Yeats as an Example

W. H. Auden

One drawback, and not the least, of practicing any art is that it becomes very difficult to enjoy the works of one’s fellow artists, living or dead, simply for their own sakes.

When a poet, for instance, reads a poem written by another, he is apt to be less concerned with what the latter actually accomplished by his poem than with the suggestions it throws out upon how he, the reader, may solve the poetic problems which confront him now. His judgments of poetry, therefore, are rarely purely aesthetic; he will often prefer an inferior poem from which he can learn something at the moment to a better poem from which he can learn nothing. This gap between his evaluations and those of the pure critic is all the wider in the case of his immediate predecessors. All generations overlap, and the young poet naturally looks for and finds the greatest help in the work of those whose poetic problems are similar to his because they have experiences in common. He begins, therefore, with an excessive admiration for one or more of the mature poets of his time. But, as he grows older, he becomes more and more conscious of belonging to a different generation faced with problems that his heroes cannot help him to solve, and his former hero-worship, as in other spheres of life, is all too apt to turn into an equally excessive hostility and contempt. Those of us who, like myself, have learned, as we think, all we can, and that is a good deal, from Yeats, are tempted to be more conscious and more critical of those elements in his poems with which we are not in sympathy than we ought to be.

Our criticisms may sometimes be objectively correct, but the subjective resentment with which we make them is always unjust. Further, as long as we harbor such a resentment, it will be a dangerous hindrance to our own poetic development, for, in poetry as in life, to lead one’s own life means to relive the lives of one’s parents and, through them, of all one’s ancestors; the duty of the present is neither to copy nor to deny the past but to resurrect it.

I shall not attempt, therefore, in this paper, to answer such questions as, “How good a poet is Yeats? Which are his best poems and why”—that is the job of better critics than I and of posterity—but rather to consider him as a predecessor whose importance no one will or can deny, to raise, that is to say, such questions as, “What were the problems which faced Yeats as a poet as compared with ours? How far do they overlap? How far are they different? In so far as they are different, what can we learn from the way in which Yeats dealt with his world, about how to deal with our own?”

Let me begin with the element in his work which seems most foreign to us, his cosmology, his concern with the occult. Here, I think, is a curious fact. In most cases, when a major writer influences a beginner, that influence extends to his matter, to his opinions as well as to his manner—think of Hardy, or Eliot, or D. H. Lawrence; yet, though there is scarcely a lyric written today in which the influence of his style and rhythm is not detectable, one whole side of Yeats, the side summed up in the Vision, has left virtually no trace.

However diverse our fundamental beliefs may be, the reaction of most of us to all that occult is, I fancy, the same: How on earth, we wonder, could a man of Yeats’s gifts take such nonsense seriously? I have a further bewilderment, which may be due to my English upbringing, one of snobbery. How could Yeats, with his great aesthetic appreciation of aristocracy, ancestral houses, ceremonious tradition, take up something so essentially lower-middle class—or should I say Southern Californian—so ineluctably associated with suburban villas and clearly unattractive faces? A. E. Housman’s pessimistic stoicism seems to me nonsense too, but at least it is a kind of nonsense that can be believed by a gentleman—but mediums, spells, the Mysterious Orient—how embarrassing. In fact, of course, it is to Yeats’s credit, and an example to me, that he ignored such considerations, nor, granted that his Weltanschauung was false, can we claim credit for rejecting what we have no temptation to accept, nor deny that the poetry he wrote involving it is very good. What we should consider, then, is firstly, why Celtic mythology in his earlier phases, and occult symbolism in his later, should have attracted Yeats when they fail to attract us; secondly, what are the comparable kinds of beliefs to which we are drawn and why; thirdly, what is the relation between myth, belief, and poetry?

Yeats’s generation grew up in a world where the great conflict was between the Religion of Reason and the Religion of Imagination, objective truth and subjective truth, the Universal and the Individual.

Further, Reason, Science, the general, seemed to be winning and Imagination, Art, and the individual on the defensive. Now in all conflicts it is the side which takes the offensive that defines the issues which their opponents have to defend, so that when scientists said, “Science is knowledge of reality, Art is a fairyland,” the artists were driven to reply, “Very well, but fairies are fun, science is dull.” When the former said, “Art has no relation to life,” the latter retorted, “Thank God.” To the assertion that “every mind can recognize the absolute truths of science, but the values of art are purely relative, an arbitrary affair of individual taste,” came back the counterclaim, “Only the exceptional individual matters.”

Thus, if we find Yeats adopting a cosmology apparently on purely aesthetic grounds, i.e., not because it is true but because it is interesting; or Joyce attempting to convert the whole of existence into words; or even a dialectician like Shaw, after the most brilliant and devastating criticism of the pretensions of scientists, spoiling his case by being a crank and espousing Lamarckism, we must see their reactions, I think, if we are to understand them, in terms of a polemical situation in which they accepted— they probably could do nothing else—the antithesis between reason and imagination which the natural sciences of their time forced upon them, only reversing, with the excessive violence of men defending a narrow place against superior numbers, the value signs on each side.

Our situation is somewhat different. The true natural sciences like physics and chemistry no longer claim to explain the meaning of life (that presumption has passed to the so-called Social Sciences) nor—at least since the Atom Bomb—would any one believe them if they did. The division of which we are aware is not between Reason and Imaginiation but between the good and evil will, not between objectivity and subjectivity but between the integration of thought and feeling and their dissociation, not between the individual and the masses but between the social person and the impersonal state.

Consequently the dangers that beset us are different. We are unlikely to believe something because it would be fun to believe it; but we are very likely to do one of two things, either to say that everything is relative, that there is no absolute truth, or that those who do not hold what we believe to be absolute reject it out of malice.

When two people today engage in an argument, each tends to spend half of his time and energy not in producing evidence to support his point of view but in looking for the hidden motives which are causing his opponent to hold his. If they lose their tempers, instead of saying, “You are a fool,” they say, “You are a wicked man.”

No one now asserts that art ought not to describe immoral persons or acts; but many assert that it must show those on the right side as perfectly moral and those on the wrong as completely immoral. An artist today is less likely than his predecessors to claim that his profession is supremely important but he is much more likely to sacrifice his artistic integrity for economic or political reward.

No private citizen today thinks seriously, “Here is superior me and there are all those other people”; but “Here are we, all in the same boat, and there is It, the Government.” We are not likely to become snobs—the great houses have become state institutions anyway—but we can all too easily become anarchists who, by passively refusing to take any part in political life, or by acting blindly in terms of our own advantage alone, promote the loss of that very individual liberty we would like to keep.

To return from life to poetry: any poet today, even if he deny the importance of dogma to life, can see how useful myths are to poetry—how much, for instance, they helped Yeats to make his private experiences public and his vision of public events personal. He knows, too, that in poetry all dogmas become myths; that the aesthetic value of the poem is the same whether the poet and/or the reader actively believe what it says or not. He is apt then to look around for some myth—any myth, he thinks, will do—to serve the same purpose for himself. What he overlooks is that the only kind of myth which will do for him must have one thing in common with believed dogma, namely, that the relation of the former to the poet, as of the latter to the soul, must be a personal one. The Celtic legends Yeats used were woven into his childhood—he really went to seances, he seriously studied all those absurd books. You cannot use a Weltanschauung like Psychoanalysis or Marxism or Christianity as a poetic myth unless it involves your emotions profoundly, and, if you have not inherited it, your emotions will never become involved unless you take it more seriously than as a mere myth.

Yeats, like us, was faced with the modern problem, i.e., of living in a society in which men are no longer supported by tradition without being aware of it, and in which, therefore, every individual who wishes to bring order and coherence into the stream of sensations, emotions, and ideas entering his consciousness, from without and within, is forced to do deliberately for himself what in previous ages had been done for him by family, custom, church, and state, namely the choice of the principles and presuppositions in terms of which he can make sense of his experience. There are, of course, always authorities in each field, but which expert he is to consult and which he is to believe are matters on which he is obliged to exercise his own free choice. This is very annoying for the artist as it takes up much time which he would greatly prefer to spend on his proper work, where he is a professional and not an amateur.

Because Yeats accepted the fact that we have lost the old nonchalance of the hand, being critics who but half create,

Timid, entangled, empty and abashed
Lacking the countenance of our friends,

accepted it as a working condition and faced its consequences, he is an example to all who come after him. That is one reason why he may be called a major poet. There are others.

The difference between major and minor poetry has nothing to do with the difference between better and worse poetry. Indeed it is frequently the case that a minor poet produces more single poems which seem flawless than a major one, because it is one of the distinguishing marks of a major poet that he continues to develop, that the moment he has learnt how to write one kind of poem, he goes on to attempt something else, new subjects, new ways of treatment or both, an attempt in which he may quite possibly fail. He invariably feels, as Yeats puts it, “the fascination of what’s difficult”; or, in another poem,

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

Further, the major poet not only attempts to solve new problems, but the problems he attacks are central to the tradition, and the lines along which he attacks them, while they are his own, are not idiosyncratic, but produce results which are available to his successors. Much as I admire his work, I consider Hopkins a minor poet, and one of my reasons for thinking so is that his attempt to develop a rhetoric to replace the Tennysonian rhetoric is too eccentric, the proof of which is that he cannot influence later poets in any fruitful way; they can only imitate him. Yeats on the other hand has effected changes which are of use to every poet. His contributions are not, I think, to new subject matter, nor to the ways in which poetic material can be organized—where Eliot for instance has made it possible for English poetry to deal with all the properties of modern city life, and to write poems in which the structure is musical rather than logical. Yeats sticks to the conventional romantic properties and the traditional step-by-step structure of stanzaic verse. His main legacies to us are two. First, he transformed a certain kind of poem, the occasional poem, from being either an official performance of impersonal virtuosity or a trivial vers de société into a serious reflective poem of at once personal and public interest.

A poem such as In Memory of Major Robert Gregory is something new and important in the history of English poetry. It never loses the personal note of a man speaking about his personal friends in a particular setting—in Adonais, for instance, both Shelley and Keats disappear as people—and at the same time the occasion and the characters acquire a symbolic public significance.

Secondly, Yeats released regular stanzaic poetry, whether reflective or lyrical, from iambic monotony; the Elizabethans did this originally for dramatic verse, but not for lyric or elegiac. Thus:

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

Or take this:

Acquaintance; companion;
One dear brilliant woman;
The best endowed, the elect
All by their youth undone,
All, all, by that inhuman
Bitter glory wrecked.

But I have straightened out
Ruin, wreck and wrack;
I toiled long years and at length
Came to so deep a thought
I can summon back
All their wholesome strength.

What images are these
That turn dull-eyed away,
Or shift Time’s filthy load,
Straighten aged knees,
Hesitate or stay?
What heads shake or nod?

In spite of all the rhythmical variations and the half-rhymes which provide freedom for the most natural and lucid speech, the formal base, i.e., the prosodic rhythms of iambic pentameter in the first, and iambic trimeter in the second, and the rhyme patterns which supply coherent dignity and music, these remain audible.

The magazine Vogue is preparing, I believe, to run two series of photographs, one called Contemporary Great, the other Contemporary Influences, a project which is calculated to cause considerable ill-feeling. Does a man feel prouder of what he achieves himself or of the effect he has on the achievements of posterity? Which epitaph upon a poet’s grave would please him more: “I wrote some of the most beautiful poetry of my time” or “I rescued English lyric from the dead hand of Campion and Tom Moore”? I suspect that more poets would prefer the second than their readers would ever guess, particularly when, like Yeats, they are comfortably aware that the first is also true.

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