W.B Yeats: “In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”
I once did a brief stint at a publishing house concerned primarily with the cookery, beauty and gardening type of paper-wasting exercises. I used to get dizzy just looking at the mercantile florescent sleeves and cover-jackets, and often found myself in the backroom sorting through old, discarded and out of print copies where I chanced upon a number of poetry collections published in the 1990s. One of them, now sitting beside me as I write this, was that of W.B. Yeats. I learned a lot about Yeats while reading other poets, who always and unanimously hailed him as the laureate of modern romance. In turn, I felt I couldn’t read him for fear of being disappointed, but when I chanced upon his selected poems in an Oxfam in Islington my curiosity got the better of me.
I remember starting out with the Second Coming and being struck by the gnosis of the following lines: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”. By the time Second Coming was penned, in 1919, Yeats was no longer the perfervid young man who would intractably recite aloud, without suspiring, his favourite verses in public places and gormandize on the romantics such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lord Alfred Tennyson. Yeats had, by then, discarded the beautifully rarefied evocative tone of his earlier works for an obdurate sonority confronting reality and its imperfections. This was an altogether different Yeats from the one I would learn about later when reading his early works. William Butler Yeats was not a poet by nature – acutely short-sighted, purportedly dyslexic and severely tone-deaf, he showed a propensity for science rather than language, leaving school with “small Latin and less Greek”. He was, however, “egregiously the poet,” in temperament and in appearance, muttering “ends of verse to himself with a wild eye” sporting “seedy black clothes” and “a large black bow at the root of his long naked throat”. It is now almost impossible, for me at least, to think of Yeats in any other element, but his work remains the biggest testament to his role as one of the greatest arch-bards of the 20th century. Revered by everyone from W.H. Auden to Ezra Pound, Yeats began his craft with light but deeply heartfelt odes to Maud Gonne – a distant cousin he had fallen in love with – likening her to a “rose in the deeps of his heart” and later celebrating her beauty on a Homeric scale. Much of his early work is characterised by the paludal lows of unrequited love resonating in lines such as, “Pale brows, still hands and dim hair/I had a beautiful friend/And dreamed that the old despair/Would end in love in the end”.
Yeats’ despair, however, did not end in love in the end but was intensified by its “bitter mystery” and later Gonne’s marriage. Yeats continued composing poetry in Gonne’s honour despite her feelings which she made clear in a letter, dated February 1989, by saying that if the idea of an absolutely platonic friendship “which is all I can, or ever will be able to give, unsettles you and spoils your work, then you must have the strength and courage at once to give up meeting me”. Unnerved by the realisation that he may never be united in marriage with Gonne, Yeats immersed himself in his work, much of which lamented his predicament: The Sorrow of Love, A Dream of Death, The Wind Among the Reeds, He Wished for The Cloths of Heaven, in which he implores his beloved to tread softly on his dreams, and The White Birds, prompted by a thought of escaping with her to “numberless islands” where neither time nor the world would be of essence or import.
Gonne remained a constant factor in his imaginative and emotional existence and subsequently much of Yeats’ poetry during this time was populated by figures of woman as enchantress and agent of necromancy in the context of quest and death. His poetry had developed a nascent sense of disillusionment, grief and wariness which reached its peak after the news of Gonne’s marriage. He felt “deaf and dumb and blind with love” and recorded his sorrow in Four Unpublished Lines (My dear is angry that of late/I cry all base blood dawn/As if she had not taught me hate/By kisses by a clown) and further in Never Give All the Heart (Never give all the heart, for love/Will hardly seem worth thinking of/To passionate women if it seems/Certain, and they never dream/That it fades out from kiss to kiss/For everything that’s lovely is/But a brief, dreamy, kind delight/O never give the heart outright).
One is led to believe that Yeats never quite got over his first love despite numerous affairs, nuptials and attempts to extricate himself from the continuum of those unrequited feelings. In time, his poetry began to reflect the seismic shifts in his personal as well as his political life. Much of his later work adopted a bleaker, more disillusioned voice lamenting the state of Ireland’s cultural landscape and the emergence of the Irish Free State. Paradoxically, this antiquarian bard with a love of esoteric mysteries was the most contemporary of his peers and the one who still resonates most profoundly with our present anxieties and disillusionments. Yeats’ new take on things is most clearly encapsulated in September 1913, with the resounding refrain, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” Later still, Yeats’ work once again took on a more personal vein; his subjects began to include his children and the onslaught of senescence. In the poem The Circus Animals’ Desertion, published in his last collection, Yeats describes the inspiration for these works by saying: “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.” All in all, Yeats was an incredible poet with an incredibly interesting but torturous life, which makes me think that John Berryman’s desire to be Yeats rather than be like him was somewhat misplaced, because I get the distinct impression that oftentimes even Yeats didn’t want to be Yeats.