W.B. Yeats’ Collected Poems

collected-poems-of-w-b-yeatsFew 20th century writers are as secure in their stature as William Butler Yeats, but his reputation has tended to rest on the sum total of his work; unlike Joyce or Eliot or Proust, Yeats has no single work to serve as his magnum opus, as the definitive statement of his artistic genius. Consequently, a reader can get a very good sense of Eliot as a poet by reading him only piecemeal, but Yeats benefits a great deal from a more thorough investigation. In this view, it is no accident that “Sailing To Byzantium” and “The Second Coming” are his most widely anthologized and regularly quoted poems, for both function well in the abstract, divorced from their poetic context. By contrast, much of Yeats’ verse is occasional, prompted by the death of a friend or a personal relationship, or else a reworking of an Irish legend or myth, and these do not lend themselves as easily to public readings or anthologies.

Yeats played a central role in the “Celtic Twilight,” the revival of Irish national literature begun in the late 19th century and continued well into the 20th, and Ireland – its landscape, its history, its heroes – figures heavily in Yeats’ verse. Here, for example, is “The Lake Isle Of Innisfree,” a hymn to his homeland’s natural beauty:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

A Google search can return photos of the real Isle of Innisfree, where Yeats summered as a child, but these are hardly as vivid as the picture he has painted, or as loud: birds, bees and linnet wings, crickets and the lapping waves all create a symphony in Yeats’ poem that does more to evoke his island than physical description alone ever could. The poem is also a testament to an enduring theme within Yeats’ work: the attractions of contemplation over action. It was conceived, according to the attached notes, out of his childhood dream of imitating Thoreau and turning his back on the loud world, and it is no accident that, in spite of the vivid description, he is conjuring Innisfree entirely from memory, from “the deep heart’s core” where the scenes of his Irish childhood reside.

“The Lake Isle Of Innisfree” dates to 1888, an early example of his poetic powers, but his later verse is markedly different in tone and in approach, more vernacular and less strict in its rhythms – an influence from his modernist peers, no doubt. One of my favorite of these later poems is “Among School Children,” inspired by a visit to a British day school:

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way – the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy –
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age –
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage –
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.

Her present image floats into the mind –
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once – enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

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?

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts – O Presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolize –
O elf-born mockers of man’s enterprise.

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The poem is long, and densely allusive, but this should not intimidate you, provided you can follow his train of thought. We begin in the school, with that marvelous opening line: “I walk through the long schoolroom questioning.” The schoolroom is both a room in a school and a metaphor for life, one long schoolroom, and it is doubly fitting, therefore, that the answers to his questions come from a nun and not merely a teacher, for the nun is an avatar for religion, that ancient provider of answers. The final image of the first stanza is one of contrasts: the youthful students as compared to the sixty-year-old Yeats, as well as the implied contrast between his smiling “public” self and whatever his inner feelings might be.

The second stanza requires some parsing. We have left the schoolroom (“I dream” is the giveaway) and entered the realm of memory, where a Ledean body (“Ledean” comes from Greek mythology: Leda was raped by Zeus, in the form of a swan, begetting Helen of Troy – both Leda and Helen, then, might be said to have “Ledean” bodies) shares a personal anecdote that once united them in Yeats’ eyes. The combination of the youthful children and this reminiscence of a youthful love (biographers assume the “Ledean body” in question belonged to Maud Gonne, a lifelong love interest of Yeats’ to whom he proposed on three separate occasions) prompt a meditation on old age, as Yeats presents himself to the children as a “comfortable kind of old scarecrow” (in “Sailing To Byzantium,” he famously wrote: “An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick” – there is some metaphorical continuity here). In the fifth stanza, he asks if a mother, could she look upon her sixty year old progeny, would find that being adequate compensation for the pains of childbirth and childrearing?

The sixth stanza extends this meditation, invoking Plato’s allegory of the cave and other famous philosophers and mathematicians, all of whom endeavoured, in their way, to find meaning in the world. The final lines of this stanza deserve repeating, and should be savoured: “World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras / Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings / What a star sang and careless Muses heard: / Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.” The mathematician, the astronomer and the poet may all approach the question of time and meaning differently, but in the final calculation, they are no more than “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.” Yeats once again returns to imagery of the scarecrow. There is an implied contrast in this stanza as well, between the philosopher and the philosophy, the mathematician and the theorem, the poet and the poem, but for the time being Yeats can see no way to reconcile them, no way to overcome the destructive power of impending death.

His pessimism continues in the next stanza: mothers and nuns worship mere images, images destined to disappoint: “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise.” The reconciliation is reserved for the final stanza, in a labour that does not leave the body “bruised to pleasure soul,” but somehow reconciles the two. The final four lines are, in my judgment, among the most beautiful in all of poetry:

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Here, Yeats finds a unity that reconciles him to old age and even death. As the chestnut tree cannot be defined by any one of its parts, but only by the whole, so too must a life encompass youth and old age, birth and death. And this unity extends to the artist as well, for as the dancer and the dance become, to some degree, intertwined and indistinguishable, surely so must the poem and the poet?

The Collected Poems is one giant testament to the power of poetry, and Yeats soars above any praise I can give him.