Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Week 2: Yeats

Yeats is all over the place! His interest in a variety of things makes it into his poetry and makes it hard to classify his themes (as you can tell by the number of them). But he also connects himself deeply to the tradition that influences him: Irish mythology, British literature, etc thus there are a number of broader comparisons that can be made. Here's the study guide.

  • Yeats' relation to other writers. I found the following connections to be profitable:
    • Keats "Ode to A Grecian Urn" and Yeats "Lapis Lazuli" -- the obvious connection is that they both discuss art objects that depict people frozen in a single moment. I was particularly interested in how differently they portray this moment. Keats looks at it as the epitome of Beauty and Truth -- the eternal, unrealized chase for something one cannot quite reach. He relishes the external, untouchable ideal. Yeats is after a different effect -- he opens the poem in the contemporary world (with the hysterical woman, her commentary on poetry, and wars) where poetry cannot provide an answer to the modern crisis of annihilation. Yeats' depiction of the Shakespearian trajedies -- where grief is staged and despite multiple performances, the text and message remain static -- is contrasted with the evolving history of the Lapis Lazuli object, which incorporates the "accidental" cracks and dents into the landscape it portrays. This provides the breakthrough that Keats does not want: if the object can be changed by time, reinterpreted as the audience makes different meanings of it, then the figures can be imagined not statically, but at the end of their journey where Yeats "delights to see them" sitting on the edge of the mountain gazing outwards.
    • One of Tennyson's poems about aged men, "Tithonus," (the other one we're reading is "Ulysses," which shares some basic connections) resonates with "Sailing to Byzantium." Both poems picture old men out of place in their present world and contrast the natural growth and decay of the body with a sterile yet beautiful unchanging environment. Byzantium has an old garden the emperor built of artificial, glittery birds and trees and this "artifice of eternity" beguiles the old man who nears is own death and changelessness. There is comfort for him in this artificiality because it is predictable, "to sing...of what is past, or passing, or to come." Yet this hides a more sinister truth: the future is clear only because there is no choice or growth, only an eternity of nothing. "Tithonus" presents the opposite: a single man amidst all that does change, "Me only cruel immortality / Consumes." (Tithonus asked Aurora for eternal life, but failed to request youth as well, thus is eternally "immortal age beside immortal youth.") Like Yeats' "Leda and the Swan," the gods have failed mankind in giving out their gifts capriciously without any regard for their effects & as Tennyson's Tithonus fears, "The gods themselves cannot recall their gifts." Both poems emphasize the sterility of eternity and the need for not just growth, but decay. Both Tennyson and Yeats will, in other poems, posit that "old age hath yet his honor and his toil" ("Ulysses") and the message reinforces their beliefs in cyclical history and its redemptive force.

    Yeats was deeply influenced by other poets (esp. the Pre-Raphealites) yet also reacted against some movements (i.e. Romanticism). I don't know much about it, but how does Yeats fit in with the wider literary tradition? We could also consider whom he influences -- Pound, Eliot and so forth.

  • Yeats' evolution as a poet and his relationship to the concerns of his day (Irish Rebellion, WW2, etc) means that his poetry constantly innovates and reconsiders older questions from new and different perspectives. Do we see a progression, though, where his early career mythologizes and romanticizes Ireland and poetic themes followed by a more mature man who questions these assumptions? Or is there more of a complex interaction between the two -- where mythology provides an answer for the current problems, yet it must be de-mythologized on a certain level to keep it from being so abstract as to be useless? How does Yeats balance these concerns?

Finally, the Cranberries' song "Yeat's Grave" has a portion of "No Second Troy" and is an interesting song in its own right.


Josh said...

Just a quick thought on Yeats and poetic tradition -- my copy of the Longman Anthology of English Literature claims that in his earlier career Yeats is "the last Romantic" poet. Think "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" or "The Rose Upon the Rood of Time" (or, though we weren't assigned it, "The Stolen Child"). I think we can look at his early 20th-century poem "A Coat" -- it's a nice short statement of why he changed his poetic style, and it makes a nice bridge from Romantic Yeats to Modernist Yeats, if you will. Interesting to think, too, that Yeats even while establishing a reputation as the modern poet never abandoned verse form, rhyme, regular meter, and all those other poetic techniques folks like Gertrude Stein were rapidly tossing out the window.

More substantial thoughts later, I hope ...

Josh said...

By the way -- these study guides? Good Lord, are they helpful. This is exactly the sort of thing I hope to be producing as I go along or nearer the exam. When I finally get around to it ...

Oh yes, and some more thoughts on poems we might want to keep in the front of our minds. "Sailing to Byzantium" is for me the most obvious one, with its discussions about art as something both removed from everyday life (as in the speaker leaving Ireland and heading to Byzantium) yet dependent on it (remember that his song in Byzantium is of "what is past, or passing, or to come"). Plus there's the amazing image of the speaker, without the poetic song of his heart changing things, reduced to a tattered coat on a stick.

If we combine this with "The Circus Animals' Desertion" and to a lesser extent "Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop," we've got some pretty interesting metapoetic discussions about literature as both apart from and tied to the world of art. We could contrast that to Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" for some famous "poets on poetry" type stuff.

On the other hand, there are also those works like "Easter 1916" or the Major Gregory poem (whose specific name is escaping me right now), which are much more occasional pieces and thus perhaps could be tied to Dryden, Pope, etc.