Denis Donoghue: Why WB Yeats matters

Many years ago I gave a lecture at Queen’s University Belfast on a theme I have long since forgotten. After the lecture Prof Singh of the Italian department came up to say hello and to invite me, if I were so inclined, to listen to a tape recording of a recent lecture given at Queen’s by the literary critic FR Leavis. The subject was William Butler Yeats.
I was indeed so inclined, especially as Dr Leavis had turned down my request that he write an essay for An Honoured Guest, a collection of new essays on Yeats that JR Mulryne and I were compiling. Leavis’s assessment of Yeats was hard to find – he did not write on him as often as on TS Eliot – so his lecture would be a pointed occasion. The following morning, before catching the train to Dublin, I listened to it in silence with Prof Singh.
Leavis began by asserting that although Yeats was obviously a major figure, it was difficult to point to a single poem in which his genius was manifest. Without more ado, Leavis chose to comment on three poems: Sailing to ByzantiumByzantium and Among School Children, in that order.
The poems of Byzantium did not in the end survive his most concentrated attention. Leavis dismissed them, although with blessings on their heads: they were too dependent on Yeats’s private scheme of reference. When he turned to Among School Children, I felt that nothing less than western civilisation was in question. If the poem survived Leavis’s scrutiny, than civilisation would have a chance: if not, not.
Leavis’s commentary was far-reaching, a quest of significances for which the local detail of Yeats’s language in the poem was resorted to for evidence. I still recall the tension and the excitement I felt as Leavis’s phrases leaned one way or another in the commentary: they seemed to hold themselves in reserve, endlessly postponing the verdict.
To my nearly exhausted relief, Among School Children passed with honours; it survived Leavis’s concerned analysis; it was a fully achieved thing. Not only did the poem withstand any degree of critical pressure as a poem, but it also testified to cultural possibilities that might be invoked in its name.
I was immensely gratified and took the train to Dublin withAmong School Children and Leavis’s commentary almost equally in my head. In the meantime, and perhaps because of Leavis’s praise, Among School Children is accepted, so far as my reading goes, as Yeats’s finest poem. The two Byzantine poems are argued over, sometimes given a splendid pass, sometimes not.
I hope that my recollection of Leavis’s recorded lecture is accurate, but it may not be. Many years later I find that, in hisLectures in America (1969), he declares both of the poems of Byzantium to be “triumphs of a wholly original art of creative expression that is contemporary with Eliot’s”. Speaking of The Tower, Leavis said that “the volume containing Sailing to Byzantium and Among School Children impressed one – and impresses – as coming from a major poet”.
This points to another instance of unanimity. It is universally agreed that Yeats became a great poet, not merely a post-Victorian lyricist, with the publication of Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), The Tower (1928), and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933).
In these books he achieved a poetry of which even Leavis, a critic not disposed to admire it, wrote: “There is no element of a man’s experience in the twentieth century that, of its nature, it excludes.”
Anyone is free to admire some earlier and some later poems, as TS Eliot admired Who Goes with Fergus?The Folly of Being ComfortedAdam’s Curse and Pardon, Old Fathers. Conor Cruise O’Brien spoke well of the very late Cuchulain Comforted, and nearly everyone likes The Circus Animals’ Desertion.
Still, the crucial poems are still thought to be those of the three central books. I would cast a vote for The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), if only because it contains In Memory of Major Robert GregoryA Deep-Sworn Vow and Upon a Dying Lady. But to make a case for that book is another day’s work.
Michael Robartes and the DancerThe Tower and The Winding Stair and Other Poems are the books in which Yeats solved, or came closer than any other modern poet in English to solving, the problem that defeated so many of his contemporaries: how to reconcile the claims of common speech, morally responsible, with the insisted-on autonomy of the poem, a reconciliation of image and discourse, meaning and form, a claim to unity inherent in the symbolism that modern English poetry inherited from French.
The poem, whatever its materials, must be one, complete, independent, as articulate as a piece of music, a painting or a dance by Balanchine, which it resembles in everything but the fatedness of speech.
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