Friday, 12 April 2013

Three Presences

On April 2nd, 1916, one of Yeats’s plays for dancers, At the Hawk’s Well, received its first performance in Lady Emerald Cunard’s drawing room in Cavendish Square, London before an invited audience. Michio Ito danced the guardian of the well. The guests included Ezra Pound and TS Eliot. For all I know, this may have been the only afternoon on which Yeats, Eliot, and Pound were together in the same room. Many years later, Samuel Beckett wrote a play, like At the Hawk’s Well, about waiting; waiting for someone who is supposed to arrive but doesn’t, a variant of waiting for a transforming flow of water which is never received because the guardian of the well distracts those who are longing for it. In Happy Days, Winnie utters the first line of At the Hawk’s Well, “I call to the eye of the mind”, one of many literary allusions that she recalls – or rather, that Beckett recalls on her behalf. I draw a loose connection between these occasions to suggest a literary context for the relations I propose to describe: Yeats and Eliot, Yeats and Pound.

We know when Eliot converted to the Anglican Communion – he made his formal profession on June 9th, 1927 – but we don’t know precisely when he converted to Yeats: that took much longer. The first time he wrote about Yeats was in the Athenaeum, the issue for July 4th, 1919, a memorably severe review of The Cutting of an Agate. Eliot apparently found Yeats’s entire sensibility weird. As much in his prose as in his verse, he said, Yeats “is not ‘of this world’ – this world, of course, being our visible planet with whatever our theology or myth may conceive as below or above it”. Eliot assumes that he is central, and by comparison Yeats is exotically peripheral. The difference between Yeats’s world and ours, Eliot continues in consternation, “is so complete as to seem almost a physiological variety, different nerves and senses”. It was not – or not merely – a matter of Yeats’s interest in ghosts, mediums, leprechauns, and sprites. “When an Englishman explores the mysteries of the Cabala,” Eliot writes, “one knows one’s opinion of him, but Mr. Yeats on any subject is a cause of bewilderment and distress”:
The sprites are not unacceptable; but Mr. Yeats’s daily world, the world which admits these monsters without astonishment, which views them more familiarly than Commercial Road views a Lascar – this is the unknown and unknowable. Mr. Yeats’s mind is a mind in some way independent of experience; and anything that occurs in that mind is of equal importance. It is a mind in which perception of fact, and feeling and thinking are all a little different from ours.
Eliot does not define whom he has in mind by “ours”, or justify bringing forth their values as a decisive criterion. He does not explain how “experience” can be appealed to as a system supposedly held in common. He claims that Yeats’s sensibility cannot be assessed by any available standard:
In Mr. Yeats’s verse, in particular, the qualities can by no means be defined as mere attenuations and faintnesses. When it is compared with the work of any English bard of apparently equivalent thinness, the result is that the English work in question is thin; you can point to something that it ought to be and is not; but of Yeats you cannot say finally that he lacks feeling. He does not pretend to more feeling than he has, perhaps he has a great deal; it is not feeling that standards can measure as passionate or insipid.
Eliot’s problem with Yeats is that he cannot see either his thought or his feeling as having issued from any common source:
He seems, in his disembodied way, to happen on thoughts, thoughts of ‘wisdom,’ and if we are not convinced, it is because we do not see by what right he comes by them.
Perhaps, Eliot allows, Yeats got these wise thoughts from his dreaming; but, even if this is so, “Mr. Yeats’s dream is identical with Mr. Yeats’s reality”, a qualification or continuation of himself.

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