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Friday, June 17, 2011

The symbol in poetry

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


  1. This critic seems extremely perceptive. I must dip into his work sometime. It will probably have to wait till I finished teaching this class. RIght now, I am dying for some good fiction to read, and I could use another short story from the pov of a child to have in my back pocket, in case I run out of things to say about the 3 works I have put into the syllabus. Any suggestions? I will need to put up a copy of whatever it is on the class Blackboard site for students to download. It is too late to order books.

  2. Kaftka, "Children on a Country Road."

    Were you doing Katherine Anne Porter? And Henry James? Or am I hallucinating a faux memory?

    Flannery O'Connor, "The River." And O'Connor has wonderful things to say about the short story in her collection of essays--and a really interesting paper topic would be to look at some aspect of narration and compare it to the way a very similar story is made in "The Lame Shall Enter First."

    I have a number with child narrators, but the one I thought of immediately was "A Child in Summer," set in south Georgia--published in a lit mag and anthologized in poet Michael McFee's anthology, THIS IS WHERE WE LIVE (UNC Press.) It is not a plot-driven story, though.

    Okay, there are some ideas... Maybe somebody else will leave some more!

  3. The glimpses you give of these ideas were too fascinating. Amazon ordered! ($1-99 - free shipping!)

    This talk of symbols I find fascinating!
    Totems of the essentially elusive.

    Will read : )

  4. While I think him especially interesting if you know Yeats, I think the book is quite readable even without knowing a lot about Yeats...

  5. Thanks Marly. I was going to teach What Maisie Knew, but it is too long for an 8 week class and too difficult. I am first doing a comparison of two poems with child speakers: "First Death in Nova Scotia" and "The Portrait" (Bishop and Kunitz). Then the film Pan's Labyrinth, and finally the Butler story "Bloodchild." In case I finish early, I need some other short piece I can just post on Blackboard and let the students download. If I can find the Kafka or O'Connor, that will work. You'd have to grant me permission to post the story on Blackboard and teach it that way; it's too late to buy books, and I might end up not using it anyway.

  6. Well, that would be fine, but I imagine you may not need anything at all in summer class. Just let me know if you do. I think the O'Connor would work fine (bit long, maybe? I can't remember) and the Kafka as well.

  7. I don't really get the Kafka. I love much of his work... not particularly that one. I think I will use Munro's "Dance of the Happy Shades." I just ordered a copy from Amazon Marketplace, and can have the students copy it. That's okay, as long as I don't give them copies.

  8. It is an early one, I think... So Munro it is: very good, you are set.

    Now I go back to cleaning for the progeny's company. Drat.

  9. This kmakes fascinating reading. I also like the ideas you've given Robbie in your comments. I shall be basck to peruse!!

  10. I love YEats, "When You are Old" was the first poem I ever memorized.

  11. Jan is blogging again? Shall go and see what you are doing when company departs!

  12. Susanna, you have good taste, honey chile!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.