The early Yeats, the earliest aesthete, late pre-Raphaelite Yeats, the world is presented as a tumult of passion, fading into sorrow and loss; beauty cannot endure. But elsewhere, beyond the world, or in places within the world, it can, something strangely timeless and ardent; there is a Platonic constancy of passion and beauty that we can attain, by chance, being in the right place at the right time, but also through the labor of abdicating a belief in the value and power of worldly desires and things. They are good in so far as they promise what they cannot fulfill. And so, in the early Yeats, poetry is escape, but the escape is difficult, dicey, and requiring a recasting of the way the world is seen and felt, achieved in and as verse and art. Works of art, responding to the natural, occasionally glimpsed, mysterious beauty of landscape and human life, testifies to what is implicit in them, and, in its formal achievement, announcing itself as a function of will as well as vision, or as willed vision and a peculiar vision of the will, it serves to hold in place the promise of their beauty, to hold it open, a portal to something beyond. But it is a portal and placeholder for the poet alone, isolated on its threshold—or for the figures in the drama it presents (in “The Stolen Child” for instance).
As a consequence, poetry is an escape, but not an escape available to just any literate participant; the reader is cast as audience; the effort and will are poet’s or character’s, and the prospect of something beyond fading ephemeral beauty is second-hand, in so far as we are asked to witness the vision only in so far as it opens for another; it is found both as the poem and within the poem. This is what it means to say that Yeats’ poetry is dramatic: they are the culmination of an effort at abdicating and resigning, and that effort, the willed quality of the verse, is felt in the continuously taut rhythms, the formal strain that pulls against even the most diaphanous of pre-Raphaelite effects, in the best of early Yeats.
A helpful contrast might be with Housman, where the urge to cease, to abandon life by suicide, is carried by a rhythm at times blithe, at times brisk; it lives even where his sense for life’s worth is exhausted. In Yeats’ best early poetry, on the other hand, the lazy appeals to mystery and beauty that cannot be defined, only gestured towards, grandly and grandiosely, in language that heightens without substantiating or weighing—all of that is set within the drama of the labor of verse, pulling up short in tense lines, taut with desire that implicitly recognizes how difficult it is to yield to what is most slackly apprehended in the words. It’s not quite a quarrel within the poetry; it’s a placing of what ought to be bad poetry within the drama of a real effort that encounters a silent resistance. It is not enough to put the poetry on par with what Yeats does later, but it suggests how the early poetry is continuous with the later work, and how it can be appreciated for what it is. “The Rose of the World” exemplifies what I’m trying to set out:
Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream?
For these red lips, with all their mournful pride,
Mournful that no new wonder may betide,
Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam,
And Usna’s children died.
We and the labouring world are passing by:
Amid men’s souls, that waver and give place
Like the pale waters in their wintry race,
Under the passing stars, foam of the sky,
Lives on this lonely face.
Bow down, archangels, in your dim abode:
Before you were, or any hearts to beat,
Weary and kind one lingered by His seat;
He made the world to be a grassy road
Before her wandering feet.
The woman stands in for a permanent beauty that he can see, and believe in, but not participate in directly; she has existed over history, manifesting variously in history, in eras when wonder was possible, as it no longer is, when Yeats writes, in 1893 The idea behind the poem is not complicated—in fact, even when they are dense with esoteric myths the ideas in Yeats’ poetry are not complicated or difficult—and the effects I am describing adhere most clearly in something small, the sudden apposition of “passing stars” and “foam of the sky,” where “foam of the sky” unites the image to the “pale water” but also, most importantly, gets into the poem, in a way that will be increasingly crucial to Yeats art, the hawsers of sensual reality, at the same time as reducing sensual reality to something that cannot persist; foam of the sky” might seem absurd, but the milky way is foamy, and the passing stars, tracing light across the sky, would be more nebulous still; so the word foam both suggests time passing and also a crystalized perception of light that must, as foam dissolves, fade. “Lives on” is similarly relevant to the effect I’m describing, as the phrase is both fortified and wearied; the shadow of the ambiguity lives if the comma after “sky” is mentally obliterated (and it would be somewhat violent to disregard it), so that the foam of the sky lives on the face, her permanent beauty a substratum for the fleeting reality of the stars; the relevance of the sense might justify the punctuational defacement. Even “face” is surprisingly right: “race” means the race run, but it contains the thought of the race of man, and “place” before it means “give way” but also suggests the thought of any place, some place, the very notion of a place, whatever that entails; and both of those find meaning and fulfillment in her “face,” which, though a surface and superficial presentation of beauty in some, is a depth of beauty in her that makes places (Troy, for instance) and the myths that ground a race (Troy, Usna) abide, that forms a permanent continuity between them.
But even this is inadequate what power there is in the lines—a power that is I think characteristic of early Yeats’ form, and that carries even into the later Yeats: it is an effect of rhythm and so subject to the vagueness of critical language that rhythm finds. But I think in this poem—and perhaps in Yeats more generally—it can be found in the interleaving of subject and verb: “Bow down, archangels”…”One lingered”…”He made”…The first is an imperative, the line short; “one lingered” is delayed, itself lingering in the line, with an ambiguity of “weary and kind” reading either “before you were weary and kind” (when they, the archangels) were something more terrible and terrifying), or else “weary and kind = one”; “seat” comes, suitably, to the pause of this two-line clause, as “abode” did to that of the first line. Next, the main verb and main subject, “He made” lead the clause, but the clause itself opens in the image it presents, even as it brings the poem to a close: “wandering feet” wander down the open road. Between “feet” and its rhyme-partner “beat” we are justified I think it finding some sense of metrical unity, so that her feet wander as the feet of a verse may wander—but as Yeats’ crucially, do not. The final line, “Before her wandering feet” curtails the movement of the verse; it denies any impulse to wander in Yeats’ own art; he is subject to power, lacking her freedom. The “He made” that ends the final two lines is a liberating and liberated creation quite other than what Yeats experiences, and so Yeats’ poem envisions a power greater than, more direct and other than, his own. But then he started the final stanza with that imperative, “Bow down, archangels,” and the consequence of that imperative was a suggestion that he has been elevated in possessing the vision he does. We find, in another words, two colliding and competing movements of Yeats’ mind and poetry: fatalism, a sense of being at the mercy of the world, and pride, that knowing to be at the world’s mercy, one can work at perceiving, through belief and not the senses, that something lies beyond it.
We can detect the two attitudes in the repetition of the final stanza, where the first “before,” the “before” that checks the pride of archangels and subjects them to the fatalism of Yeats, is the “before” of time–time that rules all in the world, brings change and old age—and the second “before” is the “before” of a futurity that is always present, and so beyond time, opening always to where the wave of time has not crested or fallen. That reading might seem to defy the poem’s own logic: the first “before” posits a timelessness prior to the world, and the second places the rose/woman within the flux of history. But that is exactly what Yeats is concerned to do: to find that which, within and despite history, transcends history. The “one” that is “weary and kind” is crucially without gender—which for Yeats renders it incomplete for the purposes of speaking to humans. The “her” of the final line is the beauty that he (and we) can know in the world; if she is “weary” it is because she is mournful, knowing already that all will fade, that wonder will not only pass away, but that the possibility of new wonder will likewise pass, except in her own being, testifying to its once having been. The poem does not suggest that she offers an easy escape for poetry or for the living.
In “The Stolen Child,” the cost of escape is part of the sorrow (the “weeping”) that it would evade, and this itself produces an inertia on the fantasy, a drag that holds it within the orbit of the poem’s fatalism:
Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
Away with us he’s going,
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.
The “you” is never the “you” of the reader, the appeal is contained within the drama of the poem, which resolves from appeal to action in the final verse; and what is most surprising there is that the fairies do not gloat. Where we might expect pride we find instead melancholy; their appeal has been answered, but the poem registers, as few other early poems do, the pathos of what the child rejects. “For he comes” gives stress to “comes,” almost tinging it with foreboding; it is not quite that, but it is freighted at least with intention. The child’s effort is real, and perhaps the human does pose some threat. The word “for” carries the burden of the phrase: it takes account of what he renounces, and loses, when he comes with them. But what of the word in the final line: it suggests that this—the world’s being more full of weeping than he can understand—is the reason for the child’s leaving. But that reason, as with all reasons, might be retrospective, a sort of motive or intent, or else forward-looking, a reason in terms of what function it fulfills: by leaving he makes for the weeping of the world, which he, having departed, cannot understand. Here we have more fatalism than pride in the child and fairies alike, but the fatalism obviates the temptation to celebrate or proclaim; it chastens, and the pride is chastened before it can show itself.
Yeats’ fatalistic pride and proud fatalism grows stronger and clearer, more centrally a fact of the poems, more obviously a part of their occasion, over time, and that difference is felt when we compare the first version (1892) of the wonderful “Sorrow of Love” with the later revised version (1925):
The quarrel of the sparrows in the eaves,
The full round moon and the star-laden sky,
And the loud song of the ever-singing leaves,
Had hid away earth’s old and weary cry.
And then you came with those red mournful lips,
And with you came the whole of the world’s tears,
And all the sorrows of her labouring ships,
And all the burden of her myriad years.
And now the sparrows warring in the eaves,
The curd-pale moon, the white stars in the sky,
And the loud chaunting of the unquiet leaves
Are shaken with earth’s old and weary cry.
The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky,
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry.
A girl arose that had red mournful lips
And seemed the greatness of the world in tears,
Doomed like Odysseus and the labouring ships
And proud as Priam murdered with his peers;
Arose, and on the instant clamorous eaves,
A climbing moon upon an empty sky,
And all that lamentation of the leaves,
Could but compose man’s image and his cry.
For my purposes, I draw attention to the final lines of the second stanza, where “Doomed” and “proud” take the place of “sorrows” and “burden”; I’d suggest that, just as the movement from “sorrows” to “doomed” is along one common axis of judgment, the movement from “burden of her myriad years” to “proud as Priam” is similarly a change in degree and quality rather than kind. In the 1892 version, the point would seem to be that she, being something greater than the world, and also long-enduring within its history, releases from the world an expression of its sorrow; the vision of what a beauty that is both within history, and extends across it, and the desire for it, are not consequences of the world’s “old and weary cry,” but release that cry into the poet’s hearing. There is a cost and toll; the “burden” and “sorrow” belong to those who have seen her, and also to her, knowing what those who have seen her suffer. But it is the poet’s receptivity to the world that has changed; likewise, in 1925, about which I will say less, “could but compose” suggests both the world that composes an image of man and his cry, but also suggests that the poet has been given only the resources to compose such an image; her presence, and her beauty, have forced the poet’s imagination to only dwell (“but” as “solely”) upon the sorrow of mankind; and also have made it so that there is no choice (“but” as “only, despite other intentions”), so that the poet has become a tool. In this poem, the poet does not surrender willingly or unwillingly; the junction between active and passive is blurred.
The pride of the early poems is quite different from the pride of the later poems, since the domain of action to which it attaches, the scope of the poet’s will to escape beyond the realm of the human will, so much more narrow than in those later poems. The melodramatic staging—never absent from Yeats—has a smaller platform, and more derivative scenery, here than in later Yeats. But the pride is there, intimate with the fatigue of age that the poet assumes; the weariness has brought with it the desire to escape, and the compromised capacity to do so is nonetheless the only sort that could, since what compromises the poet’s agency, the erosion of time and change, brings with it the concomitant capacity to see beyond the flotsam and jetsam that erodes. Hence, “The Lake of Innisfree”:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
The grim determination, the weight of “will,” the anchor of “now,” and the repetition of “go” of the first line might be portentous, a determination to be free at Innisfree, but then the final two lines of the stanza are too playful, too luxuriantly loving of the sound of the words (bean…bee…bee-loud; have…hive…live….; the possible puns of “honey-bee,” where the poet or the nine bean-rows will themselves be the hive) themselves, to portend; instead, they are immediate in the sensual delight that they will, as if the labor poem has already achieved the serenity of the idyllic spot. The second stanza would not have been written without Tennyson, and captures the swoon of the Lotos-eaters as they gaze on the land—and that poem serves as a useful contrast, since whereas they fall into the shore, unwitting, inadequately resisting, here there is nothing to resist, except all that would prevent him from approaching the retreat. And in the third stanza, we feel some of the gravity that would hold him in place, and realize that, like that of Vladmir or Estragon, Yeats’s resolution to go is perhaps empty. “For” is once again the crux, holding together and apart “now” and “always,” so that the moment of decision and action is countered by what we suspect to have been other such moments; the haunting is not new, has long been persistent, so what would prompt a change now? And what would it mean to go when the lake water sounds, finally, within him, and not “by the shore”; where is he to go if he carries the retreat within himself. It is a vision that cannot be brought to realization beyond the haunting. Across the final transformation, the curtain is pulled back: “I will arise and go” and “I hear” become “While I stand” (“while” picking up “will” and turning it into something that abides action elsewhere; and “stand” transforms “go”), and “I hear lake water by the shore” becomes “I hear it in the deep heart’s core.” The latter, though verbally less of a change than “I will arise and go” to “while I stand,” is more profound a transformation, with the first “I hear” (“by the shore”) an inescapable, but passive detection of the sound, and the second a resolute focusing of attention in a demonstration of the poet’s special sensitivity; the haunting becomes a compulsion to force himself to hear what he has just made into this poem.