Review: ‘Out of Ireland: the poetry of W.B. Yeats’

by Dudley Young (Cheadle, Carcanet Press, 1976. £3.50)


Ian Fletcher


Dudley Young’s book is a suite of sensitive readings in a number of Yeats’s poems: 1919, Meditations in time of civil war, Easter 1916, Blood and the moon, Lapis Lazuli, Purgatory, and more enterprisingly The grey rock, though nothing particularly startling is said about that, High talk and Parnell’s funeral. For Young, Yeats is a symbolist whose poems ‘explore the conditions of their own possibility,’ though this might as easily, more easily, apply to Wallace Stevens or to Stéphane Mallarmé. However, the large definition is qualified by Yeats’s concern for history and its ghosts, Anglo-Irish and more personal: dead poets, mages and the like, whose claims must be exorcized. Before we arrive at direct interrogation of the poems, we have to edge past Young’s own circus animals: Plato, St John, Heraklitus, and the more modish Nietzsche, Eliot, Donne. There is, however, a brief and brilliant comparison between Yeats and the ‘alchemical violence’ of Mallarmé; Yeats, we are told, was luckier than Mallarmé, in ‘never lacking specific targets for his violence’: ‘great hatred, little room,’ indeed. Mallarmé, confined tar the present, without narrative, possessed a poetry more difficult to read, more hard to write, more contemporary than that of Yeats. Well, we need rather more evidence for the last epithet than we are given.


Young’s tone is friendly, not too taut, and he has a gift for limpid vulgarizing. But though elaborately read in the philosophers, his reading in Yeats scholarship is suspect, so that insights sharply put are sometimes followed by comments that more reading in Yeats scholarship and less in uncle Hegel might have corrected. In discussing Easter 1916 after those moving lines in the last section:


            What is it but nightfall?

            No, no, not night, but death


he observes ‘the destructive potential of this line not only for this poem but for the whole of Yeats’s poetic idealism can scarcely be over-estimated, for in it he is considering that death may not be a metaphor for poetry, that its sting may be incorrigibly other, not susceptible of poetic mediation; which is of course unthinkable.’


It is most acutely put. But in the same analysis, Young lumps all the rebels together as, from the poet’s point of view, ‘below the salt,’ Catholic, bourgeois, narrowly nationalist. But Yeats admired Macdonagh, and praises him in the poem, though privately he thought Macdonagh’s talent would come to nothing because of the provinciality of Dublin and Macdonagh’s associates. To lump the rebels together tout court is to undercut Yeats’s own rhetoric of judgment at the wrong point in the poem; that rhetoric is dramatically undercut by being later shown as beside the point. And for one so versed in nineteenth century symbolism, Young makes nothing of ‘terrible beauty’ which clearly comes from the contexts of Dante, via Rossetti, Swinburne, Gustave Moreau; but there, even good critics must have modish counters to play with.


Reading In memory of Robert Gregory, Young takes issue with Kermode, who places the stress on irreconcilable conflict in Gregory between artist and man of action. Young finds the poem far more accents action, whether horsemanship, metal and wood working; only five lines are given to the painting, and no real contrast is indicated between natural and visionary landscape. Professor Witt had made the case for Yeats’s Gregory as symbolist painter before Kermode. Nothing here signifies Young’s awareness that his quarrel is with her as much as with Yeats for botching; the poet makes the ghost of Gregory more difficult to accommodate in his elegy. And Young does not mention that Yeats only inserted the full stanza on horsemanship after the poem was complete, and at the request of Lady Gregory. That stanza along with the ‘soldier’ and ‘horseman’ of the refrain produces an imbalance; remove the superfluous if skilful stanza and the poems reads more satisfactorily in Kermodian mode.


In 1919 Young’s hackles rise when he encounters Loie Fuller’s ‘Chinese dancers’: those he cleverly, but surely misleadingly, describes as Yeats’s attempt at the common touch, an ‘allusion to the forms of commerce, the origin of Pop Art.’ Fuller was no temple dancer (though Eastern temple dancers were not above trouping in Paris) and a brilliant entrepreneur, but Yeats had no intention of introducing an effect comparable to Symons with his music halls. Darling of the Symbolist poets and artists: Mallarmé, Rodenbach, Pol de Mont, all praise Fuller: her use of veils and electricity vaporized the body. Again, a little less of the Heraklitus and more of the immediate Yeatsian context, please. About Salome, Dudley Young follows Alvarez, sensing two interpretations of the Princess of Judea: for the decadents, a mask-like unswerving castrator; for the other tradition, to which Yeats belongs (though not Young admits in A full moon in March nor, one might add, Mallarmé in Hérodiade and Noces d’Hérodiade though those are not late poems), Salome is a figure of health, where body is not bruised to pleasure soul. Both traditions are involved with the poetic image; but are there really two traditions? Salome belongs in nineteenth-century hermaphroditic myth, alternately pessimistic and optimistic; the masks may differ, the lady is one.


Yeats’s wish to relate to Anglo-Irish values is unsympathetically treated in Young’s discussion of The tower (though he still announces his Hegelianism and has an ingenuous footnote about a Marxist pushing his views further; the voice here seems to be that of Esau). Without resorting to the excuse of Seithenyn in Peacock’s Misfortunes of Elphin, parts of a poem can be baddish in themselves, but become good in context. In spite of Young’s insistence that Irish history is ‘complex,’ his own complex reading turns out to be rather like John Mitchel’s; a morality play in which the Saxon is always on the Devil’s side. Anyway, the ‘rant’ of the first part of the third section of The tower is distinctly more acceptable than the shrill songs Yeats wrote during De Valera’s absurd trade war of the 1930’s, and most of that appalling poem ‘Under Ben Bulben.’


It is not all that common to find an admirer of Yeats testing out his admirations so stringently. I should have liked an analysis of ‘The people,’ a poem neither by mage nor courtier, where mask and face seem humbly at one; but there is enough here to be grateful for.