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The Living Stream

Warwick Gould


Helen Vendler, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), ix-xix + 428 pp.

Denis Donoghue

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1This book is so good — and so commanding — that perhaps the best way to review it is to dispute some points of principle and particle that have struck me while reading it: that way, readers will have a sense of some of the issues entailed. Besides, no book by Helen Vendler is a bowl of strawberries and cream.

2I begin with the title, which strikes me as inapposite:

We dreamed that a great painter had been born
To cold Clare rock and Galway rock and thorn,
To that stern colour and that delicate line
That are our secret discipline
Wherein the gazing heart doubles her might (VP 326).

3These lines from ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ are specific about the discipline they invoke. They also involve an almost philosophic distinction, clarified in both versions of A Vision, between the gaze and the glance: these are technical terms, as Yeats uses them. Donald Davie has paraphrased the lines well enough:

  • 1 Donald Davie, Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 174.

We attend to natural landscape, not for the sake of delighting in it, nor for what it may tell us of supernatural purpose or design, but so that the imperious personality, seeing itself there reflected, may become the more conscious of its power — ’the gazing heart doubles her might’.1

4Professor Vendler’s book has nothing to do with that discipline or its secrecy; she has other concerns.

5Three words together indicate the parameters of Professor Vendler’s work in criticism: lyric, style, and form. The lyric poem is the centre of her concern: not the novel or the play. She has written on Shakespeare’s sonnets, the poetries of George Herbert, Keats, Stevens, Yeats, and modern poetry since Whitman, always with emphasis on the lyric. But her sense of lyric has changed somewhat over the past few years. In Soul Says: On Recent Poetry (1995) she wrote:

  • 2 Helen Vendler, Soul Says: On Recent Poetry (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, (...)

The virtues of lyric — extreme compression, the appearance of spontaneity, an intense and expressive rhythm, a binding of sense by sound, a structure which enacts the experience represented, an abstraction from the heterogeneity of life, a dynamic play of semiotic and rhythmic ‘destiny’ — all are summoned to give a voice to the ‘soul’ — the self when it is alone with itself, when its socially constructed characteristics (race, class, color, gender, sexuality) are felt to be in abeyance. The biological characteristics (‘black like me’) are of course present, but in the lyric they can be reconstructed in opposition to their socially constructed form, occasioning one of lyric’s most joyous self-proclaimings: ‘I am I, am I; All creation shivers | With that sweet cry’ (Yeats).2

  • 3 Helen Vendler, Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats (Cambridge:: Harvard University Pre (...)

6But she did not explain how that abeyance is achieved, how the quasi-Yeatsian separation of soul from self could be effected, such that soul could clap its hands and sing, or why Yeats’s sweet cry — a cry of need, by my reading, as much as of élan — could be glossed so single-mindedly as ‘most joyous self-proclaiming’. In Poets Thinking (2004) and in Invisible Listeners (2005) there is no sign of the separation of soul from self, or of the abeyance of extraneous forces. The essential motive of lyric is now ‘to incorporate all of reality into a single speaking voice . . . Lyric must express social content through a single voice encompassing response universally’:3

  • 4 Helen Vendler, Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery (Princeton: Pr (...)

7Although in the usual lyric the speaker is alone, this solitude does not mean that he is without a social ambience. It means only that his current social conditions are presented as they are reflected on in solitude, embodied not in ‘live’ interaction with other persons but in lexical and intellectual reference.4

8I don’t think ‘reflected on in solitude’ is the same as the earlier ‘soul’. I don’t know either what degree of autonomy is claimed for the act of ‘reflecting on’.

9Professor Vendler thinks of lyric without misgiving, she does not seem to feel any qualms about it. But I recall a daunting sentence in Davie’s Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric:

  • 5 Donald Davie, Czeslaw Milosz and the Insuffiency of Lyric (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Pres (...)

I have suggested, going for support to the writings of Milosz, that no concerned and ambitious poet of the present-day, aware of the enormities of twentieth-century history, can for long remain content with the privileged irresponsibility allowed to, or imposed on, the lyric poet [Davie’s emphasis].5

10In the same context, Davie quoted from one of John Butler Yeats’s letters to his son William in 1906:

  • 6 Ibid., 41.

It is quite possible to be lyrical and not poetical — to be a poet it is first of all necessary to be a man. The high vitality and vivid experience, the impulses, doings and sufferings of a Tolstoi, a Shakespeare or a Dante — all are needed.6

11It may be that Helen Vendler is using the word ‘lyric’ in a narrow sense that does not open itself to such questionings as Davie and JBY insist on, but a note to that effect might have been helpful.

12Style, in Helen Vendler’s usage, refers to a writer’s typical expressive gesture, a pattern of speech to which he or she aspires or which comes ‘naturally’. One of the epigraphs to Our Secret Discipline is taken from Yeats’s journal for April 1909:

  • 7 W. B. Yeats, Memoirs, ed. by Denis Donoghue (London: Macmillan, 1972), 211.

The element which in men of action corresponds to style in literature is the moral element. Books live almost entirely because of their style, and the men of action whose influence inspires movements after they are dead are those whose hold upon abstract law and high emotion lifts them above immediate circumstance.7

13A writer’s style is the pattern in his work to be discerned on a higher plane than that of the details. Yeats gives a beautiful account of it in ‘Poetry and Tradition’:

In life courtesy and self-possession, and in the arts style, are the sensible impressions of the free mind, for both arise out of a deliberate shaping of all things, and from never being swept away, whatever the emotion, into confusion or dullness. The Japanese have numbered with heroic things courtesy at all times whatsoever, and though a writer, who has to withdraw so much of his thought out of his life that he may learn his craft, may find many his betters in daily courtesy, he should never be without style, which is but high breeding in words and in argument. He is indeed the creator of the standards of manners in their subtlety, for he alone can know the ancient records and be like some mystic courtier who has stolen the keys from the girdle of Time, and can wander where it please him amid the splendours of ancient Courts (E&I 253).

  • 8 Vendler, Poets Thinking, 118.
  • 9 T. E. Hulme, ‘Notes on Language and Style’, in Further Speculations, ed. by Sam Hynes (Minneapolis (...)
  • 10 William Empson, Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture, ed. by John Haffenden (Iowa City: Uni (...)

14Vendler has clarified, as instances of the source of a particular style, Herbert’s yearning to make the invisible God a visible, loving presence, friend to friend. In Yeats: ‘As he surveys the data of life retrospectively in “Among School Children” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”, Yeats shows us the clearest proof that for him it was indispensable not only to think in images but to arrange chains of images in such a way as to make them become the structural, and revelatory, principle of much of his poetry’.8 I am not sure what a writer’s ‘thinking in images’ entails. T. E. Hulme held that ‘thought is prior to language and consists in the simultaneous presentation to the mind of two images. Language is only a more or less feeble way of doing this’.9 To which William Empson replied that ‘a dog could not find its way home across a field if it had nothing in its head, at a moment of choice, except “a simultaneous presentment of two images”’.10 It is not clear what is supposed to go on between the two images: making a chain of them evidently requires sentences. Vendler often speaks of the words between the images as mere connectives, falling into invisibility. In Poets Thinking she reads ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ slowly and makes much of the ‘shattering cascade of ten images’ at the end. She has had second thoughts about her terminology: in revising the commentary for Our Secret Discipline she has changed ‘images’ to ‘concrete nouns’ (277) not the same things, I would have thought. I doubt that the cascading words are images; they are generic emblems, denoting not things but sorts of things. Even ‘that raving slut | Who keeps the till’ is an emblem, a sort of person, not someone you are likely to see behind a counter in Sligo but someone to be thought of generically as a slave of the mercenary class. Pound’s ‘Green arsenic smeared on an egg-white cloth, | Crushed strawberries!’ is an image; so is William Carlos Williams’s ‘On the glass tray | a glass pitcher, the tumbler | turned down, by which | a key is lying — And the | immaculate white bed’; so is Antony’s insult to Cleopatra, ‘I found you as a morsel cold upon | Dead Caesar’s trencher;’ and so is Yeats’s ‘A shape with lion body and the head of a man’. The end of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ is quite different. The only images that Yeats claims as ‘masterful’ in that poem are singular ones — Oisin, the Countess Cathleen, Cuchulain, the Fool, and the Blind Man — that ‘grew in pure mind’. However, this little dispute would need to involve theories of imagery — not just Hulme, Pound, Aldington, H.D., and Flint — which Vendler has not shown much interest in.

15Nor does she show much interest in poetic diction, grammar, and syntax. Diction: you would not learn from Our Secret Discipline why Yeats uses the word ‘All’ so repetitively (‘all, all are in my thoughts to-night being dead’) or how his use of it differs from Milton’s in Paradise Lost or how he justifies his emphatic ‘that’. Syntax: as in Donald Davie’s Articulate Energy (1955). Grammar: as Francis Berry examined it in Poet’s Grammar (1958). Although Vendler writes of ‘Byzantium’ at length and most perceptively, she doesn’t bother with the quandary of grammar in lines 13-14 that troubles David Lloyd in Anomalous States (1993) or the standard reading of the last stanza of ‘Among School Children’ that Paul de Man questioned in The Rhetoric of Romanticism (1984). In ‘Byzantium’ Lloyd was puzzled by ‘A mouth that has no moisture and no breath | Breathless mouths may summon’. What is the subject of that sentence? Or is the traffic two-way? Vendler’s commentaries on ottava rima do not pause over these problems.

16A poet’s most important relations, she maintains, are to the genres available to him, the forms already there. Other matters can be left aside: someone will attend to them. The pressure exerted by Pound on Yeats’s style is not germane. What Yeats learned by reading the English neo-Platonists, Donne, Nietzsche, Berkeley, Swedenborg, and much besides —and the possible effect such reading had on his style — is not work for this book.

17Form, as Vendler writes of it, is what R. P. Blackmur called ‘executive form’, meaning the genres and technical values by which poetry is distinguished from prose or conversation: not only epic, narrative, ode, sonnet, ballad, and so forth but the details of stanza, rime riche, ottava rima, terza rima, blank verse, rhyme, trimeters, tetrameters, all the means by which ‘theoretic form’ is administered. ‘A poem is an experience in time activated by its forms, from the phonetic to the structural’ (5). Vendler also notes that forms ‘can be ‘contradicted’ by the poet’s using them against their natural grain’ (239-240). Yeats often did something mainly because he had not done it before. ‘We respect in him his insouciant way of thinking, “I haven’t yet done this” — and then, even on his deathbed, doing it’ (370).

18Vendler shows, most convincingly, that Yeats submitted himself to the traditions of English poetry, its forms and metres. In ‘Literature and the Living Voice’ and other essays he went out of his way to distinguish Irish culture from English, but in his poetic mind he listened to the rhythms of English poetry and would not be deterred from them. When he wrote ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’, he listened to Cowley’s ‘On the Death of Mr. William Hervey’, and imitated its octave-stanza form, as again in ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’ and ‘Colonus’ Praise’. In the Gregory poem he resorted to an earlier English expression of grief to impel his own.

19In Our Secret Discipline Vendler scolds the scholars of Yeats for neglecting Yeats’s labour in these formal respects; in effect, for not doing what she has now done. She speaks of ‘their usual indifference to form in Yeats’. ‘We understand, too, that form for Yeats has ideological resonance: that some forms say “stability and order”, or “aristocracy” or “Romance”, while others say “complexity of thought” or “folk-material” or “essence of something”’ (78). She would like to be able to correlate each form with an ideological commitment, but sometimes the effort is a strain. ‘What else did the trimeter alternately rhymed quatrain mean to Yeats, in addition to its link, in his mind, to gallant, revolutionary nationalist men, and nationalistic Platonic Forms such as the fisherman?’ (195).

20On the whole, Vendler is justified in scolding her colleagues. But they could reply, perhaps shamefacedly, that they have many pressing matters to deal with. Yeats involved his poems in far more external lore than, say, Stevens or Eliot did: Sligo, Dublin, the Hermetic Society, London, reading Blake, Chaucer and Spenser, Olivia Shakespear, the Golden Dawn, Maud Gonne, the Abbey Theatre, Nietzsche, Synge’s commotion, the Hugh Lane fracas, the Easter Rising, Iseult Gonne, marriage to George, the Automatic Writing, the Troubles, the Civil War, the Free State, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, Berkeley, Kevin O’Higgins, censorship, General O’Duffy, Fascism, Mussolini, Gentile, the impending War; not to speak, as he often did, of more immediately personal and emotive matters. Vendler would say, I imagine, that these are motifs for the biographer, they should not concern the literary critic. In a strict sense, she is right. It is an immense relief to hear her say in Our Secret Discipline:

Here, as I comment on a poem, I aim to follow the poet’s creative thinking as it motivates the evolution of the poem. Nor do I want to argue with the poems; poems are hypothetical sites of speculation, not position papers. They do not exist on the same plane as actual life; they are not votes, they are not uttered from a podium or a pulpit, they are not essays. They are products of reverie (xiv).

21This is written with Vendler’s characteristic verve: at last, I am delighted to say, a major critic of Yeats has been bold enough to tell her colleagues to mind their proper business. But then I wonder whether ‘speculation’ doesn’t undermine the serious claim we regularly make for poetry: it seems to make the poet light, if not light-headed, as if he were merely engaged in making enclosures of hypotheses. I remain edified by Davie’s argument with Milosz’s ‘No More’, while recognizing that Davie and Vendler are critics of different persuasions. I recoil, too, from Vendler’s scolding by remembering, without putting a strain on my imperfect memory, scholars who have read Yeats in the ways that Vendler has recommended and practiced: I think of Roman Jakobson’s essay on ‘The Sorrow of Love’ in Language in Literature (1987), Leo Spitzer’s essay on ‘Leda and the Swan’ in Essays on English and American Literature (1962), Frank Kermode’s chapter on ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ in Romantic Image (1957) and Paul de Man’s elaborate study (again in The Rhetoric of Romanticism) of Yeats’s early style and changes of style. Such writings could only be ignored — and Vendler ignores them — if you insisted on a very narrow definition of lyric, style, and form. Indeed, Vendler is strikingly inattentive even to her masters. Writing about the two poems of Byzantium, she assumes that what Empson says of them in Using Biography (1984) need not come into the reckoning. Or what he says of ‘Who Goes with Fergus?’ in Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). She might also have pondered Edmund Wilson’s remark, in The Triple Thinkers (1938, 1948):

  • 11 Edmund Wilson, The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects (New York: Oxford Universit (...)

The old iambic pentameters have no longer any relation whatever to the tempo and language of our lives. Yeats was the last who could write them, and he only because he inhabited, in Ireland and in imagination, a grandiose anachronistic world.11

22In fact, Vendler’s commentaries on the major poems, in Poets Thinking and Our Secret Discipline alike, include the same kind of material, and similar kinds of interpretation, that other critics have produced. She does just as much paraphrasing as any critic who has never heard that in the best circles it is forbidden. When she comments on ‘Among School Children’, she pro-vides the standard information about Senator Yeats, the Montessori school in Waterford, Maud Gonne then and now, Leda and Zeus, Plato and the egg. She gives the gist of the poem, without embarrassment and very usefully indeed, and offers a better account of the ‘Presences’ than any I have seen elsewhere. Then — but only then — she moves on to an analysis of the poem as an ode using the ottava rima stanza. She holds that Yeats associated this stanza with aristocratic culture and the patronage of the arts which it enabled in Urbino, Ferrara, and Florence, instances of which he saw in his trip to Italy with Lady Gregory and her son Robert in 1907. Strange that it took him twenty years to make the association in poems worthy of it.

23The scolded critics might also ask pardon by noting that literary criticism, as practiced in Our Secret Discipline, is arduous work, often a hard slog among stanza forms, end-rhymes, pentameters and tetrameters. Vendler concedes this. ‘It may sometimes be wearying, for critic and reader alike, to subject a single poetic form, in all its variety, to description and analysis, but it is the only way to see what the poet-as-poet spent his days doing, and to explain the ventures of his aesthetic within the single form’ (111). It is indeed. Not everyone wants to write sentences such as these, even if they could, about ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’:

Here, as elsewhere in The Wind Among the Reeds, Yeats has departed from his earlier iambic habit in order to explore dactylic and anapestic feet; this poem emphasizes a dactylic rhythm (‘blue and the dim and the dark cloths’) in its first, counterfactual, unit (lines 1-5), but an anapestic and iambic one in its second, narrative part (lines 6-8). The yearning intensity of the counterfactual is borne by the ictus of the dactyl ‘Had I the’; the proud humility of the narrative is translated by the poem’s progress into the gentleness of a partially anapestic meter: ‘I have spread’, etc (92-93).

24Incidentally, I read ‘Had I…’ as an iamb, like the other feet in that line.

25Vendler acknowledges that her criticism in Our Secret Discipline and Poets Thinking is often dry work. She has quoted, in self-defence, a passage from the second of Wordsworth’s ‘Essays upon Epitaphs’:

  • 12 Wordsworth’s Literary Criticism, ed. by W. J. B. Owen (London: Routledge amd Kegan Paul, 1974), 14 (...)

Minute criticism is in its nature irksome; and, as commonly practiced in books and conversation, is both irksome and injurious. Yet every mind must occasionally be exercised in this discipline, else it cannot learn the art of bringing words rigorously to the test of thoughts; and these again to a comparison with things, their arche-types; contemplated first in themselves, and secondly in relation to each other; in all which processes the mind must be skilful, otherwise it will be perpetually imposed upon.12

26Not that a defence of Our Secret Discipline is necessary.

27A question arises: will Vendler’s commentaries on the poems in terms of their genres rather than their themes and local provocations change the standard sense of Yeats’s style? By the standard sense I mean the understanding that he spent nearly twenty years trying to find his voice — however we further define that project; that he found it in In the Seven Woods (1904) and developed it majestically in the long travail of The Green Helmet, Responsibilities, The Wild Swans at Coole, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, The Tower, and The Winding Stair (1933); that from Words for Music Perhaps (1932) to his last poems he permitted himself many improprieties and put his achieved lyric style at risk in raucous ballads and marching songs, such that he had some trouble steadying his style for the glories of ‘The Statues’, ‘The Black Tower’, and ‘Cuchulain Comforted’. Readers of Our Secret Discipline will ask themselves whether or not this fairly common view of Yeats’s lyric style can stand. They may find it confirmed by Vendler’s analyses and immensely enriched by their detail. Or they may be persuaded that Yeats’s fidelity to the genres he practiced qualifies the trajectory of the common view; that he was faithful to them even in the act of contradicting them. Does the wild old wicked man remain loyal to the genres, even when he seems to veer from the stylistic trajectory the scholars have assigned to him? Our Secret Discipline has presented readers with a most original set of issues.

28The book contains detailed commentaries on — by my count — about fifty-five poems, arranged not chronologically or thematically but in groupings of genres. The conduct of stanzas is Vendler’s main concern. Some of the commentaries are long because they include whatever background information Vendler deems necessary. Hard poems are paraphrased before the minute, syllabic work of analysis begins. The implied readers are, I suppose, graduate students and professors. Vendler assumes that they will have the difference between hypotaxis and parataxis at their finger-tips and that anaphora does not need to be explained. Whether or not undergraduates, even at Harvard, can cope with these technical terms is a cultural question. Meanwhile it remains to be said that Professor Vendler has written a magnificent — and edifyingly patient — book. Especially superb are the commentaries on ‘The Black Tower’, ‘Meru’, ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’, ‘The Man and the Echo’, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’, and ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’. My favorite chapter is the one on ottava rima, where Vendler achieves a style answerable to the noble stanzas she addresses.


1 Donald Davie, Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 174.

2 Helen Vendler, Soul Says: On Recent Poetry (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995), 6-7.

3 Helen Vendler, Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats (Cambridge:: Harvard University Press, 2004), 130 n. 12.

4 Helen Vendler, Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 5.

5 Donald Davie, Czeslaw Milosz and the Insuffiency of Lyric (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986), 29.

6 Ibid., 41.

7 W. B. Yeats, Memoirs, ed. by Denis Donoghue (London: Macmillan, 1972), 211.

8 Vendler, Poets Thinking, 118.

9 T. E. Hulme, ‘Notes on Language and Style’, in Further Speculations, ed. by Sam Hynes (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955), 77-100 (p. 84).

10 William Empson, Argufying: Essays on Literature and Culture, ed. by John Haffenden (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987), 115.

11 Edmund Wilson, The Triple Thinkers: Twelve Essays on Literary Subjects (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), 26-27.

12 Wordsworth’s Literary Criticism, ed. by W. J. B. Owen (London: Routledge amd Kegan Paul, 1974), 148. Quoted in part in Vendler, Poets Thinking, 122, n. 3.


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