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Yeats’s fondness for myths and legends is well known and much appreciated. Seamus Heaney addressed this issue in The Atlantic, acknowledging Yeats’s efforts to create a unified cultural identity for Ireland based on stories and myths. From his youth, Yeats was deeply involved in ‘‘creating a vision of Ireland as an independent cultural entity, a state of mind as much as a nation-state, one founded on indigenous myths and attitudes and beliefs,’’ noted Heaney.
Yeats’s Autobiographies, a collection of essays written and published as individual pieces before his death in 1939, deals not only with his interest in traditional Irish rural myths and stories but also with his efforts to understand the spiritual aspects of life. Yeats’s interests in Irish culture and in the supernatural in the first half of Autobiographies complement each other; in fact, Yeats sought a sense of unity from each of these facets of his intellectual life. These two areas informed and fed each other.
As a young man, Yeats was almost obsessed with creating a unified explanation for many things. ‘‘A conviction that the world was now but a bundle of fragments possessed me without ceasing,’’ he admitted as he set out to find singularity in his life. He sought to unify art, the state of Ireland, Irish mythologies, and his own spirituality. He vehemently disagreed with theories of art that proposed ‘‘the independence of arts from one another’’ and thought that all art should be ‘‘a Centaur finding in the popular lore its back and its strong legs.’’ In spirituality he sought explanations for supernatural events involving archetypal and primal symbols and images.
Yeats remembered in Autobiographies that his interest in Irish folk tales began at a very early age, thanks to relatives. The first ‘‘faery-stories’’ he heard were in the cottages near relatives’ houses. He especially enjoyed the numerous colorful stories told by servants. A life filled with tales—many apocryphal and amazing—was the norm for young Yeats, and he could not imagine a life devoid of these. ‘‘All the well-known families had their grotesque or tragic or romantic legends, and I often said to myself how terrible it would be to go away and die where nobody would know my story,’’ Yeats writes.
Yeats experienced his first mystical vision while under the care of his grandparents. ‘‘I have been told, though I do not remember it myself, that I saw . . . a supernatural bird in the corner of the room,’’ he writes. At about the same time in his childhood, Yeats dreamt of the wreck of his grandfather’s ship, describing it before he knew details of the actual event. Yeats remembered the event as a ‘‘romantic legend’’ and noted that his grandfather returned safely from the wreck, riding a blind horse secured for him by the ship’s grateful passengers.
In addition to the numerous Irish nationalist organizations Yeats joined as a young adult to pursue his belief that Ireland could be free and independent from England—but only if she could find a single artistic tradition—he also enrolled in two mystical societies that helped to form his nascent spiritual sense. Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society appealed to Yeats on the basis of its doctrine that some people have a singular or universal wisdom based on special mystical insight. The other important mystical group he joined was MacGregor Mathers’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which focused on the use of images and symbols to produce visions.
Yeats’s statements about both theosophy and the Order of the Golden Dawn mirrored in various ways his statements about the possibility of political unification in Ireland. While pursuing theosophy, he asserted that all people, ‘‘while bound together in a single mind and taste,’’ have always believed that a few hold a singular wisdom and insight. The Golden Dawn sustained his interest through personal experiences, convincing him ‘‘that images well up before the mind’s eye from a deeper source than conscious or subconscious memory.’’ The primal and archetypal memories that a people have can bring them together under the banner of a nation, he asserted. ‘‘[N]ations, races, and individual men are unified by an image, or a bundle of related images’’ that somehow speaks to all people and pushes them toward a single purpose, he believed.
This desire for unity was one of Yeats’s great convictions and drove him to collect rural Irish legends, to push for a united and free Ireland, and to search for spiritual understanding. Yeats did not see any distinction between collecting folktales and collecting stories of supernatural experiences to satisfy his spiritual curiosity; these two kinds of tales were often joined in his mind. For example, Yeats relates the story of being near the site of an ancient destroyed village and seeing lights or fires moving much too quickly to have been torches carried by humans. On another occasion, the lights returned to the site where he was walking and began a sort of blinking communication with one another. After asking many of the older locals about the lights, he decided to believe ‘‘whatever had been believed in all countries and periods, and only reject part of it after much evidence, instead of starting all over afresh and only believing what one could prove.’’ This incident was one of several that prompted Yeats to collect Irish folktales and mythologies and weave them into his literature.
Yeats also joined these two kinds of stories— folktales and stories of supernatural experiences— while working with George Pollexfen, his mother’s brother. The two men shared an interest in both the countryside and the supernatural, and they conducted numerous experiments using symbols and images to provoke visions—an activity Yeats learned as a member of the Golden Dawn. In the midst of this work, Yeats began tracing philosophic ideas back to their origins, certain that there must a ‘‘tradition of belief older than any European church and founded upon the experience of the world before modern bias.’’
In a sense, Yeats was looking for a first image or archetypal symbol that was deep inside everyone, regardless of religion, education, politics, or social status. This search for a single tradition prompted Yeats and his uncle George to study the mystical visions and stories of the rural population. They discovered that the country folks’ reported visions were very similar to the visions they themselves had called up with symbols. Mary Battle, Uncle George’s housekeeper, was essential in this endeavor, as she regularly experienced visions filled with mythological characters that informed Yeats’s writings.
In Yeats’s mind, this first image or symbol could unify Ireland’s population and galvanize it as it sought independence from England, especially if he incorporated it into his writings. In the truest sense, though, he was not looking for one image but for a series of images that could be transformed into a national mythological literature. ‘‘We had in Ireland imaginative stories,’’ he writes, which were well known among the lower and rural classes. Yeats asked himself whether it would be possible to ‘‘make those stories current among the educated classes . . . [and] so deepen the political passion of the nation that all, artist and poet, craftsman and day-labourer would accept a common design.’’ For these purposes, Yeats organized the Irish Literary Society, the National Literary Society, the Irish National Theatre Society, and Abbey Theatre, all originally formed to promote the independence of Ireland from England through the development of an Irish national literature.
Yeats’s ‘‘wildest hopes,’’ though, proved of little immediate benefit to Ireland’s independence, for Irish nationalism fractured and fell in a period of extremism and violence. He was crushed. The literature that was produced in the name of Irish nationalism descended into propaganda, and ‘‘the past had been turned into a melodrama with Ireland for blameless hero and poet,’’ according to Yeats. But Yeats’s interest in unification, in all its aspects, still led him to create what many believe to be the best poetry written to date in the English language.
Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on Autobiographies, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer.
Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6087
Although an access has been opened to Yeats’s autobiography by two astute essays on this work as well as by the many recent studies of this newly discovered genre, at least three critical problems continue to block a full understanding and appreciation of this autobiographical masterpiece. First, it is not clear which edition to prefer, the 1926 Autobiographies or The Autobiography of 1938. Secondly, and most significant, both works seem built on contrary intentions: the memoirist’s desire to define his own place in a fluctuating and discontinuous society and the apologist’s efforts to recreate an integral self—an essential, unique, and continuous self-image. Finally, the conclusions to both works seem to abandon the apologist’s problem and to offer a somewhat artificial solution to the problem of disunity in society.
A careful critical re-reading can establish that Autobiographies is the more unified and controlled work, and that the apparently antithetical intentions— the recreations of both a historical and an integral self—are fulfilled in this edition. And finally, in both editions, the concluding images of unified cultures are less conclusive than they appear, and in their intentional inconclusiveness, they comment as much on Yeats’s self as on his society.
Critics agree that ‘‘Reveries Over Childhood and Youth’’ and ‘‘Trembling of the Veil,’’ which constitute Autobiographies, are superior to the four sections added in the 1938 edition—‘‘Dramatis Personae,’’ ‘‘Estrangement,’’ ‘‘Death of Synge,’’ and ‘‘Bounty of Sweden,’’ although they disagree over how much authority to grant to the more complete 1938 edition. Ian Fletcher, in the most perceptive study yet of the autobiographical writings, decides, somewhat arbitrarily, to consider only the first three parts, although they were never printed separately, and to disregard ‘‘Estrangement,’’ ‘‘Synge,’’ and ‘‘Sweden’’ because they are ‘‘disjunct, aphoristic, the raw material for composed autobiography.’’ On the other hand, Joseph Ronsley in his thorough study, Yeats’s Autobiography, argues for the acceptance of the entire 1938 edition, ‘‘although it seems fragmentary and lacks unity of form,’’ in preference to the 1926 edition which ‘‘actually appeared to be more unified . . .’’ Further on, Ronsley describes ‘‘the pattern evolving out of his [Yeats’s] struggle for unity in both his own life and that of his country’’ as it appears in the 1938 edition: ‘‘The Autobiography begins as if it were the beginning of the world. It closes, in Yeats’s vision of unity of culture as the ultimate stage in the world’s spiritual evolution, as if the apocalypse had at least drawn nearer.’’ Ronsley fails to recognize that this pattern is completed in the first two parts and that only recurrence is added to the pattern and then only by ‘‘Bounty of Sweden.’’ ‘‘Dramatis Personae’’ is both narrow in scope and poorly organized. Its original intention, to eulogize Lady Gregory, is outweighed by the less admirable attempt to redress the errors of Moore’s Hail and Farewell, errors that remain more colorfully and attractively stated than Yeats’s defensive rebuttal. ‘‘Estrangement’’ and ‘‘Death of Synge,’’ written in diary form, abandon the apologetic intention and slacken into aphorism and memoir. And although ‘‘Bounty of Sweden’’ extends the search for a unified culture, it comments only ironically and indirectly on Yeats’s search for a uni- fied self-image, for ‘‘unity of being.’’ Whereas the 1938 edition becomes what H. G. Wells called ‘‘cosmobiography,’’ comments on civilization from a limited perspective, the 1926 edition, which Ronsley admits ‘‘appeared to be more unified,’’ achieves actual unity through a dramatic interweaving of intentions. Therefore I will concentrate in this study on Autobiographies, which is comprised only of ‘‘Reveries’’ and ‘‘Trembling of the Veil.’’
The plot of Autobiographies, which is organized initially by place and later by dramatic con- flicts, reveals the development of Yeats’s identity in four fairly distinct stages: first, the child inherits an identity from his West Ireland ancestors; secondly, he loses direct possession of this inherited identity as a consequence of his father’s uprooting of the family, and he achieves a negative identity by reacting to his father and then to the modern forces ultimately responsible for his father’s and his deracination; and, thirdly, he defines himself in terms of six groups in Dublin and London. The fourth phase, in which Yeats separates himself from each group and develops a unique self-image, is only suggested in the direct narration of the events of Yeats’s life. Yeats’s integral self actually emerges in a pattern of repeated actions; the pattern is developed through certain static effects, through the autobiographical point of view, and through a concatenation of mythological images.
Before considering Yeats’s integral self as it appears in this pattern, we should discuss in more detail the plot of his apparent growth. The initial stage of Yeats’s self-development is set in Sligo and the west of Ireland prior to his tenth year. Although his early years were actually almost as vagrant as his later, in Autobiographies the hero is deep-rooted, drawing sustenance for his later life from family and folk. His principal concerns, here, are to separate all his people—the Butlers, his most ancient forebears, and the Yeatses, Middletons, and Pollexfens—from the paudeens and hucksters he found so inimical to modern Ireland, and to establish his grandfather, William Pollexfen, as the standard of heroism for all of Autobiographies. After recounting some of his grandfather’s fabulous exploits, Yeats says, ‘‘Even today when I read King Lear his image is always before me and I often wonder if the delight in passionate men in my plays and in my poetry is more than his memory.’’
In addition to this proud family tradition, Yeats inherits the histories and myths associated with so many locations near his Sligo home. He recalls, ‘‘The servants’ stories . . . interested me. At such and such a house . . .’’ To the anecdotes that follow Yeats adds this comment: ‘‘All the well-known families had their . . . legends, and I often said to myself how terrible it would be to go away and die where nobody would know my story.’’ This opportunity to develop his own ‘‘story,’’ to have an identity compounded of family and place and imagination, is his inheritance. From this he is separated by his father’s move to London and their subsequent alternations between Dublin and London.
Yeats clearly associates the first move to London with a loss of identity. He writes, ‘‘At length when I was eight or nine an aunt said to me, ‘You are going to London. Here you are somebody. There you will be nobody at all.’’’ The English places are mythless for Yeats—‘‘I was a stranger there. There was something in their way of saying the names of places that made me feel this.’’ This instinctive longing for ‘‘sacred places,’’ which prevents him from putting down roots in his new soil, persists throughout adolescence and up to the moment of writing, connecting the child and the youth to the autobiographer:
A poignant memory came upon me the other day while I was passing the drinking fountain near Holland Park, for there . . . I longed for a sod of earth from some field I knew, something of Sligo to hold in my hand. It was some old race instinct. . . .
This lost inheritance is sought in each subsequent phase of Yeats’s development, and the values of Sligo are later transformed into his theories of unity of being and unity of culture.
Separated from all other sources of identity, Yeats still had his father as a model for development. Although he could imitate his father in his style of painting and speaking, he was forced to react against him when Jack Yeats diverged from the traditional values with which Yeats had been imbued in Sligo. The first reaction he records was during childhood: ‘‘My father’s unbelief had set me thinking about the evidence of religion and I weighed the matter perpetually with great anxiety . . .’’ But more serious differences developed in adolescence over their divergent theories of art. The son continues to admire Blake and Rossetti and the Pre- Raphaelite practice of painting heroic, literary subjects after the father has abandoned Pre-Raphaelitism. Yeats attributes the father’s apostasy to the influence of ‘‘Victorian science’’ against which Yeats had ‘‘a monkish hate.’’ Furthermore, the father and son also differed over their preferences in poetry: the father argued for dramatic statement while his son contended that personal utterances are the only noble poetry.
Yeats’s emphasis on this filial rebellion typi- fies that of most post-Romantic autobiographers, who wish to demonstrate that their essential qualities were not completely dependent on their parents’ influence. When Ronsley argues that ‘‘the relationship between his father and himself which he describes in ‘Reveries’ . . . is suffused with an atmosphere of rebellion, but in the end they shared more beliefs than they quarreled on,’’ he is actually describing a reconciliation that took place in the life rather than in Autobiographies, and he is ignoring Yeats’s stages of development. Yeats expands this conflict over theories of art and literature to include other contrasting values. The father was an agnostic, an empiricist, a free-trader, and a follower of Mill, while the son was a spiritualist, a dreamer, an oligarchist, and a student of Blake and Rossetti. Finally, and most significant, the father believed in progress and followed the fashion whereas the son sought an image from a past age that would free him from the flux of time.
The rootless, anti-traditional tendencies of the age, of which his father is merely a victim, become Yeats’s ultimate antagonists. He reacts specifically to English empiricism of Irish journalism or, as in this quotation, Parisian art and its advocates: ‘‘‘A man must be of his own time,’ they would say, and if I spoke of Blake or Rossetti they would point out his bad drawing and tell me to admire Carolus Duran and Bastien-Lepage.’’ But more frequently he groups his antagonists as ‘‘the Huxley, Tyndall, Carolus Duran, Bastien-Lepage rookery.’’
Soon Yeats discovers he is not alone in his reaction to his father’s generation and their mechanistic and scientific values. Yeats writes:
I was to discover others of my own age, who thought as I did, for it is not true that youth looks before it with the mechanical gaze of a well-drilled soldier. Its quarrel is not with the past, but with the present, where its elders are so obviously powerful and no cause seems lost if it seem to threaten that power.
At this point in Autobiographies the hero began to associate himself with various groups and to take on their values, in my term, to ‘‘define’’ himself. The remainder of the book takes on the aspect of a memoir, giving detailed sketches of many of Yeats’s contemporaries while emphasizing the relation of the hero to each individual and each group. We finally know what this hero sought in each group, what lessons he learned, and what effect each group had on his search for unity of being and unity of culture. This period of self-definition begins toward the close of ‘‘Reveries’’ and continues into the chapter entitled ‘‘Ireland After Parnell.’’ In this stage Yeats suggests a basis for his own distinction from each group, although he is not fully distinguished until the fourth stage, beginning in ‘‘Ireland After Parnell’’ and culminating in the last scene of Autobiographies.
Yeats first associated with a group of Irish patriots loosely formed around the heroic figure of John O’Leary. This old Fenian spoke in phrases worthy of ‘‘some heroic Elizabethan play’’ and in other aspects was reminiscent of Yeats’s Lear-like grandfather. O’Leary led his group in opposing Gavan Duffy’s attempt to impose a false history on Ireland and in seeking heroic images in Ireland’s past by which to educe a cultural renaissance. All six groups with which Yeats aligned himself pursued some historical ideal—except the second, the circle of W. E. Henley. Yeats was drawn to Henley because he championed youth in their conflict with the older generation. Yeats writes, ‘‘I think we listened to him, and often obeyed him, partly because he was quite plainly not upon the side of our parents.’’ As he was to Henley’s and O’Leary’s cliques, Yeats was first attracted to the socialist debates at William Morris’s house by the heroic figure of the leader who, Yeats recalls, ‘‘reminded me of my old grandfather in Sligo . . .’’ While desiring to alter the future, this group rooted its politics in Morris’s medieval ideal. The Theosophists and Hermetic students, two other groups with which Yeats associated, also sought images from the past and recognized strong leaders. Mme Blavatsky was ‘‘a great passionate nature’’ and Macgregor Mathers ‘‘a figure of romance.’’
Of the six groups in and out of which Yeats wandered, he suggests that the last, the Rhymers, contributed most to his self-definition. They lacked a grandfather-figure and philosophical ideals, yet ‘‘all were pre-Raphaelite’’ and ‘‘not one had hearkened to the feeblest caw, or been spattered by the smallest dropping from any Huxley, Tyndall, Carolus Duran, Bastien-Lepage bundle of old twigs . . .’’ He suggests through his collective pronouns that he felt a greater unanimity within this group than in the other five groups: ‘‘We read our poems to one another;’’ ‘‘Our clothes were . . . unadventurous;’’ ‘‘We were all seemingly eq ual. . . . ’’
All six groups are introduced in the first half of Autobiographies. In line chapters entitled ‘‘Ireland After Parnell’’ and ‘‘The Tragic Generation’’ Yeats returns to these groups to distinguish himself from individual members or to recount a break with the group. In establishing these distinctions, Yeats has begun the narration of his fourth phase, in which he developed his positive identity.
Yeats dissociated himself from several of these groups because of a conflict of ideals: the Marxists in the Socialist League denied the existence of his spiritual world and the Theosophists were too fond of abstraction, a divisive and isolating force. From other individuals and groups Yeats became separated by the passage of time which revealed some failure by the other party. Henley’s group was an unstable coalition which divided over Wilde’s fall, and the Rhymers collapsed as a generation with the close of the old century.
In considering the tragic lives of the Rhymers and of individuals in other groups, Yeats contrasts their pursuit of an ideal self-image with his own quest for unity of being. Most of these individuals attempted to fulfill a romantic self-concept based on an image from the past which, later to be ‘‘the mask,’’ Yeats here describes in these terms:
Every passionate man (I have nothing to do with mechanist, or philanthropist, or man whose eyes have no preference) is, as it were, linked with another age, historical or imaginary, where alone he finds images that rouse his energy. Napoleon was never of his own time, as the naturalistic writers and painters bid all men be, but had some Roman emperor’s image in his head. . . .
Of the other characters in Autobiographies only Wilde, Sharpe, and Verlaine consciously sought this ‘‘anti-self,’’ this ‘‘emotional antithesis to all that comes out of their internal nature,’’ but all of the characters in their conscious or unconscious pursuit of images are judged by Yeats according to the degree to which they achieved a state of unity of being.
Curtis Bradford maintains that these judgments are systematic and suggests that Yeats had fully developed ‘‘his analysis of personality-types in terms of the phases of the moon.’’ Yeats’s analyses, however, are obviously closer to the poetic, sometimes vague, language of Per Amica . . . than to the abstract and diagrammatic analyses of A Vision. ‘‘Unity of being,’’ for example, Yeats can only define metaphorically—like ‘‘a perfectly proportioned human body’’ or like ‘‘a musical instrument so strung that if we touch a string all the strings murmur faintly’’—and he cannot explain in what relation one must be to the mask to achieve this condition. Yeats does not insert mechanically into each character-sketch this theory that every passionate man seeks an anti-self. While at times he explicitly states that he is judging the characters according to their success in this search, as this summary of three character studies illustrates: ‘‘I have described what image—always opposite to the natural self or the natural world—Wilde, Henley, Morris, copied or tried to copy . . . ,’’ at other times the theory is only a submerged standard.
The failures of his friends to achieve a unified self Yeats attributes ultimately to the rootless, divisive age. A permanent relation to the mask can be achieved only in a society that relates ancient images to everyday tasks through custom and a shared mythology. This unity of culture the hero sought at first for all of Ireland. He dreamed of restoring the Irish mythology and so disseminating a common literature ‘‘that all, artist and poet, craftsman and day-labourer would accept a common design.’’ Later in the narrative the disillusioned hero reduces his expectations: ‘‘The dream of my early manhood, that a modern nation can return to Unity of Culture, is false; though it may be we can achieve it for some small circle of men and women, and there leave it till the moon bring round its century.’’ Autobiographies concludes with the suggestion that the hero has found, if not unity of being, at least the basis for this in an elite coterie drawn together by a common culture. Around Lady Gregory had gathered a poet, a dramatist, a politician, and a benefactor of the arts, united by a love of Irish tradition. Prefigured by supernatural dreams and placed at the conclusion of Autobiographies, the meeting with Lady Gregory symbolizes Yeats’s unity of culture, achieved in a ‘‘small circle of men and women.’’
To this point, I have described the plot as having a beginning and four stages of progressive development and a definite end, while I have ignored the cross-weavings of spatial organization, fused point of view, and mythological allusions, which tend to obscure chronology and reduce the progressive effect of the plot, to emphasize patterns of recurrent actions, and ultimately to convey the idea that Yeats’s self-image is static and perpetual.
Although Autobiographies does reveal four stages in Yeats’s growth, within each stage there is little sense of progressive development. The plot is organized within these four phases geographically or dramatically so that the narration moves from place to place or from one group to another rather than from one month or year to the next, a method Yeats suggests in his opening paragraph—‘‘All thoughts connected with emotion and place are without sequence’’—and later attributes to a quirk in his memory: ‘‘I only seem to remember things dramatic in themselves or that are somehow associated with unforgettable places.’’
Much of ‘‘Reveries’’ is organized by place. Some sections recount interesting events that occurred in one location over a long period of time, while others tell of Yeats’s own association with a place without regard for chronology. From the autobiographer’s perspective the different moments during the early stages of his life are merged in a habitual past tense:
When my father gave me a holiday and later when I had a holiday from school I took my schooner boat to the round pond sailing it very commonly against the two cutter yachts of an old naval officer. He would sometimes look at the ducks and say . . . The pond had its own legends. . . . Sometimes my sister came with me, and we would look into all the sweet shops and toy shops on our way home. . . .
While the usual narrative transition is temporal— ‘‘the following month,’’ ‘‘next,’’ ‘‘after this’’— Yeats’s narration moves more often from place to place than from moment to moment. The beginning of section three on page 22 is a typical transition: ‘‘Some six miles off towards Ben Bulben and beyond the Channel, as we call the tidal river between Sligo and the Rosses, and on top of a hill. . . . ’’
Yeats is not interested, as the autobiographers Wordsworth and Ruskin were, in the visual appearance of a place; he sees only the human associations established by one people living in one place for a long period of time. When Ruskin contemplates a scene, he views formations and colors and recalls his past self, while Yeats recollects past history as well as his past self. Of course, descriptions of his ‘‘holy places,’’ places rich with human associations, serve as a preface to his theory of unity of culture, expressed later in Autobiographies. And organization by place allows Yeats to discuss with freedom the historical and personal themes associated with each location. For example, Sligo suggests the ideal of a unified culture; Ballisodare, an area even more remote than Sligo, is rich with legends and fairy tales; Bedford Park represents Pre-Raphaelitism; London, generally, is the modern deracinated population; Liverpool is the transition between the modern and old worlds. Yeats can juxtapose places in his narration to contrast ideas, as he does on the first page when he recalls a room in Ireland, where ‘‘some relative once lived,’’ and then remembers a room in London, where he felt threatened by unfamiliar children in the streets. Or he can make direct comparisons between London and Dublin, as he does on page 191 where he contrasts the romantic faces of the Dublin peasants with the ‘‘fat blotched’’ faces of the London poor.
The conclusion to the quite long section V in ‘‘Reveries’’ illustrates how Yeats’s organization by place and theme allows him to disregard chronological progression. The section does represent a period in Yeats’s life, his ‘‘year or two’’ at North End in London, but it concentrates on the environs of North End and their associated memories. The last five pages of this section discuss Hammersmith School and the theme of ‘‘companionship and enmity.’’ The hero nurtured his distinction from his schoolmates and attempted to develop himself, in his ‘‘enmity,’’ according to certain heroic ideals. In the final paragraph, the first sentences discuss an American runner, whom the hero admired; then follows a sentence on heroism and his schoolboy dreams of himself as a hero; then a recalled statement by his father: ‘‘One day my father said, ‘There was a man in Nelson’s ship at the battle of Trafalgar, a ship’s purser, whose hair turned white; what a sensitive temperament; that man should have achieved something!’’’ Yeats’s next sentence concludes the section: ‘‘I was vexed and bewildered, and am still bewildered and still vexed, finding it a poor and crazy thing that we who have imagined so many noble persons cannot bring our flesh to heel.’’ The anecdote of Nelson’s purser exemplifies only in a metaphorical, poetic (and humorous) manner Yeats’s conclusion about our bringing our ‘‘flesh to heel.’’ The organization of this paragraph illustrates, in a general way, the organization of the entire Autobiographies. Organization by place breaks down strict chronological narrative and allows Yeats to move freely from one idea to a related theme, from thematic statements to poetic statements, and from an idea in the mind of the immature hero to the same idea developed by the autobiographer.
Organization by ‘‘things dramatic in themselves,’’ the dominant organizational method in the last third of ‘‘Reveries’’ and in ‘‘Trembling of the Veil,’’ also permits Yeats to minimize chronology and to emphasize themes. The character sketches, which comprise the last portion of Autobiographies, are dramatic in that they portray individuals in conflict with themselves and with their milieu. These sketches are significant thematically because they illustrate Yeats’s theory of the mask by showing various possible relations between individuals and their self-images. Most of the sketches include Yeats’s impressions of the individual gathered over a period of time. Consideration of the character’s particular problem often leads Yeats into abstraction and, as in the scenes organized by place, into poetic connections. For example, in his consideration of A. E.’s misdirected energies, Yeats praises A. E.’s religious imagination and regrets his political involvement and, then, concludes with a poetic comment on politics: ‘‘Is it not certain that the Creator yawns in earthquake and thunder and other popular displays, but toils in rounding the delicate spirals of a shell?’’
The sections in which Yeats describes a location or a character and some theme, often conclude with this type of rhetorical question, with a metaphorical statement, or with a stanza or line of Yeats’s latest poetry. Each of these conclusions renders the mature autobiographer’s complex and sometimes profound thought on the young hero’s subject of inquiry. As a consequence, the distinctions between the youth and the adult and between the different stages of development are obscured. In the manner of Gosse in Father and Son, Yeats sometimes merely imposes the adult’s knowledge on the child, as when he says, ‘‘To-day I add to that first conviction . . . this other conviction, long a mere opinion vaguely or intermittently apprehended," or when he says, ‘‘I thought there could be no aim for poet or artist except expression of a ‘Unity of Being’ . . . though I would not at the time have used that phrase.’’ More often, however, the autobiographer’s intrusion is interrogative or poetic, elevating the youth’s inquiry to a complex or metaphysical level but not resolving it. For example, after a consideration of Aubrey Beardsley, Yeats asks, ‘‘Does not all art come when a nature . . . exhausts personal emotion in action or desire so completely that something impersonal . . . suddenly starts into its place . . . ?’’ The question suggests Yeats’s idea of Spiritus Mundi about which he had written in Per Amica. It is a more complex question than he would have asked in 1890, but a question for which the mature Yeats has only a tentative hypothetical answer. The poetic conclusions function in a similar way by substituting for simpler questions almost impenetrable symbols which raise greater questions. On page 238, Yeats concludes an inquiry about the possibility of achieving a unified culture with this statement: ‘‘One thing I did not foresee, not having the courage of my own thought: the growing murderousness of the world;’’ followed by the opening stanza of ‘‘The Second Coming,’’ a conclusion which displays the complex and symbolic level to which the hero’s initial inquiries about culture have been raised.
Ultimately, as a result of this ‘‘interrogative method,’’ this connection of the child’s question to the adult’s elaboration of that question, Yeats presents an image of himself as a perpetual enquirer, one who constantly asks questions about his self and his society and who finds not answers but questions of a more complex nature. This self-image does not correspond to Yeats’s anti-self, which is ‘‘proud and lonely,’’ ‘‘hard and cold,’’ much like Shelley’s figure of Ahasuerus. As he states, the attempt to assume one’s mask is ‘‘an intellectual daily recreation’’ which requires an alternation between the Will and the Mask and which can never be finally successful.
Yeats’s self-image arises not merely from the point of view and from the organization of plot but also from the recorded action of the hero, who is constantly attempting to remake himself to fit an image which varies over the years. We have read of the youthful hero ‘‘walking with an artificial stride in memory of Hamlet’’ or wearing a ‘‘tie gathered into a loose sailor-knot . . . like Byron’s tie in the picture’’; of the slightly older adolescent frequenting a club ‘‘to become self-possessed, to be able to play with hostile minds as Hamlet played’’; and of the young man inquiring after Morris or Mathers and seeking out Madame Blavatsky to find in these heroic figures a self-defining image.
Yeats’s integral self is not his anti-self, not Ahasuerus the cold savant, but Yeats in search of this mask, or Ahasuerus the Wandering Jew. On page 212, when Yeats suggests Ahasuerus as the type of his mask, he presents a long passage from Shelley’s poem. The page-length excerpt, however, describes not Ahasuerus but the search for Ahasuerus by Mahmud who must go through an elaborate passage duré to encounter his symbol of wisdom and experience. He is told, ‘‘Few dare, and few who dare / Win the desired communion.’’ Yeats supports this self-image with other literary images—Hamlet, Athanase, Alastor, Manfred—which represent the perpetual wanderer or the divided self seeking a unity. A suggestion of the Ancient Mariner in the ‘‘Preface’’ to ‘‘Reveries’’ seems intended to introduce the image of the poet errant: ‘‘Sometimes when I remember . . . the past, I wander here and there till I have somebody to talk to. Presently I notice that my listener is bored. . . . ’’
This self-image is supported in Autobiographies by a mythical-historical pattern which emerges from Yeats’s images and from his overt statements. During the eight years in which Yeats wrote the two books of Autobiographies, he was developing the elaborate psychological and historical system presented finally in A Vision. When Yeats admits his responsibilities as a historian in Autobiographies, he writes, ‘‘As I have set out to describe nature as I see it, I must not only describe events but those patterns into which they fall. . . .’’ Yeats’s historical vision, which measures historical events by a mythology or paradigm and which minimizes chronology and physical causality, is similar to the historical view of other modern writers, who, in the words of Joseph Frank, ‘spatialize’ time by ‘‘transmuting the time-world of history into the timeless world of myth.’’
The myth that underlies Autobiographies is based on a Biblical teleology converted to a cyclic historiography. ‘‘Reveries’’ opens, as Ronsley has remarked, with a reference to the Biblical Creation: ‘‘My first memories are fragmentary and isolated and contemporaneous, as though one remembered some first moments of the Seven Days.’’ Although Yeats recalls much unhappiness during his Sligo childhood, he represents West of Ireland as a lost Eden, the land of his youth from which he is forever exiled. In this Eden, his grandfather, William Pollexfen, was God: ‘‘He was so looked up to and admired that when he returned from taking the waters at Bath his men would light bonfires along the railway line for miles. . . . I think I confused my grandfather with God . . .’’ As I have shown, Pollexfen continued to represent, after the hero had left Sligo, the standard of nobility. Then in the penultimate paragraph of ‘‘Reveries,’’ Yeats describes the death of this god-figure and the ensuing chaos: ‘‘Before he was dead, old servants of that house where there had never been noise or disorder began their small pilferings, and after his death there was a quarrel over the disposition of certain mantelpiece ornaments of no value.’’ The apocalypse should follow to accord with the suggested Biblical teleology, but in ‘‘Reveries’’ the pattern is incomplete. Autobiographies concludes with Yeats, the time-conscious autobiographer, speaking of his situation in 1915:
For some months now I have lived with my own youth and childhood . . . and I am sorrowful and disturbed. . . . All life weighed in the scales of my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens.
Frank Kermode has described in The Sense of An Ending man’s need to create a fictional end to the world to give our own lives a sense of completion. Although Western man traditionally has shaped history according to a Biblical teleology, which moves from Creation to Apocalypse, the modern writer has such a strong ‘‘sense of an ending’’ that he represents himself as suspended in the period preceding the Apocalypse, and living with ‘‘eternal transition, perpetual crisis.’’
Yeats infuses ‘‘Trembling of the Veil’’ with the sense of a still moment of crisis, in which he awaits the answer to his question, ‘‘What rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?’’ Out of respect for this dark chiliasm, we must re-examine the apparently affirmative conclusion of Autobiographies. The book closes with Yeats’s predetermined meeting with Lady Gregory. He recalls the sessions with two aristocratic patrons, Lady Gregory and a French Count, which led to the establishment of the Irish Theatre:
On the sea coast at Duras, a few miles from Coole, an old French Count, Florimond de Bastero, lived for certain months in every year. Lady Gregory and I talked over my project of an Irish Theatre looking out upon the lawn of his house, watching a large flock of ducks that was always gathered for his arrival from Paris, and that would be a very small flock, if indeed it were a flock at all, when he set out for Rome in the autumn.
Following this, Yeats specifies the accomplishments of some members of this group—of Yeats, Hugh Lane, Shawe-Taylor, John Synge—under Lady Gregory’s personal influence, and adds: ‘‘If that influence were lacking, Ireland would be greatly improverished, so much has been planned out in the library, or among the woods at Coole.’’
In tone this is like the conclusion of ‘‘Bounty of Sweden,’’ where Yeats represents Sweden as a paragon of cultural unity. However, the Swedish conclusion is more impressionistic and romanticized than the Irish scene, and as a poetic ideal it is certainly less realizable than the ideal represented by the Coole Park coterie.
Yet, if this ‘‘small circle of men and women’’ has achieved under Lady Gregory’s influence a temporary unity of culture, it is only a momentary stasis in the advance of history toward the impending Apocalypse. Through the description of the seasonal peregrinations of the Count, enforced by the image of migrating fowl, a familiar symbol in Yeats’s poetry for historical recurrence, Yeats suggests the repetitive cycles of history. The very distance the narrator maintains from his twentyyear- old scene and the fact that those who comprised the circle had passed into obscurity or ignominy suggest that they could not reverse history’s decadent course. ‘‘They came like swallows and like swallows went,’’ he says of them elsewhere. He concludes Autobiographies by commenting on this unified, elite group: ‘‘I have written these words . . . that young men to whom recent events are often more obscure than those long past, may learn what debts they owe and to what creditor.’’ The statement recalls to the reader an earlier pronouncement characterizing, in an appreciative tone, the attitude of youth: ‘‘Its quarrel is not with the past, but with the present, where its elders are so obviously powerful . . .’’ The ironic echo suggests that this small circle, which preceded from no immediate cause and which found its pattern in eighteenth-century culture, would effect no change in the next generation or in the inexorable, gyring course of history. Yeats achieves a similar ironic reversal in ‘‘Bounty of Sweden,’’ where the conclusiveness of the courtimage is undercut by a curious final paragraph. Ronsley praises this conclusion, saying Yeats wished to ‘‘give Ireland a model on which to build the unity of culture that the Stockholm Town Hall symbolized.’’ He fails to recognize that the concluding paragraph—
While we are packing for our journey a young American poet comes to our room, and introduces himself. ‘‘I was in the South of France,’’ he says ‘‘and I could not get a room warm enough to work in, and if I cannot get a warm room here I will go to Lapland.’’
—reminds us of such poems as ‘‘The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland’’ and suggests that the quest originates in the poet’s romantic, insatiable nature and is therefore interminable.
A year or so after the publication of Autobiographies Yeats wrote to Sean O’Casey advising him about the proper treatment of history in literature: ‘‘The whole history of the world must be reduced to wallpaper in front of which the characters must pose and speak.’’ In Autobiographies the action of the hero and the historical background form a complementary design. Between a lost Eden and a suspended Apocalypse the hero wanders in a patterned course of seeking and finding and seeking again on a higher level. The patterned search begins in Eden, where the hero’s unhappiness was caused by his own nature, and continues, Yeats suggests, beyond the temporary stasis at Coole Park toward some larger, more inclusive symbol of unity, such as the Swedish court. But Yeats’s self-creating entelechy will demand that this image, too, must be transcended. Consequently, the pattern of self-seeking and self-creating is complete in Autobiographies, and its recurrence in ‘‘Bounty of Sweden,’’ the last section of The Autobiography, suggests its perpetuity.
Source: Dillon Johnston, ‘‘The Perpetual Self of Yeats’s Autobiographies,’’ in Éire-Ireland, Vol. IX, No. 4, 1974, pp. 69–85.
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