Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop

by William Butler Yeats

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Themes and Meanings

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The Crazy Jane series, like much of Yeats’s poetry, remains enigmatic. Why, after all, choose such an unlikely persona for this series? Why, in this particular poem, is there the harshness of this encounter with a bishop? Every poet develops a personally significant vocabulary and set of place names and images, but this is especially true of Yeats. Part of the reason for the particularity of his imagining in this poem can be explained by its theme, but, as with much of Yeats’s vision, part of the reason remains (probably intentionally) mysterious.

The claim made for him by many to be the greatest lyric poet of the twentieth century rests upon his unique expression of three worlds: that of the rustic Celtic imagination he found in Sligo in western Ireland, that of the politics of Dublin, and that of the literary sophistication of London. Crazy Jane arises from the world of Sligo. To these influences Yeats added a truly extraordinary interest in finding something meaningful beyond the material world, while at the same time celebrating the material world specifically as a manifestation of the ethereal. This quest for a non-Christian, quotidian “incarnation” is the key to this poem and to many of his best poems.

What becomes clear from the other Crazy Jane poems is that one is to listen more respectfully to her insights into life than one is to those of someone like the bishop. He has far more importance in the eyes of the world, and he represents an orthodox interpretation of life’s meaning, but his pharisaical judging of Jane suggests that it is he who is essentially dead inside. The reader also learns from the earlier poems that the bishop may, himself, have loved her at one time.

The dichotomies of this poem are, in fact, the key to its theme, which has to do with the resolution of “antinomies” (as Yeats called sets of opposites) that obsessed him throughout his poetic career. It is true that Jane’s breasts are flat and fallen, but her retort is an exuberant celebration of the fact that this very body remains for her the physical location of love. That is a painful and difficult “resolution,” but Yeats seems to suggest that it is the only one possible for a human being to make. Rather than reject love (and lust) as worthless because impermanent or somehow filthy, Jane takes what may seem to be a carpe diem position: make hay while the sun shines. The implication of her lesson to the bishop goes further, however, since the sun is no longer shining for her and she is nevertheless affirming the value even of transient love.

Yeats was almost seventy when he wrote this poem, and, like many of the poems from this period, it expresses his own renewed passion for life and for love. Among the closest in theme to this one is “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (1939), especially in its closing stanza. “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” might also be read in conjunction with “Among School Children” (1927), a poem concerned with Maud Gonne and aging love. Very much aware of his own failing body, the poet seems nevertheless to embrace it, in spite of—or because of—all of its “holes.” Fixated on the body/soul dichotomy that has dominated Western philosophy, Yeats celebrates the body as the seat not only of excrement, but also of all that is transcendent.

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