images-8     W.B. Yeats                        images-9.jpeg   W.H. Auden

In this ‘trial’ of W.B. Yeats as a political poet and as a “great” poet, tout court,  Auden first presents the Prosecution’s case in the voice of an orthodox communist party member, and then the case for the Defense in something that comes from what we assume is Auden’s true position. But if the reader is committed both to revolutionary politics and to the regime of poetics, they will be left with a more perplexing and complex view: namely, that Yeats was both the ‘ great poet’ and a man of political contradictions.  The text of the ‘case’ follows here:

The Public v. the Late Mr William Butler Yeats
the public prosecutor.
Gentlemen of the Jury. Let us be quite clear in our minds as to the nature
of this case. We are here to judge, not a man, but his work. Upon the char- acter of the deceased, therefore, his affectations of dress and manner, his in- ordinate personal vanity, traits which caused a fellow countryman and former friend to refer to him as “the greatest literary fop in history”, I do not intend to dwell. I must only remind you that there is usually a close connection be- tween the personal character of a poet and his work, and that the deceased was no exception.
Again I must draw your attention to the exact nature of the charge. That the deceased had talent is not for a moment in dispute; so much is freely ad- mitted by the prosecution. What the defence are asking you to believe, how- ever, is that he was a great poet, the greatest of this century writing in English. That is their case, and it is that which the prosecution feels bound most em- phatically to deny.
A great poet. To deserve such an epithet, a poet is commonly required to convince us of three things: firstly a gift of a very high order for memorable language, secondly a profound understanding of the age in which he lives, and thirdly a working knowledge of and sympathetic attitude towards the most progressive thought of his time.
Did the deceased possess these? I am afraid, gentlemen, that the answer is, no.
On the first point I shall be brief. My learned friend, the counsel for the defence, will, I have no doubt, do his best to convince you that I am wrong. And he has a case, gentlemen. O yes, a very fine case. I shall only ask you to apply to the work of the deceased a very simple test. How many of his lines can you remember?
Further, it is not unreasonable to suppose that a poet who has a gift for lan- guage will recognize that gift in others. I have here a copy of an anthology edited by the deceased entitled The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. I challenge anyone in this court to deny that it is the most deplorable volume ever issued under the imprint of that highly respected firm which has done so much for the cause of poetry in this country, the Clarendon Press.
But in any case you and I are educated modern men. Our fathers imagined that poetry existed in some private garden of its own, totally unrelated to the workaday world, and to be judged by pure aesthetic standards alone. We know that now to be an illusion. Let me pass then, to my second point. Did the de- ceased understand his age?
4 ESSAYS AND REVIEWS 1939
What did he admire? What did he condemn? Well, he extolled the virtues of the peasant. Excellent. But should that peasant learn to read and write, should he save enough money to buy a shop, attempt by honest trading to raise himself above the level of the beasts, and O, what a sorry change is there. Now he is the enemy, the hateful huxter whose blood, according to the un- seemly boast of the deceased, never flowed through his loins. Had the poet chosen to live in a mud cabin in Galway among swine and superstition, we might think him mistaken, but we should admire his integrity. But did he do this? O dear no. For there was another world which seemed to him not only equally admirable, but a deal more agreeable to live in, the world of noble houses, of large drawing rooms inhabited by the rich and the decorative, most of them of the female sex. We do not have to think very hard or very long, before we shall see a connection between these facts. The deceased had the feudal mentality. He was prepared to admire the poor just as long as they remained poor and deferential, accepting without protest the burden of maintaining a little athenian band of literary landowners, who without their toil could not exist for five minutes.
For the great struggle of our time to create a juster social order, he felt nothing but the hatred which is born of fear. It is true that he played a cer- tain part in the movement for Irish Independence, but I hardly think my learned friend will draw your attention to that. Of all the modes of self- evasion open to the well-to-do, Nationalism is the easiest and most dishonest. It allows to the unjust all the luxury of righteous indignation against in- justice. Still, it has often inspired men and women to acts of heroism and self-sacrifice. For the sake of a free Ireland the poet Pearse and the count- ess Markiewicz gave their all. But if the deceased did give himself to this movement, he did so with singular moderation. After the rebellion of Easter Sunday 1916, he wrote a poem on the subject which has been called a mas- terpiece. It is. To succeed at such a time in writing a poem which could of- fend neither the Irish Republican nor the British army was indeed a mas- terly achievement.
And so we come to our third and last point. The most superficial glance at the last fifty years is enough to tell us that the social struggle towards greater equality has been accompanied by a growing intellectual acceptance of the scientific method and the steady conquest of irrational superstition. What was the attitude of the deceased towards this? Gentlemen, words fail me. What are we to say of a man whose earliest writings attempted to revive a belief in fairies and whose favourite themes were legends of barbaric heroes with un- pronounceable names, work which has been aptly and wittily described as Chaff about Bran?
But you may say, he was young; youth is always romantic; its silliness is part of its charm. Perhaps it is. Let us forgive the youth, then, and consider the mature man, from whom we have a right to expect wisdom and common

ESSAYS AND REVIEWS 1939 5
sense. Gentlemen, it is hard to be charitable when we find that the deceased, far from outgrowing his folly, has plunged even deeper. In 1900 he believed in fairies; that was bad enough; but in 1930 we are confronted with the piti- ful, the deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo- jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India. Whether he seriously believed such stuff to be true, or merely thought it pretty, or imagined it would im- press the public, is immaterial. The plain fact remains that he made it the centre of his work. Gentlemen, I need say no more. In the last poem he wrote, the deceased rejects social justice and reason, and prays for war. Am I mis- taken in imagining that somewhat similar sentiments are expressed by a cer- tain foreign political movement which every lover of literature and liberty ac- knowledges to be the enemy of mankind?
the counsel for the defence.
Gentlemen of the Jury. I am sure you have listened with as much enjoyment
as I to the eloquence of the prosecution. I say enjoyment because the spec- tacle of anything well-done, whether it be a feat of engineering, a poem, or even an outburst of impassioned oratory, must always give pleasure.
We have been treated to an analysis of the character of the deceased which, for all I know, may be as true as it is destructive. Whether it proves anything about the value of his poetry is another matter. If I may be allowed to quote my learned friend: “We are here to judge, not a man, but his work.” We have been told that the deceased was conceited, that he was a snob, that he was a physical coward, that his taste in contemporary poetry was uncertain, that he could not understand physics and chemistry. If this is not an invitation to judge the man, I do not know what is. Does it not bear an extraordinary re- semblance to the belief of an earlier age that a great artist must be chaste? Take away the frills, and the argument of the prosecution is reduced to this: “A great poet must give the right answers to the problems which perplex his generation. The deceased gave the wrong answers. Therefore the deceased was not a great poet.” Poetry in such a view is the filling up of a social quiz; to pass with honours the poet must score not less than 75%. With all due re- spect to my learned friend, this is nonsense. We are tempted so to judge con- temporary poets because we really do have problems which we really do want solved, so that we are inclined to expect everyone, politicians, scientists, poets, clergymen, to give us the answers, and to blame them indiscriminately when they do not. But who reads the poetry of the past in this way? In an age of rising nationalism, Dante looked back with envy to the Roman Empire. Was this socially progressive? Will only a Catholic admit that Dryden’s “The Hind and the Panther” is a good poem? Do we condemn Blake because he rejected Newton’s Theory of Light, or rank Wordsworth lower than Baker, because the latter had a deeper appreciation of the steam engine?
Can such a viewpoint explain why

6 ESSAYS AND REVIEWS 1939
Mock Emmet, Mock Parnell All the renown that fell
is good; and bad, such a line as
Somehow I think that you are rather like a tree.
In pointing out that this is absurd, I am not trying to suggest that art exists independently of society. The relation between the two is just as intimate and important as the prosecution asserts.
Every individual is from time to time excited emotionally and intellectually by his social and material environment. In certain individuals this excitement produces verbal structures which we call poems; if such a verbal structure cre- ates an excitement in the reader, we call it a good poem; poetic talent, in fact, is the power to make personal excitement socially available. Poets, i.e. per- sons with poetic talent, stop writing good poetry when they stop reacting to the world they live in. The nature of that reaction, whether it be positive or negative, morally admirable or morally disgraceful, matters very little; what is essential is that the reaction should genuinely exist. The later Wordsworth is not inferior to the earlier because the poet had altered his political opin- ions, but because he had ceased to feel and think so strongly, a change which happens, alas, to most of us as we grow older. Now, when we turn to the de- ceased, we are confronted by the amazing spectacle of a man of great poetic talent, whose capacity for excitement not only remained with him to the end, but actually increased. In two hundred years when our children have made a different and, I hope, better social order, and when our science has devel- oped out of all recognition, who but a historian will care a button whether the deceased was right about the Irish Question or wrong about the trans- migration of souls? But because the excitement out of which his poems arose was genuine, they will still, unless I am very much mistaken, be capable of exciting others, different though their circumstances and beliefs may be from his.
However since we are not living two hundred years hence, let us play the schoolteacher a moment, and examine the poetry of the deceased with ref- erence to the history of our time.
The most obvious social fact of the last forty years is the failure of liberal capitalist democracy, based on the premises that every individual is born free and equal, each an absolute entity independent of all others; and that a for- mal political equality, the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, the right of free speech, is enough to guarantee his freedom of action in his relations with his fellow men. The results are only too familiar to us all. By denying the so- cial nature of personality, and by ignoring the social power of money, it has created the most impersonal, the most mechanical and the most unequal civilisation the world has ever seen, a civilisation in which the only emotion
common to all classes is a feeling of individual isolation from everyone else, a civilisation torn apart by the opposing emotions born of economic injus- tice, the just envy of the poor and the selfish terror of the rich.
If these latter emotions meant little to the deceased, it was partly because Ireland, compared with the rest of western Europe, was economically back- ward, and the class struggle was less conscious there. My learned friend has sneered at Irish Nationalism, but he knows as well as I that Nationalism is a necessary stage towards Socialism. He has sneered at the deceased for not taking arms, as if shooting were the only honourable and useful form of so- cial action. Has the Abbey Theatre done nothing for Ireland?
But to return to the poems. From first to last they express a sustained protest against the social atomisation caused by industrialism, and both in their ideas and their language a constant struggle to overcome it. The fairies and heroes of the early work were an attempt to find through folk tradition a binding force for society; and the doctrine of Anima Mundi found in the later poems is the same thing in a more developed form, which has left purely local peculiarities behind, in favour of something that the deceased hoped was universal; in other words, he was looking for a world religion. A purely religious solution may be unworkable, but the search for it is, at least, the re- sult of a true perception of a social evil. Again, the virtues that the deceased praised in the peasantry and aristocracy, and the vices he blamed in the com- mercial classes, were real virtues and vices. To create a united and just soci- ety where the former are fostered and the latter cured is the task of the politi- cian, not the poet.
For art is a product of history, not a cause. Unlike some other products, technical inventions for example, it does not re-enter history as an effective agent, so that the question whether art should or should not be propaganda is unreal. The case for the prosecution rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth, gentlemen, is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, not a bar of music com- posed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.
But there is one field in which the poet is a man of action, the field of lan- guage, and it is precisely in this that the greatness of the deceased is most ob- viously shown. However false or undemocratic his ideas, his diction shows a continuous evolution towards what one might call the true democratic style. The social virtues of a real democracy are brotherhood and intelligence, and the parallel linguistic virtues are strength and clarity, virtues which appear ever more clearly through successive volumes by the deceased.
The diction of The Winding Stair is the diction of a just man, and it is for this reason that just men will always recognize its author as a master.
Partisan Review, Spring 1939

 

The voice of the ‘just man,’ is then heard in Auden’s 1940 elegy for Yeats:

“IN MEMORY OF W.B.YEATS,”   W.H. Auden,

I

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly
accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

II

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
III

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

1940.

For Auden in 1940, “When intellectual disgrace,/Stares from every human face,” the poet may be the only one who can, “With your unconstraining voice,/ Still persuade us to rejoice.” Poetry may be able to heal the catastrophes of war: and Auden, having just arrived in New York, is ready to take on the poet’s work:

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

 

Next week: Delmore Schwartz on W.B. Yeats.

 

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