We haven’t seen much Delmore Schwartz in Partisan Review for a while, but his companion piece to Auden’s “trial” of W.B. Yeats, “The Poet as Poet”, also takes on the issue of how Yeats’ poetry changed over his long career. This was good news for poets in general, Schwartz wryly suggests: “The process of a bad poet of the ‘Nineties becoming a great poet in middle age. Henceforth no poet can be regarded as utterly hopeless: the possibility of a Yeatsian miracle will always present itself.”
Schwartz describes Yeats’s youthful experiments in poetry as part the fin-de-siecle “mellifluous speech”– inherited from Shelley, the Pre-Raphelites, and Swinburne.Yeats would go on to follow, the Indian thread of Mme. Blavatsky’s theosophical ‘researches’ along with the “cultic twaddle” of the Celtic Twilight.
“From beginning to end, Yeats was evidently prepared to try anything. Socialism or hashish, once or twice. The idiom in which he wrote, however, was the period style, based upon a misunderstanding of Baudelaire and Mallarme by an emphasis on their superficial qualities.”
Schwartz next takes two stanzas from Yeats’s various imagining of his image of beauty and love, Maud Gonne; one from “The Wind Among the Reeds”; the other from “Among School Children.”
Dim Powers of drowsy thought, let her no longer be
Like the pale cup of the sea.
When the winds have gathered and sun and moon burned dim
Above its cloudy rim;
But let a gentle silence wrought with music flow
Whither her footsteps go.
With respect to the earlier stanza, Schwartz explains, the poetic voice creates a ‘general’ and vague atmospheric “of dim images musically sounded,” while in the stanza from “Among School Children,” that generality is replaced by “the precise word and the precise observation are used to get a specific emotion on the page.”
Her present image floats into the mind —
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I, though never of Ledean kind
Had pretty plumage once –enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
“It is this ability to represent emotion with the greatest vividness, directness, and dramatic justification which constitutes Yeats’s peculiar gift, rather than the understanding and insight or the brilliance of observation or the freshness of attitudes and values which are the more usual marks of the great poet.”
Schwartz now turns to explain the ‘factors’ if not the reasons, that altered Yeats’s poetic:
“During the years in which the change began to show itself, Yeats was faced with failures of various sorts. His early fame had begun to wane, his long courtship of one woman [Maud Gonne] had ended in emptiness. The Abbey Theatre, on which his hopes for a poetic theatre rested, had received little but abuse and misunderstanding, the whole Irish literary renaissance had faded, and many of his most gifted friends, Wilde, Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and Synge, had died in misery and degradation. This would be enough to make most men forget about the land of dreams and the Irish fairyland of the early poems.”
But Yeats didn’t simply forget what he had written. “He seized upon the opposition between the land of dreams and the actuality about him, and engaged in a continual see-saw between the two. The structure, so to speak, of thought and of feeling became what Yeats came to call antithetical.”
“The fundamental opposition was between what Yeats called subjectivity and objectivity; or less ambiguously, introversion and extroversion.” And from there everything in Yeats’s poetic was about the shifting from the one to the other. First was that between ART and Life; “which was sordid , sodden, and soiled,” or, as Lionel Johnson said, constituted by “a London Fog, the blurred tawny lamplight, the red omnibus, the glaring gin shop, the slatternly shivering women.”
Schwartz describes Yeats’s youth as one in which he “literally inhaled the doctrine of Art for Art’s Sake, and learned from his father that only that sort was genuine.” Yet Yeats’s work was always divided by his steady allegiance to ART and his various ones to politics. In
AN Irish Airman Forsees His Death
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
Schwartz writes: “The lonely impulse of delight, the rejection of law, duty, public men, and cheering crowds, betrays the voice as that of the poet of the ‘Nineties’ who has lived into the next generation. Yeats has transformed his hypothetical airman into a romantic poet, or we may say, if we consider this poem in relation to his work as a whole, that when confronted with the World War, the poet succeeds in sustaining the romantic attitude with which he began; but not however, without being perfectly aware of the difficult circumstances in which he is sustaining it.”
Schwartz goes on to look at the states of permanence that attract Yeats in his later poems. From this time onwards, the poet of ART sees that only those things can be rejected for the permanence of ART, or of timelessness, or of beautiful stasis will be what lasts, while the ruins of human lives — the engagements with war and ambition and politics — must fall away in human time, leaving only the work of the Poet, out of time, the romantic poet, to commemorate and tell what is past or passing or to come.
After reading the pieces by Auden and Schwartz on Yeats…I see that Auden and Schwartz are direct inheritors of Yeats; Auden perfecting the poetic language of the world of apparatuses and structures and objectivity; Schwartz elaborating the romanticism of the Poetic vocation.