitles name an abstraction: ‘Joy,’ ‘Happiness,’ ‘Remorse.’ Part II, ‘The Burning Tree’ (the first part to be composed), takes its title from a mythological image (found in the Mabinogion). Part VI focuses on a recurrent historical phenomenon—‘Conquerors.’ Part VII bears the name of its rhetorical genre (‘A Dialogue’); and the concluding poem is headed by the surname of a contemporary (‘Von Hügel’). In the end, Yeats rejected his original sequence-title—‘Wisdom’—and let all the poems, untitled, fall under the single provocative title ‘Vacillation.’ ‘Vacillation between what and what?’ the reader is forced to ask— and then must enter the sequence to find out the commanding poles between which the poet vacillates.

  • 1 Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).
  • 2 W. B. Yeats, Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems, ed. David R. Clark (Ithaca: Cornell Universi (...)

4Rejecting subtitles, Yeats finally distinguished the members of the sequence by the forms into which he cast them. I’ll come to the forms as I look at individual poems, but let me begin by confessing that I did not treat ‘Vacillation’ in my book on Yeats and lyric form because its problems of both sentiment and form seemed to me at the time too difficult.1 I have already mentioned the first question a reader might pose: Vacillation between what and what? Subsequent questions arise: Is there a resolution to this serious vacillation? If so, why is the last poem so jaunty? Why should a free-thinking poet close with an address to a Catholic writer on mysticism? Why the complete absence of things Irish from this sequence? Why fold the Greek myth of Attis into a Welsh myth of a divided and burning tree? (Although Yeats’s source for the tree is the Mabinogion, a Celtic poem, he does not mention its name, thereby depriving the legend of national specificity.) Why does the poem originally called ‘Conquerors’ depart in its closing stanza from its historical focus? Why is a landscape viewed under summer sun and wintry moon presented as the obverse of conscience? Why, in the crucial but equivocal central moment of happiness in a café, is the poet’s body said to ‘blaze’? And what provokes that ‘blaze’ into being? Why did Yeats delete Shakespeare from the poem after having originally coupled him with Homer, saying ‘Shakespeare and Homer sang original sin’?2 To me, the poems of ‘Vacillation’ were baffling both in themselves and in their order in the sequence as a whole. And although its opening question—’What is joy?’—is never directly answered, one must ask whether there is an implicit rebuttal to death and remorse that deserves the name of joy. What follows are some speculations, helped very much by seeing the sequence evolve through its many drafts.

  • 3 The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 33.

5What Blake named ‘contraries’ (without which there is no progression)3 Yeats renames as ‘extremities’ (a spatial metaphor) and ‘antinomies’ (two things that cannot coexist at the same time). Both concepts—spatial extension and temporal succession—are eternally present in the human universe, and each requires the other to produce the tormenting friction—and therefore the energy—of life. Yeats’s mind tirelessly produced images of antithesis, and as soon as we let his poems pass randomly before our mind, his contraries arise: the sun and the moon, antithetical and primary civilizations, expanding and contracting gyres, the noble and the beggar-man, the full of the moon and the dark of the moon, will and fate, self and mask. The myth of ‘Plato’s parable’—that each of us is half of an original sphere—is being enacted in every pair of Yeatsian antitheses. In the persona of Michael Robartes, in 1919, Yeats sketched one extreme version of vacillation: Robartes undergoes the irreconcilable ‘double vision’ of free will and determinism, representing himself as brought to a ‘pitch of folly’ by vacillation, by being ‘caught between the pull | Of the dark moon and the full.’

6In his sixties, however, writing ‘Vacillation’ in 1931-32, Yeats casts a cold eye of estimation on his own system of contraries, asking himself whether his sense of life as a constant vacillation from one pole to another is an accurate one. Is it the only possible model of life? Is it an active model in which the soul willingly hurtles from antithesis to antithesis or is it a static model in which the soul is ‘caught,’ like Michael Robartes, between two contesting forces? And if this model of ever-antithetical vacillation is true, as he has asserted over and over, does this model allow for a moment in which one might feel joy rather than imprisonment in an antithetical agon, condemned to an eternal strife? And has he, he wonders, ever felt joy? And if so, what is the relation of joy to those antithetical poles which force a choice on man’s intellect? His one-stanza earlier poem, ‘The Choice,’ intimately related to the later ‘Vacillation,’ begins,

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life or of the work,

7But by the end of that poem, the very idea of choice has become ‘an empty purse,’ and the perfection of the work, although it feeds the vanity of the poet by day, by night generates only remorse:

That old perplexity an empty purse,
And the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse. (VP 495)

8Such a bitter poem implicitly asks whether life, in its forced choices and their tragic results, has any space in its system for joy.

9It is a cruelly disturbing thought—that one has allowed so little room in one’s own life for joy that one scarcely can remember experiencing it. Yeats’s prelude to the sequence, part I, evokes man’s desperate and incessant course between antinomies, soon to be ended by the burning sword of death and the incinerating brand of the last day, which man is helpless to resist. Yeats’s obstinate final question in his prelude—‘What is joy?’—does not even know whence it arises: confronting death, the body says one thing (‘death’), the heart another (‘remorse’), but no-one speaks up for joy. Part I is an unsettling little ten-line lyric, with no predictable scheme of rhyme. At first, it seems equally unpredictable in its rhythm: is it dimeter? is it trimeter? For its first eight lines, it is pure declaration, admitting no dissent from its pronouncements on the shape of life and the ending of life:

Between extremities
Man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath,
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night;
The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.

10Thus ends the eight-line opening sentence of Yeats’s prelude. Something in the poet revolts against this bleak geometrizing of life in terms of antinomies, and he bursts out, against his own preceding assertions,

But if these be right
What is joy? (VP 499-500)

11Yeats’s stunning resilience in old age, bringing him to quarrel with the very system of antitheses that he drew out of his marrow, motivates ‘Vacillation.’ He will stand up for joy, even though he cannot as yet characterize it. All he knows—as his part I rhyme tells us—is that ‘joy’ is the opposite of ‘destroy.’ The opposite of destruction is creation: what is creation? Does creation bring joy? How is creation related to wisdom, and to death, and to remorse?

12The original ottava rima lines of ‘Vacillation’ Yeats ultimately separated into Parts II and III. From the Mabinogion Yeats borrows the image of a tree that is half flame, half foliage, introducing it by the age-old formula for the mythical, ‘There is a tree...’ Within the mythical tree he encloses the mythical figure of Attis (who was castrated by Cybele and transformed into a pine tree). It is clear from the drafts that Yeats means to assert that it is the poet himself who hangs, as the image of Attis, between flame and foliage. (He did not mean that the poet hangs up an image of Attis; no, he is himself Attis, a sacrifice, as Attis was.) In this crucified self-image, the poet, although struck by wonder on beholding the mythical tree, expresses resentment against each of its halves—the ‘glittering flame’ of intellect and the ‘moistened’ foliage of body—which are engaged in constant mutual destruction and renewal. The resentment flares up in Yeats’s final characterization of each half of the tree. The first half, the flame, is the ‘staring fury’ of intellectual passion; it resembles on the one hand pure intellect (like the ‘staring Virgin’ Athena of ‘Two Songs from a Play’) and on the other it contains the ‘fury’ of ravaging thought. As Yeats says in ‘Meru,’ in spite of our human reluctance to disturb the cultural status quo, thought surges up irrepressibly to destroy what we have loved:

man’s life is thought,
And he, despite his terror, cannot cease
Ravening through century after century,
Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come
Into the desolation of reality (VP 563).

13The staring fury of mind leads only to a desolate knowledge. And the other half of the tree, the sensual body, is blind: if one chooses the ‘blind lush leaf’ alone, one can never coldly contemplate existence. But if, on the other hand, one voluntarily ‘hangs between’ both halves of the mythical tree, one can experience both intellectual passion and sensual feeling without the one cancelling out the other. To be passionately alive in both mind and sense is to know—what? What knowledge has one gained in that tormenting suspension between the awakened spirit and the ignorant flesh? Yeats leaves the answer in a frustrating and frustrated negative; the poet may not know what he knows when he has come into the fullness of his contesting powers, but he does know that whatever he knows, it is not grief. This negative definition of joy—the absence of grief—following the protesting question that ended part I, precludes for the moment any positive description of what joy might be. Yet Yeats has concluded that it is a kind of knowledge, not merely an emotion. And it must be a magnificent kind of knowledge, because Yeats has cast parts II and III into his most elaborate stanza, one that always summons up splendour, the ottava rima of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and ‘Among School Children.’

14Leaving his burning tree behind, Yeats looks, in part III, at the deluded human search for joy through wealth and ambition, and at what would counter it. The language turns coarse as competitive greed comes into view, followed by the destruction of family love that it brings about. Business energy is contrasted with conscious ‘idleness’: is, then, the best way to achieve joy to remain idle and scorn financial competition, thereby winning the love of women and children? As he considers wealth and domesticity, Yeats realizes that neither can figure, for him, as the ultimate location of joy, and so, abandoning both worldly and familial hopes, he turns to the work he must do in old age, now that he has, he believes, freed himself from the ‘Lethean foliage’ of blind bodily desire. The Christian idea of a ‘happy death’ animates, in newly secularized form, his closing injunctions to himself. Keep death in view, he says to himself, and against that image test ‘every work of intellect or faith | And everything that your own hands have wrought.’ Works of intellect are the visible products of philosophy and learning; works of faith are those peculiar achievements grounded in nothing visible or tangible, but nonetheless strong enough to move mountains. Yeats had wrought his own works of intellect and faith—his writings and his nationalist endeavours—and these must be tested against earlier human masterpieces brought into being by others through those same powerful faculties of mind and soul. All that is done should be worthy of one’s moment of death, so that one may come ‘Proud, open-eyed, and laughing to the tomb.’

15These personal adjectives are strange bed-fellows. Through them, we come to understand that Yeats no longer resents the knowledge brought by the intellect. What was once called ‘staring’ is now called ‘open-eyed’; what was once the matter of tragedy—the castration of Attis—is seen, now that bodily foliage and its blindness are gone, as the poet’s proud sacrifice of eros to his art. And ‘laughing?’ In the end, Yeats wishes to confront the approach of death with the joy of aesthetic self-assertion rather than with tragic anguish. The ottava rima connecting the burning tree of part II and the moral injunctions of part III casts our eyes back to that Renaissance Italian quality sprezzatura, so prized by Yeats. Aristocratic sprezzatura dominates the end of part III, as the poet grandly adjures himself to call ‘extravagance of breath’ any works not able to stand up to the test of death.

16As we eventually notice, Parts IV, V, and VI have in common the fact that they are written in four-beat lines. This siblinghood marks them off as the central moments of the sequence, differing in metre from the puzzling apparently indeterminate beats of part I and the stately pentameters of the ottava rima of parts II and III. Yet IV, V, and VI, although siblings in metre, are entirely different in rhyme scheme, as we shall see. They also differ in structure: IV and V have two stanzas each, but VI departs from that binary pattern by choosing to have three stanzas, the third nakedly dissimilar to the first two. I will attempt some explanation of these formal differences as we come to each of these three tetrameter poems.

17‘Vacillation’ has been engaged, from the last line of its opening segment, in the search for the origin, meaning, and function of joy. At last, in part IV, we arrive not at ‘joy’—the prompting word of part I—but at the more equivocal word ‘happiness.’ In one version of the subtitle, Yeats had called this part ‘Aimless Happiness,’ a phrase borrowed from the earlier poem ‘Demon and Beast.’ In that poem he recalls a brief space of time in which he found himself freed from the antinomies of hatred and desire, fiercely named as ‘that crafty demon and that loud beast.’ With the disappearance of hatred and desire, the poet says, ‘I saw my freedom won | And all laugh in the sun.’ The moment of freedom occurs when, after a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, Yeats passes outside and watches birds beside a little lake:

But soon a tear-drop started up,
For aimless joy had made me stop
Beside the little lake
To watch a white gull take
A bit of bread thrown up into the air; (VP 400)

18Yet he is worried by this ‘aimless joy,’ because he suspects than the enfeeblement of age lies behind it: ‘mere growing old, that brings | Chilled blood, this sweetness brought.’ Liberated for a moment from passionate emotion, allowing himself merely to repose and to gaze amused at an ‘absurd | Portly green-pated bird,’ the poet knows a peculiar new inner state: ‘Being no more demoniac | A stupid happy creature | Could rouse my whole nature.’ He too is for a moment stupid and happy, pure body, pure animal.

19This sort of geriatric amnesia, aimlessly letting go both mind and body, demon and beast, hatred and desire, cannot permanently satisfy Yeats in his search for joy. His restless creative drive so exhausts him, however, that he longs for such mindlessness, and he finds it in part V as he had in ‘Demon and Beast.’ Part V is a mysterious poem. The fifty year-old poet is seen sitting in solitude in a crowded London teashop, doing nothing; finished with his tea and no longer reading his book, he allows himself a vacant gaze outside at the street. That gaze is entirely undirected by hatred or desire, uninspired even by the intellectual act of reading a book, or the sense-pleasure of taking tea. While the empty gaze lasts, he is pure body, restricted to one sense alone, that of sight:

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top (VP 501).

20The odd form of the stanza—a couplet followed by a tercet— gives the impression of spill-over. We expect the first couplet to generate a second one—but to our surprise the second couplet extends itself by a full line, grows an extra tendril, so to speak. We do not at first know what Yeats intends by this rhyme scheme. From the unremarkable first scene in the unremarkable shop, there grows a remarkable second scene which describes a moment out of time:

While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessèd and could bless (VP 501).

21This is a religious exaltation: the poet, having been blessed, can bless others. In its inexplicability, it is reminiscent of the conversion of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner as he watched the water-snakes, those ‘happy living things’ ‘whose every track | Was a flash of golden fire’:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware,

22Yeats’s flash of golden fire comes when he rhymes the sedentary ‘gazed’ with the Blakean ‘blazed.’ This psychologically ungrounded couplet-statement of bodily ignition is followed by the three-line stair-step amassing of ‘happiness,’ the three end-rhymes in ‘-ess’ supplemented by an internal rhyme at the close, when the poet ‘was blessèd and could bless.’

23The drafts reveal Yeats’s difficulty with this crucial stanza. Here is a slightly regularized earlier version of stanza 2:

  • 4 WMP, 49. In the transcription of the draft, the words ‘Unearned’, ‘undreamed’ and the final ‘happi (...)

For twenty minutes more or less
I sat in utter happiness
Unearned it came, undreamed, unsought,
Happiness empty of all thought
The happiness the sages taught.4

24The word and concept ‘happiness,’ introduced in line two of this stanza, is twice repeated in the tercet, in a rather feeble insistence on its utterness. To earn, to dream, to seek: those were the ways through which Yeats had, until this moment, conducted his determined quest for happiness. But this new happiness arrives flaunting its indifference to all these efforts of dreaming passion, earnest work, tenacious search, and persistent thought. It seems that the poet has attained a state of what we can only call nirvana. Nothing has been revealed, no revelation is at hand; the emptying of the mind, taught by Eastern sages (in contrast to the Western sages from Socrates forward) is the source of this happiness.

25For a moment Yeats’s claim to a vacant but blessed and blessing happiness makes a felt effect. If this blessedness were a permanent or voluntary state (instead of a twenty-minute unexpected one), the poem could end here. But a twenty-minute total suspension of mind does not create wisdom in the face of death—and that is what Yeats is after in ‘Vacillation’ (which, we recall, took ‘Wisdom’ as its original title).

26Mind and conscience must, since the poet is human, re-enter the poem: and they do, producing the ‘remorse’ of part V. In the confession of part V, in which the poet, although he would love to rest, during every season, in pure aesthetic appreciation—of a Shakespearean summer sun gilding the clouds, or a wintry moon dominating with its ‘storm-scattered intricacy’ a sunken field— cannot give in to that temptation: ‘Responsibility,’ he says, ‘so weighs me down.’ In a triumph of arid speech, repudiating his earlier magnificent ottava rima, Yeats repeats the Pauline confession of moral insufficiency and active evil: ‘For what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.... For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do’ (Romans 7: l6, 19). It is not surprising that to the Pauline ‘do’ a poet should add the verb ‘say’:

Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled (VP 501).

27It took Yeats some time to arrive at the solidity of this stanza: it is more reworked than any other of the sequence. He first tried out parallel constructions of the verbs ‘say’ and ‘do’ (italics and slight normalization mine):

Things said or done long years ago
Or said or done by yesterday
Or things I sought to say or do (WMP 45)

28In the next full draft of the poem, he lights upon the idea of a more ‘knotty’ syntax: in lieu of the parallel construction above, he creates a chiasmus using do and say, but in the process weakens the first said or done to done alone, while borrowing a conspicuous would from Saint Paul. (The italics below, illustrating the chiasmus, are mine.)

A thousand things upon me weigh
Things done some thirty years ago
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I would say or do (WMP 45)

29Finally, Yeats realizes that to illustrate his Pauline Gordian knot of conscience and remorse, he needs a stronger intertwining, a quasi-double chiasmus: said/done; do/say; say/do (italics mine). He also inscribes the vacillating might in place of the Pauline determined would. The final typescript reads:

Things said or done long years ago
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do
Weigh me down, and not a day (WMP 77)
But something is recalled;
My conscience or my vanity appalled (WMP 85).

30And in lieu of the vague and hyperbolical assertion ‘A thousand things upon me weigh’ he invents the solid and believable and specific ‘Things,’ narrowing it down in the penultimate line to the single daily torment of ‘not a day | But something is recalled’ (italics mine).

31Both happiness (part IV) and conscience (part V), exhibit a single binary shape—two six-line stanzas. But unlike the ‘mounting’ two-rhyme stanza of happiness—a rhymed couplet followed by an escalating rhymed tercet—in IV, the ‘contrastive’ three-rhyme stanza of stinging remorse in V is one in which a prefatory aesthetic or intellectual abab quatrain is forcibly countered or enlarged by cc, a fierce closing couplet of self-laceration. Exaltation versus self-blame, vacant ‘happiness’ versus remorse. And reading here the word ‘remorse,’ we recall the sequence’s prelude: ‘The body calls it death, | The heart remorse. | But if these be right | What is joy?

32A brief mindless ‘blaze’ will be, and is, undone by conscience; but what can be said about supreme worldly fame? Does it yield joy? In part VI, ‘Conquerors,’ Yeats displays the terminal world-weariness of those who have overcome whole kingdoms: no matter how beautiful the occupied land, or how valiant the battle, or how powerful the conquered civilization, the conquerors, one and all, cry their acquiescence in the extinction not only of themselves but of their gains: ‘Let all things pass away.’ In this third member of Yeats’s central tetrameter group, there are not, as in its two predecessors, introductory couplets with mounting tercets, or fierce quatrains with conclusive couplets: we see merely three wayward tetrameter stanzas, abaab, the stanza’s only distinction is its arc of suspense, as one waits to see what line, rhyming with the opening b, will end the stanza with a concluding b. But no matter what the subject of the different stanzas is, the arc of suspense will yield only one repeated ending: ‘Let all things pass away.’ All suspense in life ends in death.

33The problem of part VI is not its long historical view of ancient conquerors, but the conclusion Yeats draws from it in closing the poem. At the end of stanza two the conquerors vanish, and the poet turns inward, to consider his own worldly gains in the immaterial conquests of his art. Is he like the weary conquerors, acquiescing to obsolescence, or will he hope that his art will last forever? And if a poet should come to agree with the famous conquerors’ resignation to transience, why will he do so?

34In the closing stanza of part VI, Yeats returns from the historical vision of the conquerors to the tree of part II, but now the tree is the trunk of passion, whose root is man’s ‘blood-sodden heart.’ The antinomies of day and night return from the part I prelude, no longer geometrical ‘extremities,’ but rather organic ‘branches.’ And the Attis of part II, hanging between antinomies, returns as the ‘gaudy moon’ of art hanging in the branches of the mortal tree of passion (there is a side-glance at the root of ‘gaudy’ in gaudium, joy). The full moon of aesthetic perfection, the poet realizes, can sing no song but ‘Let all things pass away,’ since it knows itself borne up by mortal branches sprung from a mortal heart. Although Yeats flinches at the memory of the losses, personal and national, that have turned the heart into a ‘blood-sodden’ root resembling the ‘blood-saturated ground’ of ‘Blood and the Moon,’ he realizes that he would choose mortality, and its inevitable fated transience, over any proposed immortality.

35Yeats acts out this acquiescence to mortality in the forked two-part closing of ‘Vacillation.’ The moral close is dramatized in the intransigent dialogue-in-couplets between Soul and Heart in part VII, but a different, if parallel, close is acted out in the address to Friedrich von Hügel in part VIII. In part VII, as Soul debates Heart, Yeats resorts to the Greek dramatic mode of stichomythia—in which opponents cast one-sentence speeches at each other. In the slightly earlier ‘Dialogue of Self and Soul,’ he had already elaborated such an opposition; here (as he replaces ‘Self ’ with ‘Heart’ as the antagonist of Soul) he can enact the distinct antithesis of Passion and Salvation, in which, as Soul didactically urges spirituality, Heart responds with emotional exclamations and questions. In the first draft, Passion almost got the better of Yeats’s art: after Soul says, ‘Find Heavenly reality not things that seem,’ Heart calls out childishly, ‘I am a singer and I need a theme!’ When Soul wants him to submit, like Isaiah, to heavenly inspiration, Heart asserts baldly, ‘No imagery can live in heaven’s blue.’ When Soul counsels salvation, Heart says ‘Shakespeare & Homer sang original sin’ (WMP 63).

36These mistaken or misguided answers are corrected in the final version. Heart’s complaining ‘I need a theme!’ turns to wiry ironic expostulation: ‘What, be a singer born and lack a theme?’ Instead of the uninspired remark on imagery’s being extinguished in Heaven, Heart utters a repudiation of ‘simplicity’ (in the Aristotelian sense of an indivisible substance): the poet’s heart is unwilling to be ‘Struck dumb in the simplicity of fire!’ Refusing to trace his poetic lineage to a modern Christian author, Shakespeare, Yeats lengthens the lineage of poetry as far back as possible, to the first poet, the unChristian Homer. If ‘original sin’ was Homer’s reiterated theme, we did not need Genesis to reveal it to us. Soul’s last command summons up the very figure of Jesus, beheld in eternity: ‘Look on that fire, salvation walks within.’ (The original draft says, ‘Knock on that door,’ and the animated verb ‘walks’ was originally the static ‘waits.’)10 Flinging answers back to Soul, the poet, as Heart, proclaims his own allegiance to complexity, mortality, Homer, and the moral imperfection of humanity. He has scorned gold-getting and idle domesticity; he has recovered from his initial resentment of both the Lethean flesh and his Attis-like obligation to full awareness; he has rejected the vacant happiness of the Eastern sages; he is convinced that lunar gaudium springs only from ‘blood-sodden’ suffering; and he has willingly joined in the immemorial chorus of the conquerors, ‘Let all things pass away.’ That refrain is a negative ‘fiat’—a necessitarian ‘Let there be nothing permanent’ countering God’s ordaining fiat—’Let there be light.’

37Why did Yeats frame his dialogue of Soul and Heart in pentameter couplets? Why must what Heart says rhyme directly with what Soul says? Soul, always speaking first, sets the condition of reply: ‘Find something that rhymes with ‘seem.’ Heart casts about and finds ‘theme.’ To Soul’s ‘desire,’ Heart answers with scorn of heavenly ‘fire.’ As Soul points to the heavenly ‘within’ in which Jesus walks, Heart replies triumphantly with ‘sin.’ The back-and-forth exchange demands persistently that Heart rise to diction contesting the end-rhyme of Soul; and, with the last word, Heart wins. The pentameters of this dialogue link it with the earlier pentameters of parts II and III, just as the tetrameters of IV, V, and VI had linked those parts together. We seem to be seeing a sequence varying between lighter ‘lyric’ tetrameters and graver ‘meditative’ pentameters. This perception casts us back to our puzzle with part I and its uneven rhythms. Prompted by the many pentameters we have encountered, we hear that part I, too, can be read as perfectly regular pentameters, rhyming abcab:

Between extremities man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath, comes to destroy
All those antinomies of day and night;
The body calls it death, the heart remorse.
But if these be right, what is joy? (cf. VP 499-500)

38As soon as we have perceived this rhythmic possibility, we realize that there is a regular rhythm to part I: 3 beats, 2 beats, repeated five times. (This realization makes evident the correct scansion of the last sentence: ‘But if these be right, | What is joy?) And reading our ‘pentameter’ version of part I we realize why there is no second ‘c’ rhyme: after all, the ‘antinomies of day and night’ have been destroyed as time is abolished at death, so their line-rhyme, ‘night,’ can have no double.

39Of course, recasting part I into regular tetrameters with a satisfyingly regular rhyme scheme obliterates the very effect the slightly unscannable short lines of the prelude are intended to create—that of an aged poet uttering, in uneven lyric rhythms and irregular rhymes, the most basic question of his life, the question that brings under critical examination the system of antinomies so neatly ordering life in his former invented scheme of contraries. However, this second, pentametric, perception of part I—that under its formal waywardness and baffled energy there lies an unsuspected order and gravity that link it to the later pentameters of the sequence—gives us confidence that Yeats’s question (‘What is joy?’) may ultimately yield an answer.

40But is part VIII that answer? It would hardly seem so. Part VIII is the most peculiar part of ‘Vacillation,’ consisting, as it does, of a tolerant examination of Von Hügel’s attraction to the supernatural, an attraction Yeats shares but cannot endorse. Geometrical antinomies, the divided mythical tree, the castrated Attis, human responsibility, blood-sodden mortality, and Soul’s didactic certainties have demanded severities of tone. But to a fellow human seeker, Yeats thinks, one speaks in the companionable colloquial tones of friend to friend, parting with him only reluctantly. Never was there a more benign anathema (‘Must we part?... So get you gone’) than this address to Friedrich von Hügel, who, in his writings on mysticism, asserted that the body of Saint Teresa of Ávila remained undecayed in its tomb, using fourteeners and hexameters. Its refusal to be consistent is I suppose appropriate for its conversational jog. The familiar tone that Yeats here adopts, the assumption of colleagueship in a willing credulity, is actually shocking when we encounter it fresh from the implacable Soul and the obstinate Heart. There is a free-floating intellectual irresponsibility in the far-flung speculation that the ‘self-same hands’ of some unspecifiable supernatural demiurge in one mood eviscerated the Pharoahs for Egyptian mummification, and in another mood decided to ‘mummify’ Saint Teresa by supernatural unction. Yeats’s own tolerant irresponsibility makes his point; that speculation about the invisible is simply one more act of the imagining mind, and that, as Blake said in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ‘every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.’ The preservation of the Pharoahs is an image of the truth of their secular power; the preservation of the body of Saint Teresa is an image of the truth of her spiritual power, and the presence of the miraculous oil is an image of the healing power of the saint’s words.

41It is not entirely clear how the apposite closing allusion to the lion and the honeycomb came into Yeats’s mind; in the drafting of the poem, it is present from the beginning. Like Yeats’s tone, it reinforces the colleagueship that Yeats establishes with Baron Von Hügel; no need to quote the book of Judges, because Von Hügel knows the Bible as well as Yeats, and can catch the swift reference to Samson finding a honeycomb in the lion he had slain. From that fact, Samson invents a riddle (Judges xiv, 5-18): ‘Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.’ The riddle suggests the scripturally ‘revealed’ answer to Yeats’s opening question, ‘What is joy?’ ‘Devouring time’ (the eater) produces sweet nourishment; the sweetness of joy emerges from the strength of experience (Samson’s slaying of the strong lion). The rhythm of this coda fits the mood of jaunty conversation between friends; the jogging heptameter suggests a lightheartedness absent from the rest of the poem.

42Having decided that every poet’s theme is original sin, the poet can regain gaiety, and drop the austerity of severe implacable choice and the self-laceration of remorse. But part VIII is best characterized as a coda because the drama is already over at the close of part VII, with Heart’s defiant choice of original sin over Soul’s simplicity of fire. Just as Mozart has an equable closing chorus after the disappearance into hell of Don Giovanni, so Yeats writes an exit speech for himself to let the passions settle. And once that is done, he can at last sit down to compose his prelude: ‘Between extremities| Man runs his course.’ Where we might have expected a gradual and inviting prelude, we find a terse summary; and where we might have found a tragic tension at the end, we find a jovial and sociable farewell. The interest of ‘Vacillation’ lies as much in its oscillation between opening oracular wisdom and closing informality as in the philosophical undoings of the poem’s successive positions, beginning with the crucifixion of Attis on the antinomies.

43Yet those undoings—of worldly ambition, of conventional domesticity, of aimless ‘happiness,’ of a tragic sense of remorse, of the desire for conquering fame, even of salvation—point Yeats toward the joy that ratifies necessity, in which all vacillation ceases. ‘The meaning of all song’ is ‘Let all things pass away.’ ‘Vacillation’ is a very specialized poem of successive ordeals in the search for the wisdom that brings joy, and does not appeal to those who want to hear in Yeats’s voice an identifiable Irishness or a polemical politics or at least the melancholy of personal love. No Ireland, no politics, no beloved: Yeats strips himself of these overt identity-markers to be a poet not of his own time but of the company of poets, not of a specific life but (as we realize from all the mentions of his increasing age) of the attainment of that ‘old experience’ that Milton prophesied of his Penseroso. ‘What’s the meaning of all song?’ Yeats asks in one of his two unlimited questions (of which the other is ‘What is Joy?’); and he ranges from Egypt and Homer and early modern Spain and England to contemporary Germany to show himself a citizen of all song—old or new, local or foreign. It is the naked self, without its embroidered coat of particularity of national or political allegiance, that speaks ‘Vacillation’—and this universal Yeats, suspended between the staring fury and the blind lush leaf, should be allowed to play a role in the biography of this poet as important as the personal and nationalist Yeats embodied in ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’ or ‘Parnell’s Funeral’ or ‘Easter 1916.’


1 Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007).

2 W. B. Yeats, Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems, ed. David R. Clark (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), henceforth WPM. All references to the drafts of “Vacillation” are drawn from this volume (36-89). The subtitles are found (7-81).

3 The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (New York: Doubleday, 1965), 33.

4 WMP, 49. In the transcription of the draft, the words ‘Unearned’, ‘undreamed’ and the final ‘happiness’ are bracketed and prefaced with an editorial question mark. Nonetheless, since they represent the editor’s best guess at the autograph, I feel able to quote them here.