|Because I do not have a picture of a golden nightingale,|
I shall instead toss in some birds-of-paradise...
Siem Reap, Cambodia, Fall 2009
I am still enjoying Donald A. Stauffer's The Golden Nightingale: Essays on Some Principles of Poetry in the Lyrics of William Butler Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1949.) I love the way he used Yeats as a kind of lens to say larger things about poetry.
Professor Stauffer held degrees from the University of Colorado, Princeton, and Oxford; he was a longtime professor at Princeton, a Rhodes scholar, a Guggenheim recipient. Like so many of his generation, he was also schooled in war, a Marine and an Air Combat Intelligence Officer. He wrote a number of books, including a novel and critical books on the nature of poetry and the "intent" of the critic. As a thoughtful critic, he appears to have been useful to both other critics and to poets, and that is an aim almost lost in our time. He died at 50, only three years after this book was published.
Here he is on symbols and Yeats.
* * *
"I am now certain," Yeats writes, "that the imagination has some way of lighting on the truth that the reason has not." What are the characteristics of these imaginative poetic symbols?
1. Each is unified and indivisible.
2. Each has a meaning--since Yeats is no theorist of "pure poetry," content to rest in the ineffable name.
3. Though a symbol is as indivisble as a perfect sphere, one may view its hemispheres, seeing the permanent expressed in the particular, the dreaming in the waking, the boundless in the bounded.
4. This complex meaning is untranslatable; it cannot satisfactorily be expressed in other terms.
5. Each symbols is inexhaustibly suggestive, rooted in the past, whether the past is that of the artist or of mankind.
6. Each symbol has a moral meaning, in the wide sense that a sympathetic awareness of reality makes men better.
7. Each symbol is self-creating, and cannot be deliberately sought.
8. Each symbol grows slowly, its existence often realized before its meaning is understood.
9. Every artist has his central symbol, or a group of related symbols that form a dominating symbolic pattern.
10. And finally, this unified symbol constitutes a revelation.
This, then, is Yeats's decalogue on symbolism, consistently expressed throughout his writings and exemplified in his poems. His own words may give body and beauty to these related propositions, with reinforcements and echoes in the notes. A poetic symbol is unified, meaningful, complex, untranslatable, inexhaustibly suggestive, moral, self-creating, slow-growing, centrally important, and revelatory.
* * *
I must leave my myths and symbols to explain themselves as the years go by and one poem lights up another.
--Yeats, Poems, 1912