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The Living Stream

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Warwick Gould

Reviews

Nicholas Grene, Yeats’s Poetic Codes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 247 pp.

Joseph M. Hassett

Texte intégral

1This lively book explores what Grene calls Yeats’s ‘poetic codes’, which he defines as ‘the codes of practice developed to create the poems and situate them in relation to the poet, the reader and their implied worlds’. Such an inquiry implicitly evokes Mallarmé’s reminder that ‘It is not with ideas that one makes poems, but with words’. Indeed, Grene would append ‘and numbers’ to Mallarmé’s dictum. Dates are one of the primary coding devices he elucidates.

2The six Yeats poems that include dates in their titles — ‘September 1913’, ‘On Those That Hated The Playboy of the Western World, 1907’, ‘Easter 1916’, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, ‘Coole Park, 1929’, and ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ — are good examples of how dates function as codes. ‘September 1913’ and ‘Easter 1916’ are a particularly instructive pair. When the former was published in the 1914 Cuala edition of Responsibilities, anchoring its mood in the specific time of September 1913 consigned the heroic age to the past. By the time ‘Easter 1916’ was published — which did not occur until October, 1920 — the dating of the latter poem not only ‘announced a changed order of time, the start of a new epoch’, but re-wrote the meaning of ‘September 1913’. The dearth of heroes in 1913 tuned out not to be the end of an era after all, but merely a fallow period awaiting the rebirth of heroism in 1916. As Grene notes, when the two poems appear together in Collected Poems, the prior poem ‘reads as though it is waiting for “Easter 1916” to be written and complete its meaning’.

3The significance of a date in a Yeatsian title is less clear, if no less interesting a subject, in the one poem whose title consists entirely of a date, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, a poem composed in April 1921 with the title ‘Thoughts upon the Present State of the World’. In that context, it made sense for the fourth section of the poem to refer to the pre-World War I era as a time when ‘[w]e [. . .] seven years ago | Talked of honour and of truth [. . .]’. This ‘look-back’ to 1914 was eliminated in favour of an implicit allusion to 1912 when, in The Tower, Yeats re-titled the poem ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ and added an apparent — but false — composition date of 1919 at the end of the published poem. The reasons for this change are unclear. Grene suggests that Yeats was trying to invoke the millennial change of 2000 — so significant for his cyclic theory of history — but it is not clear that Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen invokes 2000. Indeed, Grene suggests that it heralds something just shy of twenty-twenty, a date without particular historical significance. Another possible explanation for the choice of 1919 is suggested by the fact that Yeats’s daughter was born in 1919. Prior to her birth, he had anticipated that his child would be the avatar of the new cycle of history, and quizzed the spirits that he believed animated his wife’s automatic writing as to why the avatar was expected so far in advance of the year 2000 (YVP 1, 467). Thus Yeats may have seen 1919 as the incipience of the new cycle of history. Or perhaps he just liked the sound.

4The sound of the words is a forceful reminder that poems are made of words, a point illustrated by Grene’s discussion of Yeats’s use of birds. Birds, whether individually identified, such as herrings, sparrows, linnets, rooks, hawks, swallows, or swans, or merely named generically, ‘provide linguistic binding through the ease with which they are rhymed.’ Grene points out that, in seventeen out of the seventy instances of ‘bird’, and in eleven out of the fifty-eight mentions of ‘birds’, they yield rhyme words, bird being rhymed with heard six times, and birds with words eight times.

5The use of place names also illustrates the prominence of words in the construction of the poems. Grene begins his discussion of place names with the interesting case of ‘the drear Heart Lake’ of ‘The Host of the Air’, as it appeared in The Bookman in 1893 under the title ‘The Stolen Bride’. When the poem was collected in The Wind Among the Reeds, the name of the lake had changed from Heart to Hart. Grene shows that both such lakes actually exist in close proximity in County Sligo. Thus, while Yeats often uses place names to situate his poems in a particular locale, the ‘Yeats country’ of the poetry is nonetheless ‘a country made up by the poet’, even though it can be — and is — visited by literary pilgrims.

6Grene’s discussion of the use of ‘this’ and ‘that’ and ‘here’ and ‘there’ illustrates both the strengths and limitations of analyzing the poems in terms of so-called codes. These particular markers can ‘pinpoint micro moments in the mental or emotional life of the writer’, but can equally be road signs pointing to ‘delusively spatial poetic spaces’. Moreover, even when they function as helpful guideposts, they frequently show less than the whole picture. For example, Grene’s careful contextual reading of the opening line of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ — ‘That is no country for old men’ — discerningly points to ‘a general sense of contrasts between old and young’, rather than attempting to identify the ‘literal geography’ of the country referred to in the poem. However, the book’s general approach of eschewing context for text — its preference for the ‘work of the poems’ as opposed to the poet’s work — precludes reference to the specific signs in the revealing early drafts of the poem that the ageing poet was attempting to come to grips with old age, and thus sought escape from sensual music to the spiritual realm of Byzantium.

7Grene’s remaining chapters are interesting both for their explicit content and for the way in which they implicitly raise the question of what it is that constitutes a ‘poetic code’. Introducing this question, Grene cites an early suggestion by Richard Ellmann that ‘we could try to codify the laws that govern the complexities of Yeats’s poetry’, and later explains that ‘[t]his book has been written out of a conviction that Yeats’s poetic codes, his stylistic practices [. . .], his manipulations of tense and mood, are meaningful in themselves.’ Yet it remains unclear what makes Yeats’s use of particular moods and tenses a ‘poetic code’, rather than simply a use of a particular mood or tense.

8The same question of what constitutes a code lurks throughout the discussion of Yeats’s uses of the word ‘dream’ and the contrasting terms ‘bitter’ and ‘sweet’. The range of meaning attributed to these Yeatsian favourites is itself a very interesting subject, but the meanings are so varied — and so frequently antithetical — that it is difficult to discern a code or a law governing their use.

9Perhaps the effort to find a code — and inferentially a code-giver — behind the unruly antics of the poetic imagination reflects the underlying tension between the view that the words themselves are writing the poetry and the belief that the poet stands above the words controlling their deployment according to his own laws or codes. Yeats’s Poetic Codes is an informative discussion of the way in which Yeats used words. Its effort to structure the discussion in terms of the concept of ‘poetic codes’ is a bonus that pro-vides a provocative conceptual framework. Ellmann’s goal of identifying the laws governing the complexities of Yeats’s poetry is not yet achieved, but it is well and fruitfully begun.

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