282. (W.B. Yeats)

I’d been intending to write up some thoughts on Yeats before the LRB review of Geoffrey Hill’s last book appeared, in which much was made of some lines in which Hill engages Yeats–but Hill engages Yeats throughout the collection. It would be worth considering why; that’s another post, though. In this post (and probably in that one), I’d like to take up a single poem by Yeats and a reading of that poem by Donald Davie. Whatever Davie’s confusions about certain matters of poetic practice (diction and decorum especially), they are borne from real tussles with real matters; he might get much wrong, but there is something that he usually grabs hold of, as few others do, and in his criticism he does often manage the virtues of candor and urbanity that he values, in so far as he sounds like a person writing to and for other people whose passion for poetry, and learning, are similar to his own. It’s not the worst thing.

Davie is most famously a great reader of Pound; as a reader of Eliot, he is himself less confident; as a reader of Yeats, though, I find him of special value. Because he is less synoptic in his remarks, because he focuses on particular works, we get to see a real strength of his mind: as a reader of single poems, working his way through them, step by step, sometimes wrongly, but almost always intelligently.

I find Davie’s reading of Yeats’ “Blood and the Moon,” collected in Modernist Essays: Yeats, Pound, Eliot to be, in the end, wrong; I think Davie pushes too hard on one half of the poems confusion, leaning on the scales as it were, to suggest that Yeats’ mind weighs more in one direction than it does; that there is weight in both directions, I don’t deny, and that Yeats’ ambivalent fascination with violence and something like fascism is very much central to the poem is evident. But Davie’s energy in reading, and steps he takes, even if the ultimate destination of reading is one I’d not follow, serve as a great spur for thinking through the poem.

The poem:

Blessed be this place,
More blessed still this tower;
A bloody, arrogant power
Rose out of the race
Uttering, mastering it,
Rose like these walls from these
Storm-beaten cottages —
In mockery I have set
A powerful emblem up,
And sing it rhyme upon rhyme
In mockery of a time
HaIf dead at the top.


Alexandria’s was a beacon tower, and Babylon’s
An image of the moving heavens, a log-book of the sun’s journey and the moon’s;
And Shelley had his towers, thought’s crowned powers he called them once.
I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;
That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have travelled there.
Swift beating on his breast in sibylline frenzy blind
Because the heart in his blood-sodden breast had dragged him down into mankind,
Goldsmith deliberately sipping at the honey-pot of his mind,
And haughtier-headed Burke that proved the State a tree,
That this unconquerable labyrinth of the birds, century after century,
Cast but dead leaves to mathematical equality;

And God-appointed Berkeley that proved all things a dream,
That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its farrow that so solid seem,
Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme;
Saeva Indignatio and the labourer’s hire,
The strength that gives our blood and state magnanimity of its own desire;
Everything that is not God consumed with intellectual fire.
The purity of the unclouded moon
Has flung its arrowy shaft upon the floor.
Seven centuries have passed and it is pure,
The blood of innocence has left no stain.
There, on blood-saturated ground, have stood
Soldier, assassin, executioner.
Whether for daily pittance or in blind fear
Or out of abstract hatred, and shed blood,
But could not cast a single jet thereon.
Odour of blood on the ancestral stair!
And we that have shed none must gather there
And clamour in drunken frenzy for the moon.

Upon the dusty, glittering windows cling,
And seem to cling upon the moonlit skies,
Tortoiseshell butterflies, peacock butterflies,
A couple of night-moths are on the wing.
Is every modern nation like the tower,
Half dead at the top? No matter what I said,
For wisdom is the property of the dead,
A something incompatible with life; and power,
Like everything that has the stain of blood,
A property of the living; but no stain
Can come upon the visage of the moon
When it has looked in glory from a cloud.


Davie’s commentary takes up several pages, but the crux of it comes where he writes:

Thus every modern nation is—like the tower of Thoor Ballylee, with its concrete room and unrepaired top storey—‘half dead at the top’, not just because in non-fascist states the elite is not self-chosen, and thus not ‘natural’; but also because, even in the fascist state to be hoped for, the clerisy, the apologists for the regime, will be excluded from the blood die, disabled by guilt at this exclusion, and by frustration at knowing that their objective (the moon—they are lunatics) is unattainable.

Davie recognizes that the poem takes work, that it is itself muddled and reflects a muddle in Yeats’ mind; I think only that Davie tries to hard to smooth out the muddle. To call it a fascist poem and to compare it to Pound’s fascist poems misses the difference of a mind confused in the sense that it is fanatically certain of something wrong (Pound’s, in some of the Cantos), and a mind confused because it is divided and knows itself to be thus (Yeats’).

The trouble that arises throughout the poem is whether Yeats means for the Anglo-Irish ascendency to be viewed as power that has “mastered” the Irish, or as part of the Irish imaginative tradition, and whether he means, then, that the bloody power that rose up to be associated instead with a violent nationalism in Irish history, or whether he vacillates between the two.

In the opening lines, the consequence is born out in working out what “it” refers to: is it to the tower or the race that the bloody violent tower has mastered (and uttered?)? One option is the former: the tower has been mastered by the power (but not necessarily built by them—the race could be Anglo-invaders or else a different sort from the intellectuals); more likely, though, the bloody-minded mastering power that has uttered and mastered the race itself is like the tower; it serves as an emblem for it. But at the same time, that  power is crucially unlike the tower, which is why it is set up as an emblem of mockery.

The tower itself, half-dead at the top, is an emblem of the historical moment, half-dead and half-alive, where dead and alive are equivocal terms—which is where some of the disagreement with Davie emerges: he thinks Yeats envies those who are alive with blood on their hands and blood-ties to the mastering power (of the Catholic future) and that he numbers himself one of the excluded visionary intellectuals, with spiritual ties to the poets and thinkers from the past (many of whom were incidentally attached to the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, and to the mastering power); the identities are confused like the tower itself; Burke, Swift, Berkeley were themselves half-dead as intellectuals or half-dead as part of the brutal colonizing ascendency, and half-alive for the same reason; Yeats finds himself in the same position.

The trouble is in knowing whether Yeats is bothered by the division of the intellectual and the violent, and seeks reconciliation, or whether he is bothered by the presence of the violent, thinks they are what is half-dead, or whether he resents his own place among the dead, thinks he occupies that place atop the tower, and envies the violent their life. He is variously uneasy with both the violent and the intellectuals, those who shed blood and those who gaze at the moon; the Catholic and the Anglo-Irish (Davie explains that Yeats intended at one point to include a Catholic name in the second section but didn’t, and argues this shows that Yeats was not in fact concerned with insisting on Anglo or Protestant identity there; but the decision to exclude a Catholic name might suggest that he was concerned with just that); it is a poem of torn allegiances, and aware of its own confusions, even if not sufficiently aware of the political significance of some of those confusions.

Overall, then it is a poem about the relation between poetry and politics, between a tradition that is imposed from without, by violence and conquest, and a tradition that grows from within, between idealism and violence. Yeats could be said to romanticize violence by setting it within a mythic-emblematic scheme that transforms its human reality before registering it; but he could also be said to acknowledge its deadening presence. He could be said to be self-loathing: Davie points out that those dreamers clamoring in drunken frenzy for the moon are lunatics. And it could be said that by wishing for a reconciliation of dreamer and fighter, Yeats is wishing for something like a fascist state in which the poet is not alienated from the culture’s violent self-realization. But the final section is more ambivalent than that. The enjambment after “but no stain” holds, willfully and wishfully, the stain of violence and power from the glory and visage of the moon; it is not, here, the object of lunatic devotion but instead of measured verse.

Whatever its irresolution–and probably because of that irresolution–it brings into focus a quarrel and division that drives much of Yeats’ later poetry.


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