Terence Brown

When W. B. Yeats's The Tower (a collection of twenty-one poems, including some of his greatest achievements as a poet) was published in London on 14 February 1928 he was a renowned literary figure and public man. His distinction as poet and man of letters, who had contributed by his cultural work to the independence movement in his native Ireland, had received the ultimate accolade in the award of the Nobel Prize for literature in December 1923. His life-long engagement in Irish cultural politics had also brought him to the significant office of Senator in the upper house of a new Dublin parliament, founded in 1922 after a bitter guerrilla war between a volunteer Irish Republican Army and the forces of the British Crown. He was in his sixty-third year when The Tower appeared, the husband of a much younger woman whom he had married in 1917. Georgie Hyde-Lees had borne him a daughter and a son and given him a family life in a splendid town-house on a noble square in the Irish capital, after many years of difficult bachelorhood in which unrequited love for a beauty of the age had involved much frustration and great despair. He was at a time of life at which many men might have been content to rest on their laurels, happy to bask in the kind of critical regard the symbolist love lyrics of his youth and young manhood (such poems as 'The Sorrow of Love', 'He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven', 'The White Birds') had won for him in the English-speaking world. That The Tower was the volume which secured Yeats's reputation as a major poet who addressed in boldly dramatic terms some of the central experiences of the twentieth century, is a testament to the way its author had been strenuously remaking himself as man and writer since at least the date of his marriage.

Two reviews give a clear indication of the transformation which was perceived to have taken place in Yeats's poetic in the decade since his marriage.

In April 1919 in The Athenaeum the influential English critic Middleton Murry had reviewed an earlier collection of Yeats poems — The Wild Swans at Coole (an expanded version of a book the poet had first published in Dublin shortly after his marriage). He reached a damning conclusion: 'He is empty, now. He has the apparatus of enchant ment, but no potency in his soul'. In September 1928, by contrast, John Gould Fletcher concluded of The Tower in T. S. Eliot's The Criterion: 'He corresponds, or will correspond, when the true literary history of our epoch is written, to what we moderns mean by a great poet'.

These widely differing estimates of the poetic success of two individual Yeatsian volumes, published within a decade of each other do, significantly, share a preoccupation. Murry's review had reflected tellingly on the poet's use of myth in The Wild Swans at Coole. He believed that 'the structural possibilities' of myth in poetry depend on 'intelligibility'. He observed:

The poet turns to myth as a foundation upon which he can explicate his imagination. He may take his myth from legend or familiar history, or he may create one for himself anew; but the function it fulfils is always the same. It supplies the elements, upon which he can build the structure of his parable, upon which he can make it elaborate enough to convey the multitudinous reactions of his soul to the world.

Yeats, in Murry's view, had failed as a mythologist, for his myths remained the 'phantoms' of an 'individual brain'. He insists: 'the poet himself must move securely among his visions; they must not be less certain and steadfast than men are. To anchor them needs intelligent myth'. In 1928 Fletcher was convinced that it was Yeats's use of myth that indeed accounted for his achievement in The Tower. He observed: 'To Mr Yeats, the world of myth and legend and the world of objective fact are extraordinarily close to each other. He sees the whole of outward phenomena and the whole of subjective fantasy as being in some senses like the creations of man'. Where Murry had sensed myth floating free of history and the perceived world of ordinary human experience in the volume of 1919, Fletcher found them knit together in The Tower, where a 'subrational love for the undisciplined world of imagination' coexists 'alongside of Greek epic fatalism of contemplation directed to the outer world of fact'.

In the light of Yeats's development as a poet in the 1920s it is now possible to see how Murry's judgement in 1919 was unduly harsh. There were poems in that volume, as there had been in earlier volumes (pre-eminently 'No Second Troy' in The Green Helmet and Other Poems, 1910) which might have alerted him to the way in which Yeats could bring myth and actuality into fruitful relationship. Fletcher is right, however, in identifying The Tower as the book where that dynamic functions in Yeats's oeuvre with the greatest power.

Events both in Yeats's personal life and in the public sphere played their part in making The Tower a book in which myth, history and lived experience traffic with one another in a verse of dramatic intensity.

When Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees in October 1917 the world was at war. Yeats had spent his days since 1914 in London and Sussex, with occasional visits to the west of Ireland to visit his friend and patron Lady Gregory at Coole Park in County Galway. As an Irish nationalist he had felt in the war years somewhat remote from the concerns of the English men and women among whom he lived. He had only been profoundly moved by a public event when acquaintances in Dublin had seized a chance in war-time to rise in rebellion against British rule in Ireland in April 1916. The execution of the ring-leaders had drawn from him the pained, doubting but ultimately nobly commemorative poem 'Easter 1916' (which was not made fully public until October, 1920). He had felt then that he might forsake London for Dublin as his main place of residence, the better to be able to rebuild that unity of national purpose that his cultural activism had for so long sponsored and which political violence and oppression had cast terribly in doubt. Instead of a Dublin house or apartment, however, Yeats in March 1917 chose to purchase a semi-ruined Norman keep at Bal-lylee in County Galway (near Lady Gregory's house and estate) which he hoped to make habitable again. It is this tower in its symbolic aspects which is the setting for a number of the poems in the 1928 volume, including the title poem itself.

The dwelling that Yeats had purchased and to which he introduced his new bride in the summer of 1918 possessed undoubted symbolic attributes. As a military redoubt in the countryside erected by the Norman conquerors of Gaelic Ireland it bespoke a history of warfare and conquest. It was a visible sign in the landscape of the power England had exercised over the island of Ireland since the middle ages. That Yeats chose to own such an edifice in the years when Ireland sought to overturn that colonial inheritance suggests both his awareness of how violence is a constant in human affairs and the anomalous position he occupied as a Nationalist whose forebears were all Protestants with their roots in England.

The Anglo-Irish war was fought with intensifying viciousness (the British government augmented the Irish police in the countryside with undisciplined recruits from Britain who committed gross atrocities, some indeed in Gort close to Lady Gregory's Coole estate) on both sides between January 1919 and the summer of 1921. Following a truce an agreement was negotiated which gave partial independence to twenty-six counties of southern Ireland and established the parliament in which Yeats served as Senator until September 1928. In the early summer of 1922 a faction of those who had fought for Irish freedom in the Anglo-Irish war rose in arms to attack the new administration. They believed the republic declared by the rebels of 1916 with its putative all-Ireland jurisdiction had been betrayed by a settlement which still required Irish parliamentarians to swear an oath of allegiance to the English sovereign and acquiesced to partition.

Hostilities ended by spring 1923 with the government victorious. Casualties were not numerous (about a thousand died in all), but the war fought between former comrades planted bitter seeds of enmity in the Irish body politic. The government had responded to guerrilla tactics with summary executions of prisoners. Seventy-seven men faced firing squads, their death warrants signed by the young minister for Home Affairs, Kevin O'Higgins, whom Yeats came to admire and know. O'Higgins met his death at the hands of an avenging assassin in July 1927 as Yeats was finalizing the contents of the book of poems he would publish in 1928.

The poet and his family did not escape the dangers and stresses of these troubled times in Ireland. Georgie and he spent the summer of 1922 at work on the renova tion of the tower which Yeats always referred to as Thor Ballylee. In August, anti-government forces blew up the bridge over their stream, isolating them from the world for a time. In December of the same year, when Yeats had accepted his sena-torship, bullets were fired into his Dublin residence and an armed guard was placed at his door to deter assassins and bombers. Such intimacy with peril may account for the way in The Tower the poems which deal directly with the years of struggle and violence in Ireland express real fear and are alertly horrified by the local immediacies of history in the making, in a way Yeats's poetry had never quite been before.

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery Can leave the mother, murdered at her door, To crawl in her own blood, and go scot free; The night can sweat with terror as before We pieced our thoughts into philosophy And planned to bring the world under a rule, Who are but weasels fighting in a hole. ('Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen')

The Anglo-Irish war and the civil war were indisputably fought in the name of ideologies and specific Irish aims. They could be seen, however, as Irish manifestations of a more general disorder in Europe and the world which had followed the mass slaughter of the Great War. Revolutions in Russia and Germany, imperial disintegration in Central and Eastern Europe, were changing the map of the globe in the years in which Ireland wrestled with its own fraught destiny. So Yeats's poem 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen', with its precise references to the atrocity which took place in Gort nearby Coole and Ballylee, engages broad historical perspectives and rises to magisterial generality of utterance before the spectacle of epochal change:

Man is in love and loves what vanishes, What more is there to say?

Yeats's consciousness that he was living through a period of profound universal change (a note of general crisis as well as particular horror resounds in The Tower), as well as a crucial phase of Irish history, was given strange authority in the years in which these events, to which The Tower in part responds, took place. For since October 1917, in an extended experiment in spiritualist communication which bore fruit at the end of 1925 in the publication of the first version of A Vision, Yeats had, with the help of his spouse, been assembling a myth of human personality and of history which could account for the turbulence of contemporary events in which Ireland was caught up. In all of this, Yeats's wife George (as he called her) played a pivotal role. It was her talent for automatic writing (discovered to distract her husband during an unsatisfactory honeymoon) which brought messages, apparently from the spirit world, which Yeats, guided by her communicators, made the basis of the system (an 'intelligent myth' in Middleton Murry's term) of psychology and historicism he made public in A Vision in 1925.

The most systematic sections of A Vision (an obscure, elaborate book in prose with which Yeats quickly became dissatisfied) are those which categorize types of human personality in terms of a series of complex permutations based on twenty-eight phases of the moon. These phases (which Yeats employed simply as a schema and without astrological import) he called the Great Wheel. In this a principle of opposition was permanently at work, between solar and lunar aspects of the psyche, objective and subjective. History is read more loosely in A Vision as a manifestation in time of a similar process of thesis and antithesis, with periods succeeding one another in an endless cycle governed by change from primary (solar) to antithetical (lunar) periods. To express this dynamic visually Yeats employed a symbol of two interpenetrating cones (or 'gyres' as he called them). The moment of fundamental transition in this resolutely historicist vision of things is reckoned to be a kind of annunciation in which forces in opposition to the spirit of the age reveal themselves in all their shocking novelty. A new age coming to birth cannot escape the violence of a terrible parturition, nor the fear of what is to come to term — strange and incomprehensible as it must be to contemporary thought and feeling.

The section of A Vision titled 'Dove or Swan' makes clear that Yeats believed that he was living through just such a period of transition. A democratic world that had been in thrall since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century to primary, reductive and desacralizing accounts of reality — rational and superficially progressive in outlook — was giving way to an antithetical era in which imagination and established authority would once again hold sway in history. It will be, Yeats avers, 'the reversal of what we know'. One of the starkly dramatic of the poems collected in The Tower had an earlier printing as an introduction to 'Dove or Swan' in A Vision. There simply titled 'Leda' it appears in the 1928 volume as 'Leda and the Swan', to con-textualize the contemporary violence and terror that the volume registers elsewhere, in the metaphysical and mythic dimensions of understanding that A Vision had explored in detail.

'Leda and the Swan' is a fractured sonnet. Line eleven breaks into two lines at the caesura to suggest poetic form coming under destructive violence, as the poem itself dramatizes a moment of brutal assault and rape. Zeus in Greek myth lusted after the mortal Leda, daughter of the King of Sparta and, taking the form of a swan, raped her. From that intercourse came the twins Castor and Pollux and the Helen whose kidnap provoked the Trojan war: 'The broken wall, the burning roof and tower'. Leda's daughter Clytaemnestra also helped to murder Agamemnon on his return from Troy. An impregnatory moment had, therefore, untold consequences, making Zeus's act a blasphemous version of the Christian Annunciation, when the winged Angel Gabriel had appeared to the Virgin Mary to announce the birth of Jesus and to change history.

What makes 'Leda and the Swan' so convincing a dramatization of myth, and what allows it to seem in truth an interpretation of contemporary experience with its own broken walls and burning roofs and towers, its own slaughtered warriors, is the graphic physicality of its imagery and the mood created of appalled fascination before the spectacle of power unleashing terror. What is represented here is no mere stylized revisitation of classical antiquity, but a febrile, near-pornographic representation of lust, repulsion, sado-masochistic acquiescence, power exercised, knowledge desired, of sated indifference. And that is to say that the forces at work in bringing to birth an antithetical age are as remote from the values of Christianity Jesus introduced to the world as they are from the later ameliorist hopes of scientific, progressive rationalism.

Poem Two of 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen' (originally titled 'Thoughts Upon the Present State of the World') makes clear how 'Leda and the Swan' is included in The Tower as a mythic version of current reality. For there the dragon-ridden days of Anglo-Irish warfare are given symbolic meaning in an image that anticipates Leda's fate later in the volume. A troupe of Chinese dancers is seen unwinding a 'shining, a floating ribbon of cloth':

It seemed that a dragon of air

Had fallen among the dancers, had whirled them round

Or hurried them off on its own furious path;

So the platonic year

Whirls out new right and wrong;

Whirls in the old instead

It is not only historical transition to which Yeats responds in The Tower, but personal. Since the end of 1924 Yeats had been suffering recurrent bouts of ill health and as he turned sixty in 1925 he knew old age was definitely at hand ('Among School Children', completed in 1926, had him self-mockingly 'A sixty year old smiling public man'). Accordingly the volume takes fast-encroaching old age as its primary perspective, a point of view identified in the opening poem 'Sailing to Byzantium', with its bitterly regretful acknowledgement that only aesthetic pleasures remain for 'an aged man' zealous of the 'sensual music' enjoyed 'all summer long' by the 'young in one anothers' arms'. The title poem further reckons that abstract philosophy ('Plato and Plotinus for a friend') may be the appropriate accompaniment of an impotent old age in which only recollected, not actual, passion is possible, before the deepening shades close in. And the volume concludes in 'All Souls' Night' with the poet summoning the ghosts of dead friends and associates, as if the aged man who had opened the book is now awaiting translation himself 'To where the damned have howled away their hearts, / And where the blessed dance'.

Some poems in The Tower hint that personal and historical crises may have their resolution in eternity (the 'artifice of eternity' as 'Sailing to Byzantium' has it). For Book Four of A Vision, 'The Gates of Pluto', had been a Yeatsian Book of the Dead which revealed that the soul after death in a purgatory of its own, dreams back the events of the life it has lived, before returning once again to the cycle of life. Yet even in the holy city of Byzantium, an image of life lived 'out of nature', the poet is driven to sing of process, of the natural order of time's progression: 'What is past, or passing, or to come'. There can be no transcendental escape from the challenges of history and individual life in the body. This is the burden of the first four poems in the book, which constitute a kind of poetic suite at the head of the volume, since they are each dated in an order which suggests an intensifying retrospection which carries the poet from 1927, the year in which O'Higgins was assassinated, back to 1919 (in fact the fourth poem 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen' was finished in 1921 and refers to the atrocity which took place at Gort, Country Galway in 1920), when the Anglo-Irish war broke out. In each poem various emotional stances are tested by the poet as possible bulwarks against the personal and public horrors they also invoke and each is found wanting. In 'The Tower', for example, philosophy cannot assuage the suffering occasioned by passionate memory of erotic entanglements recalled from the frustration of old age. The poet is driven back in the isolation of his tower on racial pride, denunciatory rage, faith in creativity. The tone is of mingled heroism and desperation.

'Meditations in Time of Civil War' sets in question the very art of poetry at a time when the turning gyres have unleashed the fury of fratricidal violence in the countryside. In 'Ancestral Houses', the first poem of the sequence, poetry's intimacy with the free graciousness of aristocracy is read as a complicity with foundational Anglo-Irish violence (though the poem was begun as an evocation of an English country house the ambiguous 'planted' in the first line involves Irish implications of Protestant conquest and plantation). Poem two ponders the poet's role as Platonic mage, whose work might serve as moral beacon in a benighted community. But the military associations of a Norman castle in the Irish landscape overwhelm such naive hopes. All the poet can aspire to is a familial legacy in offering to his descendants 'befitting emblems of adversity'. Poem three broods on a Keatsian dialectic whereby pain is necessary to a spiritually elevated art which can moralize the social order. This dream of humanized aestheticism is definitively interrupted by the scream of Juno's peacock. Poems four and five dramatize the poet in the troubled times as anxious founder of a dynasty which may fall into desuetude, or as non-combant envying activists who can sink their doubts in action. Poem six offers the poet as shaman, who can invoke the beneficent powers of nature to overcome the evil of warfare:

We had fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart's grown brutal from the fare,

More substance in our enmities

Than in our love; oh, honey-bees

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

Yet even these mesmeric lines are inadequate as response to civil war; for poem seven unfolds a vision of terror and awesome sublimity that throws the poet, at the last, back on the private resources of occult knowledge if he is to survive the knowledge the vision imparts of age succeeding age in an orgy of levelling violence:

Nothing but grip of claw, and the eye's complacency,

The innumerable clanging wings that have put out the moon.

'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen' concludes this suite of poems in the volume. Local horror is set on a stage of general European crisis in which the long peace of nineteenth-century imperial hegemony gives way to feral, predatory conflict: 'The weasel's twist, the weasel's tooth'. The final poem of this sequence poem, like 'Meditations', consorts with nightmare. Demonic possession through sexual coupling is the foul version of annunciation (it is a grotesque anticipation of 'Leda and the Swan' later in the volume) this poem admits to the book, in lines that recoil from as they also relish the horror they invoke. Poetry can do little (the poem as a whole is a threnody for the aesthetic in a time of war) when the fiend is loose in the land.

It is not that The Tower lacks poetic ambition. Its dominant tones are authoritative, its voice assumes poetic powers, rhetorical capacities of a high order. It moves easily between symbolic and real orders of being, between image and lived experience, myth and moment, in a manner which suggests a poet conscious that he is writing at the height of his powers. He unembarrassedly names precursors — Homer, Chaucer — as if to serve notice that he knows his book, with its grandeur of manner, does not lack the kinds of theme great art must engage. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, the Irish folk poet Raftery are also present in allusion and reference. Yet a major impression of the book, for all its resonance of statement, is of a poet haunted by fear of failing physical energies and horrified at the incapacity of poetry to achieve anything momentous in an age of social disintegration. The sequence poem, accordingly (as in 'The Tower', 'Meditations in Time of Civil War' and 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen'), with its various parts contributing as fragments to a possible rather an actual finality of statement, seems the appropriate poetic kind for a poet so aware of dissolution and disintegration at a transitional time in public as in his personal history.

Which is to say that The Tower is a work of modernist anxiety, for all the high romanticism of some of its indulgence of the figure of the poet in his solitary elevation in his tower. Tradition lives in echoes and allusion, in tones of presumed poetic authority, but everywhere is assaulted, humiliated by 'the multitude' and 'the barbarous clangour of [a] gong' (the 'a' was added in later printings).

Yet an alternative to the poet's primary tone of heroic utterance in extremis does find expression in The Tower. For this is a book which admits to its male arena of dramatic introspection ('that is no country for old men' it bitterly opens; in 'The Tower' the poet leaves 'both faith and pride / To young upstanding men') the accents of a feminine wisdom of the body. The lyrical sequence 'A Man Young and Old' tells its tale of sexual frustration, release and ultimate resignation to his erotic fate in the jaunty metrics of traditional balladry, with its savage directness of statement. Yet this elliptical narrative of sexual suffering also includes genial communion between the sexes in bawdy recollection, while the ballad form gives a sense of timelessness to its observations in a volume which is so obsessed with dates and epochs. In sexuality and now in conversation with old women the weight of history can be laid aside:

I have old women's secrets now That had those of the young; Madge tells me what I dared not think When my blood was strong, And what had drowned a lover once Sounds like an old song.

Stories of the bed of straw Or of the bed of down.

Female visionary power is also celebrated in this volume as a counterweight to the male poet's haunted consciousness of apocalypse and nightmare. For in 1928 Yeats included in The Tower a narrative poem in Browningesque mode (it was excluded by the poet from the volume in collected editions of his work; Albright has restored it in his W B. Yeats: The Poems), in which an elderly Arab philosopher named Kusta Ben Luka writes to a friend about the young bride he has been gifted by the great prince Harun Al-Rashid. A piece of obvious costume drama, this poem allowed Yeats to dramatize how his wife's automatic writing lay behind the mythology which gives to The Tower its charged atmosphere of revelatory occasions. Ben Luka's young bride speaks in her sleep and her husband questions: 'was it she that spoke or some great Djinn?' For a time she seemed 'the learned man' and he 'the child'. The 'Truths without father' the young woman speaks, as if from a source beyond male tradition, do, however, in their 'implacable straight lines', remind of the geometric symbols Yeats had elaborated so painstakingly in A Vision. 'The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid' suggests what their true import might be:

All, all those gyres and cubes and midnight things

Are but the expression of her body

Drunk with the bitter sweetness of her youth.

And now my utmost mystery is out.

A woman's beauty is a storm-tossed banner;

Under it wisdom stands

In A Vision Yeats had cryptically confessed that in its pages he had not 'dealt with the whole' of his subject, 'perhaps not even with what is most important, writing nothing about the Beatific Vision, little of sexual love'. The publication in 1992 (as the Vision Notebooks) of much of the automatic writing and of the sleep and dream record which served as the basis of A Vision, has now revealed how Ben Luka's 'utmost mystery' was Yeats's own. For many phases of the curious transaction the poet and his wife enacted with one another in the years of George's mediumship were marked by intense explorations of erotic destiny and of their shared sexual life. Consequently critics, among them Daniel Albright, have been able to read A Vision as a kind of Cubist experiment in which the body and its life in the world and in history is represented in the stark abstractions of geometry. 'The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid' hints at a similar relationship between the body and the gyres, cubes and midnight things which derive from female 'wisdom', from the revelations of a spiritualist wife. To exploit an intelligent mythology, as The Tower does, is not therefore to transpose history or personal experience into some abstract zone of pure forms, but to seek to comprehend reality in terms of a system that has female, bodily origins.

This might then be taken as relating to the central theme of 'Among School Children', one of Yeats's greatest poems, which he also included in The Tower. In this poem the poet dramatizes himself as an elderly public man, inspecting a school as part of his public, senatorial duties. The presence of the schoolchildren provokes in him a brooding reverie on his own youth and on the youth and childhood of a beloved beautiful woman, who like himself has suffered the depredations of old age. The poem is a work of fluid recall as memory ranges back through time, juxtaposing past and present, as if the mind could transcend time itself. Yet it is also a poem of palpable physicality - of fingers, eyes, cheeks, hair, a mother's lap, even 'the bottom of a king of kings' - as if to remind that the mind cannot escape its entrapment in mutable flesh. Philosophy with its vision of transcendence of the material world cannot offer comfort in face of such bleak knowledge, nor can certain kinds of religiously inspired art forms 'that all heavenly glory symbolize'. Only an art centred in the truths of earthly, bodily existence can offer any credible alternative to the vision of personal and historical disintegration that The Tower so powerfully unfolds:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where The body is not bruised to pleasure soul, Nor beauty born out of its own despair; Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil. O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer, Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?

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