Yeats

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1496

Douglas Archibald’s contribution to the admirable Irish Studies series of Syracuse University Press is a brilliant volume on Yeats—compact but definitive. Drawing upon an idea from Yeats’s introduction to The Words upon the Window-Pane (1934), Archibald proposes to examine the process by which the “originals” of the poet’s thought—each source “in its first language”—changed and evolved to become the achievement of “an ideal expression.” This process involved both the modification of the poet’s art and the influences of changing life experiences that molded his temperament. In his study, Archibald attempts more than a close reading of certain poems or other works by Yeats; instead, he searches into the sources of artistic growth, development, and final expression of crucial patterns in Yeats’s writings. To discover these sources in the poet’s life, Archibald studies as well the evolution of Yeats’s thinking about problems that served repeatedly as his subjects.

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To organize his material, Archibald treats in chapters topics that are individually self-contained essays but cumulatively give the reader a full understanding of the poet’s development. These chapters, arranged from general or introductory to more specialized, usually center on one or more major poems. In “The Last Romantic,” Archibald shows how Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s meditative lyrics, especially “Frost at Midnight,” relate to “A Prayer for My Daughter.” In “Father and Son: John Butler and William Butler Yeats,” Archibald provides an account, both illuminating and compassionate, of a paternal influence that lasted beyond the father’s death and, for the son, achieved touching final expression in “Beautiful Lofty Things.” “Friends and Friendships” treats the impact upon Yeats’s sensibility of his relationship with Mabel Beardsley, Maud Gonne, and Lady Augusta Gregory. Selecting from numerous poems, Archibald shows how Yeats modified through the years his attitudes toward these women, usually reaching an ultimate sentiment of reconciliation.

From these chapters treating the formative inuences of certain personalities upon Yeats’s work, the author turns to a larger scene of social intercourse. In “Anglo-Ireland and Celtic Ireland: 1865-1913,” he explains the role of the Ascendancy—the Protestant minority of Ireland—in shaping Yeats’s thought; the author treats Yeats’s Celtic-inspired poems and plays and concludes with “A Coat.” Following this background historical chapter, his next subject is “Politics and Public Life: 1913-1939,” an account of the “Troubles” and centering on perceptive analyses of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” and “The Tower.”

The final chapters of the book treat specialized topics, again in the context of Yeats’s developing (and sometimes changing) attitudes toward his subjects. In “The Occult—A Vision,” Archibald explains in language notably lucid the complex subject of Yeats’s research into spiritism; together with minor poems, some prose works, and plays treated in this chapter are the central poems “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium.” In “The Antimonies,” Archibald’s most penetrating (and difficult) essay, the writer turns to Yeats’s “Whole System,” involving an approach to the ultimate realities; among a number of works examined in this chapter are the Crazy Jane poems—linking sex, death, and the dance—as well as “Among School Children” and “Lapis Lazuli.” Archibald’s study concludes with “Valediction,” which treats Last Poems, particularly “Long-Legged Fly” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”

Searching out the “originals” of Yeats’s thought, Archibald accepts the poet’s assertion that he seeks “more than idioms, for thoughts become more vivid when I find they were thought out in historical circumstances . . . or . . . were thought out first by men my ancestors may have known.” In Jungian terms, the forgotten language of these thoughts is archetypal. Archibald consequently analyzes Yeats’s poems and other works not as parts but as a whole—the parts tending toward a complete expression of the original poetic impulses. With this method, Archibald corrects a tendency of many Yeats scholars to specialize upon textual explication at the expense of understanding the whole range of the poet’s thoughts, those intended to be expressed as well as those actually composed. Archibald’s contribution to Yeatsian criticism is threefold: He emphasizes the continuity between earlier versions of poetic themes and their later complete expression in masterful lines; he shows that Yeats did not dawdle through artistic periods of feeble control during his long apprenticeship, suddenly to leap to great periods, for example, with The Tower—of consummate control; and finally, he shows that, as an intellect concerned with abstruse subjects, Yeats cannot be dismissed out of hand as a deviant from Western traditions of speculation.

By emphasizing the continuity of Yeats’s thoughts from the early works, through periods of greater mastery, to the expression of the final work, Archibald allows the reader to discern the poet’s intellectual growth. Yeats rarely changed his opinions in a drastic fashion; instead, he examined these opinions from different vantages, often in antithetical relationships. He regarded his opinions (or thoughts) as his poetical property, to be worked over, reexamined, refined, and cast into appropriate forms according to the demands of his emotional or artistic needs. Unlike many critics who pass quickly over the early body of Yeats’s work because of its deficiencies, Archibald invites the reader to discover in the early writings ideas that came to maturity in the memorable verses of the poet’s later works. To show this continuity, Archibald draws freely from Yeats’s drama; from his prose, especially the autobiographical writings; from letters; and from the poet’s critical pieces. Examining these sources, a reader is able better to understand how Yeats worked out for himself certain problems of artistic expression; by observing the continuity as well as modifications of Yeats’s themes, the reader learns, moreover, how the poet’s sensibility and craft developed to greatness.

Finally, by emphasizing the thematic continuity in Yeats’s work, Archibald also makes it possible to appreciate the poet’s life-career as a unity rather than as a series of periods. To be sure, Yeats passed through periods of Aestheticism, Symbolism, modernism—but Archibald prefers to examine Yeats’s work not as partial, with definite chronological breaks, nor as the product of outside influences but as a fluent whole. To Archibald, Yeats’s work is best understood as process rather than as static, defined, and the poet’s process moves always toward the achievement of an ideal expression. Thus, Yeats’s work can be appreciated as a total oeuvre.

Finally, by emphasizing intellectual strengths in Yeats instead of oddities (such as the poet’s interest in spiritism and magic)—indeed, by showing the intellectual energy in Yeats’s arcane structures—Archibald corrects a tendency of some critics to denigrate the poet for his failures as a realist. To be sure, the writer makes clear the fact that Yeats understood the limitations of the occult, and, if he chose to deal with a special “reality,” his judgment was not naïve but deliberate. As a result, a final picture of Yeats emerges from the book, one that is a corrective to the often-held notion of the poet as intellectually rigid or unsophisticated. On the contrary, throughout his lifetime, Yeats tested his beliefs as credible in the light of his personal experiences as well as the experiences of others. Without asserting in any way the validity of these beliefs, a fair reader must observe that Yeats approached them with a questioning rather than rigid attitude. Based deeply upon his emotional convictions, they served as metaphors for his poetry and drama, as constructions for his themes, as language to approximate the originals of perfect expression.

So fully imbued is Archibald with Yeats’s sonorous language, that his own prose often catches the rhythms of the poet. Indeed, one of the delights in reading this book is its melodious prose, which imitates (probably unintentionally) the falling cadences of Yeats. Unlike Yeats, however, Archibald sticks to his theme without digressions. He writes on a specialist’s level, yet his writing is lucid enough so that a reader who approaches the poet without much background knowledge will also understand the discussion. To be sure, readers can point to a few exceptions to this general rule. For example, at one point Archibald remarks, offhandedly, that John Butler Yeats had “departed to live across the Atlantic—lonely and lively and optimistic, fathering Van Wyck Brooks and John Sloan. . . .” The wording is unfortunate; Archibald has in mind the tremendous influence that the elder Yeats would have upon these two Americans, whom he “fathered” only in the sense that he was to serve as their mentor. Such lapses, however, are rare. Mostly, Archibald explains his ideas thoroughly and with directness. He is particularly effective in showing the uses of Yeats’s creative imagination. In concluding his study, he writes this penultimate sentence: “There are moments when Yeats passes beyond time, when he achieves a stance, vision, and language that are remarkable equally for their scope and their intensity.” Archibald is equal to the task of comprehending these inspired moments.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9

Choice. XXI, October, 1983, p. 272.

Library Journal. CVIII, April 15, 1983, p. 824.

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