Old, Old, Old, Old, Old
- W.B. Yeats: A Life. Vol. II: The Arch-Poet 1915-39 by Roy Foster
Oxford, 822 pp, £16.99, March 2005, ISBN 0 19 280609 2
The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 1938. An old pedlar and his young son stand on a moonlit stage bare but for the ruins of a great house and a leafless tree. The Old Man declares that the house is still inhabited, by the ghost of his mother, heir to the estate, who brought destruction on it when she married his low-born, wastrel father. A light comes on in a shattered window. It is the spirit of the mother, condemned to relive in remorse, over and over again, her passionate wedding night. Ghostly hoofbeats announce her husband’s return from the pub. The Old Man becomes the witness of his own conception. In a wild attempt to stop the cycle of suffering, he stabs his son with the same jack-knife he had used to murder his father. As the tragedy ends, the drumming hoofbeats resume.
Purgatory is one of the boldest works of Yeats’s turbulent old age. Its reassertion, in the Old Man’s speeches, of the glories of the Protestant Ascendancy, and its unorthodox view of the afterlife, were an affront to newly independent Catholic Ireland, and its brutal subject-matter still has the power to shock. Yet the huge body of scholarship that had begun to grow up around Yeats even before he wrote the play has tended to muffle its strangeness. It is the great achievement of the second volume of Roy Foster’s superb biography that it delivers us late Yeats in all his troublesome immediacy. Foster does this not just by cutting across the record with new facts from the archive – itself a considerable feat, given that half a dozen biographers have already been over the ground – but by constantly reconfiguring what seems familiar. He agrees, for instance, that Purgatory is based on gossip in Yeats’s part of Galway about the St Georges of Tyrone House, a once grand family whose daughters married working men from the yard. But as one of the leading historians of modern Ireland, Foster is able to place the St Georges in the long, anxious story of Ascendancy decline. He explains that Protestants in the Free State feared cross-bred dissolution and that this drew Yeats to right-wing racial politics; he also provides a magisterial reassessment of the poet’s late advocacy of eugenics.
Foster is equally well informed about literary tradition. In his first major foray into Yeats studies, an essay called ‘Protestant Magic’ (1989), he placed Purgatory in a line of Irish Protestant Gothic that went back through Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the novels of Maturin. This instantly made sense of the melodramatic elements of the play, its requiring tragedy to speak – as so often in late Yeats – through defiantly insistent clichés (the haunted house, polluted blood) as well as wayward lore. ‘Protestant Magic’ created a stir by arguing that Yeats’s attraction to the occult and supernatural was neither eccentric nor especially gullible but typical of the Anglo-Irish, who envied the consoling rituals and superstitions of the Catholic peasantry and sought their own equivalents. In the first volume of his biography, The Apprentice Mage (1997), Foster developed this thesis by exploring Yeats’s early enthusiasm for Blake, folk superstition, and that quintessence of suburban occultism, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Purgatory is able to figure as something of a climax in Volume II because the same interests continued into the 1930s.
Though references to Freud and Jung trickle through this biography, Foster underestimates the connection between Yeats’s studies in magic and folklore and his receptive affinity with psychoanalysis. His conclusion that ‘the eugenic, historical and social preoccupations’ of Purgatory provide ‘its motive power and dramatic resonance’ claim rather too much for the play’s socio-political setting. Compared with other plays about the decline of the Big House elite, such as The Cherry Orchard or Miss Julie, Purgatory is more darkly driven by dream-work, death-directedness and compulsive repetition – all preoccupations of Freud during the interwar years. What Yeats once scribbled in a copy of Nietzsche, ‘the night – knowledge – inaction … from dreams the days work’, could almost be a gloss on the play’s composition. He told a friend that it grew out of a deep and fearful nightmare. And the Old Man cries ‘O God,/Release my mother’s soul from its dream!’ because, according to Yeats’s belief system, the dead woman is trapped in a cycle of traumatic repetition called ‘the dreaming back’.
It would be wrong to suggest, however, that Foster overlooks the eclecticism of Yeats’s formation. From Sophocles to Madame Blavatsky, Bishop Berkeley to Cumann na nGaedheal, the whole array of influences is set out. Foster understands both Yeats’s autodidactic urge to know everything and become a sage, and his creative need as a poet to read for stimulation rather than truth. Not all of his reading was elevated: detective fiction became a favourite. One of the advantages of getting older, Yeats remarked – and The Arch-Poet is very much the story of how he came to terms with ageing – is that one becomes tolerant of ‘mere entertainment’. Above all, Foster recognises that the energy of Yeats’s engagement with ideas could be more important to him as a poet than the quality of those ideas (many of which were frankly as daft as a ouija board). After reading The Arch-Poet one understands why the contemporaries who called Yeats ‘Silly Willie’ were nevertheless in awe of his intellectual force and subtlety.
Yet the poet remains a challenge even to the prodigiously knowledgable Foster. This is partly because the most important influence on Yeats was his own work, both the writing of it and what each poem or play made possible beyond it. He developed as an artist through the arduous, deliberated labour of composition. It is astonishing to see the feeble beginnings of such great poems as ‘Byzantium’. Even a piece like Purgatory, which took shape with driven celerity, by Yeats’s standards, went through complicating drafts. Each published poem and play changed Yeats’s view of himself, as well as how others saw him: a process that fed back into the self and shadow presented in the verse. So an account of the growth of his mind has to be steeped in literary analysis to a degree unusual in biography. The problem is the more pressing because Yeats freed himself to write by striking attitudes, assuming personas or, as he put it doctrinally, by forging the mask of his opposite. A biographer can demystify Yeats’s theorising about this, but it remains hard to track an identity that so often proclaimed the converse of what it felt like to be living the life.
Reviewers of The Apprentice Mage regretted Foster’s reluctance to indulge in literary criticism. In The Arch-Poet he is less cautious, but his detailed discussion can be wooden, as when he says of the grandiose, delicate and lurid ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ that ‘it balances vision and concreteness with an equal audacity, and similarly manipulates a sequence to confer variety of form and freedom for exploration.’ This external way with texts works better when Foster is outlining entire poems and plays. His judgments then seem tactful rather than mechanical. Yet there remains a larger problem. Whether it is the historian in him, or the difficulty that anyone would have in characterising biographically so dialectically subjective a writer, Foster sometimes fleshes out his analyses of literary works by importing material from the life that does not belong there.
In Purgatory, for instance, the Old Man praises the burnt-out Big House in terms that resemble Yeats’s poems about Coole Park, the home of his patron and collaborator Lady Gregory:
Great people lived and died in this house;
Magistrates, colonels, members of Parliament,
Captains and Governors, and long ago
Men that had fought at Aughrim and the Boyne.
Some that had gone on Government work
To London or to India came home to die,
Or came from London every spring
To look at the may-blossom in the park.
‘While there has been some ingenious critical discussion about the extent to which the Old Man is an unreliable narrator,’ Foster declares, ‘his evocation of Coole expresses the playwright’s own emotions.’ Yet even if Coole was on Yeats’s mind, that tells us nothing about what the Old Man evokes in and for a play which makes no mention of the place. This objection may be purist, but by neglecting it Foster is led to insinuate that the thinness of the passage stems from artistic failure. That the Big House is ‘unconvincingly idealised’ may rather tell us something about the character of the Old Man, and, beyond that, what he taught Yeats about his own attitudes. This, for Yeats, was how drama worked. As he told Sean O’Casey, when rejecting The Silver Tassie for performance at the Abbey, Shakespeare did not fill Hamlet and Lear with his own beliefs, but gave those characters a life that allowed them to educate him.
It is crucial, in other words, to triangulate biographical data with the polarities of meaning in the play. Once the Old Man’s son speaks, the balance shifts. When the Boy says, ‘What’s right and wrong?/My grand-dad got the girl and the money,’ the audience warms (as Yeats audibly did) to his irreverent telling of a truth. Because this is a play in which values are contested, anything ‘unconvincing’ in the Old Man’s rhetoric registers as the inadequacy one would expect in such a self-despising and, by his own lights, debased character. This is what makes him more educative for the dramatist than a calculatedly ‘unreliable narrator’ could be. His value system does not stack up convincingly even against that of his son, who represents what the poet, in an interview about the play, called ‘a new individualistic generation’.
A second limitation of this biography is the product of one of its strengths: Foster’s decision to move forward on all fronts chronologically. This is extraordinarily hard because of the many strands of narrative it is necessary to keep in play, and Foster succeeds brilliantly, not just in carrying the reader along but in generating insights. By catching motives and actions almost before they condense, he counters the tendency – evident in Yeats’s highly inventive Autobiographies, which for so long shaped accounts – to solidify his life through hindsight. Much can be learned simply by setting out details of the composition and publication of such works as ‘Easter 1916’ (held back from print for several years). By proceeding in this way, however, Foster gives up the chance to explore important elements of Yeats’s life with the connectedness they had for the poet, who kept them brewing and evolving in his verse. Even such basic questions as what Yeats, at the time of Purgatory, took an Old Man to be, cannot be answered without drawing on a mass of poems and plays. The same could be said for the destructive passion that Yeats came to regard as integral to old age. Almost despite its detail, The Arch-Poet keeps showing how creative Yeats found the synergy between ageing and hatred.
He had been imagining what it would mean to be old since he was about the age of the Boy in Purgatory. His earliest books include such monologues as ‘The Meditation of the Old Fisherman’ and ‘The Song of the Old Mother’. Ageing for these speakers is a lamentable process, any association with the nobility of ‘old Eire and the ancient ways’ merely adjectival. At about the time The Arch-Poet begins, the psychology became more involved, because Yeats was conscious, at 50, of the imminence of his own old age. The problem was exacerbated by a sense that he was still living like a young man, with no wife, no home and, as he confessed to his ancestors (‘Pardon, old fathers’) in the dedication to Responsibilities, no child. His body, like his inspiration, could feel both young and old: ‘I … dramatise myself, very much as I have seen a mad old woman do upon the Dublin quays, and sometimes detect myself speaking and moving as if I were still young, or walking perhaps like an old man with fumbling steps.’ But this enabling tension between youth and age (Yeats was never so commonplace as to be merely middle-aged) was incipiently a source of anguish.
The predicament was explored in the Noh-inspired drama At the Hawk’s Well (1917), which dominates the first chapter of The Arch-Poet much as Purgatory gives focus to its ending. Again we are presented with an Old Man and a young. They meet beneath another bare tree, where the water of immortality sometimes bubbles up. The Old Man has been waiting to drink for more than half a century, but is always distracted from the prize by a woman of the Sidhe who guards the well in the guise of a hawk. The youth is the hero Cuchulain, confident that luck and courage will quickly win him the water. When the Old Man urges the newcomer not to waste his youth in waiting, we see Yeats probing his fear that the toil of his career and his frustrated love for Maud Gonne have consumed his best years. Cuchulain, however, suspects that the Old Man is trying to scare him away, and the two begin to wrangle, as their successors would in Purgatory. While water splashes on the stones, the Old Man sleeps and the hero is lured away by the hawk. The play ends with a song in praise of marriage, family life, an old hearth.
Before the Cuchulain in Yeats could shrivel into an Old Man, a wife turned up. The handsome, self-assured George Hyde Lees proved an excellent match. She understood the pressures of Yeats’s artistic life, and was tolerant, later on, of his wanderlust and womanising. Though an initiate of the Golden Dawn, she had a robustly practical intelligence. Her comments about poetry add zest whenever Foster quotes them, and they may have done something to curb her husband’s appetite for mystical obscurity: ‘There’s nothing in his verse worth preserving but the personal. All the pseudo-mystico-intellecto-nationalistico stuff … isn’t worth a trouser-button.’ Above all, she gave Yeats the children that almost made ageing bearable. That is one reason the Old Man in Purgatory is more a mask than a front. Yeats could hardly succumb to the play’s despair about fatherhood when he knew that its performance would help the career of his daughter, Anne, who was an artist. The skilful minimalism of her set designs contributed to its success at the Abbey.
Early on, the marriage was fraught, because the ageing youth in Yeats had not got over Maud Gonne, and because Maud’s daughter, Iseult, was now of an age to beguile. The letters Yeats sent George after their engagement read like tepid attempts to persuade himself that everything would be all right: ‘Let us begin at once our life of study, of common interests & hopes. Lady Gregory is very pleased at the thought of our marriage … I grow more fond of you every time we meet.’ Much less controlled than his prose, Yeats had some sort of breakdown (and Foster suspects that the marriage was not initially consummated). This was the moment George exploited her familiarity with spiritualism, claiming to receive messages from the beyond in the form of automatic writing. The historical and psychological speculation that found its way into the scribble, much of it divined from Yeats’s own thinking, was worked up by the poet and published in the involving, distracting Book of Everything known as A Vision (1925). More immediately, the spirit ‘instructors’ provided solid relationship counselling which Yeats chose to believe because it was supernaturally inspired.
In At the Hawk’s Well, Cuchulain has ‘an ancient house beyond the sea’. By pursuing a life of adventure he risks ending up like the Old Man with only a bare tree for shelter. Yeats was painfully aware that he had spent his life in lodgings and as a sometimes resented visitor at Coole Park. The other great breakthrough recorded in the opening chapters of The Arch-Poet is that, helped by his wife’s money, Yeats became the owner of a house in Georgian Dublin as well as a fortified tower near Coole. Thoor Ballylee had at its foot an ordinary cottage in which the family spent much of their time. When strutting his stuff, however, in poetry and beyond, Yeats presented the tower as an aristocratic emblem. Lady Gregory joked: ‘He already feels such an Irish landlord that he has begun by putting a mortgage on it.’ The tower resembled the house in Purgatory: roofless and dilapidated, it was a ruin inhabited by ghosts of the noble past.
If Purgatory has roots in the tower, it also grows out of Yeats’s devotion to his family as an idea. As early as 1919, the year of Anne’s birth, he was reformulating his poetics around the sub-Darwinian notion that poetry is written to guide the sexual choices of men and women as they found the family units that drive social progress. That his view of sexual selection was entirely unsacramental will not now seem strange, but it was loadedly irreligious in the Ireland of his time, and this helps explain why Yeats chose the proposed abolition of divorce as the issue over which, in 1925, he took his stand against the growing Catholic theocracy in the Free State. As often, more nuanced than commentators allow, Yeats said in print that he wanted ‘a modern, tolerant, liberal nation’. Addressing the Senate he was more atavistic. Citing the children who would follow him, as well as the old fathers who had gone before, he characterised the proposal as an attack on the rights of Protestants: ‘We against whom you have done this thing are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell.’ Foster shows how carefully this famous passage was crafted: Yeats lists Protestant patriots, names revered by Catholic nationalists, and makes no reference to the English connection. Foster also, rightly, stresses how contentious it was of Yeats to break the uneasy taboo around assertions of religious difference and Ascendancy superiority.
Yeats, already in training to write the Old Man’s speeches in Purgatory, was discovering the outspokenness of age. Still in his fifties, he announced: ‘I am writing nothing but curses upon old age which distress my wife who says I am not old enough to justify them. I am resisting Wordsworthian calm.’ The results of this admirable resistance are clear in his finest collection, The Tower (1928). Its glorious opening poem, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, declares but also demonstrates how, over the next decade, ageing would spur song:
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
The title-poem of the book is triggered by the poet’s resentment that his passionate imagination should be shackled to an old body. And in the sequence ‘A Man Young and Old’ he recollects without tranquillity his years as a Cuchulain, and revels in the sexual frankness and irascibility of age. The cycle ends with a translation from Oedipus at Colonus: ‘Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man.’
The fruits of age were bitter. Decrepitude was an ‘absurdity’ which called for absurd remedies. To make his hair grow thicker, Yeats stopped wearing a hat. To invigorate his always precarious potency, he underwent the Steinach operation: in practice, just a vasectomy, though it was rumoured to involve implanting monkey glands. What matter if he was laughed at; thanks to the procedure, he was up to enjoying the attention of sundry well-born and liberated women. Whether sexual adventure or old age made him more conscious of his body is hard to know, especially since, unusually, the two for him went together. After the effete eroticism of his early works, such late poems as ‘A Prayer for Old Age’ (1934) are startlingly committed to the corporeal.
Other benefits crept in. His biological age began to square with his ingrained conservatism. As the grey-haired remnant of an older social order, he could feel closer to the ‘old marble heads, old pictures’ on display at Coole, and more at home in Ballylee: ‘An ancient bridge, and a more ancient tower … Old ragged elms, old thorns innumerable’. He lived in hope of acquiring ‘an old man’s eagle mind’, and claimed for himself what he found in his old fathers back to Berkeley: ‘their sense of mystery as they grew old’. Composition became easier, because, he believed, we learn through experience how to harness the thrust of the subconscious (‘That is why as one grows older one gets happier’). And once the work was published, the world gave it an easier time. ‘It is a fine thing to be old,’ he drily told Ottoline Morrell, when a play got good reviews in quarters that had previously been hostile.
Yeats knew, however, that acceptance goes along with mediocrity and neglect, and he poked at the embers to keep himself imaginatively challenged. As late as ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, almost his final poem, he was reviewing half in mockery the ‘images’ that had been his life’s work, and stripping oldness of any positive associations he had built up:
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. 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.
Foster calls this ending ‘poignant and profound’, which offers too much comfort. Bleak, immediate, unappeasable, the stanza commands a big rhymed rhetoric as ‘masterful’ as the ‘images’ it recants but throws into that the comedy of the ‘raving slut’, the missing ladder, and the obsessive, wrong-footing beat of the counter-iambic keyword: old, old, old, old, old.
Yeats announces in this courageous poem that an early play, the Faustian Countess Cathleen, sprang from his fear that Maud Gonne was selling her soul to republicanism: ‘I thought my dear must her own soul destroy/So did fanaticism and hate enslave it.’ The notion that popular nationalism was an expression of hatred may indeed have been catalysed in his youth by his feelings about Gonne, but it was not firmed up until the howling down at the Abbey of J.M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World in 1907. The poem ‘On Those that Hated The Playboy of the Western World, 1907’ shows convictions forming that had hardened by the time The Arch-Poet begins. When Anne was born, Yeats wrote ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’ which started, the manuscripts reveal, from his hope that she would not turn out, like Gonne, to be a windy, opinionated demagogue. In a poem much preoccupied with the dangers of hatred, he warns Anne, to the irritation of feminist critics, that ‘an intellectual hatred is the worst.’
An apparently inconsistent claim that ‘arrogance and hatred are the wares/Peddled in the thoroughfares’ shows that Yeats’s view at this date owed as much to his reading of Nietzsche as it did to his experience of republicanism. Hatred, he was persuaded, was the resentment of the weak against the strong, the envy of the uncouth towards the independently cultivated. Understandably, given unrest in Dublin, but naively, given the long feuds of the Irish countryside, he believed that urbanisation, as the embodiment of mass democracy, exacerbated hatred. Not all his assertions were wrong-headed. He noted, for instance, that nationalist leaders whipped up hatred as a substitute for strength, and secured triumphs by exaggerating the significance of their opponents: ‘The greater the enemy, the greater the hatred, and therefore the greater seems the power.’ This insight no doubt sprang from an awareness that he himself mobilised antagonism in order to create a mask of strength. In ‘Coole Park, 1929’, he calls himself ‘one that ruffled in a manly pose/For all his timid heart’. He had, in any case, held the opinions that Anne was warned to avoid. ‘You are right – I think – in saying I was once a republican,’ he told Gonne, in 1927. ‘Today’, however, he went on:
I have one settled conviction ‘Create, draw a firm strong line & hate nothing whatever not even, if he be your most cherished belief – Satan himself’. I hate many things but I do my best, & once some fifteen years ago, for I think one whole hour, I was free from hate. Like Faust I said ‘stay moment’ but in vain. I think it was the only happiness I have ever known.
The middle chapters of The Arch-Poet are full of signs of a struggle between Yeats’s desire to relinquish hatred and his growing urge to acknowledge and work with it. This is the neglected context of his notorious flirtation with Fascism. When the leader of the Irish Blueshirts, General O’Duffy, met the poet in 1933, he was apparently given a tutorial on what Yeats called the Genealogical Tree of Revolution. One branch of this tree, descending from Nicholas de Cusa through Marx, involved ‘crushing the past, justifying hatred’, while the other reached down through Italian philosophy into a politics where ‘the past is honoured, hatred is condemned, the state is above the party, and Fascism is “the final aim”.’ This would be merely dishonest, given the way Fascism was stirring up hatred in Germany and Italy, had Yeats not acknowledged, by choosing the word ‘condemned’, the virulence he denied in the movement. Long attracted by authoritarian rhetoric, he had the susceptibility of such contemporaries as Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound to the politics of hatred. His infamous lines in ‘The Statues’ about the ‘filthy modern tide’ and its ‘formless, spawning, fury’ have the same period excess as D.H. Lawrence’s declaration: ‘To learn plainly to hate mankind, to detest the spawning human-being, that is the only cleanliness.’ The wilder shores of right-wing politics had an inevitable allure for a poet who revelled in contrariety. As Foster forgivingly points out, he shared Hitler’s liking for verbal shock-tactics. And, no doubt, like many others, he was tempted to hide his ‘timid heart’ by ‘ruffling’ in a blue or brown shirt.
Certainly, he espoused hatred at the very moment he was claiming to be protected from it by Fascism. ‘The Seven Sages’ (1931) gives voice to an imaginary group of old men who gripe about the world and imply the poet’s descent from Burke, Berkeley, Goldsmith, Swift: ‘four great minds that hated Whiggery’. This might be Dr Johnson calling Bathurst ‘a very good hater’ because ‘he hated a rogue, and he hated a Whig’: Yeats is trying out right-wing animus in an 18th-century guise. But the markers of a late paradigm were moving into position. Hatred is becoming the natural adjunct of age, underwritten by the authority Yeats derives from the old fathers. Older than Swift, in fact – to justify hatred, he went back to the early church. In ‘Ribh Considers Christian Love Insufficient’ (1934), the ‘old hermit’ of the title shuns love as an incomprehensible gift from God and declares: ‘I study hatred.’ Because it scours the soul, hatred now has entirely the opposite properties of those associated with it in ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’. By expelling commonplace opinion, it can draw us closer to God.
In any case, Yeats began to claim, he could not help being a hater. He was Irish, so it was congenital:
Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.
What this opening out of the hatred once attributed to nationalism did to Yeats’s relationship with Irishness is an intriguing question. In the magnificent, slightly demented ‘General Introduction for My Work’, written in 1937, he praises the Irish for seeing this world as interlinked with the next – a visionary sense of reality which was inextricable from hatred because both had been inculcated by oppression:
The ‘Irishry’ have preserved their ancient ‘deposit’ through wars which, during the 16th and 17th centuries, became wars of extermination … No people hate as we do in whom that past is always alive; there are moments when hatred poisons my life and I accuse myself of effeminacy because I have not given it adequate expression. It is not enough to have put it into the mouth of a rambling peasant poet.
That Yeats chose to forget which side his old fathers had been on in those wars of extermination might be thought outrageous. But he adds: ‘Then I remind myself that … everything I love has come to me through English. My hatred tortures me with love, my love with hate … This is Irish hatred and solitude, the hatred of human life that made Swift write Gulliver and the epitaph upon his tomb.’
One way of interpreting the curve of this passage from solidarity with oppressed Catholicism to identification with a pathologised Anglo-Irishness is to see Yeats, as so often, maximising his rhetorical opportunities. Yet the shift has political implications which are clearest in his reference to ‘a rambling peasant poet’. This alludes to a poem Yeats had worked up from a Gaelic lament translated by the former IRA man Frank O’Connor. The poem’s title, ‘The Curse of Cromwell’, was calculated to gratify nationalists, and its acceptance of the thesis that peasant poets inherited the role of the bards as celebrators of the Gaelic elite connects with the republican historiography of such works as Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland. The lines in ‘The Curse of Cromwell’ about a Big House destroyed by the English certainly sound familiar:
I came on a great house in the middle of the night
Its open lighted doorway and its windows all alight,
And all my friends were there and made me welcome too;
But I woke in an old ruin that the winds howled through
The peasant who sings these lines is a Gaelic Catholic equivalent of the Old Man in Purgatory. The two overlap, in fact, given the presumptive Catholicism of the Old Man’s father, and his own schooling in Latin by a Catholic curate. One way of taking this is to see the Old Man as manifesting the debasement of the Ascendancy by the religion of the people. Such an account would square with Foster’s belief that the play shows Yeats abandoning his former hope that an oligarchy could be formed out of the old Protestant and new Free State elites: ‘The arguments for a composite Irish inheritance … had been replaced by the implication that a marriage between the Ascendancy and a man of the people meant degeneracy. The politics of “kindred” outweighed those of pluralism.’ It would be rash to challenge directly such an authoritative finding, but there is a case for believing that, though late Yeats did not advocate anything as liberally multiculturalist as ‘pluralism’, he never forgot how varied the make-up of the Irish elite had been. This way of thinking had roots back in the early 18th century that Yeats was making his own, among Jacobites and Tories. A precedent for ‘The Curse of Cromwell’ can be found in an Anglo-Irish play like William Philips’s Hibernia Freed (1722), which draws on Gaelic sources, and resonates with Irish laments about the destruction of houses and cities, as it deplores the damage inflicted by the Williamites and Hanoverians on Ireland.
Yeats wanted to focus on the decline of aristocratic culture, rather than any corrupting effects of Catholicism, because he saw in the individualism of the Boy in Purgatory a much more potent, attractive enemy to the civilisation of old marble heads and old pictures. The only way to deal with the Boy was to pay him the compliment of hatred, to try to see him clearly by adopting the philosophy of Ribh. ‘When I stand upon O’Connell Bridge in the half-light,’ he writes, in the final paragraph of the ‘General Introduction’,
and notice that discordant architecture, all those electric signs, where modern heterogeneity has taken physical form, a vague hatred comes up out of my own dark and I am certain that wherever in Europe there are minds strong enough to lead others the same vague hatred rises. In four or five or in less generations this hatred will have issued in violence and imposed some kind of rule of kindred. I cannot know the nature of that rule, for its opposite fills the light; all I can do to bring it nearer is to intensify my hatred.
Any pretence that visionary Fascism would protect the mind from hatred is dropped. This is a passage that Foster – who hardly ever repeats himself, though his book is so long – quotes twice: once, with impeccable judgment, as a lead-in to his account of Purgatory.
Since World War Two was looming, it is hard to forgive Yeats for so blithely envisaging violence. We should acknowledge, however, that he writes of it as the secondary expression of a hatred which galvanised him for creative reasons. First, for its capacity to provoke, having been out of fashion in respectable society since the hard-riding 18th century. While anger is easily forgiven, even considered righteous, hatred is not. Even when collectively sanctioned (as in the hatred of the English by the Irish) it has the attraction of the unofficial. If rage is primordial and blinding, hate is cognitively loaded and ideologically active. It does not just blow over, and it can’t be, like vengeance, satisfied by a single action. Simplifying the world, it sustains the self in adversity, and energises old age. It issues in angular attitudes, a sort of emotional cubism, and thus for Yeats provided a late Romantic version of the hard impersonality sought by Modernism. When he declares, in the ‘General Introduction’, that ‘I hated and still hate with an ever growing hatred the literature of the point of view; I wanted, if my ignorance permitted, to get back to Homer … I wanted to cry as all men cried, to laugh as all men laughed,’ he is rousing in himself the emotion that will destroy the subjectivity he revokes.
A recent essay on ‘Bad Words’ by the poet Denise Riley clarifies all this. ‘There’s nothing gratifyingly original,’ she notes, ‘about the language of attack, in which old speech plays through the accuser.’ Hate speech is so formulaic and repetitive that its user is more likely to be stopped by his own embarrassment than by a response. If this sheds light on Yeats’s late gravitation to simplistic, refrain-bound, popular modes (ballads, marching songs), it also heightens one’s respect for his willingness to rant on regardless of bourgeois embarrassment. Almost the embodiment of ‘old speech’, his clichéd ageing personas (Crazy Jane, Old Tom) repeat themselves shamelessly. You have to warm to a poet willing to tell you three times in as many stanzas that he is, like old Lear, ‘mad as the mist and snow’. Yeats felt enabled by hatred because it both makes the speaker more insistently present to himself and more not himself, more not having a point of view. For the hate-speaker, Riley notes, ‘the language of anger is so dictatorial that it won’t allow him to enjoy any conviction that he is voicing his authenticity.’ This helps account for the powerful vacuity of Yeats’s more emphatic late poems, but also opens up the larger point that, as a collective, sustaining rhetoric which does not seek to be ‘original’, Yeats found in the language of hatred a version of the Homeric anonymity and antiquity that the great impersonalist T.S. Eliot got from his Harvard education. As Yeats puts it in the ‘General Introduction’, ‘I commit my emotion to shepherds, herdsmen, camel-drivers, learned men, Milton’s or Shelley’s Platonist, that tower Palmer drew. Talk to me of originality and I will turn on you with rage. I am a crowd, I am a lonely man, I am nothing.’
The Yeats set out by Foster acquired the sort of ‘late style’ that Edward Said characterised in the LRB (5 August 2004) in relation to Ibsen and Beethoven. Like Beethoven, he produced in old age intransigent, unresolved works that ‘communicate a tragic sense in spite of their irascibility’. It might be argued that Yeats was given by virtue of his caste the ‘contradictory, alienated relationship’ with his society that Beethoven achieved through struggle. Foster helps one see, however, that Yeats resisted the blandishments which drew other Protestants of his generation into conformity. True to his gyring, contrary nature, he refused to settle for anything less than dynamism. As a result he became the arch-poet not just of the interwar years but of the post-liberal, globalising world which Said also knew so much about. When Yeats asked, in ‘The Second Coming’, ‘what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’, he may not have been thinking of bin Laden and Bush, but his poem was scanning the horizon. His appetite for extremes, for apocalyptic ‘terror’, his revelling in the clash of civilisations, even his positing of Byzantium (‘a little before Justinian opened St Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato’) as a resolving point of contact between late classical, rational Europe and the expanding religions of the Middle East, puts him into our moment. Roy Foster deserves the highest praise for exposing the historical conditions that freed Yeats to become our disturbing contemporary.