“The world as the imagination sees it is the durable world.” —the Poet Yeats
A distinction between the heart and the soul, the core and the personality interested Yeats, also the fading of beauty in time and the trade of beauty for wisdom. “Wisdom is bodily decrepitude,” he wrote. Contraries meeting fascinated and vacillation perplexed the poet Yeats, and more: he strove to look into the unchanging world and to find a deeper core, a depth of rest without tension and with better insight. Yeats saw many things, but he seemed to believe that to face the truth was to be troubled and unhappy for such was the nature of things, and in this he was not altogether wrong. I do not think he was resigned to it, and I think his great heart strained to find a different conclusion. In his last poetry there is a kind of despair, however. It seems to me that whatever can be said of Yeats, his great and deep unhappiness cannot be ignored. I find it one of the best things in his poetry, like the rain of Ireland which makes it green.
Nothing is worth having that you cannot really have, and there is a sense in which anything worth having deeply, anything you can really possess in an earnest way is worth having, even if it is a deep unhappiness. Better that than to have nothing. And more, for if you have a deep unhappiness, you are likely to come into the regions where wisdom is found, for wisdom is found in the house of mourning, though many seem to have forgotten that. Yeats, had unhappiness, but he had more.
What Yeats had was a desire for deep mystery because there he found substantial and permanent things. In our age it seems popular desire reaches for little more than an easy happiness, a happiness maintained through careful and deliberate ignorance, and to live in our age is to be tempted by that desire. It seems an age easily satisfied by amusements uncritically attained and one in many ways unwilling to disturb its own complacent calm. Yeats scorned happiness too cheap. Better hard-won unhappiness, better the insight of contemplated regrets than the loss of ignoring them.
Yeats was interested in secrets, in hermetic rites and symbols, in occult practices and automatic writing and contact with the world of spirits. Yeats was a poet in search of meaning, in search of certain symbols; he was without the Christian God and he seems to have been robbed of heathen faith by his troubled and indifferent times. He suggests to me a man who tried to be a pagan and did not succeed. But his great romantic heart urged him to strong incantation and by straining he taught his eyes to see more clearly than some. Yeats had his regrets, but they took him in a way of consideration and attention, of brooding and examination.
Here is a work of the poet Yeats at the height of his powers, the seventh of his Supernatural Songs:
VII. What Magic Drum?
He holds him from desire, all but stops his breathing lest
primordial Motherhood forsake his limbs, the child no longer
Drinking joy as it were milk upon his breast.
Through light-obliterating garden foliage what magic drum?
Down limb and breast or down that glimmering belly move
his mouth and sinewy tongue.
What from the forest came? What beast has licked its young?
What he can see and what he can say! What he shows us how to see and say, what poised desire and what intimations of a brooding drum. I thought some of these thoughts while going over a canal on a little bridge. I looked around and saw one like the poet Yeats, a great blue heron in the water to his thighs waiting under the grass and shadow of the bank. He waited a little, and I waited; and then, as if we had reached a mutual understanding, he left me slowly. Much the same the poetry.
I think he found—the poet Yeats—to be a heathen and love beauty is to enter the atmosphere of tragedy, and found that the cyclical epochs of heathen history are a form of despair, and like the panting carp that gasps the water he dove to probe the bottom; and we glimpse the beauty of his underwater motions.
“How can the arts overcome the slow dying of men’s hearts that we call the progress of the world, and lay their hands upon men’s heartstrings again, without becoming the garment of religion as in old times?” — Yeats in 1900.
You feel the hope of achieving this has gone out of him in his last poems, that its last flowering comes in the Supernatural Songs, that he wanted to be pagan without succeeding in the end. He was a heart opposed to all of the machinery, a seeker not of simplicity but of mystery which is the true antithesis of machinery. Reading his wonderful, so-called critical works, one feels he is not so much criticizing as wishing, gathering the veils of twilight about him with purpose. He writes at a high tide of conviction, like T.S. Eliot in The Sacred Wood. When he says “We who care deeply about the arts . . . must baptize as well as preach,” one wonders if he did not mean to be a new St. Patrick, a St. Patrick operating in reverse. Hence his occupation with the politics of Ireland: he wanted to bring his people along and he ended up going with them, lamenting in the end, like Jeremiah to Egypt. Yeats the last heathen prophet was betrayed by the spiritus mundi slouching to Bethlehem to be born.
“Romanticism is a shortcut to the strangeness without the reality.” —T.S. Eliot.
Yeats was a romantic, a mystic, and that is why I love his poetry. I do wonder what it is Eliot meant by reality. He is so austere, almost prim, nearly fanatical in his calculations but, as usual in his judgment of his object, precise. One could wish for more of the heart and less of the contemplation in Eliot if it were not that the contemplation is what one has learned to wish for in Eliot. But what Eliot says is right in that the goal is the same and that the way you come to it matters. With Yeats you have the heart that knows the ends: he wants the insight of the strangeness, the permanence of unassailably mysterious things. Yeats is compelling for the things he sees truly, the measures he gives justly, the uncalculated and the apt—as in this observation: “But one cannot, perhaps, love or believe at all if one does not love or believe a little too much.” Whatever Yeats’ sins, they were not sins of austerity. In this lies the sincerity of all his vacillations and the power of all his chanted truth.