Thursday, April 14, 2016

Elder artists, 3: Yeats

Poetry Ireland

Maurice Harmon, "Old Age and Creativity"
Poetry Ireland May/June 2012

The question is what happens when the poet reaches old age. Does he discover new subject matter and different techniques? There are no simple answers. Very often the subjects that preoccupied him in the past still interest him although he may approach them from a different angle and in a different tone. W B Yeats made growing old itself an issue. He did not like it, hated the loss of physical strength and the waning of sexual energy. In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ he declared, ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing’ unless ‘Soul clap its hands and sing’, unless he can counter physical decline with imaginative intensity. He proceeds to make conflict central to his later work, dramatising and imagining the contrast between youth and age, past and present, stability and change. In the process his style changed from the ringing declarations of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ to the compressed power of ‘Leda and the Swan’ to ballad forms in Last Poems. He was that kind of poet, constantly remaking himself and becoming remarkably vigorous in old age. In these years he also extended his intellectual range, placing his sense of personal loss within the contexts of civilisations rising and falling.


The wonderful Louise Bogan on Yeats,
The Atlantic 1938

Muse and poet
William Butler Yeats, at the age of seventy-three, stands well within the company of the great poets. He is still writing, and the poems which now appear, usually embedded in short plays or set into the commentary and prefaces which have been another preoccupation of his later years, are, in many instances, as vigorous and as subtle as the poems written by him during the years ordinarily considered to be the period of a poet's maturity. Yeats has advanced into age with his art strengthened by a long battle which had as its object a literature written by Irishmen fit to take its place among the noble literatures of the world. The spectacle of a poet's work invigorated by his lifelong struggle against the artistic inertia of his nation is one that would shed strong light into any era. The phenomenon of a poet who enjoys continued development into the beginning of old age is in itself rare. Goethe, Sophocles, and, in a lesser degree, Milton come to mind as men whose last works burned with the gathered fuel of their lives. More often development, in a poet, comes to a full stop; and it is frequently a negation of the ideals of his youth, as well as a declination of his powers, that throws a shadow across his final pages.

Yeats's faith in the development of his own powers has never failed. He wrote, in 1923, after receiving from the King of Sweden the medal symbolizing the Nobel Prize:—
It shows a young man listening to a Muse, who stands young and beautiful with a great lyre in her hand, and I think as I examine it, "I was good-looking once like that young man, but my unpractised verse was full of infirmity, my Muse old as it were, and now I am old and rheumatic and nothing to look at, but my Muse is young." I am even persuaded that she is like those Angels in Swedenborg's vision, and moves perpetually "towards the dayspring of her youth."

Monkey postscript

Despite the proliferation of testicular tales, no "monkey glands" were involved in Yeats's self-renewal. He did have a vasectomy, an enactment of what Susan Johnston Graf called "sexual magic," evidently a belief that the "vital energy of procreation would be channeled into imaginary, literary, and visionary work" (W. B. Yeats: Twentieth-Century Magus, p. 203)

Graf suggests that, as Kathleen Raine--a follower of Yeats and Blake, and a poet worth reading--pointed out, the operation (and other sometimes-embarrassing-to-scholars facts like an interest in the occult) may have been one element that allowed a new flowering. His belief in its efficacy, that is, may have contributed to his powers in his late writing. If you really (really, now!) want to know more, you can google "Yeats" and "Steinach operation" to find out heaps more. Richard Ellmann and others have attempted to put the wilder stories to bed, so to speak, but it seems the rumors are a bit too lively to suppress.


  1. Oh, yes, I like the idea/image of the soul clapping hands even when everything else is falling apart. You have made my day!

    1. There is such mythic vigor in his defiance.

    2. Marly, Sunday I will have a pre-programmed posting at Emily Dickinson ("I never lost as much but twice") at The Writers' Almanac in which only Yeats' defiance is my saving grace. Stay tuned.

    3. Enjoy your long dalliance with Miss Emily! Catch you later--

    4. Correction: That Sunday event became Thursday evening's event; it is now posted.

    5. Shall get there--running around the village, doing birthday and kid-errands!

  2. Yeats just became better and better as he aged. Yeats's own comment about his creative powers in old age in his description of the Nobel Prize medal for poetry is matched by the lines RT is referring to, in the wonderful voyage to Byzantium:

    "An aged man is but a paltry thing,
    A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
    Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
    For every tatter in its mortal dress,
    Nor is there singing school but studying
    Monuments of its own magnificence;
    And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
    To the holy city of Byzantium."

    And with that he begins again, invoking the Muses of antiquity:

    "O sages standing in God’s holy fire
    As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
    Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
    And be the singing-masters of my soul.
    Consume my heart away; sick with desire
    And fastened to a dying animal
    It knows not what it is; and gather me
    Into the artifice of eternity."

    And now, Yeats gets better as his readers age. I've loved these lines since I first read them 40 years ago or so, and love them more dearly the more tatters rend my coat.

    1. Yeats wears extremely well, I find! And yes, I love those lines. And they do mean more as time wears us, or we it.

  3. "whose last works burned with the gathered fuel of their lives": resplendent! a thread of mythology has carried the continuous idea that certain savants live their lives backwards. i first read about that somewhere as being true of merlin; maybe in e.b. white...?

    1. Oh, The Once and Future King...

      “Now ordinary people are born forwards in Time, if you understand what I mean, and nearly everything in the world goes forward too. This makes it quite easy for the ordinary people to live, just as it would be easy to join those five dots into a W if you were allowed to look at them forwards, instead of backwards and inside out. But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind. Some people call it having a second sight.”


      “You see, one gets confused with Time, when it is like that. All one’s tenses get muddled, for one thing. If you know what is going to happen to people, and not what has happened to them, it makes it difficult to prevent it happening, if you don’t want it to have happened, if you see what I mean? Like drawing in a mirror.”

      But I believe Merlin remembering the future begins with Le Morte d'Arthur, doesn't it? And Malory is 15th century...

      Here's what Merlin says when he meets Uther Pendragon:

      Sir, said Merlin, I know all your heart every deal; so ye will be sworn unto me as ye be a true king anointed, to fulfil my desire, ye shall have your desire. Then the king was sworn upon the Four Evangelists. Sir, said Merlin, this is my desire: the first night that ye shall lie by Igraine ye shall get a child on her, and when that is born, that it shall be delivered to me for to nourish there as I will have it; for it shall be your worship, and the child’s avail, as mickle as the child is worth. I will well, said the king, as thou wilt have it. Now make you ready, said Merlin, this night ye shall lie with Igraine....


      I do like Yeats's idea of starting out with a feeble muse who grows young and strong, though many a poet would be glad for the minor reputation Yeats would have had if he had stopped after a few books.

      * * *

      My most recent book tells a life backward--that is, each new section in the book moves farther into the past, although within that section, things move forward. Sounds confusing, though people say it isn't. So far!

  4. i missed that in Malory. last week i started "Morte d'Arthur" and after forty pages, at which point fifty thousand knights had been slaughtered and horses were galloping about up to their fetlocks in blood, i quit. yuk...

    1. Well, I guess you're not watching "Game of Thrones," then.

      Kidding aside, I hadn't read any Malory in decades when I went and looked for Merlin... Didn't remember it being quite so sweeping in bloodiness!

  5. i think there's something wrong with me. humans have always liked murder and war and i don't. i'm not normal. thank goodness...

    1. Wouldn't it be nice if everybody was not normal in that way? I would like that.

  6. Nah, poets don't get old. They tend to be born old, they need the support of discipline, restraint, patience, stamina, tenacity and reflection to get where they need to go. All elderly qualities. Inspiration, misconceived as belonging exclusively to youth, can blow through anyone's window; athough important it is roughly the equivalent of marking out the site of a new and better version of - let's say - the Sydney Opera House (this time without the architectural contradictions). Five percent as against ninety-five percent sweat, with the added difficulty that the sweat must be unspoken and remain invisible. There's only one one-way street between the idea and its transition to the finished article, and that's via a series of bouts with the famous all-in wrestler, Dr Impossible. All poems should start out as impossible projects; disbelief is a better servant than confidence.

    Which possibly explains why I haven't written any verse worth a damn. I know my own failings a bit too well:

    The language of a verse demands a blur
    Else why not take the compass point of prose?
    Why hint, evade, constrain, fail to concur
    When truth and clarity all worth enclose?

    But then I had the bad luck to be born an adolescent, born to suffer instead of being born to transmute suffering. One gathers one's rosebuds and - to my delight - I am cast a rosebud in your epilogue regarding Yeats and elderliness. He and I share a surgical experience. Might this be an omen? If not, possibly a gnomon. I have waited a lifetime to use that word.

    1. The idea of being born old and tenacious as a poet... I'm thinking of various young people I have known who wanted to be some kind of artist. And yet they didn't have the grit, even though they were regarded as awash in talents by others. It's curious how much unthinking strength it takes to continue, for most, in the face of the world, not because the world actively opposes the effort--though sometimes a parent or some other person does--but because the world really doesn't care whether we strive for mastery in an art. (On the other hand, feeling the world's whimsical support early on can be bad for the work. What a puzzle it is.)

      And yes, it is best to be launching out into the unknown, rather than treading familiar ground. Long works tend to feel the most impossible--some imaginary track to come that's not yet seen as more than a dreamy tendril in the mind.

      You can be seen here as either harsh on yourself or clear-sighted and brave. Either way, the effort of self-assessment seems admirable. (But you need to write an omen - gnomon verse, all the same.) A few things strike me in response to what you say.

      One, I don't think that I've ever tried to assess exactly how good I am, perhaps because I simply can't conceive of how people manage without making poems or stories (or making something.) Perhaps this is because I've just been too intent on whatever has seized my attention at the moment. Perhaps it is because I am woefully stubborn in my word-pleasures.

      In fact, when young people have asked some question that veers toward "how good" they are, I've tended to say that they should wait and see what life does to them and what they do in response. My impression is that most people fall away just when they should be hanging on--except that, for most people, perhaps life is not about hanging on in that way. Perhaps those who do are just slantdicular from the healthy norm?

      Two. On the surface, your self-assessment doesn't appear to have made a striking difference in what you do with your time, at least in the older version of you. You are involved in poetry and stories and music and I-don't-know-what. So perhaps making things is not about leaping a certain bar at all. Perhaps it's more about being a part of and helping to make up the sea of art and culture in which all art-fishes and art-fishers swim.

      Perhaps it's simply about living a larger life. "To wrestle with the world foretells a fall . . . hold the high way," as Chaucer says (via a Van Dyke translation.)

      Three. Confession. I can't imagine life without visits from the Muse. A visitation (a real one, not just a playing with words that also produces poems, sometimes very good ones) is such a strange, delightful, delicious waterfall from another world. It gives me a kind of vertigo to consider life without it. Is that a good thing? I expect the answer would be debatable for many.

      And just because one has a visitation does not mean that the net of words is successfully woven and cast so that the power and joy of the thing is caught and held. To keep dreaming toward those moments: perhaps this is a rather strange way to navigate a life.

    2. Mea culpa. So long! These little reply boxes are deceptive.

  7. I'm not sure I deserved such an attentive and thorough response. I fear I enjoy playing the crusty old laggard rather too much for my own good, and certainly for those whose sites I trespass on. Alas you have the knack of transforming my cyber-feuilletons into something worthwhile and I find that hard to resist.

    Self-judgment. Individual lines, couplets and even sub-stanzas of sonnets may work, may ring out; but I look again and remind myself that the aim was to arrive at something complete, that held together from end to end. Not a daisy chain.

    This one ultimately fails for another reason, over-compression; an ineradicable weakness given my former trade

    Janet Baker (mezzo-sop). Elevated
    by Britain for her singing

    Stark contrast with the manly role of knight
    The faintly pantomimic joke of dame
    Arrived, the way things do, as a polite
    If regal tick against the box of fame.

    Singer and monarch shared the irony
    Of heavy faces and of reticence
    And thus the honour’s ambiguity
    Tended towards the side of temperance.

    A world away from deep-set souvenirs
    Of Dido, Dorabella, Orfeo
    The Mahler songs and Handel’s baroque airs:
    Intemperate outcome of a voice aglow.

    The titled name a grace note lacking grace,
    The music permanent in time and space.

    I campaign on behalf of editing and re-editing, of having second or fifteenth thoughts. But ultimately any piece of verse is, for better or for worse, finished. It is accorded some form of permanence and then its real nature becomes apparent. The urge to meddle rises up, together with its mirror-image: no, leave it alone, let it serve as a reminder. This was the best you could do at the time.

    Still discontented? Remember Brahms, a lyric composer, the last of the Romantics, ever-careful in how he wrote, a smallish output given his age (64). Just before his death he burned a stack of MSs of completed works. If one claims to have high standards then why not exercise them? Have you ever deleted a completed poem for good? I don't think I have; abject standards may have stayed my hand. Luckily I may revel in the good Johannes's violin concerto.

    1. I am about to whip out the door, so I'll just say that I don't regret the poems I tossed from my 20's. What I do regret is tossing the ones I wrote from 16-20 because they were full of youth and dreaminess, and I think that they would touch me now. But yes, I've thrown a ton of poems away. Probably should have tossed more.

      I'm still thinking about whether I should cut more from "The Book of the Red King," which will go out soon. It's sort of a cross between a novel and a book of poems, so the lesser poems bolster the novelish aspect and add certain dimensions to the whole. Still puzzling me.

      It's too bad that "Lady" is reserved for hereditary titles, isn't it? Sounds so much better. There's a large built-in challenge to working on a subject that is, in some way, a kind of stodginess, even if you do set a fire against it... I like it that your weirdest rhyme is where you want to burn down the tidy boxes of the first two stanzas. Orfeo / voice aglow.

      Orf I go--

  8. You're impossibly kind (and courageous too re those discarded poems). Were the UK ever minded to award you an honour I'd recommend Gentlewoman. As to Red King, still incomplete as I understand it, if the thought of cutting has crossed your mind then it may be you've subconsciously identified the need. But I can't bring myself to insist; in this instance it would be like McGonagall urging Keats towards a better understanding of poetic rhythm. I treasure "weirdest rhyme", may have it embroidered on my PJs.

    1. I want: mp3 of your voice; photograph of you in the pajamas! McGonagall and Keats: I'm not sure who you are teasing, yourself or me or both....

  9. well, he sounds sincere... i wouldn't discard anything; just don't include some it. it's like fixing a car: you never know when you might need that old king pin... That RR is a very talented writerperson; i wonder if he's read Melville?

    1. Well, maybe he will reply and let you know!

      I expect that I'll dither a while longer....


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.