'We make of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. … The other self, the anti-self or the antithetical self as one may choose to name it, comes to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is reality.’
Yeats’ struggle and collaboration
with his antithetical self and the discrepancies between his two halves, whatever it is that he names them, form the subject of much of his poetry, with varying degrees of open-ness and of self-consciousness. Though his eventual resolve is prefigured in his poetry discussing the contrapuntal discord that arises, it is none the less painful
for Yeats to achieve because of that prefigurement.
Yeats’ dualism and dis-‘Unity of Being’ is perhaps most simplistically expressed in his early poem ‘The Mask’ with its imagined abstracted dialogue between lovers. Yeats ruminates at length the nature of a poet’s relationship to his ‘mask’ in his occult speculation Per Amica silentia lunae. The Mask itself is a crude expression of ideas upon which Yeats later expands, but this early exposition of Yeats’ concept of an anti-self conceives only of diametrically opposed concepts – love or deceit, fire or cold – but remains interesting as the genesis of his pre-occupation with his divided self, and the physical manifestation that the mask here assumes indicates the arbitrariness of the division that it represents.
Vacillation, from Yeats’ later collection of poems The Winding Stair, deals quite explicitly with Yeats’ inner divide, starting with the title’s obvious allusion to an unresolved conflict. The power of Vacillation comes in part from the sincerity and open-ness with which Yeats languishes in self-doubt and suffers, agnostic and sceptical, uncertain of himself and of his mythologies, and as Harold Bloom says; ‘Yeats is never stronger as a poet than when he honest.’ The act of ‘vacillation’ is not only to fluctuate in terms of states of consciousness but is a more dimensional conception of wavering that can accommodate other vagaries. In seeking self-enlightenment through his mental peregrinations, Yeats moves not between contraries, or diametrically opposed points, as vacillation could imply, but rather ‘Between extremities / Man runs his course...’. Yeats includes in his uncertainty in the dialogue between ‘Self’ and ‘Soul’ the possibility that the two are not entirely mutually exclusive.
In the first part of Vacillation, searching for some kind of self-realisation in the space between his two imagined poles of mental being, Yeats writes;
Of day and night;
The body calls it death
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?’
The negations which occur between these two antimonies upon which Yeats appears to have founded the poem’s thought leave the poet wondering where he can find his ‘joy’, be it as simple a thing as creativity or as fundamental and convoluted a thing as self-knowledge. Yeats seeks a middle path amid these frustrations which could, if surrendered to, leave him barren of a satisfactory understanding of either.
Vacillation, having posed this direct question, proceeds not to supply a direct answer to it until the very final lines, eight sections later. What comes in between is a chronological account of Yeats’ convictions and satori before a tentatively suggested conclusion which fails, as I will discuss necessarily, to be as incontrovertible as it might, or as neatly satisfying as it could have been. Would Yeats, member of the Order of the Golden Dawn since 1890 and friend of the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley, sincerely believe that his ‘heart might find relief / Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief / What seems most welcome in the tomb’? This eighth section of Vacillation moves between first Christian allusion, and then Egyptian, Christian, Greek and finally Christian again in a counterpoint of imagery that moves in such vacillatory fashion that though a hesitating resolution is reached – and one that is confirmed in his last poems – it is no more than that: Yeats never definitively states where his ‘joy’ of the first stanza is to be found, even though a recognisable resolution has been reached in the direct tone of his ‘So get you gone, Von Hugel, though with blessings on your head.’
The poem’s progress too is vacillatory in its passage. The second section in its poetic exuberance of imagery and youthful vigour carries the implication that this more mature Yeats, one collection on from having written ‘What shall I do with this absurdity … Decrepit age that has been tied to me /As to a dog’s tail?’ in The Tower’s opening lines, can no longer invest with the same sincerity.
‘A Tree there is that from its topmost bough
Is half all glittering flame and half all green.’
These lines recall in their resplendence in part the ‘hammered gold and gold enamelling’ of Sailing to Byzantium’s ‘golden bough’, and their extravagance and self-conscious and self-absorbed nature is an ironic statement from Yeats on how little this mode of discourse now relates to him relative to his more readily lyrical earlier self. The tree Yeats more specifically refers to with its two halves is the Mabinogion, the Tree of Life, with the first aspect of wrath and the second of mercy. Thus Yeats alludes to two fundamental antimonies of existence, which together compose part of the ‘heart’ whose remorse he mentions in the first stanza.
In the third stanza, Yeats again alludes to Byzantium’s ‘golden bough’ but does so conversely, emphasising the irrelevance and invalidity of the second section’s vision, by interpreting the golden imagery into a fiscally rather than romantically;
‘Get all the gold and silver that you can
All children need a rich estate
No man has ever lived that had enough
Of children’s gratitude or woman’s love’
This vulgar objectification of motivation is highly reductive; no poeticism exists in this extract which so clearly echoes what Yeats termed ‘sentimentalism’. He wrote;
‘Nor has any poet I have read of nor heard of nor met with been a sentimentalist. The sentimentalists are practical men who believe in money, in position, in a marriage bell, and whose understanding of happiness is to be busy.’
The third section’s status as antimonous antidote to the second rests not upon argument but on gesture; it is an ‘heroic’ exhortation, but not a precise refutation in intellectual terms of what it is reacting against.
The fourth section’s satoric ‘sudden’ blazing up is a final rejuvenation of the second section, ‘lasting all of twenty minutes’ before Yeats sinks into an embittered vision of life and death achieved in the sixth section, with its mantric statement of human frailty and transience; ‘What’s the meaning of all song? / Let all things pass away.’
Returning to and now making fully explicit the dialogue between his twin selves, here classified as ‘Soul’ and ‘Heart’ in the seventh section, which depicts the ‘Soul’ in exactly the same stance as in A Dialogue of Self and Soul, Yeats openly rejects a resignation as proposed by the ‘Soul’ to ‘leave things that seem’ recognising with the ‘Heart’ the he is a ‘singer born’, and must ‘play a predestined part’.
The seventh section prefigures the concluding eighth’s in its preference for Homer’s ‘unchristened heart’ over ‘Isaiah’s coal’, before the poem’s eventual rejection of the intellectualised sterility and its imaginatively dead acquisitive associations catalogued earlier in the image of Von Hugel. Respectfully but with a degree of equivocality, Yeats opts for his ‘Heart’ over his ‘Soul’. A cessation of vacillation, the attainment of certainty, to be ‘Struck dumb in the simplicity of Fire’, is in itself an intellectual and ‘sentimentalist’ decision. Similarly the very act of vacillation, of determining what is seeming, is a poetic occupation, as the ‘Soul’ says, and so the shaded uncertainty that Yeats realises through his conflicting profusion of references in the final stanza, finally using Scripture to a non-scriptural goal, maintains a state of flux that is ‘poetic’ even as Yeats reaches a relative certainty in conclusion.
The Dialogue of Self and Soul deals just as explicitly with what Bloom calls ‘the strife between head and heart’ as Vacillation, and contains just as Vacillation does titularly enshrined its own resolution, indicative of its eventual conclusion independently of the text. As Vacillation in itself is a poetic act, that the Dialogue is between the ‘Self’ and another entity indicates that the outcome will favour what is named as natural and integral – the Self – rather than something which is relatively externally termed.
The poem is more properly two monologues of Self and Soul, as the two parties remain oblivious to each other, and hold less a conversation than twin vocalised internal monologues, even though the Soul’s second speech refers to the Self’s first’s preoccupation with things that are ‘Emblematical of Love and War’ and the Self refers to the Soul’s reference to a ‘broken, crumbling battlement’ mentioning itself a tower.
The Self’s monologue as it begins – ‘What matter if the ditches are impure? / What matter if I live it all once more?’ – at the start of the second part is reminiscent of Auden’s Under Which Lyre, with its final advocation to ‘take short views’ which closes a poem describing a conflict between Hermes and Apollo eerily concomitant to Self and Soul respectively. Writing to Professor Grierson seven years before The Winding Stair was published in 1933, Yeats concluded that ‘One never tires of life and at the last must die of thirst with the cup at one’s lip’ which echoes the Self’s line ‘A living man is blind and drinks his drop.’
Yeats treats the two halves of himself with much less subtlety and delicacy in The Dialogue of Self and Soul than in Vacillation. He writes clearly from the perspective of the Self, even when using the daimonical focaliser of the ‘Soul’, crudely characterising intellect’s imaginational barren-ness as a ‘darkness’. The Soul in its second speech seeks deliverance from the contemplation of ‘the crime of death and birth’ of which nominal concepts it cannot conceive. Yeats continues in this openly subjective vein, casting the ‘Soul’s ignorance of these things as ‘ancestral night’ – a kind of primeval obscurity, unsophisticated in its satisfaction with ignorance. The ‘Soul’ incrementally discovers its antitheses as it progresses, first satisfied in its own obliterating darkness, then in its next stanza realising imagination as its opposite, an then finally realising and glorying in the ignorance now depicted as sensory that springs from itself – ‘That man is stricken deaf and dumb and blind, / For intellect no longer knows.’ When the Soul refers to the dead and then limits the boundaries of his own conception, saying ‘But when I think of that my tongue’s a stone’ Yeats deliberately cross-references for the reader’s illumination and clarification this poem with the seventh, dialogic section of Vacillation in its very clear echoing of;
‘The Soul. Isaiah’s coal, what more can man desire?
The Heart. Struck dumb in the simplicity of fire!’
It is the ‘simplicity of fire’ that, just as fire needs nor nurtures no poets or poetry, whose art lies in the depiction of humanity’s vaguer struggles, as represented in the line ‘What theme had Homer but original sin?’, polarises the ‘Soul’s vision into ‘Love and War’, ‘Knower from Known’ and darkness from light.
In the second half of the poem, which is given entirely to the Self’s self-advocation, the Self achieves in ‘Measure the lot; forgive thyself the lot!’ a kind of joyous solipsism. This self-congratulation leaves the reader slightly uneasy, as self regards and applauds self, gazing into the ‘looking-glass’ of Sato’s sword in the poem’s second stanza with an unapologetic self-satisfaction lacking in Vacillation’s more sophisticated uncertainties. The Self’s last stanza refers the reader once again to Vacillation, with the lines; ‘When such as I cast out remorse… we must laugh and we must sing,’ reflecting ‘The heart’s remorse’ and Yeats’ self-image as ‘a singer born.’ Thus Yeats in A Dialogue of Self and Soul has written a poem which pairs with Vacillation and which with it creates a wholly cogent philosophy of self which Yeats continues to expound in other works from this and other collections.
In A Dialogue, the ‘Soul’ opens with a reference to the ‘winding ancient stair’ and to a ‘broken crumbling battlement’, which with the ‘Self’s explicit mention of a tower echoes Blood and the Moon’s image of the intellect placed at the top of a Shelleyan tower – ‘Thought’s crowned powers.’ Disregarding Blood and the Moon’s crude appropriational Anglo-Irishism in the second section, it too can be interpreted in part as a poem with a resolution to effect between two halves.
The third and fourth sections of the poem are symbolic of the deathly sterility of intellectualism, as manifested in the poem by the tower. In his note to The Winding Stair, Yeats wrote that;
‘Part of the symbolism of Blood and the Moon was suggested by the fact that Thoor Ballylee has a waste room at the top and butterflies come in through the loopholes and die against the window-panes.’
Yeats also indicates in his note to Meditations in Time of Civil War that a butterfly symbolises the ‘crooked road of intuition – for wisdom is a butterfly and not a bird of prey.’ When Yeats asks in the fourth section of Blood whether ‘…every modern nation like the tower, / half dead at the top?’ he implies that the tower, the ‘ bloody, arrogant power’ of stanza one is a suffocating and deadly presence, and by extension that the intellectualism of which it is emblematic is destructive to ‘intuitive’ wisdom and to the things that Yeats elsewhere dubs ‘Self’ or ‘Heart’.
On a Picture of a Black Centaur by Edmund Dulac characterises the Black Centaur of the title as a daimon or antithetical self which Yeats loves ‘better than my soul’, which is a small manifestation of Yeats’ yearning to be other than he finally discovers himself, in The Last Poems, to be. The Centaur is associated with ‘horrible green parrots’ which have driven Yeats ‘half insane’ in the ‘mad abstract dark’ – as analogous a prefiguring description of intellectualism to that of the Soul in A Dialogue as could be hoped for, in every sense. In associating the Centaur with madness and ‘horse-play’, Yeats is perhaps alluding also once more to Swift, as in Blood and the Moon.
In Yeats’ Politics lies a crude crib to The Circus Animal’s Desertion. Ironically titled Politics since the poem is clear in its nostalgia for a more emotional, sexualised, experientially ‘felt’ youth as opposed to the arid knowledge of ‘a travelled man that knows / What he talks about.’ The last four lines are particularly indicative;
‘And maybe what they say is true
Of War and War’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.’
Yeats’ apathy confronted in 1939 by the imminence of war, given that he has lived through the First World War is amply demonstrated by the gentle qualifier ‘maybe’; the very mildness of which qualification is more litotically damning than any superlative could have been in its place. Contrasting which with the High Romantic ejaculatory ‘O that I were young again’ heightens Yeats’ humanistic intention. In its way, Politics prefigures Yeats’ capitulation to self-interest and sentiment; ‘Heart’ over ‘Soul’.
The Circus Animal’s Desertion signifies a more resigned and less celebratory recognition by Yeats of his true ‘Unity of Being’ then anything that has preceded it. Hitherto Yeats has battled with or recognised his potential as an ‘intellectual’ rather than anything else, as one of two definite options; in Vacillation and A Dialogue of Self and Soul a frank quasi-indecision opens, and in Blood and the Moon there is Yeats’ implied acquiescence that he too is representative of ‘…this tower; ...In mockery I have set / A powerful emblem up / And sing it rhyme upon rhyme / …’. Thus these three poems admit at least the possibility of Yeats’ being more intellectual than imaginative, whereas The Circus Animal’s Desertion shows Yeats’ disgusted self-assignation to ‘… the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.’
The near-nullification of Yeats’ final, painstakingly achieved self-revelation by the manner of its revelation devalues its intensely personal importance to a level of incidental unpleasantness. The nihilism that this abnegation achieves is matched only in Blood and the Full Moon which describes the mortality of wisdom, the brutality of ‘power’, and then leaves transcendent the image of the moon, splendidly unconscious and impervious to the moral vagaries which are ‘the property of the living’.
The Circus Animal’s Desertion’s opening three uses of the word ‘sought’ emphasise the very futility of his quest for a theme and by extension an intellectual poetic vision;
‘I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last being but a broken man
I must be satisfied with my heart…’
The poet’s reluctant flight to his ‘heart’ after a lifetime of intellectual poetic conceits, allusions, phantasmagoria and ‘masks’ which have represented Yeats’ aspirations of the ‘Soul’ is agented by the verb ‘must’. Perhaps Yeats feels that in thus definitively categorising himself he limits his own possibilities, both interpretatively and prospectively, as a poet, but he recognises so thoroughly that ‘Now my ladder’s gone / I must lie down where all the ladders start’ that though he does so with considerable bitterness of tone, the self-imposed use of the imperative ‘I must’ brings to the stricture a degree of dignity. He has not chosen to lie there, nor to be ‘satisfied’ with his heart, but his acknowledgment that he has to comply with his nature brings with it an symbolic implied compliance with everything else about himself against which Yeats has raged and deliberated. At the last Yeats finally achieves a genuine, un-contrapuntal, mono-faceted Unity of Being which carries with it grace and a painfully achieved degree of self-realisation.
W. B. Yeats The Major Works Oxford World’s Classics 1997
Harold Bloom Yeats Oxford University Press 1970
Edward Malins and John Purkis A Preface to Yeats Longman 1994