I’ve been thinking a great deal about Yeats this weekend, as a result of reading an essay by Adrienne Rich. In Blood, Bread and Poetry, Rich writes of reading Yeats in her student years, and speaks of
“this dialogue between art and politics that excited me in his work, along with the sound of his language – never his elaborate mythological systems. I know I learned two things from his poetry, and those two things were at war with each other. One was that poetry can be “about”, can root itself in, politics. Even if it is a defense of privilege, even if deplores political rebellion and revolution, it can, may have to, account for itself politically, consciously situate itself amid political conditions, without sacrificing intensity of language.”
This surprised me, for two reasons. First, because I’ve never thought of Yeats as an especially political poet. This is a man, after all, who wrote in ‘On Being Asked For A War Poem’ that “I think it better in times like these / A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth / We have no gift to set a statesman right”. And second, because much as I’ve always loved Yeats poetry I can’t help thinking of him as conservative, reactionary, and patriarchal to the point of misogyny – everything, in short, that Adrienne Rich spent her career fighting against. It’s true that Rich goes on to call Yeats out for this, the other thing she ‘learnt’ from his poems she says, is “that politics leads to ‘bitterness’ and ‘abstractness’ of mind, makes women shrill and hysterical, and is finally a waste of beauty and talent.” Yet her she is, decades later, acknowledging Yeats for introducing her to the political potential of poetry.
Thinking about it, it seems to me that in the end Yeats was too good a poet to be either political or apolitical.
On the one hand, as a poet living in, and responding to, a turbulent time in a turbulent place, Yeats cannot exclude the political from his work without being untrue to the world around him (which, of course, is Rich’s point), and the same gifts of heightened language and human insight that he brings to the service of his preferred themes are also used to render the political vivid. This is where I think Rich is not quite right – the intensity of Yeats’ language is not something that survives inspite of the political content of his poems, it is the reason his poems are as political as they are. If the poems continue to resonate with us, if lines like
“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
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”
still speak to us with the thrill of a familiar despair, it is because they are lines forged in the same furnace of genius, lines made from the same fusion of language and understanding that gives Yeats other poems their metal. This is what Auden meant when he said that poetry (and specifically Yeats’ poetry) “survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth.”
On the other hand, Yeats is also too good a poet to let ideology trump sympathy, so that even when his poems are informed by a point of view (and this being Yeats usually a reactionary and patriarchal point of view), they are never overwhelmed by it. In the hands of a lesser poet, the characters in these poems would be mere ciphers, but Yeats breathes life into them, and in doing so gives them the substance to resist the very ideas they are meant to embody. Consider ‘On a Political Prisoner‘, the poem Rich is undoubtedly thinking of when she speaks of politics making a woman “a bitter, an abstract thing”. Yeats does say this, in those exact words, but here is the opening stanza of the poem:
“She that but little patience knew,
From childhood on, had now so much
A grey gull lost its fear and flew
Down to her cell and there alit,
And there endured her fingers’ touch
And from her fingers ate its bit.”
Is it really possible, having read those words, to see this woman, imprisoned in her cell, as a bitter, abstract thing? Yeats’ sympathy for his own creation has turned her into something more – a human being – something more than an idea, something, or someone, beyond politics. As Yeats says himself in The Circus Animals’ Desertion:
“and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.”
This then is the balance Rich is sensing, the balance between art and politics, between empathy and ideology. It seems to me that is precisely this balance, this ability to be neither political nor apolitical that makes Yeats a great poet. Some of his finest poems succeed by distancing themselves from the politics of a political act or event, and focusing instead on the human response to it. So we have the lonely Irish Airman (in a poem that is breathtaking in its balance!) who fights for “Nor law, nor duty” but for “A lonely impulse of delight”, or the political dissidents executed on Easter, 1916, of whom Yeats writes:
“We know their dream, enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
These lines succeed, it seems to me, because they celebrate the men without championing their cause. A more ‘political’ poet, one who shared their revolutionary fervor, might have written a more laudatory poem, one that would have rung false to our later ears. Yeats’ poem resonates in part because its position is one we can more easily relate to, can admire courage in convictions even if they are not convictions we personally share. (It also succeeds, of course, because it is stunningly, beautifully expressed).
And isn’t that, after all, why we value poetry, those of us who do? For its ability to deliver more than either idea or feeling, its capacity to be insightful without being doctrinaire? For the way it expresses something that is both profoundly real and personal, but also universally, or at least more generally, true? What the young Adrienne Rich senses in Yeats’ poems (and goes on to use to such powerful effect in her own) is this ability of the poem to be political without being about politics, true to its context – its moment and location – but not defined by it. It is a lesson many a ‘political’ writer would do well to heed.