While The Tower (1928), with its Platonic yearnings and its lofty elegiac 'dreaming back' over a stirring period in Irish history, is no doubt Yeats's greatest single collection, it is in The Winding Stair (1933) that his poetic persona attains its most complex and many-faceted form, acting out with new force his unresolved questions about existence. This volume ferociously affirms the values of Self over against those of Soul, Eros against Thanatos. Now that the poet's mature persona has been established, 'there is a need for more vigorous expression of antithetical values, even as there is acknowledgement of a newly perceived dark side of antithetical desire' (Adams, 180).
The collection can be seen as enacting an immense Nietzschean turn within 'the book of Yeats's poems'. In the first major statement of the volume, 'A Dialogue of Self and Soul', Soul presents the 'winding ancient stair' as the samsaric world taken as a place of purgatorial striving: 'Set all your mind upon the steep ascent', an ascent to 'Heaven' figured as nirvanic simplicity, 'The quarter where all thought is done'. To Soul's injunction to 'scorn the earth', Self opposes a Nietzschean assertion of the eternal return of the same: 'I am content to live it all again/And yet again'. Such an affirmation was for Nietzsche a test of fidelity to the values of life and of the earth. In the next poem, 'Blood and the Moon' the central symbol of The Tower takes on the associations of the other great Nietzschean doctrine, 'the will to power'. Those of us who, despite Heidegger's immense meditation, doubt the value of these big ideas and prefer Nietzsche in his scintillating critical mode, will tremble to see Yeats subscribe to what might be deadening dogmas. But Yeats has a versatile and flexible mind, which entertains many ideas but lets none outstay their usefulness. As a great performer, he milks every idea for its dramatic potential.
In The Tower the world of change and desire, with its 'sensual music', is contemplated from a Platonic viewpoint, tinged with Christian pity, the protecting 'human love' of 'A Prayer for my Son'. The proud tower is pitted against Plotinus and Plato only in section three of the title poem. In 'Meditations in Time of Civil War' Sato's sword stands for 'Soul's beauty', unchanging, and not yet for the antithetical Self. How harmonious a close this volume could have provided for Yeats's career! But, nearing seventy, he returns to dismantle any delusive appearance of serene resolution, opening out the full array of antinomies and vacillations life had thrust on him, and pitching his symbols about more freely so that they lose any deadening univocal reference.
The old genre of the psychomachy (Prudentius, Marvell) is revived in 'A Dialogue of Self and Soul' and 'Vacillation' VII. Even the other poems may be taken as utterances of one or the other side in this soul-battle rather than as definitive statements. Thus the opening of 'Blood and the Moon' continues the protest of Self in the immediately preceding poem:
More blessed still this tower;
A bloody, arrogant power
Rose out of the race
Uttering, mastering it...
In mockery I have set
A powerful emblem up...
The tower is now wilfully chosen as an emblem of the will to power, though it was 'emblematical of the night' of Soul in the preceding poem. As a phallic construction it stands for Eros. As a military one it glorifies violence and conflict, like Sato's sword, 'emblematical of... war' in the preceding poem. Nationalists may wince at these lines, as no doubt Yeats intends. Yet they celebrate not the tyrannies of Elizabeth and Cromwell but the race who became 'more Irish than the Irish themselves'. The phrase 'Uttering, mastering it' suppresses the homophonic 'Utterly mastering it' which would read more smoothly, though to express the crudest arrogance. Yeats supposes that the Anglo-Normans gave form and identity to the Irish land and people, and that he is their heir not only in blood but in masterful power of utterance. The personal agon of the preceding poem is doubled with a political one, as he attempts to assert aristocratic generosity and pride over against the constraints of the Irish Free State and the levelling rationalistic 'Whiggery' of modern political culture. His ritual of defiance is qualified by a sense of its own theatricality. Nonetheless one may suspect that his investment in the will to power here threatens to make his lines loud and shrill, despite the laconic discipline of the metre and rhyme.
In the second section the histrionics becomes almost self-mocking:
I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;
That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have travelled there.
The agitated ghostly presence of these 'ancestors' is evoked in loose long lines in rhyming sets of three. The rollicking rhythm has an element of desperation allayed by devil-may-care comedy. We are in the world of drunkenness, antithetically opposed to other other-worldly sanctity in 'Byzantium' ('the drunken soldiery') and 'The Seven Sages':
what is Whiggery?
A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of drunkard's eye.
The extravagant length of the lines in section II, set off against the lapidary brevity of those in section I, underlines the willed character of both performances.
The heaven-mapping towers of Alexandria, Babylon and Shelley are 'there to be contrasted to his own. His tower is much more involved with life and earth and is specifically identified with the great Anglo-Irish figures' (Adams, 188). Yeats is raising his tower of self, opposed to the old Platonic towers of Soul, partly in imitation of Shelley but mainly as a Nietzschean counter-statement to the aspirations of his Romantic precursor, the last great Neo-Platonist in English poetry. Shelley is named with colloquial casualness: 'And Shelley had his towers, thought's crowned powers he called them once'. The allusion to Prometheus Unbound IV 103 is inaccurate: the 'chorus of spirits' come 'From those skiey towers/Where Thought's crowned Powers/Sit watching your dance, ye happy Hours'; the 'Powers' are perhaps Miltonic Platonists, lonely watchers in the style of Prince Athanase, rather than the towers themselves. But imaginatively the persona of Athanase is one with his lonely tower and here Yeats identifies his own persona with the symbolic tower he has set up. Shelley's towers, along with that of Milton in 'Il Penseroso', are ranked with the heaven-searching Platonist constructions of antiquity.
Yeats had once sought unity of being and unity of self along Shelleyan lines, through unity with the ideal, with a heroic past or with the Rose. Shelley is hybridized with Wagner's Tristan and Celtic romance in The Shadowy Waters, a play inspired by John Todhunter's Isolt of Ireland (as Christina Hunt Mahony points out in Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies X, 1992). Even in this hyper-romantic work the values of Self and day are asserted from the sidelines against those of Soul and night: 'He is not the first that has had the wits drawn out from him through shadows and fantasies' (Collected Plays, 148). The discovery of Nietzsche, however, led Yeats in his middle period to shake off his self-identification as the Shelleyan romantic quester and to foreswear 'The half-read wisdom of daemonic images' ('Meditations in Time of Civil War'; echoed in T. S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday: 'The unread vision in the higher dream'), in order to develop a voice richly rooted in reality (see Bornstein). What he writes to George Russell around 1903 could be the manifesto of this turn: 'We possess nothing but the will and we must never let the children of vague desires breathe upon it nor the waters of sentiment rust the terrible mirror of its blade... Let us have no emotions, however abstract, in which there is not an athletic joy' (Bushrui, 20).
In the later phase Shelley returns under Platonist auspices, and in subordination to Nietzsche. Symbols of cave and tower, river and star may emerge spontaneously out of the Great Memory or out of Platonic tradition in Shelley, but Yeats now controls and manages their appearances, creating symbolic values in the spirit of Nietzsche rather than seeking a Romantic beyond. 'Blood and the Moon' marks this gulf between high romantic vision and its retrieval as a deliberately anachronistic construct. Yeats makes a virtue of belatedness by pointing out that he is deliberating creating his symbols as a challenge to the unromantic age, just as in 'Coole Park and Ballylee' he stresses that he 'chose for theme/Traditional sanctity and loveliness'. The actual tower at Ballylee is a diminutive edifice, yet he pits it against the Pharos of Alexandria and the Babylonian ziggurat. There is a similar element of self-mockery in the way he finds emblems of the soul in the stream and swan in 'Coole Park and Ballylee'.
Goldsmith, Swift, Berkeley and Burke are towers and beacons, as is Shelley himself. Some see Yeats as literally summoning the ghosts of the four spiritual ancestors who, in accord with spiritualistic lore, are drawn by the odour of blood, as the ghosts in 'All Souls' Night' are drawn by the muscatel. But I see no evidence for this; the 'odour of blood on the ancestral stair' is referred to only in section III and refers to the crimes of history. The four Irishmen haunt the imagination, but are rendered present not by preternatural techniques but by the rhetorical force of Yeats's declaration. It is in virtue of their shared royalty as 'thought's crowned powers' that he claims them as ancestors. Again there is an element of riotous farce in their portraiture. They were all antithetical men, who pitted their visionary minds against modern rationalism, but they are arranged in couples of contrasting figures: to Swift ordinary life is an agony—he is dragged down into mankind—while Goldsmith is quite content to occupy himself with the 'labourer's hire' and is at ease in the real world. The allusion is to 'The Deserted Village':
For him light Labor spread her wholesome store,
Just gave what life required, but gave no more...
How blest is he who crowns in shades like these,
A youth of labor with an age of ease.
The 'honey-pot of his mind' contrasts with Swift's 'blood-sodden breast'. Similarly 'haughtier-headed Burke' who constructs the fabric of the State contrasts with Berkeley whose 'mind' can have the world 'vanish on the instant', 'consumed with intellectual fire'. The battle of Self and Soul rages among the four of them, a continuation on the spiritual level of the ancestral, aristocratic violence.
'The winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair' inevitably suggests Nietzsche's eternal return, notions of samsara and reincarnation, and Yeats's own cyclic view of history arranged according to the phases of the moon. Swift seems to protest against samsaric bondage
beating on his breast in sibylline frenzy blind
Because the heart in his blood-sodden breast had dragged him down into mankind.
Berkeley resorts to the old Indian tactic of considering the samsaric world an illusion:
That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its farrow that so solid seem,
Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme.
To Burke is ascribed a cyclic view of history; the State is a tree that 'century after century' casts 'dead leaves' in the same number ('to mathematical equality'). Even Goldsmith's concern, 'the labourer's hire' might suggest the rewards and punishments of a cyclical karma. As in 'A Dialogue of Self and Soul', Yeats here affirms the samsaric round, even if it is illusion, using the winding stair as a Nietzschean symbol.
In contrast to the first two sections of the poem the latter two are twelve-line incomplete sonnets (abba, cddc, effe), a structure found in 'When you are old' and the four stanzas of 'The Man who dreamed of Faeryland', or with the pattern abab, cdcd, efef in 'No Second Troy', 'These are the Clouds' and 'The Leaders of the Crowd'; there are also complete sonnets such as 'Leda and the Swan'. The emergence of this form here signals a move to a more sober and central register of Yeats's poetic voice, a shift from flamboyant performance to probing reflection. The Nietzschean symbol of blood (Zarathustra's 'Write with blood!') is now strangely judged and pacified by the Shelleyan symbol of the moon. The rhyme of 'moon' with 'stain' at the beginning of the third and the close of the fourth sections is both musically and metaphysically piquant. If the moon is the realm of Soul coming in judgment on the impure antithetical world of Self, this rhyme indicates the interaction of the two realms involves a moment of intimate colllusion at the heart of their radical opposition.
In the opening lines of section III:
The purity of the unclouded moon
Has flung its arrowy shaft upon the floor
the 'floor' suggests the 'bestial floor' of human life (another Yeatsian phrase from T. S. Eliot, 'Burnt Norton'), called a 'fecund ditch' in 'A Dialogue'. What the moon brings to light is the bloody deeds enacted in the tower over the centuries:
There, on blood-saturated ground, have stood
Soldier, assassin, executioner,
Whether for daily pittance or in blind fear
Or out of abstract hatred, and shed blood,...
History is stained with blood, yet the moon that presides over history is stainless. But the moon does not bring peace or resolution. Instead,
we that have shed none must gather there
And clamour in drunken frenzy for the moon.
One remembers from 'Meditations in Time of Civil War'
The innumerable clanging wings that have put out the moon
and which signify 'the coming emptiness'. The belated 'we' would like to assume the legacy of past violence and of the constructive intellectual violence of the eighteenth century, but their 'drunken frenzy' seems to be a degeneration from Swift's 'sibylline frenzy'.
There seems to be some uncanny intercourse between ideal and real, Soul and Self, the spotless moon and the violent fury of history. The ideal has a maddening effect on the human world, as the full moon fascinates cats and causes dogs to bay (The Cat and the Moon). Wilde's Salome was similarly linked to the icy moon: 'How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb'. Jokanaan prophesies: 'The moon shall become like blood'; Herod cries at the end: 'Hide the moon! Hide the stars!' Again, Turandot's iciness, in Puccini's opera, is linked to the moon—'O esangue, o taciturna/O amante smunta dei morti'—and to spilt blood: 'guarda, crudele,/Quel purissimo sangue/che fu sparso per te!' Yeats's two 1935 plays combining the Turandot and Salome motifs, namely A Full Moon in March and The King of the Great Clock Tower, pit the wildness of a fleshly man against the purity of an icy princess, who kisses his severed head (for the unity of the two spheres can be consummated only beyond death).
One critic says that the moon, 'the maddening pure force responsible for man's disorder, so successfully disorders him that he shrieks for his own destruction', and he goes on to interpret the final line of the poem as evoking a 'pure destructive “glory“' (Unterecker, 207). But the glory in question seems to be pointing to Phase 15, the phase of complete fulfilment and unity of being. Perhaps to clamour for the moon also means to cry out, from the frenzied realm of history, to this realm of ideal completion, when 'the drunken soldiery are abed' ('Byzantium'). The butterflies clinging to the moonlit window in section IV correspond in their longing to the clamouring humans of section III. The moon symbolizes wisdom, 'a property of the dead,/A something incompatible with life', not in the sense of the 'half dead' modern world but because it is the fulness of life, the Utopian ideal of Phase 15. Having made us once again feel the powerful attraction of this realm, Yeats returns to the will to power, not to affirm it but to apologize for it as a guilty necessity of life: 'and power,/Like everything that has the stain of blood,/A property of the living'.
According to one critic, Yeats here 'recklessly gives over wisdom to death, the opposite of life, and he accepts power and violence in life'; meanwhile the moon 'produces only a frustrating desire, now fully identified with a violence actively produced by the moon's aloof purity' (Adams, 189, 190). But is that Yeats's last word? The world of blood is suffered as a samsaric bondage, and it is judged by the nirvanic moon, which 'disdains... The fury and the mire of human veins'. Today we are far from Byzantium and 'the gaudy moon' ('Vacillation' VI) has little power. But it is in the light of the moon that Yeats can assess his civilization: 'He is still caught, like his modern tower, in a realm that is neither blood nor moon... As the victim of his historical moment, he has at least the wisdom appropriate to his condition: half-dead, barred from full life or death, he knows himself' (Whitaker, 215). The mechanical bird of 'Byzantium' is 'by the moon embittered' and scorns 'all complexities of mire and blood'; the ideal can embitter us against blood-sodden life. Swift and Berkeley might be seen as such moon-embittered scorners. But Yeats refuses such bitterness, because he postulates beyond the ineradicable antinomies of this life an ideal realm where they are reconciled. That is why the poem can end, in a very different place from where it began, with deep homage to the stainless moon:
but no stain
Can come upon the visage of the moon
When it has looked in glory from a cloud.
The necessary forceful gestures of Self are shown as partial and violent by reference to the glory of a realm where all conflict is dissolved, but in the meantime Yeats can still, in the words of 'A Dialogue', 'forgive myself the lot!'
Turning back to the presence of Shelley in sections III and IV, we note first the very Shelleyan word 'arrowy' in the second line of section III. Yeats speaks of Shelley's 'unfriendly' attitude to the moon: 'When he describes the Moon as part of some beautiful scene he can call her beautiful, but when he personifies, when his words come under the influence of that great Memory or of some mysterious tide in the depth of our being, he grows unfriendly or not truly friendly or at the most pitiful' (Essays and Introductions, 92). Shelley's moon is cold, 'wandering companionless'; it 'warms not but illumines' as we read in 'Epipsychidion' (a reference to Mary Shelley). Yeats has a friendlier attitude to the moon, emblem of wisdom. The association of wisdom with the dead and power with the living in section IV recalls Shelley's 'The good want power, but to weep barren tears./The powerful goodness want: worse need for them./The wise want love, and those who love want wisdom' (Prometheus Unbound I 625-7), also echoed in 'The Second Coming': 'The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity'. The moon in its perfection reveals what is lacking in an age of impotent goodness and unscrupulous power.
In 'The Crazed Moon' the lines, 'Crazed through much child-bearing/The moon is staggering in the sky' echo Shelley's 'The Waning Moon': 'And like a dying lady, lean and pale,/Who totters forth, wrapt in a gauzy veil,/Out of her chamber, led by the insane/And feeble wanderings of her fading brain...'. Shelley could not do much with the image; Yeats interprets it as emblematic of a degraded age. 'There is ecstatic, wondering remembrance of the moon's fullness, and the imagery of dancing is invoked. But now “we“ are skeletal and perhaps batlike creatures participating in a last frenzy of destruction as antithetical desire fades out' (Adams, 191).
Harold Bloom's book on Yeats is largely a defence of Shelley's self-sacrificing prophetic generosity against the self-indulgent speculative cocoon in which Yeats allowed his imagination to be enclosed. But Bloom's almost biblical castigation does scant justice to Yeats as a dramatist of the quandaries of our belated culture, in which all the ideals of tradition have only a spectral claim on us and in which we must pick our way cautiously and with an unnerving sense of the invented and arbitrary status of the values we choose to uphold or create. The late Yeats is thoroughly post-Nietzschean. He is not fixated on Nietzschean dogma, but rather is acting out poetically, with a larger freedom than a philosopher could indulge, the problematic that Nietzsche explored in his probing commentary on modern civilization. It is not the specific content of Yeats's vision or value judgements that matters, but the Nietzschean travail of creating values under contemporary conditions. Yeats knows that his embattled tower could be seen as a symbol less of past glory than of present impotence and decadence, being 'half dead at the top'. But he considers his quandary to be not only that of the declining Anglo-Irish Ascendancy but also that of 'every modern nation'. The condition of belatedness, whatever pseudo-scientific philosophies of history lie behind it, is one that a poet ever anxious for renewal confronts as a here and now challenge. He answers Hölderlin's question, 'Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?' (What are poets for in a time of need?) by creating a space of open-ended symbolic visions that can serve as landmarks for other questioners. He performs under new conditions the revolutionary task Shelley prescribed for poets, to legislate for humanity. The values he prescribes are always drawn from past sources, but their legitimacy has to be won anew through being freely created today, and that task can be achieved only imperfectly and brokenly.
The persona of the later Yeats, dramatized on the public stage and in poems of self-communing and self-conflict, has the substantial proportions of a Goethean sage, and has taken on board the weight of contemporary history and a whole world of doubt and conflict which the earlier Yeats had glossed over. But living in an age in which conviction is elusive, this sage-figure will often find himself still 'caught/In the cold snows of a dream'. The dramatized self-questioning tends to become an end in itself; 'vacillation' becomes the element of the poet's reflection and imagination, and elegy his prevailing tone. Resisting this drift, Yeats in The Winding Stair made a new effort to reactivate the prophetic daring, the frenzy, of Nietzsche and Shelley, who had stirred him greatly (along with Blake) in earlier times. Even as he does so, in gestures of terrific affirmation or negation, his self-conscious theatricality courts the risk that these gestures in turn will be enveloped and relativized by a pervasive irony.
A glimmer remains of Shelley's quest for spiritual and social liberation, to the extent that Yeats continues to wrestle in exalted tones with the problems of self and society; but the liberation itself has become so elusive that it can scarcely be defined or imagined. The poet's task is to keep open an awareness of the terror and ecstasy of existence, to 'read the signs' but not 'sink unmanned' ('Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen'); the messages he declares are but a pretext for this awareness, simulacra of insight. 'He who attains Unity of Being is some man who, while struggling with his fate and his destiny until every energy of his being has been roused, is content that he should so struggle with no final conquest' (A Vision, 1925, p. 28). In the belated, problematic, conflictual world of Yeats the thought and images of the Romantic precursor are elevated to a new density, range of connotation, and dramatic sharpness. If Shelley's voice is 'the trumpet of a prophecy' ('Ode to the West Wind'), Yeats's organ tones exhibit in spacious polyphony the full scope and also the tragic limitations of poetic speech in a world that seems impervious to prophetic trumpet-blasts.
Adams, Hazard (1990). The Book of Yeats's Poems. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press.
Bloom, Harold (1970). Yeats. Oxford University Press.
Bornstein, George (1970). Yeats and Shelley. University of Chicago Press.
Bushrui, S. B. (1965). Yeats's Verse-Plays: The Revisions 1900-1910. Oxford: Clarendon.
O'Leary, J. S. (1993). 'The Magnanimity of Yeats: Reading “A Dialogue of Self and Soul“'. English Literature and Language (Sophia University) 30:57-89.
Unterecker, John (1959). A Reader's Guide to William Butler Yeats. New York: Noonday.
Whitaker, Thomas R. (1964; new ed. 1989). Swan and Shadow: Yeats's Dialogue with History. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.
My thanks to Andrew Fitzsimons for valuable suggestions.
From Journal of Irish Studies 16 (2001)