Tag Archives: Yeats

W.H. Auden – Poems (1929-1948)

“It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens” (October 1929)

Nice analog to the image of Spring as it appears in Eliot (“April is the cruelest month…”). Here Easter is associated with a time of creation, finding altering lines for altering things…the tautological nature of verse is a theme that will run throughout Auden’s poetry (“Poetry makes nothing happen…”). He sees a man like the embryo of a chicken (cf. startling image in Prufrock that disrupts love song, here the elegy is interrupted by the presence of that which is to be mourned). This reminds him of the death that is necessary for this season. A weird line, but one that calls the bluff of war propaganda (connect with Wilfred Owen). The images of decline focus on Oxford (cf. Waugh and all the stuff on I.A. Richards, Quiller-Couch, Empson, etc.). Auden ratchets up the stasis of something like the Wasteland opening, with compressed, abstract gerunds:

Coming out of me living is always thinking,
Thinking changing and changing living,
And feeling as it was seeing.

This a doubled-edged move, as it equalizes the processes of living, thinking, changing, etc. How is anything new produced in this plane of equality? Auden begins to intimate a negative, regulative function for poetry (a poetry of resistance and durability). “Home, a place Where no tax is levied for being there.” His idealized utopia can only be articulated by way of comparison (connect to Auden’s exile, and also to Eliot’s Unreal). Auden’s poetics could be described: “It is time for the destruction of error.” His poetry wants to communicate, clearly. And such destruction includes “the death of the old gang,” which becomes a part of a seasonal metabolic process (imaged as grain…connect to the fields of wheat in “I walked out one evening”).

“As I walked out one evening” (November 1937)

A love poem. Told in ballad style: abcb. The “I” hears another “I” proclaim a love song under an arch of the railway. Already, that the folks on Bristol street are “fields of wheat” intimate that TIME’s scythe  will be making an appearance.  The clocks in the city say: “You cannot conquer time….Time watches from the shadow and coughs when you would kiss.” For Auden, this isn’t just the individual human aging, but the grand forces of time penetrating the everyday: “The glacier knocks in the cupboard.” Despite these realities the poem introduces a great theme of Auden’s: a commitment to the everyday despite its misery: “Life remains a blessing Although you cannot bless….You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”

“Musée des Beaux Arts” (December 1938)

Auden is looking at the Icarus painting by Breughel and thinking about how great human suffering is just one small part of a larger world of daily activity. Most often, people don’t recognize the great tragedies [Connect with Lukács].

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window
or just walking dully along.

Note the long prosaic line, characteristic of Auden’s expository predilections (at times). He writes in all sorts of styles, not because he wants to idealize a past, or transmit the impulse of the past (Pound); rather, all these styles are simply tools available for the master craftsman (like Pound in this way). The diminution of the tragic can be read as a critique of Yeats. “Terrible beauty” and the slouching “rough beast” get transformed into a “miraculous birth” that no one registers, and others would prefer not to happen. A horse scratches its butt on a tree [think of this poem as a combination of Easter 1916 and Crazy Jane put together (house of excrement, etc.)]. The legs of Icarus are imaged as “white legs” in “green water,” a sort of generic abstraction of colors devoid of meaning, a flat, uncreative phenomenology.

“In Memory of W.B. Yeats” (January 1939)

Against the pathetic fallacy (cf. Browning on “Porphyria’s Lover” ?? and Ruskin, of course). In short, Yeats dies and it we know it was a cold day, not because of poetry or other forms of representation, but because of instruments like barometers and thermometers that can measure tese objectie conditions. [Interesting to talk about in term sof the scientific metaphors of Eliot, Woolf, etc.]

O all the instruments agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Auden imagines Yeats as his words become digested by his admirers (modified in the guts of the living)…in connection to Pound’s worries over Gaudier-Brezka’s relation to posterity. Yeats, in short, has nto changed much with his poetry; he hasn’t solved the epistemological problems staged in the wasteland [And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom]. The second section slides into pretty strict hexameter, a dramatic shift from the prosodic lines of the opening stanzas. Auden does say that poetry makes nothing happen, but, instead, “it survives In the valley of its saying where executives Would never want to tamper….it survives, A way of happening, a mouth.”  Poetry as RESISTANCE. Talk about in terms of Schiller and Bergson and Arendt.


“In Praise of  Limestone” (1948)

Good example of Auden’s syllabic structuring: 13 syllables, with varying accentual patterns. Lots of enjambment, little rhyme, making this poem very expository. Can be read as a pastoral of sorts, but one that does not place a golden landscape in a receding, hazy past: “examine this region of short distances and definite places.” He is talking about the Mediterranean, the limestone is built up over time, organically, and dissolves quickly because of the calcium deposits. This transience, fluidity, carelessness is contrasted to the Northern cities of England and Germany, associated with destruction and violence:

…accustomed to a stone that responds,
They have never had to veil their faces in awe
Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed.

The theme of sculpture is also played throughout, with reference to Greek sculptures, that somehow mock the poet that confines himself to the “antimythological” tautologies of Auden’s earlier poems, which is associated here with scientist dissecting Nature’s remotest aspects (a Romantic turn?). The religious turn in the end seeks to sublimate God within a realistic vision–sorta like Kafka’s “there is hope, but not for us.” The murmuring of the underground streams picks up the murmuring river at the end of “I walked out on evening.” displacing even more the “stream” of creativity that somehow remains constant (but inaccessible).


Yeats – General Comments and Themes

Ongoing Post


Standard narrative: early period characterized as Irish national visionary, writing himself into a mythic past, writing Ballads, etc. Dressed as an old Irish king whose harp is broken..wandering in the woods, etc. This lure of the aesthetic withdraw, dangerous but irresistible, is rejected because of Yeats’ growing sensibility of the political exigencies of his day. He starts to write in a leaner, colder, more pessimistic style: the “heroic realist.” [But a comparison of Aengus and Fisherman shows something closer to a mere exchange of symbols: one for another. The Fisherman does not exist] Late Yeats is characterized by growing doubts about the efficacy of art and the worries that come with old age. There is a return to Irishness, but in the form of a senile peasant.

Relation to Modernism. Can be seen as a reactionary of sorts. “A Coat” can be seen as both a rejection of his former baroque style, but also of the public that failed to appreciate it. His new style will have a “nakedness” and a “coldness” that is still elite and symbolic. The “terrible beauty” of “Easter 1916” is, well, both terrifying and beautiful. Like the isolated Fergus, Aengus and Fisherman, Yeats imagines his own withdraw from and responsibility to a public that is “changed utterly.” He does not change, but his relationship to them does. The final stanza of Easter 1916 positions the poet as mother that has a duty to the particularity of historical violence. However, this is an aestheticization of violence.

The Occult in Yeats: Wandering Aengus and The Second Coming.


Can track certain images:

– Easter 1916 (makes the heart a stone)
– Circus Animals Desertion (faul rag and bone shop of the heart)

– Wandering Aengus (trout turns into beautiful girl that flees)
– The Fisherman (glorified Irish peasantry)
– Sailing to Byzantium (species and cycles of birth and death: the slamon falls, the mackerel crowded seas)
– Circus Animal Desertion (a wholesale subversion of animal tropes)

Birds (and the abruption of the divine into human history)
– Wild Swans at Coole
-Leda and the Swan
– Second Coming

Helen (Maud Gonne)
– No Second Troy
– September 1913
– Among School Children

– Wandering Aengus
– The Fisherman

Yeats – The Circus Animals’ Desertion (1939)

This is one of the most depressing titles in poetry, and most of the poem is similarly so. It is a late poem (literally the last poem in Last Poems). In it Yeats paints a sobering portrait of an aging artist (the ring leader and Yeats himself) profoundly disenchanted with his trade. The central problem revolves around his inability to forge a work of art (the performance or, for Yeats, a poem) out of the characters and tropes at his disposal: circus animals, stilted boys, burnished chariots, “lion and woman and Lord knows what…” Yeats was always anxious about his poetic symbolism–look at the short poem “The Coat” to see how he renounces “old mythologies” and decides that “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” I think it’s crucial while reading this poem to imagine Yeats himself looking back at his own oeuvre, questioning the deployment of his own constellation of characters and tropes. Read in this way, the poem is thoroughly post-modern, a poem about writing poems.

I was most impressed by the closing strophe of this poem, but I’m posting the whole thing–it’s not too long, and it’s necessary if one is going to fully appreciate the stunning finale.

The Circus Animals’ Desertion


I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.


What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
‘The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.


Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

I only recently discovered that Yeats wrote that last line, even though it’s quite famous. I became acquainted with it while working at Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, where it is inscribed above one of the door frames. I think Allen Ginsberg called S&Co. “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” A great image. Anyway, back to the poem…

In the first section, the ringmaster, “being but a broken man,” is struggling between sticking to his trade (seeking a theme) or being “satisfied with [his] heart.” The second section opens with a depressing revelation: “What can I but enumerate old things.” I don’t believe this means that he has run dry of creativity; rather, much more darkly, he is wondering whether he has ever produced anything truly original. After recalling the themes which have defined his career (by the way, these stanzas make direct references to Yeats’s early work), a kernel of self-knowledge comes in the third stanza of the second section:

It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.

The ringmaster is questioning the validity of the abstract ideals he has represented with the “players and painted stage.” Having become enchanted by “the dream,” his art became disconnected with reality to the degree that its relevance and potency waned. It had become hollow, a play of masks symbolizing nothing. That said, there is beauty in the representation:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?

A bit of back-patting on the part of Yeats (calling his poetry “masterful”) before asking a question that has been asked many, many times by many, many poets. Where does poetry come from? Or, What is the source of inspiration? For Yeats, who has just described the emptiness of a poetic system committed to the abstract and ethereal, the answer is thoroughly anti-Romantic. No fountains of knowledge, no vague notions of genius, no imagination “bodying forth.” What is the origin of poetry?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till.

Where are the sweeping vistas of the Lake District? Where are the existential crises of Hamlet? Where are the gods? Where is the Muse? Where are the fatefully beautiful women? Where are the warriors? Where is the impossible love? Where is the innocent child? Without them, what is the poet to do?

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

I suppose this final retreat into the self is somewhat Romantic–but Yeats’s portrait of the artist’s interior is not at all. Deprived of access to the ethereal realms (the ladder is gone), he must finally be “satisfied with [his] heart”–here described as a foul rag and bone shop.

I like to think of this as a response to a goal Yeats set for himself earlier in his career in “The Fisherman.” Speaking of the eponymous character, he cries,

‘Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.’

Yeats – Under Ben Bulben (1938)

One of Yeats’ last poems, it confronts his death directly by infamously describing his resting place using his own name. Though that happens in the final stanza, one can imagine beyond-death as the perspective adopted by Yeats in the poem as a whole. Aging has always been an issue for Yeats, and here we see an almost anxious rush to get to that place from which full meaning can be finally articulated. The first stanza therefore opens with an invocation of Sages, Witches, “immortality,” who gather at Ben Bulben: “Here’s the gist of what they mean.” The frankness with which Yeats invokes the reading of the symbol (as he had in Lapis Lazuli when looking a the sculpture of the men and the bird) indicates a “completeness” that has been won in time. In the second stanza, the complete cycle of life is drawn:

Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.

The return to national myth is striking after it’s been absent since about 1910. The aesthetic return therefore mirrors the cycles of mankind itself. But this isn;t so much reincarnation as the production of memory by way “monuments of unageing intellect”: “They but thrust their buried men . Back in the human mind again. Poetry, which very similar to the process of burial and memorial, is that which accomplishes “the profane perfection of mankind.” In the fifth stanza, Yeats excoriates the poetry of the day–“All out of shape from toe to top”–the image connects with Yeats’ earlier “Coat” which reached from toe to throat. Perhaps this worry over form is the reason much of this poem (barring the beginning and end) is heroic couplets. We see a repositioning, a reversion, to older concept of “heroism that excises Crazy Jane from the process of development. The final stanze sees Yeats dead. There are no rhymes until the reading of the gravestone, written by Yeats: which rhymes ABA, a perfect circle, or triad that manges to convey the sort of resignation to cycles (gyres) that yeats poems have been leading to.

Yeats – Lapis Lazuli (1938)

From New Poems (1938), this poem’s title refers to a blue rock that serves as the medium of a sculpture given to him by Harry Clifton (to whom the poem is dedicated). Opens with an indictment of detached artists by “hysterical women,” who claims that l’art pour l’art has no place within the context of the impending second world war. Yeats calls for a poetry that engages catastrophe, but refrains from adopting the tragic as its final note. The poem will come around to a “tragic joy” that is achieved in and through the human capacity to create.

The long second stanza talks about Shakespearean tragedy, and introduces “gay” as a crucial word: Gaiety transfiguring all that dread. This gaiety is Nietzschean in its ability to affirm. The poem engages in this affirmation through a rewriting of “The Second Coming”:

All things fall and built again
And those that build them again are gay.

This locates a certain joy amidst the process of historical, political and aesthetic tragedy. The final stanzas describe the Lapis Lazuli sculpture in detail. The importing of an Eastern sculpture directly rewrites Keats “Grecian Urn,” thereby offsetting the Western “solution” of the static truth-beauty onto an Eastern paradigm of Eternal Recurrence. In the temple, where Yeats imagines the “Chinamen” going, they engage in a song of worship, suitably rustic:

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

The repetition of eyes is curious in the context of modernism’s exaltation of vision as the medium of aesthetic judgment (cf. Conrad, Ford, etc.). Also, the statue which started the revelry ends by producing a song, thus securing for lyric a privileged status. Lastly, ancient and glittering recall Yeats early work: the fish in Wandering Aengus is glittering, and everything is ancient. Here we have a return, a resignation, a joy, one that has been hard won.

Yeats – Crazy Jane poems (1933)

As a whole, these poems, which appeared in Words for Music Perhaps, continue the theme of Dialogue between self and soul, but locate the resolution of that poem in the figure of Jane, whose insanity becomes coextensive with a sort of natural, pre-reflective knowledge, won by long experience. The idea of “the hero” get here re-written for the last time: from the early magic, to the political martyr, to the metaphysical traveler, and now to the folk woman who will not separate body and soul. Formally, Yeats has progressed from the lyric, to the ode, and now to the ballad. Read Jane as mask for Yeats, in which a certain unity of self and soul is achieved in the form of folk peasant–in tradition of Shakespeare’s fool.

“Crazy Jane and the Bishop” – Sets out the primary tensions between Jane and the Bishop, the latter associated with cant and prohibition: “Yet he, an old book in his fist, / Cried that we lived like beast and beast.” The refrains act as a sort of tragic chorus, offering at times consolation, and at other times ironic sympathy.

“Crazy Jane on the Day of Judgment” – Ambiguous whether it is Jane or the Bishop doing the judging. Contrasts Jane (hero) with Jack (common man). Opening stanza is important:

‘Love is all
That cannot take the whole
Body and Soul’;
And that is what Jane said.

Read this in dialogue with “Dialogue of Self and Soul.”

“Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” – Tells of an event when Jane and the Bishop are much older. That they are talking rather than connected with a mere “and,” as in the first Jane poem, points to the agency that Jane has taken on. She claims that “Fair and foul are near of kin, / And fair needs fowl,” which is moving to a final stanza that will rewrite Keats “Ode to Melancholy” (even in the very Temple of delight veiled melancholy hath her sovereign shrine) in terms of Love and excrement:

A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.

Can relate this Stephen Dedalus’s refrain: “no reconciliation without s sundering,” but also to the project of mimesis more generally (cracked looking-glass, etc.) .Pairing “sole” and “whole” together is counterintuitive, but begins to point to the assumptions behind modernist commitments to autonomy, etc.

“Crazy Jane Gown Old Looks at the Dancers” – Connect with “Among School Children” line: cannot tell the dancer from the dance. Crucially, Jane is not dancing, but remembers a times when “I had limbs to try / Such a dance as there was danced.” The danger of such a dance–“Love is like a lion’s tooth”–is palpable in the opening lines: As though to strangle her, not scream,” etc. This danse macabre achieves an incredible intersubjectivity conditioned on incredible violence. The rhyme scheme (ABACACB) is most formall tight of all the Jane poems (it is also the last) marking out a curious formal trajectory/progress that the idea of the ballad seems to work against. Such is th perspective of the aged.


Yeats – A Dialogue of Self and Soul (1933)

From The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933). Told in eight-line stanzas composed of two In Memoriam stanzas. The first five stanzas are are actually a dialogue between the soul and the self. Begins with the soul summoning the self to ascend the tower of eternity, with a response from the Self that recalls “A Coat”, where Yeats describes his Song as an embroidery of old mythologies: he imagines himself “The wooden scabbard bound and wound, / Can tattered, still protect, faded adorn.” This conversation goes on until part two, in which the self emerges as the soul speaker (successfully sublimation?) for four incredible stanzas, in which he reflects on the process of aging and comes to turns with “the defiling and disfigured  shape” of human experience: “I am content to live it all again.”