Solipsism and beyond - the poetry of W. B. Yeats; The Poems of W.B. Yeats, edited by Richard J. Finneran. New York: Macmillan. 747 pp. $19.95.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.m
These lines from ''The Second Coming'' were originally inspired by the events of the Russian Revolution of 1917. But the shock of recognition we feel upon reading them is as powerful today as the day they were written. For countless readers, Yeats's poem has crystallized our recurrent fears that civilization may be falling apart and the nightmare sense of helplessness felt in the face of the impending disaster.
That one of the greatest modern poets should have written most of his work as a reaction against modern times should not surprise us. Most of the writers we think of as pioneers of modern literary form and style - Proust, Conrad, Mann, Rilke, Pound, Valery, Eliot, and Lawrence - were reacting (or, as Valery preferred to call it, acting ) against what they saw as the spirit of the coming age: The growing dominance of the machine and the subsequent proliferation of the human type that the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset labeled ''Mass Man.'' While those of more liberal inclination saw Mass Man as a hapless victim of the society that produced him, others, less charitably, were sufficiently dismayed at the prospect of a society dominated by Mass Man that they longed for a return to some kind of aristocratic hierarchy. Some, like Lawrence, wished for a new order based on a cult of leadership, while others, like Proust and Mann, at the very least, regretted the passing of a more stable era.
Yeats saw himself as a survivor of the ''tragic generation'' of the 1890s that included Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson, poets who desperately tried to follow the Paterian admonition to burn with a hard, gemlike flame, but succeeded only in burning themselves out, unfulfilled, at a very early age. Though frequently praised for casting off his early Romanticism in favor of the hard, ''modern'' images of his middle and later periods, Yeats never strayed far from his earliest themes and concerns, chief of which was to achieve that aesthetic brand of simplification through intensity known as the ''condition of fire.'' This is the quest described in his Byzantium poems. ''Consume my heart away; sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal/ It knows not what it is'' he prays in ''Sailing to Byzantium,'' while in ''Byzantium'' he envisions the cold ''Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit'' transforming the ''mire and blood'' of life into the ''changeless metal'' of art.
Reflecting on his own youth, the French poet Paul Valery remarks ''I lived among young people for whom art and poetry were a kind of essential nourishment impossible to forgo, and indeed something more: a supernatural food.'' Yeats may very well owe some share of his bright eminence to the contrast between his quasi-religious dedication to poetry and the flatness of the poetic era that followed in his wake - the Age of Auden, who said in his elegy on Yeats: ''Poetry makes nothing happen.'' Unlike Auden, who distrusted rhetoric and played down the importance of poetry, Yeats was very consciously a poet in the grand tradition stretching back, through Tennyson's Palace of Art and the heady realms of Pater and pre-Raphaelitism, to the splendors of High Romanticism, when Shelley in ''A Defence of Poetry'' proclaimed poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world and when Blake hammered out his own complex mythological system so as not to be enslaved by another man's. Yeats's first erotic stirrings were inspired by Shelley's poetry, and the system Yeats eventually elaborated in ''A Vision'' - though in some ways almost the opposite of Blake's - was nonetheless patterned on Blake's example.
Yeats's idea of the poet's solitary ''antithetical'' quest was drawn in large part from his reading of Shelley's ''Alastor.'' And, beyond Romanticism, Yeats's conception of the poet can be traced to the same sources that inspried the Romantics: the visionary realms of Edmund Spenser and the prophetic world of John Milton. Yeats's picture of the poet's mental life harkens back to Milton's portrait of ''Il Penseroso'': Or let my lamp at midnight hour Be seen in some high lonely tower, Where I may oft outwatch the Bear, With thrice great Hermes, or unsphere The spirit of Plato to unfold What worlds, or what vast regions hold The immortal mind that hath forsook Her mansion in this fleshly nook; And of those daemons that are found In fire, air, flood, or under ground, Whose power hath a true consent With planet, or with element.m
So much of Yeats is here: the image of the tower, which dominates Yeats's poetry (not to mention the actual, ruined tower in which he did much of his writing); the fascination with midnight (the hour immortalized in ''Byzantium''); the invocation of Plato, Hermes (i.e. Trismegistus, patron of alchemists), and daemons (not devils, but pagan spirits halfway between gods and men, who are ancestors of Yeats's ''Daimons''); and most of all, the question that obsessed Yeats: ''what vast regions hold/ The immortal mind that hath forsook/ Her mansion in this fleshly nook''?
Yeats divides Milton's Platonist's quest into two divergent and unequal strains. He abandons the search for objective truth, which - to his curious way of thinking - encompasses both natural and Christian morality, to pursue the quest of ''The Heart'' at the expense of ''the Soul'':
The Soul. Seek out reality, leave things that seem.
The Heart. What, be a singer born and lack a theme?
The Soul. Isaiah's coal, what more can man desire?
The Heart. Struck dumb in the simplicity of fire!
The Soul. Look on that fire, salvation walks within.
The Heart. What theme had Homer but original sin?
Yeats leaves behind the certainty of ''reality'' and the comfort of ''salvation.'' He will approach what he calls ''joy'' and ''blessedness'' through a far more solipsistic route, as proclaimed in the last stanza of ''A Dialogue of Self and Soul,'' where the Heart, here called the Self, speaks: I am content to follow to its source Every event in action or in thought; Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot! When such as I cast out remorse So great a sweetness flows into the breast We must laugh and we must sing, We are blest by everything, Everything we look upon is blest.m
This solipsism had its consequences. Yeats's fascination with aristocracy and heroism merged with his highly personal version of Irish nationalism to yield a curious mixture - a kind of apolitical activism. Doubting that an Ireland of increasingly orthodox Catholicism bore any resemblance to the heroic land of Cuchulain, Yeats sometimes fell back on praising the violent means, if not the plebeian ends, of revolutionary politics. This led to a dangerous equation of the poet's antithetical quest for his ''Daimon,'' or destiny, with the quest of his ''doom-eager'' countrymen who burned for a sacrifice more literal than the poet's imaginative conflagration. Some burn damp faggots, others may consume The entire combustible world in one small room As though dried straw . . .m
Yeats's lament for his patroness's son, Maj. Robert Gregory, killed in Italy during World War I, displays a characteristically Romantic regard for intensity as a value in itself. ''An Irish Airman foresees his Death'' takes this one step further, empathizing with Gregory's supreme indifference to life and death, to any cause whatsoever except that sense of exaltation felt by the hero at his own indifference to his fate: A lonely impulse of delight Drove to this tumult in the clouds; I balanced all, brought all to mind, The years to come seemed waste of breath, A waste of breath the years behind In balance with this life, this death.m
Yeats was less attracted by the specific aims of Irish republicanism than by the myth of blood sacrificed to a cause - or even to no cause. '' 'There's nothing but our own red blood/ Can make a right Rose Tree,' '' says one Irish revolutionary to another in Yeats's poem of 1921.
In his great poem ''Easter, 1916,'' Yeats achieves a more balanced perspective, epitomized in the oxymoron ''A terrible beauty is born.'' Amid his praise for those who took part in the ill-fated rebellion, Yeats perceives the tragedy of ''hearts with one purpose alone . . . enchanted to a stone/ To trouble the living stream.'' Elsewhere, in his ''Meditations in Time of Civil War,'' he admits, ''We had fed the heart on fantasies,/ The heart's grown brutal from the fare;/ More substance in our enmities/ Than in our love . . .'' War brings ''Nothing but grip of claw, and the eye's complacency,/ The innumerable clanging wings that have put out the moon.''
Yet, a fatalistic embrace of violence and its myths forms the theme of a number of his ''Last Poems'': '' 'Money is good and a girl may be better,/ But good strong blows are delights to the mind.' '' In the same volume, however, the poet achieves sufficient self-recognition to wonder if his words helped perpetuate a legacy of hopeless violence: ''Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?'' No answer is forthcoming.
Yeats's power may be purchased, too often, at the price of knowledge or of human pity, but it is a power that is concentrated often enough, on uncovering the essence of thought itself, as he does, so memorably, in his sonnet ''Meru'': ICivilisation is hooped together, brought Under a rule, under the semblance of peace By manifold illusion; but 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:
And if thought is the most uncontrollable activity in the world, man's greatest power and his greatest danger, Yeats has attempted to go beyond even thought: ''Thought is a garment and the soul's a bride/ That cannot in that trash and tinsel hide,'' proclaims Yeats's dark spokesman ''Ribh'' in a ''Supernatural Song.''
While pursuing the outermost bounds of thought, Yeats also faced the formidable task of representing the passionate complexities of the mind - its thoughts, dreams, visions, and emotions - in the crystalline images and intricate rhythms of poetry. His usual method of composition was to write out his ideas in prose, and then, draft by draft, work them into poems. The contrast between the apparent simplicity of the finished poem and the laboriousness of the process behind it is expressed (with admirably deceptive simplicity) in ''Adam's Curse'': I said, 'A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.'m
This Yeatsian version of the Renaissance virtue sprezzatura (making the difficult look easy) epitomizes his conception of the poet's craft. But craftmanship is only one part of the complicated process by which the poet seeks to encapsulate the complexities of thought and feeling. Yeats's symbol for the spiritual alchemy that produces a purified, stylized artwork from the raging complexity of human life and thought is the image of fire: not the heavenly fire of ''Isaiah's coal'' (which has its own special kind of purification), but the cold fire of ''Byzantium.'' The intellect of man is forced to choose Perfection of the life, or of the work, And if it take the second must refuse A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.m
Refusing the salvation that awaits the saint, the Yeatsian poet is left ''raging in the dark.'' Whatever joy he finds is fortuitous - like the sudden, luminous epiphany in a crowded London shop described in ''Vacillations'' - and may be shadowed by bouts of remorse.
In pouring himself into his work, the poet feeds on himself. Love's pleasure drives his love away, The painter's brush consumes his dreams; The herald's cry, the soldier's tread Exhaust his glory and his might: Whatever flames upon the night Man's own resinous heart has fed.m
The plight of man's - or poet's - resinous heart is to be caught in a form of solipsism that can bring joy (when the blithely forgetful heart casts out remorse and delights in its own creations and imaginings) or bitterness (when the heart is weighed down by memory and flooded with remorse).
In ''The Circus Animals' Desertion,'' the penultimate poem in Yeats's collected lyrics, the old master looks back on his creations, now seen, reductively, as circus animals - an idle pageant, at worst; at best, a necessary distraction to take the poet out of himself: Heart mysteries there, and yet when all is said It was the dream itself enchanted me: Character isolated by a deed To engross the present and dominate memory. Players and painted stage took all my love And not those things that they were emblems of.m
The poet sees himself as having sacrificed all to a dream, only to be thrown back to where he'd started from: ''the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.'' Like the painter, soldier, and lover of the earlier poem, the poet is exhausted, not only by the technical difficulties of his enterprise, but by the fact that he himself is the fuel on which his enterprise is fed.
Yet this cluttered, disreputable home of ''old iron, old bones, old rags'' has furnished the material for the poet's ''masterful images'' which grew in the ethereal atmosphere of ''pure mind.'' Though Yeats appears to be questioning the value of his poetic creations by confessing that they were only what Freudians might call ''sublimitations'' of baser instincts, he has actually managed to suggest that the mire and blood, the ''refuse'' of the embittered heart, is valorized by the poetic artifacts created from it.