BOOKS OF THE DAY
William Butler Yeats (Sean O'Faolain) The Young Melbourne (Bonamy Dobree) . . Economic Problems of the Next War (Honor Croome) A Short History of Science (Michael Roberts) The Ground-Plan of Democracy (The Headmaster of Mill Hill School) 183 Jungle Trader (Graham Greene) ...
184 Rhymney Memories (Goronwy Rees) ... 184 The Year's Poetry (John Hayward) 185 His Majesty of Corsica (Ralph Colman) ... Fiction (Kate O'Brien) 186 Current Literature ...
187 188 188 190 192
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
By SEAN O'FAOLAIN
To some minds Irish literature is so much an interest of the folk and of the parish that when the political or topical content (which the journalist normally exploits) has been assimilated, very little of universal appeal remains. That may be true of a quantity of Irish plays, novels, and poetry. They are amusing or interesting for their difference; not after the difference has ceased to be novel. Yeats, associating himself as closely as possible with Ireland, finding inspiration in her mythology, correction in her folk art, dilated all that he touched until it and he together became large as symbol while remaining personal, intimate, local. He might almost have taken his stand on George Moore's " All art must be parochial before it can become universal," were it not that in the richness and complexity of his mind, and the width of his interests, and the natural stature of his genius, he welded into his philosophy of art and life such a multitude of experience and a variety of ideas that he cannot be reduced to any formula. His biographer will have to follow him down many avenues, and gather up many threads before he can weave a definition of the final synthesis of his later poetry.
In sum he won his synthesis in conflict. His nature was dual; but his will was of the strongest. He was at once solitary, being a poet, and gregarious, being an Irishman. There was in his youth something princely, and in his age the touch of the king. He wished for power, and his spirit drew him back from the mob. All his early loves were lonely men, Axel, Manfred, Ahasuerus—passionate but remote. Wisdom was won by revolution, as Blake won it. It was ex- pressed in symbols. It was to be found in the deeps of the mind. It was hidden. A young man is content (if he is a poet) to live in such a lovely cavern, so long as the world will allow him. The world of Yeats' youth was kind to the remote. The esoteric was everywhere, in science, exploration, on the periphery of religion—enlarging such names and things as Swedenborg, Blavatsky, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Hermetic Writings, Jakob Boehme, Rosicrucionism, Hypnotism, the new psycho-therapy. Even Christian Science (First Church, 1879), the Egyptian Exploration Fund (founded 1883), Charcot's studies in pathology (published around 1886), were symptomatic of the general efflorescence of in- terest in the distant or arcane. So was the poetry of Mal- larme, Symons, Verlaine, Laforgue. It is often said that he, in steeping himself in the esoteric, was part of a general re- action from Darwinism; possibly his reaction was no more than the very natural impatience of a young genius with what, as is now patent, must have seemed even then particularly uninspiring. His first poetry reflected his first interests.
But underneath there was the seed of conflict. The manner in which he harmonised that side of his poetic temper with the simplicity and realism of Ireland will make an entrancing, if arduous, task for his biographer. He has so lovingly exfoliated his own mind that the task is one rather of assess- ment and exposition than actual discovery. From the begin- ning he adored the unified man who finds himself in mood and personality, and not in moral static character. His father, John Yeats, seems to have been the origin of that idea—in its expression, at any rate—and to have encouraged if not origi- nated several others. One of the most important of these expressed ideas was that the world had been broken into fragments shortly before the death of Shakespeare and that the artist who would try for Unity of Being will seek for the traditional subject. Ireland gave him that subject in its folk- magic, its traditional memory, its unbroken contact with the Anima Mundi.
His peculiarity was thus that of a very solitary, exploring kind of mind, interested in its own intuitions, attempting to create an art that would be gregarious and traditional. In so far as he found a way to achieve his desire it was, perhaps, by speaking in symbol, as with the voice of the oracle, in a style as public and direct as possible. It is evident enough, how- ever, that there was here a conflict between temperament and desire. In his work he fought it out to his very latest years.
There was little hint of that conflict of will in his early verse which everybody admired rather for the beauty of its shim- mering placidity. Only close friends like AE could observe, in hinting lines, the presence of the alter ego. From the found- ing of the Irish Theatre public life hauled him into daylight out of his Ahasuerian cavern, and the influence of Synge must have been profound. The 1919 volume, The Wild Swans at Coole, is a turning point : one can even see in the 1914 volume, Responsibilities (with its significant title), the inten- sification of his thought that had been for the previous fif- teen or sixteen years toughened in its wrestling with affairs. (It was in 1903 that he wrote : " I am trying to put a less dream-burthened will into my work." And in 1906 that he was beginning to delight " in the whole man, blood, intellect, and imagination running together.") So by 1921, in Michael Robartes, he is speaking with the vigour and authority of a master. No poet since Hardy has written with such intensity —and omitting Hardy, who else in a hundred years?—as :— Never until this night have I been stirred. The elaborate starlight throws a reflection On the dark stream,
Till all the eddies gleam, And thereupon there comes that scream From terrified invisible beast or bird : Image of poignant recollection . . .
One has but to read a very few lines from any book from that on to be aware of the man's stature.
Whatever be his achievement as poet and as craftsman, it was his personal achievement—because it was his personal ambition—to weld the personal and racial together. Nobody had done it before him, and in that sense it may be said that he created Irish literature. Fortunately, too, he had a fine mind and a love for exposition, and he has left behind him more expository prose than any other poet writing in English with the exception of Coleridge. He has left so much of it, and it is so various in its subjects, that it would be a service to gather his poetic canon into one volume. There, if it were not patent in his poetry, it will be clear that he has done what he frequently declared every art should do—lived, thought, and written in a manner equally intelligible in any period, in any country. Though he is, by minor definition, an Irish poet, he is by major definition a world poet. It was a great personal achievement, because endless temptations to the merely local fame called him by the way; because in the end from his work what emerges is the powerful impress of his individual personality, an impress that was so genuine that when one went from the poems to the poet the transition was imperceptible. As he was kingly in his art (how he loved that word " arrogant "!) he was kingly in his person. And now it is, for all who knew him, as if a king had died.