The Balancer: Yeats and His Supernatural System by Richard Moore
I can remember wandering about the streets of Paris, having just bought one of the first books to contain substantially all of Yeats' poems. Thinking of his lines,
I carry the sun in a gold cup,
The moon in a silver bag,
I said drunkenly to myself, "I have William Butler Yeats in a paper bag." It was not until several years later that I read a large chunk of A Vision and all of Richard Ellmann's biography. This is rather odd, I know, and perhaps worth testifying about. I would like to discuss the Yeats that was in the paper bag because that, I think most of us will agree, is the Yeats which is truly memorable---as distinguished from the Yeats that has buttered so many scholarly parsnips.
But surely the study of related matters---of biography, for example---only deepens our understanding of a poet. Surely it does no harm. I think it can do a great deal of harm. Under its influence we think we are reading someone's poems more intelligently, when in fact we may be badly misreading them by putting information into them that the poet, or his muse, left out. Does it help us in the understanding of Wilfred Owen's poetry to learn that he was a homosexual, or does it distract us with an emotionally charged irrelevance? But one of our best examples of this is Yeats himself. What, for example, was his attitude toward his own mysticism---toward ghosts? When I consulted the contents of the paper bag, I decided that there clearly was a very strong sense of irony---even sometimes a kind of puckish humor---when Yeats invoked his spirits from the Vasty Deep: a definite spicing of Hotspur, it seemed, in this gloomy Glendower. But then one day I met Mrs. Hirsch, a delightful old lady, an American and a medium, who had survived the Second World War in occupied France. She was still living in Versailles and was working on a mystical book to be called The Morning of the World. She had conducted several seances with Yeats. Him ironic about the Spirits? She looked at me in disbelief. Yeats' attitude toward the Spirits, she assured me, was one of unrelieved and helpless terror.
I was much troubled by this. I wondered what to do about Mrs. Hirsch. Finally I decided that in my attempts to discover what was actually in the paper bag, the thing to do was to forget about her. Her testimony was beside the point. It had to do only with some necessarily very vague speculations about how the contents of the paper bag got to be where they were. The problem at hand---the solvable problem---was what they were.
So let us have a pact with the biographers. Let us agree not to use the facts of Yeats' outward life either to enhance his poetry or to diminish it; for the evidence is abundant (Mrs. Hirsch is but one of the many examples) that the attitudes of the man were not always those expressed in the poems and that the poems, therefore, were not mere "Byronic self-dramatization." Yeats was right. He did wear a mask. And if there is humility, irony, humor in the mask, it matters not in the slightest whether these qualities were evident to contemporaries in the person.
This brings us to another---and perhaps the major---stumbling block (or booby trap, if one prefers a more dramatic cliché) on the path to the poems: that so many of them, and maybe the best of them, seem subordinated to a ridiculous, if not monstrous, system of beliefs. I confess to a certain pseudomathematical fascination with those gyres and cones, that Great Wheel that majestically diagrams the many-sidedness of man and the cycles of human history à la Spengler, Toynbee, and others; and it may be that our reaction to Yeats, the poet, will sometimes come down to that: our reaction to his System. I think my emancipation from it came when I realized---or thought I realized---that if I believed in it, I would have to place myself in the moon's Seventeenth Phase with Yeats himself. That was getting too close for comfort.
It may be that there is a difference between the old World and the New on this point---with W. H. Auden, as so often, doing a kind of straddle: "You were silly like us," he says of Yeats. The "like us" modifies the silliness and lends a poignant comedy to the phrase. Ghosts may be absurd, but many Europeans still half believe in them. On this side of the ocean, such ghosts would very likely be Aztecs or Apaches. We want none of that. If we Americans said that anyone was silly like us, it would have to be William Carlos Williams.
The American misgivings about Yeats' System began early---as far as I know---with an essay, "The Later Poetry of W. B. Yeats," by R. P. Blackmur, first published in 1936 and often reprinted. Blackmur's primary observation about the System, that "the magical mode of thinking is foreign to our own and when known at all is largely associated with quackery and fraud," is perhaps a little dated. Now, a half century later, we are surrounded by groups for whom similar "quackery" is sober truth. But the tendency among our educated classes to lose one's cool when confronted with such phenomena remains, and Blackmur's reservations still receive wide assent: such beliefs isolate the believer. They have no "edifice of reason," no "objective form" outside the poems. "Magic promises precisely matters which it cannot perform... in poetry... exact prediction of events in the natural world," as in "The Second Coming," and "exact revelations of the supernatural," as in "All Souls' Night." T. S. Eliot's Christianity seemed much better to Blackmur "as a tool for poetry," since it possessed a "rational superstructure" and a certain "authority."
One might reply, of course, that in our heterogeneous civilization no religious system can possibly possess an "objective form" as far as poetry is concerned; it can only possess the illusion of one, and such illusions have proved disastrous to many a poem. Even in more settled times, poets have sought to avoid this kind of distraction, as when in plays like The Winter's Tale Shakespeare followed a custom of his time and rendered Christian values in pagan imagery; and even Eliot's The Waste Land concludes with words culled evidently---to quote "All Souls' Night"---
From a discourse in figurative speech
By some learned Indian.
Can it be that Yeats' nutty system serves a subtle purpose that has never been adequately explored? One thing is certain: each year, teaching the poems of his that use it, I say less about it. Its relation to those poems is turning out to be something like the builders' scaffolding for a medieval cathedral. Once the stones are all in place and the arches, vaults, and buttresses balance one another in their stolid intricacy, the scaffolding can be pulled down and carted off to the rubbish heap. Blackmur remarked that it "will take a generation of readers to decide" to what extent the System is in or out of poems like "The Second Coming." Sixty years after its publication, that poem seems, to this reader anyway, to stand very adequately by itself and to have made its predictions with exactly the right precision and passion. Its "rough beast" may indeed have welled up from a mystically conceived group unconscious, but it clearly did so partly in order to take a heretical swipe at Christianity, and it is also a surprising reincarnation of the "terrible beauty" in "Easter 1916" (Yeats was continually rewriting his poems in more than the usual sense. To take another example, we might fruitfully consider "Sailing to Byzantium" as a recasting of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree.")
But Blackmur's deepest reservations about the System appear in connection with "All Souls' Night" ("what has to many seemed a great poem"). It "promises...exact revelations of the supernatural" (in the words of the poem, "a certain marvelous thing"). But, Blackmur continues, "there is, for the reader, no unwinding, no revelation of the dead. What Yeats actually does is to summon into the poem various of his dead friends as 'characters' ---and this is the greatness, and only his, of the poem: the summary, excited, and even exalted presentation of character."
If we take a good look at this poem, which first appeared as an epilogue to A Vision, we shall find that it does much to clarify Yeats' attitude toward his own beliefs. In its polished ironic stanzas, which have proved puzzling, frustrating, or disappointing to many, it is a richly comic poem. I recommend that it be said aloud in a soft, intimate, slightly mad voice.
It falls neatly into five two-stanza sections: an introduction, a section for each of the three "ghosts," and a conclusion, asserting the poet's own faith. The stanza's intricate pattern of pentameters and trimeters evidently derives from the Italian canzone and Spenser's famous marriage poems, the clearest recreation of the canzone in English, and the symmetrical five-section structure suggests the far more elaborate schematization of Spenser's Epithalamion---but it also reminds one of the diagrams of gyres and cones in Yeats' System. Such resemblances ought not be belabored. Suffice it to remark that the poem looks in many directions.
The dramatic situation is clearly defined. A man is listening to the midnight bells of "The Great Christ Church," ringing out "All Souls' Night" ---the night after Halloween. Suggestions of ancient Druidical beliefs mingle with Christianity in our minds, creating a generalized religious ambiance---and in the next two lines a clear sense of comedy. There are two glasses of wine on the table. Is the speaker expecting a guest? "A Ghost may come," he assures us in the classic deadpan, then goes on to explain that the ghost isn't really going to drink the wine, only the "wine-breath." A mere whiff will be sufficient. But this absurdity has a perfectly serious undertone. We would expect the man to say---and indeed he seems about to say---that the mere bouquet of the wine is enough for a ghost because ghosts are so insubstantial: "His element is so fine..." but "fine" pivots us to the idea of refinement; and the next line, "Being sharpened by his death," together with "our gross palates" later on, suggests that ghosts are superior to the living in taste and perception. Death has purified them, fulfilled them. It's an extension of Yeats' idea of old age: as we lose life (the vigor of youth), we gain wisdom. Ultimately we lose all life and become perfectly wise. How pleasant to be a ghost! And what comforting beings to have about us in our lonely hours!
For as we learn in the second stanza, the man is disturbed about the state of a world on the brink of universal war. It is too early for him to be dead (the perfect escape and fulfillment), but he can play dead: he wound up in his own wisdom as a mummy is wound in its bandages. The irony is complex and exquisite. He has "a marvelous thing to say," which only living people mock. What about himself? Would he mock it? Is he mocking it? The repetition of "marvelous thing" gives these lines an almost tipsy sound, and indeed the thing he has to say is "not for sober ear." He isn't quite making sense. He's a little drunk on his own wine, and to make his state perfectly clear, he suggests that we laugh and weep, timing our laughter and weeping (like good scientists) to precisely "an hour upon the clock." (Yeats was fond of using drunkenness as an ironic metaphor for supernatural vision. In "The Seven Sages," for example, Whiggery is a creed "That never looked out of the eye of a saint / Or out of drunkard's eye.")
In this opening section, the idea of death as a fulfillment, or as necessary to fulfillment, has become the central tragicomic theme of the poem and serves to introduce Horton, the theme's first embodiment: the first mind that occurs to the speaker as being able to stay wound up in its own contemplation like a mummy. Calling Horton's platonic love a "sweet extremity of pride" is a fine piece of mocking wit, which supports the tone, but the phrase has a figurative meaning as well: life (pride) on the borderline (extremity) of something else---which would, of course, be the ghostly state of wisdom and death. So it is appropriate that Horton comes to hope for death. His worldly image of a woman becomes one with the image of God. Her ghost, in turn, lights up his universe until it seems "a goldfish swimming in a bowl." Or perhaps her ghost is the goldfish and the universe is the bowl. In any case, the grammar seems uncertain, the speaker slightly fuddled and the whole image, though brilliant and lovely, must be taken as a piece of gentle mockery, ridiculous in its understatement. The lady is "companionable," as one would expect of a Yeatsian ghost (so closely related to the traditional faeries of the early poems), but she is also "slight." That is how she would appear to anyone, including the speaker, perhaps, who did not share Horton's obsession.Florence Emery, the next ghost, also trades life for wisdom and death. Realizing that her life and beauty are waning, she boldly gives them up and pursues wisdom, permitting "foul years to wear / Hidden from eyesight to the unnoticed end," and achieving a kind of mummylike "death-in-life." In this state, she discovers something very much like Yeats' own system with its moon-wheel and sun symbols and its unearthly paradoxes of "life-in-death," where the opposition of free will and predestination ceases and earthly concerns are forgotten. Though the language is a little strange, the doctrine, with its paradox straight out of Saint Thomas Aquinas, is at least potentially Christian. Furthermore, Yeats' sympathetic treatment of this second ghost does not entirely mask the fact that she is a familiar comic type---found, for example, among Molière's prudes and hypocrites: the woman who becomes devout in her old age "after the fun is over." In fact, there is just a hint that Yeats himself may not be all that deeply taken with her. The treatise that she deciphers is "By some learned Indian." Which learned Indian? Who knows? There are so many learned Indians, after all.
Whereas Horton reached his salvation unawares in his pursuit of life and Florence Emery was driven to seek hers by recognizing life's mutability, MacGregor was so intent on his, so scornful of life from the start, that Yeats, exasperated, momentarily takes life's side. To him in his "hard springtime" (weren't we all a little insensitive in our hard springtimes?), his friend's "meditations upon unknown thought" seemed like lunacy---or worse. Friendship---that delicious essence of life---was destroyed by such goings-on, and the poet rages blasphemously against the mind: what MacGregor thought is unimportant; only "things that he did" really matter. For a moment Yeats is "half contented to be blind"---ready to accept the normal state of life and give up his salvation which, in the System as in Christianity, is the vision the soul attains to after death. Finally, just when Yeats seems completely carried away by sympathy for his friend's tragic sufferings, he recalls himself in the fine comic "double take," which puts an end to the invocation of ghosts. MacGregor was, after all, an enemy, so his ghost wouldn't deign to come. It wouldn't like the company---or even the wine glass, which belongs to Yeats. The final remark on MacGregor, that he (like Oedipus at Colonus) probably grew "more arrogant" when he turned into a ghost, is a fine mixture of awe, admiration, and nonchalant dismissal.
In the speaker's burst of sympathy for MacGregor, a subtheme which had been implied before becomes directly apparent:
Had driven him crazed;
For meditations upon unknown thought
Make human intercourse grow less and less.
The lines are a variation on the basic life-wisdom opposition and describe how a private faith shuts a person off from others who pursue their own images or who have none. The lines explain the speaker's half mocking, witty, and sometimes callous tone in dealing with all three ghosts: he invokes them out of a sympathy which turns out in each case to be severely limited.
Yeats called himself "the last of the Romantics" (I hope he waited until Rilke was dead before he said this), and if we look at his three ghosts as a group, we can see one of the last of the many Romantic attempts to recreate medieval spirituality: Horton first, who achieves blessedness through the earthly love of a woman: the aristocratic courtly lover. He reminds us of that crucial poem for Yeats, "Adam's Curse," in which the solemn young poet seems first to have learned the art of self-mockery:
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books.
Next, Florence Emery and MacGregor, the church proper, laity and clergy: the repentant sinner and the professional saint. Despite MacGregor's lack of humility (Yeats' deft nod, perhaps, to the ancient Greeks, who play so considerable a role in his poems), the pattern embodied in the three ghosts plainly bears a much deeper resemblance to the Christian pattern than the oddities of Yeats' belief would at first imply. It's a pity that so many American critics have allowed Yeats' ghosts to scare them away. Such over literalism keeps us from seeing that Yeats' System, as it appears in his poetry, is hardly more than a fresh representation of traditional beliefs and that its very strangeness enables him to talk about beliefs of all kinds.
As he says in the poem, he is more interested in the common need and fulfillment his characters have known than in the particular variations:
But names are nothing. What matter who it be,
So that his elements have grown so fine
The fume of muscatel
Can give his sharpened palate ecstasy.
They have all evolved systems, are all images of Yeats. The pathos---the tone of "laugh and weep"---arises from the fact that such systems must always in some degree be incommunicable. Yeats makes MacGregor's loneliness and lunacy both an instance of his life-death opposition and an outgrowth of the modern situation, because such loneliness, though known in all ages, belongs very specially to our own. The poet, in expressing his own age, catches the universal. But if he had appealed to a "rational super-structure" or to "authority" in any way for his system, this expression would have been difficult, if not impossible. It is only possible in terms of a purely personal system. Traditionally Christian poets, like Eliot, can only hint at it.
In the lines just quoted, Yeats has revived his drinking metaphor. He goes on to develop it into a final justification of his belief:
No living man can drink from the whole wine.
I have mummy truths to tell
Whereat the living mock.
The last line here is a slight alteration of the corresponding one in the second stanza, an alteration which is hugely effective, for the tone changes thereby from sly, tipsy joking to defiance. Only ghosts, who are dead, can understand life. It is also very moving when that phrase, "drink from the whole wine," used literally in the first stanza, becomes figurative in the ninth.
The new tone leads directly into the final assertion. Like his dead friends, Yeats too is "wound up" in thought. Like MacGregor, he will have it "in the world's despite"; like Florence Emery, he will be able to see into the afterlife; and his "glance" will be unstayed because the universe will possess, he hopes, something of the clarity of Horton's goldfish bowl. The tone becomes triumphant:
Such thought, that in it bound
I need no other thing.
But, far from being doctrinaire or self-satisfied (a criticism often leveled at the System poems), the triumph is riddled with ironies. It is impossible that he would "need no other thing," and the whole final stanza seems very deliberately in the tradition of Celtic bravado. Although "pondering" has been freed to "wandering," the mummy image returns richly and wonderfully in the last line to remind us that the result of this stupendous achievement is, after all, only "death-in-life."
Then what is the "marvelous thing to say?" As Blackmur points out, it is certainly not a supernatural revelation, since the climax of the poem is simply Yeats' statement that his system will make him wise and content---he even omits saying that he believes in it. But the rest of the poem qualifies this concluding assertion so thoroughly and with such complication that its real theme is not that assertion or its content, but how and why he came to make it, or more generally, how and why anybody comes to invent such systems and to believe in them. The struggle to attain to the marvelous is, for Yeats, the most marvelous thing of all.
Again the poet is his own example. He is the modern man so greatly in need of the supernatural belief which tradition's "dead stumps" fail to provide that he must invent his own. For even revivals of tradition, like those of Eliot and others, can only be inventions in disguise. And such disguises make it impossible for the traditional convert to comment on his movement to belief, to use himself as an ironic example, as did Yeats.
In a culture where shared beliefs of all but the most rudimentary sort have ceased to exist, it would seem that the poet must either accomplish his extinction by denying all belief, all reliance on outward forms, or must destroy himself in a different way by becoming a zealot of some kind. In the maze of unrelated experience, he becomes a mere propagandist, his poetic personality contracts, and everything outside it becomes an object for derision or unconcern. Yeats' System shows one way out of the dilemma: to take up a belief that is so paradoxical, so ironic, so absurd, that the real theme is the phenomenon of belief itself: the predicament. The modern poet avoids a fatal narrowing of his experience by making a mockery of himself. Whatever he may have done in his life, this is clearly what Yeats did in his poetry.
But his system is---or pretends to be---a religion. What does it promise its solitary believer? Yeats says in "All Souls' Night" that it promises insight. If it promises anything more than that, than what it can do as a language, a set of symbols, Yeats would hardly have made his escape from the dilemma just described. But it doesn't. No matter how much Yeats himself may have been dominated by superstition and fear, if his poetry is read attentively it will be seen that it makes no pronouncements, because the System in his poetry is so thoroughly undermined that it collapses into itself at every point. His symbols promise nothing, fail, as has been ventured, even to promise their own objective existence.
Yet it can't be said that they don't exist: there is no promise, no assurance of that either. Otherwise the drama of his belief would be ineffective. They must exist because he is to believe in them and not exist because his belief is arbitrary---a mere whim. They must at once be
self-born mockers of man's enterprise
and make up
the artifice of eternity.
In a fit of near comic fustian, he can attack the beliefs of his favorite philosophers as mere imagination, then state in flat contradiction that there is life after death, and then turn it all once again into a man-made dream:
And I declare my faith:
I mock Plotinus' thought
And cry in Plato's teeth,
Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul,
Aye, sun and moon and star, all,
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise,
Dream and so create
He is speaking of systems when he says in "Two Songs from a Play,"
Whatever flames upon the night
Man's own resinous heart has fed.
Systems are merely flames from man's ignited heart, but being so fed, they are really there, as clear and present as the stars.
So how are we---how can we possibly reach a conclusion on this subject? Even when we think we have found Yeats sitting on clichés or blustering emptily, we can't be sure:
My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair;
Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,
Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,
Upon the breathless starlit air,
Upon the star that marks the hidden pole;
Fix every wandering thought upon
That quarter where all thought is done:
who can distinguish darkness from the soul?
Are we to earn our Ph.D.s ferreting about in the System to find, or invent, a meaning for that last line? The stanza begins with what is clearly incantation and ends with what I think is just as clearly a bit of arrant mumbo jumbo---and beautifully effective as such. After this opening, the Soul and the Self go on like two dotty old men, talking at cross-purposes, ignoring one another, until finally the Soul, attempting to reprove the Self's irresponsibility, stumbles inadvertently onto a definition of blessedness, grows totally confused, and falls silent:
My Soul. Such fullness in that quarter overflows
And falls into the basin of the mind
That man is stricken deaf and dumb and blind,
For intellect no longer knows
Is from the Ought, or Knower from the Known---
That is to say, ascends to Heaven;
Only the dead can be forgiven;
But when I think of that my tongue's a stone.
The whole interchange is deliciously comic and is a perfect preamble for the eloquent outburst which follows.
Yet observations like these will not sweep away the criticisms that have often been leveled at Yeats' rhetoric. From the beginning to the end there are real embarrassments---but of what poet can that not be said? Poetry, after all, like other endeavors, is a matter of taking risks. But over and above this, there is something peculiar to Yeats. For me it was epitomized years ago by Ellen Polansky's term paper comparing Yeats' early poem, "Ephemera," with Thomas Hardy's "Neutral Tones." The choice was so inspired that the paper practically wrote itself. The similarity of scene---in both poems a pair of lovers face the end of their love beside a lake in autumn---makes the contrast devastating. It is, of course, the best of one poet beside the worst of the other; but to turn from Hardy's harsh, heartbreaking pathos to vague, flaccid nonsense like this---
And then she:
‘Although our love is waning, let us stand
By the lone border of the lake once more,
Together in that hour of gentleness
When the poor tired child, Passion, falls asleep...’
---is to realize that one has encountered a special kind of emptiness. Hardy was often awkward and clumsy in the extreme; but he was never phony.
With the exception of "Adam's Curse," that stunning harbinger of things to come, Yeats before The Green Helmet was a narrow and trivial, though highly accomplished, poet who had served a brilliant apprenticeship, bringing the late romantic fascination with nuance to perhaps its ultimate refinement in English. (It is an amusing exercise, discovering what small changes can ruin these early lyrics. Try changing, for example, "dropping" to the equivalent "dripping" in "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." Yeats would seem to have lifted his word from the song, "Sabrina Fair," in Milton's Comus.) I call this early poetry narrow because its inspiration came almost entirely from other art. The rational disposition of poetry, the need to deal with the actual problems of life, the Horatian, neoclassical, eighteenth-century element, if you will, was so totally absent that the poetry itself seems to evaporate as one reads it. Far more than the poetry of Keats (recalling Yeats' famous epigram) it was a poetry with its nose pressed against the sweet-shop window of reality. (Or perhaps we ought to say "the sweatshop window" and remark that the nose was not pressed very hard.)
And like Keats in Lamia, there was for Yeats in "Adams' Curse" the reaching out to Dryden and the couplet and all that these signified. (The neoclassical mastery of rhythm in this poem---the exactitude of the syllable-count coupled with the boldness in syncopation largely original with Yeats ---is a marvel.) And the greatest single fulfillment of this later poetry is the group of poems based on the supernatural system: the epic view of human life that they embody. Regardless of how one feels about the overall pessimism expressed, one cannot help but acknowledge the brilliance of the conception, in which the very imperfection of the imaginative tool (the System) is the most important and significant part of the design. For it shows us the arbitrary distortions inherent in all perception, the tragic gulf between those who perceive differently, and the resultant terrible loneliness in a civilization, a culture, which is no longer adequate to human needs.
Some of the greatest poetry of the West---the courtly love epics, Dante, Milton---has been written to expound systems of belief, and this is the tradition in which Yeats' later poetry flourished. Our unease with it may flow from our sense that the possibility for such poetry in the years since his death has ceased to exist. The time for discriminating beliefs may be past. The choice now may be much simpler: between total skepticism and unlimited gullibility---with the saving grace that both attitudes may amount to very nearly the same thing.
Yeats' greatest poetry may, in fact, be dated now in much the same way that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was dated in the time of Haydn and Mozart. When a new world was taking shape around him, he chose to use that one last chance to perfect the shape of the old world that he knew. Yeats held firm against the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born---but he did not scruple either to turn that beast's energy to his own uses. He was the great balancer---like his improbable Irish airman, he "balanced all, brought all to mind"---the last Romantic who turned into an arch neoclassicist, the fusty conservative who was one of our boldest inventors: of poetry, of kinds of poetry, of a religion. He was silly indeed---as not many have dared to be. Few poets---few minds---in our tradition have contained more, balanced more, than his. In the breadth and profundity of his interests and activities, he affirmed a wider sense of the usefulness of poetry than we had been accustomed to. Poetry in his hands became an instrument of great depth and power in part because it accepted restrictions and became only one of the many ways of dealing with the difficulties of life.