I: Authenticity and Unreality in Yeats’s Sense of Self
1. Admiring the poet, but repelled by his superstitions, critics of Yeats may have recourse to a reassuring censoriousness. T.S. Eliot sets the tone in his comments on ‘The Spur’:
You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?
‘To what honest man, old enough, can these sentiments be entirely alien? They can be subdued and disciplined by religion, but who can say that they are dead?... The tragedy of Yeats’s epigram is all in the last line’ (Cowell, ed. 21). The comment is challenging and edifying; but does it engage the complexity of Yeats’s outlook? Much of Yeats’s writing is questionable and disturbing, but immediate recourse to an Augustinian scale of values risks inoculating readers against being questioned or disturbed. Christian literary criticism may move too quickly to ‘place’ the writer studied in terms of the critic’s worldview, in a way that discourages interest in the rich texture of the writer’s own world.
A different type of Christian criticism, aiming to broaden Christian sensibility, would begin by attending to many possible resonances of Yeats’s lines which Eliot does not consider. Eliot classes lust and rage as deadly sins; but Yeats considers them simply as elements that are an inevitable part of the fabric of his experience; the word ‘plague’ makes it doubtful if he glorifies them as ‘pure passions, spontaneous and complete as peasant life’ (Ellmann 279). Lust and rage are not the immediate sources of Yeats’s ‘song’; they spur it by lighting up the tensions and conflicts of existence, providing a Homeric theme: ‘What theme had Homer but original sin?’ (‘Vacillation’). The man might have been happy if the discipline of religion had subdued these passions, but the poet can profit from them as a spur.
In any case, to judge Yeats on the basis of so slight a poem gives little opportunity to appreciate the rhythm of vacillation between the claims of mysticism and natural life which pervades his work:
I am always, in all I do, driven to a moment which is the realisation of myself as unique and free, or to a moment which is the surrender to God of all that I am... Could those two impulses, one as much a part of truth as the other, be reconciled, or if one or the other could prevail, all life would cease. (E 305)
The aspirations of Self (‘myself as unique and free’) and Soul (‘surrender to God’) can be reconciled only ‘beyond the realm of this world. On earth they are in unremitting antagonism, a theme shared by many of the 1932 Winding Stair poems’ (Bohlmann 82-3). I shall examine one of these poems, ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’, in the second part of this essay: a complex, tantalizing work which eludes any moralistic assessments, though we shall see that certain weaknesses of the poem can be correlated with hollow spots in Yeats’s worldview. The antinomy he felt ‘driven to’ cannot be automatically written off as a wilful eluding of the claims of religious discipline. Reflective of a seasoned experience of life, it is a testimony that invites dialogue, and the dialogue is likely to remain open-ended, as is the critical assessment of the poems in which Yeats’s dividedness is most on display.
2. Martin Green writes: ‘Eliot’s religion has a reality and dignity which Yeats’s lacks. Pale and infertile in some sense it may be, but the gaudiness and multitudinousness of Yeats’s icons surely add up to a reason why we don’t take his religion seriously’. Yeats was one of those people who ‘alter the shape and texture of their selves so that the old values have no hold on them’, praying in the end to become ‘a foolish and passionate old man’. Green comments: ‘I don’t see, finally, how a self-respecting man could make the choice he made’ (Green 26-7). Again, this is pungent and persuasive on first reading, but turns out on reflection to be rather too sweeping. Yeats made many choices in the course of his strenuous spiritual quest, none of them as simple as they may appear. The choice of foolish old age, for example, is marked as ‘the second-best’ (‘The Wild Old Wicked Man’) in a ballad placed in the mouth of a fictional figure. Nor are any of these choices simply an escape from the authority of the old values; rather they are attempts to retrieve values which derive from an assortment of spiritual traditions. If Yeats was unattracted by orthodox Christianity and if his fascination with old traditions never issued in a firm commitment of faith to one single account of things, this need not be set down to frivolity or wilfulness, but could come from deeper necessities of his character or from the demands of his creativity.
Commenting on Ellmann’s account of how Yeats shocked an Indian visitor by waving Sato’s sword and crying ‘more conflict, more conflict!’, Green chides the poet for ‘childish histrionics... in the worst possible taste’ (Green 27). Again, a more patient hermeneutics could find something more than that even in this little incident. There are Zen-like overtones in this piece of histrionics, a note of wild humour, and a reference to one of the basic themes of Yeats’s philosophy, the idea of ‘the world as a continual conflict’ (V 144). The idea that conflict is the condition of growth and progress was one of his bedrock convictions, not something he thought up to amuse his Indian visitor. His early studies of Blake taught him that ‘Without Contraries is no progression’ (‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’) and his immersion in Nietzsche from 1902 until the end of his life provided the idea with philosophical foundations (see Bohlmann 19-39).
Green objects to Ellmann’s claim that Yeats as poet ‘absorbs’ the saint: ‘No one has the right to assume that the poet’s point of view is larger than the saint’s’ (Green 2). Yeats’s notion of sainthood was such a thin caricature that it could easily be absorbed in the richer human drama of the poet. He made much of sainthood as a condition far beyond literature, and incompatible with it: ‘if it be true that God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, the saint goes to the centre, the poet and artist to the ring where everything comes round again’ (EI 82). The poet’s absorption of the saint’s perspective may then refer only to the way in which the poet’s Self integrates and overcomes abstract and one-sided claims of his Soul - ‘incorporates rather than simply refutes the spiritual perspective’ (Keane 152); but integrates it only in the sense of learning to live with its claims; the pull of the divine centre continues to be felt, like an uneasy conscience. Yeats imagined that a saint would have moved beyond the conflict between antinomies, but that a poet could not and must not. Perhaps a different understanding would have seen sanctity, too, as flourishing amid conflict, or as living the conflict from another perspective.
The antinomy between Soul’s resignation and Self’s revolt might be seen as an instance of the Gnostic dualism to which Yeats’s imagination was prone (according to Harold Bloom). T.S. Eliot would resolve the antinomy in light of the Incarnation, but his poetry of Incarnation seems to redeem the fleshly life in a manner that Yeats would have found suspect. On the one hand, moments of ecstatic vision allow us to glimpse the intersection of the timeless and the temporal - in a pattern that is rather abstract and also unbiblical, in that the openness to an eschatological future is understressed; on the other hand the ‘waste, sad time’ (‘Burnt Norton’) of everyday life is valued more as a time of purification than as an arena of historical creation. Yeats refused to read life in the light of moments of ecstasy:
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? (‘Vacillation’)
The patterns Yeats weaves are more complex and less credible than Eliot’s, but as ‘metaphors for poetry’ they allow the pathos and contradictions of human time to be caught from a greater variety of perspectives.
A two-way critique is set up by the juxtaposition of Eliot’s sketches of an incarnational vision and Yeats’s oscillations between the perspectives of Soul and Self, each of which varies from poem to poem. The unconvincing elements in the work of both poets betray weak spots in their traditions or in their understanding of these traditions. Yeats acts as a counter-theologian in highlighting the unresolved issues which trouble the heart and to which theology brings no simple panacea. The Christian critic of Yeats’s paganism will have difficulty avoiding falling into the role of Patrick as scripted in The Wanderings of Oisin. A comprehensive Christian response would have to point to a wider Christian vision than Yeats recognized, one that does not do violence to what is vital in the desires of his ‘unchristened heart’ (‘Vacillation’).
3. Harold Bloom sets Yeats amid the spiritual traditions he prized and is able to meet him on his own ground. He sets against Yeats’s divided nature the integral spiritual humanism of Blake, which he finds Yeats to have misinterpreted. An element of Jewish realism informs the way he whittles down the element of narcissistic grandiosity in Yeats’s persona:
The Higher Criticism of Yeats, when it is more fully developed, will have to engage the radical issue of his subjectivity, particularly as it is expressed in his myth of the antithetical man... The subject is immense and crucial, for in the end Yeats will stand or fall by it. (Bloom 372).
He distinguishes between the core of inner conviction - where Yeats is close to Shelley and Blake - and the ‘factitious’ (Bloom vii) roles he adopted in his varied career.
The Yeatsian persona, Yeats’s greatest creation, is indeed often something of a showman. At its best it is a figure of great dignity, whether in urbane, meditative conversation, gently dropping into the elegiac (‘All Souls’ Night’), or in unerring passion of the love poems, or at the moments when it rises to sublime incantation (‘Easter, 1916’, ‘The Second Coming’, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’). The persona speaks in a heightened version of Yeats’s own personal voice: ‘We should write out our own thoughts in as nearly as possible the language we thought them in, as though in a letter to an intimate friend. We should not disguise them in any way; for our lives give them force as the lives of people in plays give force to their words. Personal utterance, which had almost ceased in English literature, could be as fine an escape from rhetoric and abstraction as drama itself’ (A 102). When launched with energetic emphasis, his voice becomes ‘Style, personality - deliberately adopted and therefore a mask’ (A 461). The danger is that in this theatrical self-projection one may become merely theatrical. Yeats’s unsuccessful experiments in self-imagining and self-projection are side-products of the creative process that set up the larger than life persona.
‘Man can embody truth but he cannot know it’ (quoted, Ellmann 289) - what Yeats means by ‘truth’ is not a synthesis of the wisdom of humanity, but a living out of one’s mortal life in the most intense form that its conditions allow. The more varied his enactment of truth in this sense, the less his concern with finding a credal commitment. There is even a certain disengagement in his presentation of A Vision, and at his best he readily turns aside from the gyrations of his system to let us hear the cry of the heart. His speculative ruminations are of less import in themselves than as an orchestration of that cry. The lofty philosophizing is only a provisional backdrop for the dramatic persona, no more reliable than stage scenery, its very ramshackleness being a condition of its function. To the reader many Yeats’s more esoteric concerns can never be more than a Hitchcockian ‘McGuffin’, and the poet himself, when pressed, seems confident only of their subjective, dramatic value; in the end he recalls his mythologies to their source in ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’ (‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’). The high drama of a thwarted spiritual quest - which rehearses all the revolts, aspirations and frustrations of the Romantic tradition - may light up human existence as magnificently as does a poetry of magisterial assurance, and Yeats is greatest as a poet when he is least confident as a thinker.
‘To be satisfied with one’s heart as poetic theme is to acknowledge what it pained Yeats to recognize, that his concern was not with the content of the poetic vision, as Blake’s was, but with his relation as poet to his own vision’ (Bloom 457). In A Vision, he presses his store of wisdom and sympathetic perception into the uncanny geometric shapes revealed in his wife’s automatic writing. One may question his claim that the complexity of the geometry testifies to its preternatural provenance, for he tells us elsewhere of his Euclidean flair: ‘I had always done Euclid easily, making the problems out while the other boys were blundering at the blackboard, and it had often carried me from the bottom to the top of my class’ (A 56). The spiritualism helped his development as a poet in that it kept him in a state of excited questing and fostered ‘generosity of spirit’ and ‘humane receptivity’ (Bloom 66). He had a quickness of spiritual sympathy that allowed him to share the thought of visionaries belonging to ages and cultures distant from his own. But his quest never came to fulfilment, because the premises on which it proceeded were so shaky. The Holy Grail hovered in sight but forever eluded the quester’s grasp. It may be that, in a paradoxical economy, the failure of the thinker and the quester was what permitted the greatness of the poet. Out of the gap between desire and fulfilment in his spiritual quest, his personal life and his political career, was born a poetry expressing the riddles of human desire. The confusion of the thought enriches the poetry, insofar as the thinker’s underlying aim is to intensify his spiritual drama, rather than to pursue to the end any of the lines of questioning that haunt him. His cult of antinomies might be regarded as a deliberate self-confusion, but more likely it was the only way he could make progress, as well as being the most fertile in sources for drama and poetry.
4. Someone versed in modernist doctrines of ‘impersonality’ – Mallarmé’s ideal of the ‘disparition élocutoire du poète’ - might say that Yeats’s projection of a powerful persona intrudes romantic notions of the poet as unacknowledged legislator, prophet, seer, hero, on the purity of the poetic voice. Mallarmé can write: ‘I am now impersonal and no longer Stéphane whom you have known - but an aptitude which the Spiritual Universe has to develop itself, through that which was me’ (quoted, Richard 201). Yeats becomes a medium of the Spiritual Universe through a hyperdevelopment of personality. The Yeatsian persona fills the whole stage in every poem, and the reader can rarely so identify with it as to lose a distinct awareness of its intrusive, sometimes hectoring voice. The persona’s overwhelming monologues reinforce our impression of a fierce narcissism in Yeats’s spiritual quest. But this figure is not a dull reproduction of the author’s empirical self, but an imaginative enhancement of it, which is an objective creation comparable to Hamlet or Lear or the speakers in Browning’s dramatic monologues. The persona allows full scope to Yeats’s self-dramatizing imagination, which would have been cramped by the forced modesty of the model modernist poetic voice we find in Mallarmé, Valèry, Eliot, Stevens or Auden. The very completeness of the theatricality, the fact that we never escape the play of masks to see Yeats plain, is what makes the performance mediumistic. Even the last gesture of stripping off the mask ‘to wither into the truth’ is but another piece of theatre. Yeats may indeed have been a theatrical person; there may have been an incurable distance or alienation built into his personality. To go back to plainness would have spelt sterility; the only way forward was to play his roles to the hilt, in ever more drastic breaches with normalcy, or assuming normalcy itself as a mask.
If this is so, there would have been a lack of organic continuity in Yeats’s sense of himself, and this is increased in the projections of himself in the persona. This figure pops up in a series of discrete lyric and dramatic performances, but the logical connections between the performances are suppressed; they cannot be fitted into an overarching story. The effect is polyphonic, as if the persona were living simultaneously a series of possible lives. Each appearance of the persona has something unexpected and electrifying about it. Even the crazier and crankier pieces compensate by their power as dramatic monologues for what they may lack in ripeness of vision. Yeats usually succeeds in warding off the obvious danger of self-parody by the ruthlessness with which he disposes of outworn versions of the persona to go on to a new incarnation. Much has been said of Yeats’s development, his powers of rejuvenation. This may be less a matter of dialectical progress or organic growth than the wilful cancelling or inversion of previous stances. The dramatic unity of the Collected Poems depends on sustaining the tension between the conflicting stances of the persona rather than on any philosophical or even poetic resolution of these conflicts.
For Mallarmé all exists to issue in the Book, which is to be a ‘spiritual instrument’. The same imperative governs the multiplication of the postures of Yeats’s narcissistic persona, which absorbs and transcends the ‘mere complexities’ of everyday life and becomes a mythic figure that lights up the stakes of mortal existence. The work does not build to a conclusion; rather the reckless indulgence in antinomies staves off the possibility of any final simplification. ‘Yeats was always painfully aware of his own divided consciousness... and so was prepared to welcome any doctrine that sanctified division in the self’ (Bloom 75); ‘Whether this led, at last, to a genuinely tragic or otherwise valid vision, is a matter to be argued still, though almost all of Yeats’s critics seem certain that it did’ (Bloom 103). Yeats’s Book acquires unity from the satisfying comprehensiveness of the drama it unfolds, the way it traces the phases of a human life from a variety of perspectives, challenging the reader to pursue its loose ends and unresolved riddles. There is no initial or final wisdom, no crowning statement, no theme cogently pursued, only a passionate acting out of imagined possibilities, each magnified by its theatrical mask.
5. Yeats sought to construct a self that would be larger and freer than any of the conventional constructs of self offered to him by modern materialist civilization, by Irish society, or by conventional Christianity. The alternative traditions he draws on are not allowed to impose an imprisoning self-image either; he does not absorb them passively but keeps up a loving quarrel with them, exploiting them for the purposes of theatrical self-creation. He pursues both in his thought and in his poetry a quest for magnanimity, greatness of soul. This has two dimensions: Balzacian expansion and Paterian intensity. In the prose, he consumed whatever traditions could serve to enlarge his mind, claiming immediate kinship with such figures as Plato, Plotinus, Castiglione, Swift, Berkeley, Burke, Swedenborg, Blake, Shelley, Nietzsche, while reserving the right to dismiss them as soon as their soul-building utility was spent. More than an accumulation of wisdom, these identifications were an effort to enact contradictory possibilities of human existence. He stretched his soul to greatness by exploring extremes - ‘Between extremities/Man runs his course’ (‘Vacillation’). In the verse this syncretism is subordinated to lyric intensity; the multiple resonances that exegetes can disentangle fuse in a single lyric chord, in Pater’s ‘hard gem-like flame’.
Yeats’s self-enlargement through the cultivation of antitheses recalls Nietzsche’s ‘strong German types’ who, like Goethe, ‘exist blithely among antithesis, full of that supple strength that guards against convictions and doctrines by employing one against the other and reserving freedom for itself’ (quoted, Bloom, ed. 2). Yeats weds this German dialectic to an Irish spirit of impartial play: ‘The Irish mind has still, in country rapscallion or in Bernard Shaw, an ancient, cold, explosive, detonating impartiality’ (E 443). One could perhaps say that in Yeats, as in Eriugena, Swift, Berkeley, Joyce, Beckett, the ability to present and explore divergent perspectives, holding antitheses in sustained tension, is cultivated without any view to its dialectical culmination in some ripe synthesis. The Irish propound nothing, maintain a play of mind. But the play is fuelled by a reckless urge to get back to reality, undoing hallowed shams. Only in its evasion of commitment it may end up straying farther from reality than any solemn German system.
If Yeats’s sense of reality was sharpened by Nietzsche’s astringent probings, it may have been dulled by his enthusiasm for the more dubious visionary reaches of Nietzsche’s thought, notably the idea of ‘eternal recurrence’. Yeats’s syncretism is at its oddest when he puts in John O’Leary’s mouth a motto of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: ‘to bend the bow and tell the truth’ (EI 247) and when, in The Unicorn from the Stars (1908), he and Lady Gregory attempt to graft Nietzsche onto Irish nationalism and Swedenborg onto Irish Catholicism. Biblical language is drafted to a proto-fascist Nietzschean cause: ‘When there were no laws men warred on one another and man to man, not with machines made in towns as they do now, and they grew hard and strong in body. They were altogether alive like Him that made them in His image’ (Plays 359). The play’s efforts at ideological hijacking reach their climax in the dying protagonist’s reinterpretation of heaven:
Father John, Heaven is not what we have believed it to be. It is not quiet, it is not singing and making music, and all strife at an end. I have seen it, I have been there. The lover still loves, but with a greater passion, and the rider still rides, but the horse goes like the wind and leaps the ridges, and the battle goes on always, always. That is the joy of Heaven, continual battle.
Confusingly, Self’s value of continual battle is equated with Soul’s value of pure emptiness:
we shall not come to that joy, that battle, till we have put out the senses, everything that can be seen and handled, as I put out this candle. [He puts out candle.] We must put out the whole world as I put out this candle [puts out another candle]. We must put out the light of the stars and the light of the sun and the light of the moon [puts out the rest of the candles], till we have brought everything to nothing once again. I saw in a broken vision, but now all is clear to me. Where there is nothing, where there is nothing - there is God! (Plays 381)
The earlier version, Where There Is Nothing (1902), has the words: ‘Death is the last adventure, the first perfect joy, for at death the soul comes into possession of itself, and returns to the joy that made it’ (VPL 1160). ‘Never before or after this play does Yeats commit himself so unequivocally to the "fabulous darkness," the spiritual, the surrender of the things of this world’ (Oppel 54). Here we glimpse how catastrophic the Yeatsian performance would have been had he allowed his persona to become an organ of preaching or propaganda. It is the troubled, uncertain figure that moves us, and the feeling that even his loftiest oracles are accompanied by a wistful question mark; and indeed many of them do end with a question mark (‘The Second Coming’, ‘Ancestral Houses’, ‘Leda and the Swan’, ‘Among School Children’, ‘Whence had they Come?’).
6. Had Yeats definitively attained his goal of Unity of Being, it would have been a narcissistic achievement. However, his writing has the effect of disrupting unity, as it enacts an ‘ethics of desire, where "desire" is taken in opposition to the homeostases of the ego... a law of unceasing transgression against the encrustation of the narcissistic substructure of the personality’ (Boothby 175). Unity of Being became an ideal that on principle could never be realized, for it involved bringing in the anti-self, representing all that the self inherently lacked. This notion differs from the Freudian ideal self and from the Shelleyan ‘epipsychidion’ (soul of my soul), in being defined as not merely what the poet desires to be, but as the opposite of what the poet in his everyday life is. The anti-self is an overmastering ideal other, as expressed in the phrase from Dante: ‘Ego Dominus tuus’. ‘If we cannot imagine ourselves as different from what we are and assume that second self, we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves, though we may accept one from others. Active virtue as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a current code is therefore theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask. It is the condition of arduous full life’ (M 334). ‘All happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other life, on a re-birth as something not one’s self’. The cult of the anti-self comes when one is no longer lulled by complacent self-idealization: ‘The other self, the anti-self... comes but to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is reality (M 331). This straining after completeness of vision attends to ugliness, evil, and doubt as well as to beauty, goodness, and faith. It is exposed to the wounds inflicted by the real. Whereas the narcissistic ‘beautiful soul’ is imprisoned in its self-idealization, the great soul uses imagination to project itself to its other.
In A Vision this anti-self thinking loses its edge by being absorbed into the structure of the interpenetrating primary and antithetical gyres. Here, the ultimate goal, the Unity of Being attained at Phase 15, can be seen as a harmony of Soul and Self - an ideal state never realized in history but most nearly approached in the Renaissance. But Yeats did not go on from A Vision to draw nearer to this condition. Instead, he strayed farther and farther from it, preferring oscillation among antitheses to ripe synthesis. There was to be no late, late Yeats, speaking from the haven of calm wisdom, all passion spent. Instead his verse springs more wildly between the extremities, Soul freezing into Pythagorean numbers (‘The Statues’) and Self erupting in frenzies of ‘lust and rage’. It may be that the ideal of synthesis lost its hold on him, and that he shed the mask of the sage, to look the tragedy and obscurity of life in the face and to protest against them by adopting a variety of dramatic postures with only a loose warrant in the system he had constructed.
7. Aware that the self is a construct, Yeats uses the paradings of his persona as a pretext for a poetic event that is profoundly impersonal, not-self. This is not merely the impersonality of the Flaubertian artist, but attains the register of the sublime. Edmund Burke’s pioneering phenomenology of the sublime, which singles out such traits as terror, dizziness, obscurity, power, was a charter for the poetic practice of Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley. The incantatory voice heard in Blake’s Jerusalem or Shelley’s Adonais makes of the poet its mouthpiece. A similar effect has been noted by Hillis Miller in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’:
The poem is spoken by no one in particular. It is uttered by a vast, visionary, all-inclusive voice within which the personal I of the poet only momentarily identifies itself... It is the voice of human experience generally, of literary and philosophical tradition. It is the voice ultimately of ‘nothing’, of that no one and no place from which the desolate winds blow. (Hillis Miller  324)
The Yeatsian persona, for all its busy rhetoric and grandiose self-dramatization, in reality plays a humble, emblematic role, and acquires oracular status as something greater and other comes to speech through him. Persona like poetic genre or metre is a vehicle for the voice. The systems and allusions, the theatricality and emblems, serve to let this event - the emergence of the uncanny incantation - happen again and again. Hillis Miller presents this event in colourless deconstructive jargon: the poem circles around an ‘unknown X’ which is ‘beyond language, though it is what all language "names," in the gap which may not be closed between all words and any fixed identifiable referent’ (Hillis Miller  339). But when Yeats’s voice becomes anonymous and oracular it is in order to present a concrete vision - either of transformation (‘Byzantium’, ‘Among School Children’) or of desolation (the images of violence at the end of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ and ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’).
What is the status of the poetic sublime? Is it born of a grandiose inflation of the ego, identifying itself with a cosmic Atman - which Jung might celebrate as discovery of the whole Self and which Freud, more sceptically, might class as the ‘oceanic feeling’? Perhaps the sense of the sublime is born at this imaginary, pre-Oedipal level, but in the labour of style and artistic distancing it is raised to the objective symbolic order, in Lacan’s sense. he persona created in Yeats’s achieved poems is not simply a gratification of the narcissism of the imaginary level, but is the product of a negotiation with the Other. The self renders itself vulnerable to a true experience of alterity, which emerges in the authority of the sublime voice. When the Yeatsian voice becomes the trumpet of a prophecy, the content of the prophecy sometimes fails to go beyond a subjective sublimity, confusedly taking itself for an objective, authoritative revelation; poems such as ‘Leda and the Swan’ or ‘The Second Coming’ have to be taken with a grain of salt. Bloom claims that Yeats was not the exponent of a real vision, as Blake was, but remained a perpetual, uncertain questioner:
Yeats’s ‘individuation’ is the quest for Unity of Being, and at the end of the quest one finds neither a more human man nor God the Father, but rather an individual fantasy that precedes... a new natural religion [in Blake’s sense]. It is only in this sense that Yeats was a prophet, and we ought, all of us, to be a little less ready than we have seemed to be to take Yeats as a spiritual authority. (Bloom 222)
His sublime voice is most convincing when it articulates the common hopes and fears that a particular historical situation gives rise to, and when he gives them imaginative body in ‘The half-read wisdom of daemonic images’ (‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’). Then he does seem to be lifted beyond himself, and to lift the reader with him. But when the machinery of A Vision fills out the message, the voice becomes strident or muffled, because caught up in a narcissistic fantasy and no longer communicating with a real addressee.
II: ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’
8. In ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ Yeats rehandles the old genre of the psychomachia, associated with the fifth-century Christian poet Prudentius. Contrary to the orthodox form of the genre, Soul is shown to lose in the battle against its opponent, who is not on this occasion the Platonically devalued body, but the Self, a source of new Nietzschean values. Yeats aims to dramatize the conflict within himself, not to refute the claims of soul. As in the dialogue between Heart and Soul in ‘Vacillation’, the rightness of what Soul is saying goes uncontested, but the poet wants the detour of human erring.
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?
Soul calls on the poet to ascend the purgatorial stair to a divine, blessed simplicity, symbolized by the star. The darkness is that of Phase 1 of A Vision, the moonless night in which the primary completely eclipses the antithetical. This condition can never be realized in time, for human life is impossible without strife between the primary and antithetical (objective and subjective) ‘tinctures’ (see V 79). In one diagram this condition of complete objectivity figures as the north pole. It ‘represents that portion of divinity which is disclosed to the visionary after his ascent: the essence of divinity is "hidden" from human eyes’ (Wilson 239). The word ‘starlit’ recalls:
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains (‘distains’ in one version)
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins. (‘Byzantium’)
Phase 15, the night of the full moon, Unity of Being, just as much as Phase 1, is incompatible with the conditions of human existence.
In neither ‘Byzantium’ nor the present poem are the connections with A Vision perfectly transparent. When Soul says that ‘intellect no longer knows/Is from the Ought, or Knower from the Known’ (II v), we recall the descriptions of ‘Will and Mask as the will and its object, or the Is and the Ought (or that which should be), Creative Mind and Body of Fate as thought and its object, or the Knower and the Known’ (V 73). The first pair are subjective or antithetical, the second objective or primary. But the indistinction of Is and Ought, Knower and Known, does not correspond to the situation in Phase 1, where ‘Mask is submerged in Body of Fate, Will in Creative Mind’ (V 183), nor does it fit Phase 15: ‘the Creative Mind is dissolved in the Will and the Body of Fate in the Mask’ (V 135). Might one fit it under the rubric of the thirteenth cone, one of the most obscure items in Yeats’s system?: ‘The ultimate reality, because neither one nor many, concord nor discord, is symbolised as a phaseless sphere, but as all things fall into a series of antinomies in human experience it becomes, the moment it is thought of, what I shall presently describe as the thirteenth cone’ (V 193). This seems more satisfactory than to say that Soul has now become ‘the voice of anonymous process’ (Bloom 375).
But it is perhaps better to be content with a neoplatonic exegesis of Soul’s heaven: the Plotinian One also spells the end of the distinction between knower and known, is and ought (the One is self-caused, or the Good is as it wills itself to be, Enneads VI 8). ‘All thought is done’ in the simplicity of the One, which is beyond the grasp of Nous (Mind) and the distinction of knower and known entailed by noesis. ‘The broken, crumbling battlement’ is an emblem of the body, now a mere prop for the ascent, or the site of a battle which is not the joyful ‘continual battle’ of The Unicorn from the Stars but only a discipline of purification. Bodily life is but fuel to be burned up in the combustion of spiritual life; Soul shares the Plotinian shame at being in the body. This corresponds to one of Yeats’s radical, destructive moods, when he burns through all the mere complexities of finite existence to get to the burning core of things. But if such a ‘condition of complete simplicity’ (Eliot) attracts him, it repels him even more powerfully, for it leaves no space for the rich complexities of life. (Eliot’s phrase designates the condition of sanctity in a more attractive and incarnational style than Yeats was prepared to grasp.)
The putting off of thought also suggests as Eckhartian aspiration ‘to leave God for God’ (Gott durch Gott lassen):
Then my delivered soul herself shall learn
A darker knowledge and in hatred turn
From every thought of God mankind has had.
Thought is a garment and the soul’s a bride
That cannot in that trash and tinsel hide:
Hatred of God may bring the soul to God.
(‘Ribh considers Christian Love insufficient’)
Such declarations on Yeats’s tongue always fall rather flat, because one senses that the word ‘God’ is an abstract cipher, or that the neoplatonic purity it designates would be better captured by some other term. Yeats did not have a concrete grasp of the idea of God, and preferred to substitute Berkeley’s intellectual fire replaces ‘the old symbol God’ (E 325). ‘Again and again, with remorse, a sense of defeat, I have failed when I would write of God, written coldly and conventionally’ (quoted, Wilson 165). When he uses the name of God, in portentous echoes of theistic mysticism, he can scarcely avoid evoking the biblical tradition, which sits ill with the texture of his imaginative world. Blake was happy with such biblical resonances, and could play with them subversively on occasion. Yeats is closer to Shelley, who uses the word ‘God’ in a hollowed-out, agnostic style, as in the Demogorgon scene in Prometheus Unbound, Act II, or avoids it altogether, as in ‘Mont Blanc’ and Adonais, in which he deliberately de-Christianizes the language of his precursors (Coleridge’s in ‘Hymn Before Sun-rise’ and Milton’s in ‘Lycidas’). Yeats speaks most attractively of the spiritual world when he uses neoplatonic terms, but to compensate for their pallidness he has to fall back on the metaphors of A Vision, at the risk of being caught in its spiritless geometry.
My Self. The consecrated blade upon my knees
Is Sato’s ancient blade, still as it was,
Still razor-keen, still like a looking-glass
Unspotted by the centuries;
That flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn
From some court-lady’s dress and round
The wooden scabbard bound and wound,
Can, tattered, still protect, faded adorn.
The clash that occurs here, as the fascination of ancestral night is abruptly juxtaposed with the splendours of the day, is all the intenser for its quietness. The sword stands over against the lures of Soul in serene confidence and pride. With the piece of cloth it represents two poles of human existence, male and female, permanence and impermanence, violence and peace (the cloth is tattered, perhaps bloodstained, and has been torn from a dress; yet it protects and adorns). One might say of these emblems as Hillis Miller says of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ that ‘The concentration and explosive intensity of the poem is achieved by this bringing together in abrupt juxtaposition detached parts that stand for large wholes’ (Hillis Miller  321). The emblems have a life and tradition of their own, and the reader of Yeats’s Book will recall their earlier appearance in ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’. In I iv Self will give us another snatch of the sword’s history, but the misspelling of Motoshige as ‘Montashigi’ may signal a certain deadness and vagueness in his use of the emblem in this poem.
The tensions of human existence are focused in terms of a single concrete civilization, that of Japan, a country which always loomed large in Yeats’s imagination and which he twice planned to visit. Sword and embroidery represent all the turmoil of life, but distanced and stylized by being caught in the mirror of a remote culture. The embroidered cloth comes from the feminine Japan of The Tale of Genji, which Yeats admired: ‘And of course I have been reading Arthur Waley’s Translation of "The Tale of Genji," but that is one of the great classics of the world, and I have too much to say about it to say anything’ (Oshima, ed. 7). Traces of the same world can be surmised in a neighboring poem, ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’, which conveys a poignant sense of impermanence - ‘The innocent and the beautiful/Have no enemy but time’ - and arranges images noiselessly as in a haiku:
The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
Usually Yeats presents Asia as ‘primary’ and Greece as ‘antithetical’: here Soul’s Greek, neoplatonic voice is steeped in Indian abstraction whereas Self finds in Japan the qualities of Greece. The civilization of day is just as ancient, ancestral and holy as the simplicity of night, as is quietly asserted by the opposition of the ‘ancient blade’ to Soul’s ‘ancient stair’ of neoplatonic ascent and by the epithet ‘consecrated’. Self has one ‘upon’ to counter Soul’s insistent use of the word four times; Self’s four times repeated ‘still’ and the rhyme of round, bound, wound set up a resistant horizontal movement eluding Soul’s vertical pressure.
After the completion of A Vision Yeats felt free to go beyond the limits of his own system, to let his mind play sceptically over it, to regard it even as a mask, as part of that urbane patter behind which he had for a lifetime hid his timid self, whom he now permits to speak out with unwonted boldness (see Ellmann 227-8). The encounter with Zen in 1927 brought a simplification of his spiritual vision. In ‘Zazuki’s Zen Buddhism [= D.T. Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism, 1927], an admirable and exciting book’ (V 215), he learned that satori arose from conflict and sudden shocks, and this encouraged him to affirm more boldly the contradictions of carnal existence (see Doherty). Japanese swordsmen cultivated the detached energy of Zen, which seems to flash out in the common surname Sato, which acquires an aristocratic gleam here (see the interview with Junzo Sato in Oshima, ed. 119-33). Zen, no less than neoplatonism, cultivates no-mind (Japanese: mushin), but in order to release the energies of human life from their bondage to abstraction, not in order to reduce all to the simplicity of the One. In Zen meditation one fixes ‘every wandering thought’ to attain emptiness, ‘where all thought is done’, but this is not pure transcendence and recollection of the higher soul; rather, it enables an integral vision of the real and activation of the whole person, body and mind. The attainment of non-thinking (no-mind) liberates the mind to taste the true freshness of the everyday world and to act with great versatility and presence of mind. In the words of Zen Master Takuan: ‘When mushin or munen [no-mind or no-thought] is attained, the mind moves from one object to another, flowing like a stream of water, filling every possible corner. For this reason the mind fulfils every function required of it’ (quoted, Suzuki 111).This attitude releases the instincts from the inhibitions of normal conceptual thinking. The core of the swordsman’s spirituality is in his attitude to death: ‘When one is resolved to die, that is, when the thought of death is wiped off the field of consciousness, there arises something in it, or, rather, apparently from the outside, the presence of which one has never been aware of, and when this strange presence begins to direct one’s activities in an instinctual manner wonders are achieved’ (Suzuki 197). Yeats’s denial of death is put tersely in the preceding poem~ (‘Death’): ~’Man has created death’, Is this hollow bravado or an equivalent of Zen detachment?
My Soul. Why should the imagination of a man
Long past his prime remember things that are
Emblematical of love and war?
Think of ancestral night that can,
If but imagination scorn the earth
And intellect its wandering
To this and that and t’other thing,
Deliver from the crime of death and birth.
Soul deprecates the stirrings of natural vitality, ‘sees its antagonist now as the obsessed imagination, and appeals for both imagination and intellect to focus on "ancestral night," that the purgatorial cycles of death and birth may be ended’ (Bloom 374). The ancestral night is from Sophocles: ‘And I call upon the ancestral night, I, the blind man, to gather you into itself’ (quoted, Wilson 233). It is referred to here in a rather unconvincing way, as if Soul were pointing to a traditional emblem, which he opposes to those of Self. To ‘scorn the earth’ is the extreme anthesis to Self’s Nietzschean creed of fidelity of the earth. Typical of Yeats’s resonant syncretism is the way he combines Greek ideas - the tragic conception of ‘crime’ (compare Adonais: ‘the eclipsing Curse/Of birth’) - with Indian ones - deliverance from the wheel of samsâra through a yogic stilling of the mind.
My Self. Montashigi, third of his family, fashioned it
Five hundred years ago, about it lie
Flowers from I know not what embroidery -
Heart’s purple - and all these I set
For emblems of the day against the tower
Emblematical of the night,
And claim as by a soldier’s right
A charter to commit the crime once more.
Self’s cool riposte again, despite its wandering detached air, has a backbone of deliberate logic; he takes up the themes of the crime and the emblems reflectively. The emphatic identification of the emblems of day suggests that this is an abstract and schematic poem. The tower, too, seems little more than a conventional prop. Yeats’s images are supposed to open out onto the Anima Mundi, a collective memory, but they are always mediated by literary tradition, and when that tradition is mastered as a code there is a danger that the distribution of the emblems may become mechanical. It is hard to silence the suspicion that this is happening here, and that the symbolic constructions are rather wooden or ramshackle. But it is perhaps impossible to reach a final judgement on the range of resonance of a given emblem as deployed in a single poem, for there is an implicit intertextual reference to the occurrences elsewhere in the Book. Moreover, their significance is undergoing constant alteration, creating a universe in flux which it is very difficult to step back from and bring into focus. Self’s final words in this stanza seem to me to strike an artificial pose; it is dramatically inappropriate for the Yeatsian persona to set himself up as a soldier. The symbolic valency of the emblems in this poem does not seem to take Yeats as far as he wants it to.
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.
Soul is now rapt in its own vision of the pure simplicity of the One, as the bonum diffusivum sui, Shelley’s ‘burning fountain’, which irradiates the mind (Nous) with all manner of contemplative fruition. The judgement on the human condition echoes Plotinus:
What is it, then, which has made the souls forget their father, God, and be ignorant of themselves, even though they are parts which come from his higher world and altogether belong to it? The beginning of evil for them was audacity (tolma) and coming to birth and the first otherness and the wishing to belong to themselves. Since they were clearly delighted with their own independence, and made great use of self-movement, running the opposite course and getting as far away as possible, they were ignorant even that they themselves came from that world. (Ennead V 1.1, trans. Armstrong)
The remedy is also Plotinian: ‘The nature of that higher soul of ours will be free from responsibility for the evils that man does and suffers; these concern the living being, the joint entity’ (Ennead I 1.9). Yet the line ‘Only the dead can be forgiven’ smuggles in a note of Gnostic pessimism that would, I think, have displeased Plotinus. This is due to the interference of Yeats’s own system: ‘The Soul (and this is the poem’s necessary limitation) is a Yeatsian initiate, or at least has read A Vision carefully. Only the dead can be forgiven, for only the dead can undergo the complex Yeatsian purgatorial process. The soul speaks for many readers of A Vision in flinching from this process’ (Bloom 375-6). This reference causes the movement of the stanza to falter, and the final line is lame. Does it show Soul undergoing a dramatic, though psychological defeat, its own logic having brought it to an unacceptably suicidal point (Harris 208)? Does it ‘flinch’ from the prospect of purgation? Or are we to take it rather that Soul has reached the height of passion, which has petrifying qualities in Yeats: ‘Some passion had made her stone’ (‘The Two Kings’); ‘Hearts with one purpose alone/Through summer and winter seem/Enchanted to a stone’ (‘Easter, 1916’)? Again the sense of a certain unsteadiness of focus, as if in attempting to objectify his divided subjectivity in a comprehensive way Yeats blurred his own image, which is so vivid in the poems that are anchored in specific occasions.
9. David Lynch finds both Soul and Self to be intolerably solipsistic (Lynch 56-60). He sees Soul as boasting about its own fulness, rather than rejoicing in that of the One. Another critic notes ‘the inscrutability of this poem’s drama’, due to the fact that ‘Soul’s mysterious visitation occurs because Self is in a trance, a semi-conscious reverie... He enters because the conscious will, which bars influx of the unknown, is half-asleep. Self, apprehending Soul only instinctively, never addresses him directly; trance produces a curiously diaphanous conversation whose logic of progression is almost always suppressed’ (Harris 204). This farfetched attempt to situate the two voices may reveal a weakness of the poem, the unsatisfactorily schematic character of the situation it enacts. Does the Yeatsian personal voice, elsewhere so finely tempered, become undialogical here because parcelled out among two abstract entities? The distance provided by the technique of the dramatic monologue creates a sense of unreality, in contrast to its effect in poems in which the full-bodied Yeatsian persona figures.
Soul’s rhetoric is deliberately made hollow, disembodied, ghostly. But it fails to become the vehicle of an oracle, for the over-strained language - ‘Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?’; ‘the crime of death and birth’; ‘Only the dead can be forgiven’ - suggests the recitation of an orthodoxy rather than a spontaneous delivery of spiritual insight. These utterances are parried with equal vehemence by Self: ‘claim as by a soldier’s right/A charter to commit the crime once more’; ‘the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch’; ‘forgive myself the lot!’ The persona projected here is unconvincing, the attitude he strikes too deliberately staged. The language Yeats gives Self does not show dramatic control but a nervous desire for emphasis. The gestures of Self claim emblematic status, and even more than those of Soul are meant to effect an oracular breakthrough. If the breakthrough does not occur, the reason lies in the underlying philosophy of the poem. Self’s stance is a wilful one, an assertion of Niezschean subjective will-to-power. It does not allow a serene letting-be of the world. When Self raises his voice the tone is the manic or hysterical one of Nietzsche’s own dithyrambs. Elsewhere Yeats tunes in to the rhythm of the world and of history, and his speech becomes, as Heidegger would say, the ‘house of being’, a manifestation of the ‘worlding of world’ and the ‘thinging of things’. But here it labours under the sterilizing hold of subjectivist metaphysics, in blind assertion rather than visionary affirmation.
The lack of real dialogue here prompts unfavorable comparison with Marvell’s ‘A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body’, with its civilized repartee and its judicious Spinozan balancing of the rival claims. But Marvell’s wit -
Here blinded with an eye; and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear
- is perhaps deliberately repressed in Yeats’s flat opposition of Soul’s ‘That man is stricken deaf and dumb and blind’ and Self’s ‘A living man is blind and drinks his drop’. In Marvell, body’s resentment of the castrating discipline of Soul -
So architects do square and hew,
Green trees that in the forest grew
- is not erased, making this poem more tensely dialectical than others in which soul is simply victorious. In Yeats, however, the two potential forms of selfhood are not held together in a fine, tense spiritual balance, but they are set against one another in an open contradiction. The dramatization of this battle enlarges the scope of selfhood, which contains both ‘soul’ and ‘self’ and is lived as their battleground, but it does not point to an integration of the diverging instances. This lack of integration has effects on the poem itself, which despite the vigorous rhetoric of the second half (consisting of four strong assertions and five rhetorical questions) fails to attain convincing closure.
10. The second half is a monologue of Self. It is given human reality by its autobiographical content, but this reality is undermined by the odd nature of the posture Self strikes, which combines attitudes from Nietzsche, Indian religion, and A Vision.
My Self. A living man is blind and drinks his drop.
What matter if the ditches are impure?
What matter if I live it all once more?
Endure that toil of growing up;
The ignominy of boyhood; the distress
Of boyhood changing into man;
The unfinished man and his pain
Brought face to face with his own clumsiness;
The finished man among his enemies? -
How in the name of Heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape?
And what’s the good of an escape
If honour find him in the wintry blast?
I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch,
A blind man battering blind men;
Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.
Self, ‘rudely awakened into the purgatory of his own nature’ (Harris 205), now opposes to Soul’s drastic declarations an unconditional affirmation of earthly life in all its splendour and misery. But the affirmation does not really persuade; what we have instead is the drama of Self protesting too much, in an effort to find an alterative to the lures of Soul. His image of life is narcissistic, for the other persons mentioned - malicious eyes, blind men, a proud woman - are mere ciphers. What is outside the individual is seen only as an obstacle or bond. II ii presents ‘the struggle of the individual soul, failing to establish its "chosen Image" (V 94) against the Body of Fate, all that is "forced upon [it] from without" (V 83)’ (Keane 170). Yeats lived so much among images, that he was bound to suffer from the contrary and humiliating images society imposed. ‘I found myself unpopular, and suffered, discovering that if men speak much ill of you it makes at moments a part of the image of yourself - that is your only support against the world - and that you see yourself too as if with hostile eyes’ (Memoirs 84). This is no simple narcissistic wound, but is felt as the destruction of a career. It is close to the politician’s or the entertainment artist’s concern with their image.
The echo of the earlier ‘battlement’ in ‘battering’ and the counterpointing of blindness and impure ditches to Soul’s Plotinian fountain which strikes the mind blind do not amount to a refutation of Soul’s claims. They express an instinctive reaction, the protest of a living man against the lure of death. The power of this poem lies less in the logic of its declarations than in the turnings of its dramatic course. It demands to be acted rather than merely recited. The rhetorical questions, in which Self becomes bogged down in bitter remembrances that threated to stall his effort at self-persuasion and resolve, prepare for the mighty affirmation of the last stanza which casts off this heavy weight. But I retain some doubt about the quality of the rhetoric here. When Yeats affirms human life, his language of the sordid and brutal, blood and frenzy, fury and mire, seems actually to undercut life, to make it seem thin and unreal. Again the problem is with his philosophical temperament, his impatience with finite existence and his proneness to force it into mythological shapes; the ugly shapes here are scarcely less tangential to real life than the beauteous ones of the Celtic Twilight.
Self asserts as the time of truth only the temporality of mortal existence, rejecting the image of eternity projected by Soul. Unfortunately, what is meant here by human temporality is a grand system of recurrent reincarnations. Yeats’s acceptance of finite existence is skewed by the idea that he can literally relive it in the posthumous Dreaming-Back, in which ‘the Spirit is compelled to live over and over again the events that had most moved it; there can be nothing new, but the old events stand forth in a light which is dim or bright according to the intensity of the passion that accompanied them’ (V 226). Yeats’s engagement with time and mortality, whether in celebration or lament, never settles in a tranquil pattern such as Eliot envisions in Four Quartets. It may be true that Yeats’s participation in the game of history is more inventive and high-spirited than Eliot’s (see Engelberg 245-51), but his imaginative rearrangements of history and personal time, and his readiness to find symbolic import in events, allows him a dangerous freedom to alter the contours of mortal existence in light of speculative suppositions such as the myths of reincarnation or eternal return.
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.
The allusion to the Return, which in A Vision occurs after the Dreaming Back, is clear: ‘the Spirit must live through past events in the order of their occurrence, because it is compelled by the Celestial Body to trace every passionate event to its cause until all are related and understood, turned into knowledge, made a part of itself’ (V 226). Bloom states that ‘what the Self offers instead is to divest itself of everything except the life it has lived, which it would live again, not in the purgatorial and supernatural way of A Vision’s dreamings-back, but naturally’ (Bloom 375). Perhaps, however, Self is alluding to the following possibility: ‘If a Spirit cannot escape from its Dreaming Back to complete its expiation, a new life may come soon and be, as it were, a part of its Dreaming Back and so repeat the incidents of the past life’ (V 236). Self is too attached to this life to complete its purification and disentanglement in posthumous purgation; instead it sees itself getting stuck in the stage of Dreaming Back and incurring further reincarnations in which this life is repeated. Self is willing to live yet again the confusion and pain of human life, but if for now it ‘forgives itself the lot’, this does not entail a denial of the ultimate need of expiation and purification at some later stage. Self cannot purify itself, but its can for the time being forgive itself for its own impurity. Thus the poem can be squared with the doctrine of A Vision.
‘Yeats lacked above all else a sense of sin and of the need for redemption’ (Connolly 152). Bringing to the surface the sense of sin that Yeats lacked or had repressed, Eliot in ‘Little Gidding’ makes his Yeatsian ghost the oracle of a biblical sense of guilt:
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done or done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Eliot relocates the Return in old age, identifying it with the broodings which Yeats himself often entertained:
Things said or done years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled. (‘Vacillation’)
Then Eliot glides into a purgatorial mode which orients the Yeatsian process firmly in a Dantean direction, cutting out all suggestion of an eternal cycle of rebirths, and transforming the spirit’s dance in a Noh play into a movement of purposeful purification:
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.
The image, which shows the purgatorial process afoot in the texture of our present existence, is a luminous simplification (poetic, not doctrinaire) of Yeatsian musings on posthumous purgation. The cumbersome Yeatsian processes crumble away in face of this judicious synthesis of traditional emblems.
11. Hillis Miller glosses the casting out of remorse as ‘the sudden liberation from it which comes from acceptance of the inevitable’ (Hillis Miller  110) - which is identical with the joy Nietzsche finds in embracing the eternal recurrence of the same. How Nietzschean is the conclusion of the poem? The Return is a therapeutic revisiting of the past, a reflective measuring and appropriation of events. Here Yeats seems to change it into an affirmation of eternal recurrence, which effects a revaluation of earthly life by affirming it:
To redeem what is past and recreate every ‘It was’ as a ‘Thus I willed it’ - that was for me the meaning of redemption!
Will - that is the name of the liberator and joy-bringer; so I taught you, my friends! But now learn this as well: the will itself is still a captive...
This, yes this alone, is revenge itself: the will’s reaction (Widerwillen) against time and its ‘It was’...
The spirit of revenge: my friends, that was up to now humanity’s best reflection: and where there was suffering, there had always to be punishment...
Every ‘It was’ is a fragment, a riddle, a cruel accident - until the creating will says to it: ‘But that is how I willed it!’
- Until the creating will says to it: ‘But thus I will it! Thus shall I will it!’ (Nietzsche 132-3)
Where Soul represents the spirit of revenge, calling for punishment of the crime of living, Self ‘unlearns the spirit of revenge and all gnashing of teeth’ (Nietzsche 134).
The idea of eternal recurrence functions ‘as a test, and more generally, as a touchstone of strength and affirmativeness. It is a challenge, the ability to meet which is also the ability to live joyfully without any hope that life and the world will ever have a significantly different character than they do’ (Schlacht 259). It is a rejection of Schopenhauer’s conclusion that to one who has seen that life is suffering ‘at the end of his life, if a man is sincere and in full possession of his faculties, he will never wish to have it over again, but rather than this, he will much prefer absolute annihilation’ (quoted, Schlacht 260). Yeats seems to be taking seriously Nietzsche’s promise, ‘when you incarnate the thought of thoughts in yourself, it will change you’ (quoted, Strong 265). Self (‘such as I’) counts himself among the strong ones, the yea-sayers, who can benefit from the doctrine of eternal recurrence - ‘a teaching which filters men’ - as opposed to the ‘schlecht-weggekommene - those whose "physiology" has become characterized by nihilism’ (Strong 270) and who are crushed by the doctrine of recurrence. One might see Self as casting out the nihilistic shadow represented by Soul; ‘such as I’ then indicates not Self as opposed to lesser humans but as opposed to the nihilistic other half of the total character both represent.
Eternal recurrence positively eliminates life-denying or nihilistic ways of being in the world, such as the resentment-based attitude that sees earthly existence as punishment and counsels a surrender of will. The recurrence of things as positively affirmed implies a transformation of existence in which everything becomes ‘blest’. (No doubt there is some inconsistency here; indeed the topic seems plagued with inconsistencies.) The yea-saying that wills eternal recurrence is not a mere acceptance of the way things are, but a discriminating and artful act of valuation. In the poem, Self’s affirmation of ‘every event in action and in thought’ focusses on moments of growth or on a pattern of growth, not on the negative aspects for their own sake. He affirms the life-principle, eros, even in the form of unrequited passion. He declares himself ready to play the game again, to throw the dice in the high spirit of play advocated by Nietzsche. Self attains the highest transformation of spirit, a new childhood, in which one laughs, dances, sings: laughter celebrates a triumph over the spirit of gravity and the spirit of ressentiment.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche quotes a Greek legend as instantiating that radical sense of guilt which he sought to abolish: ‘What is best of all is forever beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. The second best for you, however, is soon to die’ (quoted, Oppel 123). Soul labours under the burden of this guilt, whereas Self takes up the Nietzschean aspiration ‘to remove out of the world the notions of guilt and punishment’ (quoted, Oppel 231). Nietzsche’s affirmation of eternal recurrence implies that ‘all time is unredeemable’ (Eliot) and not in need of redemption. But can one ‘forgive oneself the lot’ when ‘the lot’ includes the crimes of history and the stain, the miasma, they leave on each individual? Divine forgiveness liberates from this karmic web of crime. Self seems to block out any such dimensions. Instead redemption becomes the work of the autonomous poetic imagination. Does Self enact this Nietzschean release with the required aplomb? The idyllic Blakean tones - ‘We must laugh and we must sing’ - are off-key. Blakean innocence chimes with Nietzsche’s ‘innocence of becoming’ when that is spontaneously realized, but not with the voluntaristic programme here expressed. The ‘must’ undermines spontaneity with the grim resolve of amor fati. Yeats wills himself into blessedness, but the uneasiness of the lines attests that grace cannot be willed.
But is it the whole truth to say that ‘Self asserts an autonomy actually substituting Selfhood for Godhood’ (Keane 172-3), in accord with Nietzsche’s claim that once man ceases to flow out into a God he becomes a superman? Yeats may have an ulterior idea: his ‘hatred of God’ may be intended to ‘bring the soul to God’; the acceptance of the human periphery in all its complexity is a roundabout way to the divine center; this may be an undertone in the final ‘Everything we look upon is blest’. The Nietzschean posture may only be the surface level of a more comprehensive spiritual economy. The self-forgiveness may be less a total rejection of the values urged by Soul than a resigned acceptance of the cycles of samsaric existence, which will come round to purgation and expiation in due course. The essential goal of Indian religion, in which Yeats was steeped, is to be free of karma or samsara and to enjoy the bliss of moksa or nirvâna. Mahâyâna Buddhists declare the non-duality of samsara and nirvana, meaning that if one grasps emptiness as the texture of samsara one has already attained nirvanic awareness. This hardly licenses a celebration of the desire and illusion that keeps the samsaric show going. Yeats seems to be developing his own heterodox version of the Buddhist economy of bondage and release, claiming that release is found not by a drastic ascent to nirvana but by living out our karma to the hilt, following its entanglements to their sources, and developing all the antithetical possibilities of samsaric existence.
12. The unsettled and unsettling nature of the ‘Dialogue’ invites one to probe beneath its surface to see what is really going one. One critic irreverently attempts to explain its deeper logic in Freudian terms, seeing it as a product of the struggle between Eros and Thanatos, described by Freud as follows:
It is as though the life of the organism moved with a vacillating rhythm. One group of instincts rushes forward so as to reach the final aim of life as swiftly as possible; but when a particular stage in the advance has been reached, the other group jerks back to a certain point to make a fresh start and so prolong the journey. (quoted, Ramazani 177-8)
Thus the poem is about the two most profound instinctive reactions which a ‘dying animal’ experiences in face of death. ‘For these rites of self-mourning to move us, we must possess at least an unconscious awareness that death as death - not rebirth into life - is the fundamental occasion of the stanzas, though they triumphantly suppress it’ (Ramazani 179). Self’s embrace of the fecund ditch (in place of the grave), of the blindness of the living man (in place of the ‘occluded dead man’), is a refusal of death masked as acceptance. Self glories in earthly permanence (the sword) and in earthly ecstasy (‘such sweetness’) in answer to Soul’s stress on these values. Soul’s nostalgia and Self’s are in deep collusion: both are strategies for denying death. The poem, then, is an enactment of denial - denial of guilt and denial of death - and as a result it is one of the most divided and uneasy performances of the Yeatsian persona. Its manic close is a narcissistic ecstasy sparked off by a wilful dissolution of painful realities, and one may guess that this mood is unstable, prone to tumble over into melancholia. Far from being a magisterial conclusion, it is so exposed and vulnerable as to invite the attentions of the psychoanalyst, who would see this denial of death as a piece of bravado unconsciously aware of its own impossibility.
In a poem such as ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, in contrast, the poet faces his anxieties without mystification, and as a result the poem opens out to the world and to its readers in a resonant way, whereas ‘A Dialogue’ seems hermetically closed in on itself. The persona of ‘Meditations’ is fully caught in time - both a historical ‘time of civil war’ and a personal time of internal civil war, of doubting middle age -, whereas both Self and Soul in ‘A Dialogue’ vault beyond the limits of existence to fight their battle in speculative transtemporal regions. His voice has a humane authority throughout, and we are never tempted to psychoanalyze him, or to ask suspiciously ‘what’s he trying to prove?’ The vein of troubled reflection engages us, while we are repelled by the forced declarations of esoteric faith in the later poem. In the closing vision - ‘I see Phantoms of Hatred and of the Heart’s Fulness and of the Coming Emptiness’ -, there is no sense that the three emblematic scenes are artificially constructed. They are more credible than the apocalypticism of ‘The Second Coming’ or the allusions to cyclic history in ‘Leda and the Swan’, because they emerge out of the preceding meditations and are not tied to a philosophy of history. Thus the Yeatsian persona displays both its humane richness and its oracular power to best effect when it hews close to the tensions and contradictions of lived time and refrains from imposing an abstract pattern on them.
WORKS OF YEATS
The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats: A New Edition. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. Macmillan, 1989.
A = Autobiographies. Macmillan, 1966.
E = Explorations. Macmillan, 1962.
EI = Essays and Introductions. Macmillan, 1961.
M = Mythologies. Macmillan, 1959.
Memoirs, ed. Denis Donoghue. Macmillan, 1988.
Plays = Collected Plays. Macmillan, 1987.
V = A Vision. Macmillan, 1962.
VPL = The Variorum Edition of the Plays of W. B. Yeats. Ed. Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach. Macmillan, 1957.
Armstrong, A.H., trans. Plotinus I-VII. Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical Library), 1966-1988.
Bloom, Harold. Yeats. Oxford University Press, 1970.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: William Butler Yeats. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Bohlmann, Otto. Yeats and Nietzsche. Macmillan, 1982.
Boothby, Richard. Death and Desire: Psychoanalytic Theory in Lacan’s Return to Freud. New York and London: Routledge, 1991.
Connolly, Peter. No Bland Facility: Selected Writings on Literature, Religion and Censorship. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1991.
Cowell, Raymond, ed. Critics on Yeats. London: Allen & Unwin, 1971.
Doherty, Gerald. ‘The World that Shines and Sounds: W.B. Yeats and Daisetz Suzuki’, Irish Renaissance Annual IV, ed., Zack Bowen. University of Delaware Press, 1983, 57-75.
Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. London: Faber, 1949.
Engelberg, Edward. The Vast Design: Patterns in W.B. Yeats’s Aesthetic. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988.
Green, Martin. Yeats’s Blessing on Von H“el. London: Longmans, 1967.
Harris, Daniel A. Yeats: Coole Park and Ballylee. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.
Hillis Miller, J. Poets of Reality. Harvard University Press, 1965.
Hillis Miller, J. The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens. Princeton University Press, 1985.
Keane, Patrick J. Yeats’s Interaction with Tradition. University of Missouri Press, 1987.
Lynch, David. Yeats: The Poetics of the Self. University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Also sprach Zarathustra. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1964.
Oshima, Shotaro, ed. Yeats and Japan. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1965.
Oppel, Frances Nesbitt. Mask and Tragedy: Yeats and Nietzsche 1902-10. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987.
Ramazani, Jahan. Yeats and the Poetry of Death: Elegy, Self-Elegy, and the Sublime. Yale University Press, 1990.
Richard, Jean-Pierre. L’univers imaginaire de Mallarmé. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1961.
Schlacht, Richard. Nietzsche. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983.
Strong, Tracy B. Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1988.
Wilson, F.A.C. Yeats and Tradition. London: Methuen, 1958.
English Literature and Language 30 (1993)