Exploring an inner landscape: William Butler Yeats

''We sat together at one summer's end,'' writes William Butler Yeats in a poem from 1902, ''and talked of poetry.''

I said: ''A line will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.''

With these words, Yeats articulated a central principle of his craftsmanship: the requirement that hard work be made to look easy. The lines themselves exemplify his theme, couching an exact statement in a casual, conversational tone.

He was the sort of poet who would spend eight hours working over two lines. Excessive, we might say. But we look back at his age through lenses ground on the wheels of free verse, discontinuous logic, and concrete poetry. We demand something we call ''freshness'' in poetry, an immediacy that sets down first impressions in a gush of vatic inspiration. Rhythm and rhyme? In our age, they smell of the lamp.

Yet it is worth returning to Yeats - to the calmly structured rhythms and apparently effortless rhymes. It is worth asking how his commitment to artistry, seasoned in Ireland's turbulent turn-of-the-century politics, finally produced one of the mightiest writers the world has known.

He did not, I think, set out to be mighty. He began, as a professor of mine once quipped, as ''a young man with nothing to say and a great desire to say it.'' He described himself as one of the ''last Romantics,'' and his early themes, embodying a fashionable Weltschmerz and a preference for nature over society, gave ample room for the brooding grays of his native land. Yet look again at his best-known early poem, ''The Lake Isle of Innisfree'' (1890), reprinted here. Its theme - the bucolic escape from city life - is a piece of sentiment as old as Edmund Spenser, yet as current as next month's issue of Yankee magazine. Nor does it build any real tensions. Nature, here, is wholly good, without a single blemish to qualify its appeal to the man living amid the ''pavements grey.''

Instead, the strength of the poem lies in its craftsmanship, in the very ''stitching and unstitching'' that lace word to word. Listen, for example, to the sounds in the line ''Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee.'' Notice how the first two syllables (''Nine bean'') are echoed in the last two (''-neybee''). Notice how ''have there'' shifts ever so slightly to become ''hive for,'' finally to lend its h sound to ''honeybee.'' And notice how the whole line shades gently into the repeated l sounds of the next line. Couple this kind of attention to aural detail with his use of the rhythms of speech - especially the word ''now'' in the first and ninth lines, picked up from Irish speech more as an interjectory marker than as a word meaning ''at this time'' - and you have the ingredients for reading aloud.

This, then, was Yeats' beginning: a great love of words, and a slow, meandering apprenticeship on the river of language. He had, indeed, a great desire to say it. But where was he to find things to say?

The simple answer: in politics. He found his subject - or it found him - in Ireland's relation to England, in the politics of rebellion, revolution, and eventual independence. To his credit, he was able to turn that wordy talent, seasoned on Romanticism, into a keen instrument of contemporary thought. Out of the fires of the Irish struggle came his tumultuous relations with Maude Gonne, a fiery nationalist who in the end loved her country more than its poet. But she remained his muse, his unrequited love, the Beatrice of this latter-day Dante. Nor, finally, did he blame her. ''Why, what could she have done, being what she is?'' he broods in a poem comparing her to Helen. ''Was there another Troy for her to burn?''

By now, however, it was 1910, and the simplicities of Innisfree had given place to the complexities of a larger life. For even as he lamented, he knew that in some ways Maude's love, entangled with the politics of his ''blind bitter land,'' threatened to engulf him, turn him from his craft, dissipate his energies. It is to that threat that he addresses an astonishing short poem, entitled simply ''Words.''

I had this thought a while ago,

''My darling cannot understand

What I have done, or what would do

In this blind bitter land.''

And I grew weary of the sun

Until my thoughts cleared up again,

Remembering that the best I have done

Was done to make it plain;

That every year I have cried, ''At length

My darling understands it all,

Because I have come into my strength,

And words obey my call'';

That had she done so who can say

What would have shaken from the sieve?I might have thrown poor words away

And been content to live.

In the end, she did not: she married Major John MacBride instead. Nor did Yeats throw words away. He took his finely honed tool into the streets, probing the motives of his countrymen and the turmoil of their relation with England in such vibrant poems as ''September 1913'' and ''Easter 1916.'' Now, with a clear if not quite dispassionate eye, he saw the complexities of the situation, saw that if England was at times faithless and oppressive, so his own countrymen were not so much statesmen and patriots as players in what he called ''a casual comedy.'' ''The best,'' he wrote in his now-famous lines from ''The Second Coming,''

lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.

Yet best or worst, they were the leaders of Ireland's future. He studied them. He listened to their speeches. He watched their fervor lapse into demagoguery. And he wrote ''The Leaders of the Crowd'' (reprinted here). It is a poem remarkable in its timelessness, capturing an ethos that bubbles up as easily today, in campus protests or third-world rallies or marches in Northern Ireland, as it did in 1921. Yet it is not a simple poem. For Yeats himself was becoming, in one sense, a leader of the crowd. Still trying to strike a balance between the active and contemplative life, he was to become a member of the Irish Senate in 1922. Here, as he looks at the leaders of the crowd - and even, perhaps, at himself - he comes down in favor of the contemplative. ''Truth,'' he announces, can only flourish ''where the student's lamp has shown.'' And study requires solitude, which, in the midst of the crowd, they do not have.

They do, however, have their view of the student's lamp. It is ''from the tomb.'' Too easily, perhaps, we attribute that last line to the leaders themselves. That is what they would think, surely. All that is missing are the quotation marks, or some clue attributing that thought directly to them. But the grammar refuses to be unambiguous. I like to think Yeats wanted it this way - just as he wanted the imperfect rhyme of ''come'' and ''tomb'' at the end, leaving a slight imbalance. Is the poet himself, and not only the leaders, saying these last six words? Must such solitude necessarily be forgone in the heat of the Irish moment? At such times, does action take precedence over contemplation? Does the lamp reveal only the contents of a dead history, rather than the fervor of real life?

Those were questions with which Yeats would struggle for the rest of his life. As his poetry moved more to mysticism in later years, he found himself under that lamp, studying all sorts of arcane subjects. His interest in supernatural phenomena had been revived in 1917 when, on his honeymoon after marrying George Hyde-Lees, the new Mrs. Yeats began ''automatic writing.'' In 1925 Yeats published A Visionm , a prose work explaining his own private mythology based on the phases of the moon. Much of his later poetry is suffused with imagery from A Visionm .

There was nothing mythical, however, in the fame that settled so solidly upon him, most visibly in the 1923 Nobel Prize for literature. Yet his poems, moving away from the politics of the public world, increasingly take up images drawn from inner mythology and classical antiquity. ''I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity,'' he wrote in A Visionm , ''and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato.'' Why? Because ''in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic, and practical life were one.''

That was a oneness he had long desired, and to it now was added another dimension: the consciousness of his own advancing age. Few poets have tackled that subject more forthrightly. ''That is no country for old men,'' he says, speaking of modern life in his poem ''Sailing to Byzantium.'' His later work pursues that theme, seeking some sort of accomodation between the wisdom of age and the vigor of youth. Longing for a state beyond the merely human, he strove for a wedding of opposites - where, as he suggested in ''Sailing to Byzantium,'' the ''monuments of unaging intellect'' might be held in high regard.

In the everyday world, that was not the case: the artistic temperament was constantly being challenged by an opposing practicality. ''The intellect of man is forced to choose,'' he wrote in the beautifully succinct poem, ''The Choice, ''

Perfection of the life, or of the work,

And if it take the second must refuse

A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark. It was the old dilemma: does one strive for the finest art possible and accept ''an empty purse,'' or does one (perhaps like some of the senators and worldly-wise of his acquaintance) settle for ''the day's vanity, the night's remorse'' - for the appearance of success without deep inner satisfaction?

I think, in the end, he found his way to that unity. It came most clearly in the astonishing late poem, ''Lapis Lazuli,'' in which Yeats meditates upon a small carved stone relief of three Chinese climbing a mountainside. Like him, they are old. Like him, they have achieved a kind of distance on the world and its ''tragic scene.'' Yet their ''ancient, glittering eyes'' - the latter adjective standing in quiet contrast to the word ''glimmering'' in his earlier poems - are filled, not with dread or sadness, but with gaiety. It is Yeats ending as he began: one of the last Romantics, exploring an inner landscape.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.