Thursday, January 12, 2012

Going to Innisfree

Are we autonomous individuals, or inextricably bound to our communities?  Is art created in freedom, for its own sake, or does it come into being to support a cause larger than itself?  I've been having a look at these questions lately in relation to the poetry of W.B. Yeats, as part of the research for a Yeats & Eliot chapter of a book that now has the unfortunate working title Power and Poetics: A Social History of Aesthetic Autonomy and Poetry.  The questions certainly haunted Yeats: as any study of his work will tell you, he came of age as a poet divided between the l'art pour l'art symbolism of the Rhymer's Club of the 1890s and the anti-colonial nationalism of the Irish Literary Revival.

The question of autonomy and community goes deeper than this, though: in fact, Yeats grew up in a household where the question was actively debated, and his father, the painter John Butler Yeats, was deeply interested in the question.

Reading JBY's letters, one frequently runs across statements that embrace the notion of the artist as a proudly isolated figure, disdaining the demands of the audience: "the artist must always be an aristocrat and disdain the street," he writes, or—echoing his favorite poet Keats, in Keats' rebuke of Shelley for putting politics, community, and philosophy before aesthetics—"if the lark were to bother itself about the 'Collective Soul'... it would not sing at all.  Elsewhere he argues that "the chief thing to know and never forget is that art is dreamland and that the moment a poet meddles with ethics and moral uplift he leaves dreamland, loses his music, and ceases to be a poet."

JBY was the furthest thing from a systematic thinker, though, and like a true negative capabilty-having lover of Keats, he often presented contradictory opinions without any irritable reaching after some final resolution.  "Art for art's sake," he writes at one point, "is for those who hate life... the great artist is also a man like ourselves."  Moreover, he argues on behalf of "democratic art" in a letter to his son, saying that WBY should aim at art "that unites a whole audience" because the art for art's sake crowd is just "a coterie of discontented artists" lacking worldly experience and relevance and amounting to nothing more than "a tea-party of old maids discussing marriage and large families."

Sometimes JBY pulls off a kind of having-it-both ways move, in which the moral and political problems of Ireland are best served by artists who do not aim at addressing those problems, but at a totally autonomous art. This is a move one sees from time to time in the late nineteenth century, and it becomes an important principle of some avant-garde movements in the twentieth century: in fact, it's a major principle of Surrealist thought.  Here's an example of JBY making the autonomous artist politically engaged despite himself: "Ireland is to be rescued neither by Belfast nor by England, neither by priest nor by parson, but by its artists," because they, with their independence and apparent unconcern for the orthodoxies of political faction or ideological battle, provide what no one else can, "freedom of thought and the intoxication of truth... an unshackled intellect."  It's all very Matthew Arnold, isn't it? So very like Arnold's hope that a disinterested group of intellectuals, with their "free and fresh play" of ideas, will save the world from bitter partisan struggle. JBY was 30 when Arnold's Culture and Anarchy appeared, and it seems to have had an influence on his thought.

Anyway.  If we want to see how these issues play out in Yeats' poetry, we can look in any number of places.  But "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is a particularly good poem with which to start, since here the question of autonomy vs. community is linked to filial loyalty, to both father and fatherland, in ways often overlooked.

Here's the poem:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, and a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

At first glance, it's just a nice bit of pastoralism, a yearning for a rural retreat from the busy modern world.  It is that, certainly.  And Yeats' statement about the poem's genesis re-enforces this pastoralism: he famously wrote that the idea came to him when he saw an artificial fountain in a London shop window, and remembered the peaceful waters of Sligo.  But what to make of the specific kind of pastoral retreat the poem proposes?

It's worth considering the phrasing of the first line, "I will arise and go now."  It's an allusion to the King James Bible, to Luke 15:18, and the story of the prodigal son.  "I will arise and go to my father" are the words of the prodigal son, just as he resolves to return to his father and confess his sins.  So this isn't just a retreat to a quiet place: it is a son's return to the things from which he has guiltily strayed.  The place to which he the speaker resolves to return is overtly Irish (the place name alone establishes that), and the world of gray pavements is most likely London (it was where Yeats had lived, it was the place where the inspiration for the poem struck him, and it is the great metropolis most readily identified with "pavements grey").  So the poem presents us not just with pastoral retreat, but with a kind of re-affiliation of the poet and his nation, and with the implication that his removal from that nation was as wrong as the prodigal son's straying away from his family duties.

But if the poem contains a kind of nationalism, and an implicit statement that the poet's place and duty lie back among his own people, it's a funny kind of nationalism.  The plan for life at Innisfree, after all, is a plan of isolation — or more than that: of an almost Robinson Crusoe-like self-sufficiency, with the poet building his own dwelling and raising his own food in autonomous isolation.  Is this nationalism or individualism?  Political commitment or individual withdrawal?

The issue is further complicated when we consider another allusion, one so buried that it was probably not intended to be found, but that is mentioned in Yeats' autobiographical writings.  As the critic Michael North has pointed out in The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, the bean rows of the first stanza of Yeats' poem come from the "Bean Field" chapter of Henry David Thoreau's Walden.  And not only that: they come from Yeats' father reading passages of Walden aloud to the poet.  As Yeats says in Reveries Over Childhood and Youth, "my father had read to me some passage out of Walden, and I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree... I thought that having conquered bodily desire and the inclination of my mind toward women and love, I should live, as Thoreau lived, seeking wisdom."

So just as the Biblical allusion to the story of the prodigal son signals that there is a communal or nationalist urge at work, this other allusion signals that there is a Thoreauvian individualist urge at work, re-enforcing the poem's Crusoe-like images of autonomy and self-reliance.  The nationalist story comes with the authority of fatherhood behind it (the poet away in the great metropolis is the nation's prodigal son), but so does the individualist story, since the poet is reminded of his father in the individualist mode JBY so often (but so inconsistently) struck.  Without Yeats' autobiographical writings this latter paternal-filial relation would remain invisible, but we have the autobiographical writings, and we aren't hung-up on sticking to the internal evidence of the text itself, are we?  I mean, my name's not W.K. Wimsatt, and yours isn't Monroe C. Beardsley.

What to make of the poem, then?  Clearly it isn't a simple pastoral, but neither is it simply a Celticist poem of national affiliation.  Nor is it simply a poem of individual autonomy.  Instead, it is a poem that tries to have things both ways, but offers no easy fusion of the competing urges, along the lines of what JBY had offered in his comment about autonomous writers saving the nation by virtue of their autonomy.  Despite the poem's apparently placid surface, the fusion is incomplete, or perhaps we should say dynamic, with the nationalist urge and the autonomous urge oscillating endlessly.  The poem, in the end, is a dog chasing its own tail, or an attempt to square the circle.  It attempts something not quite possible, which will, after all, be the ambition of Yeats throughout his career.

"The Return of the Prodigal Son," by Pompeo Batoni


  1. Michael Hamburger's "The Truth of Poetry / Tensions in Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the 1960s" considers these questions deeply, and is not limited to Anglo-American examples. He begins by presenting Baudelaire's ambivalence:

    "Baudelaire was one of the earlier exponents of the doctrine that the writing of poetry is an autonomous and autotelic activity . . . [And he] was also an extreme opponent of [that] view." Hamburger presents these conflicting quotes from Baudelaire [in translation]:

    "Death or deposition would be the penalty if poetry were to become assimilated to science or morality; the object of poetry is not Truth, the object of poetry is Poetry itself."

    "The time is not distant when it will be understood that all literature which refuses to march fraternally between science and philosophy is a homicidal and suicidal literature."

    "The puerile utopia of art for art's sake, by excluding morality and often even passion, was inevitably sterile."

    ... These quotes are from the first few pages of the Hamburger book, and are indicative of his concerns throughout—


  2. Hi Bill,

    Gotta love Michael Hamburger! I haven't read that book, though I've spent a fair bit of time on Baudelaire and remember how he swings between extremes. The French get to the doctrine of poetry for poetry's sake first, and take it furthest, but it begins in ambivalence, for sure. Have you ever read Swinburne's review of Les Fleurs du Mal? It swings back and forth just as much as Baudelaire did:

    “A poet’s business is presumably to write good verses, and by no means to redeem the age and remold society. No other form of art is so pestered with this impotent appetite for meddling in quite extraneous matters; but the mass of readers seem actually to think that a poem is the better for containing a moral lesson or assisting in a tangible and material good work. The courage and sense of a man who at such a time ventures to profess and act on the conviction that the art of poetry has absolutely nothing to do with didactic matter at all, are proof enough of the wise and serious manner in which he is likely to handle the materials of his art."

    But by the end of the review he tacks in the other direction:

    “There is not one poem of the Fleurs du Mal which has not a distinct and vivid background of morality to it.... the moral side of the book is not thrust forward in the foolish and repulsive manner of a half-taught artist... those who will look for them may find moralities in plenty behind every poem of M. Baudelaire’s”

    This was too much for England in 1857, and the review was suppressed, and later republished revised in less aesthete-like, more moralistic version. It also bothered Baudelaire, whom it seemed to have caught in an autotelic aesthetic mode: he wrote to Swinburne denying he was a covert moralist.

    I've got a copy of Hamburger's book up at the office, unread. Must get my hands on it!


  3. Paz's Harvard lectures, published as "Children of the Mire / Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde" (New and enlarged edition 1991) also delves into this conflict . . .

    from page 37:
    "The history of modern poetry is that of the oscillation between revolutionary temptation and religious temptation."

    Revolutionary: political; religious: art for art's sake (as Mallarme put it: 'Everything that wishes to remain holy must surround itself with mystery.")

    Chapter 6 in the Paz book begins with Trotsky's troubled responses to the suicides of Esenin and Mayakovsky . . .

    as Trotsky observes: "Esenin was no revolutionary . . . he was a lyricist, gazing inward. Our era, on the other hand, is not lyrical. This is the fundamental reason why Esenin, of his own volition and so prematurely, has [died]." (Pravda, 19 January 1926)—

    "Four years later," Paz continues, "Mayakovsky, who was no 'inward-gazing lyricist' and who was possessed by the revolutionary zeal of the era, also committed suicide, and Trotsky had to write another [obit]. . . ."


  4. re Paz's 'religious temptation' tag, this sentence from page 97 of the Hamburger book:

    "At the heart of every Romantic-Symbolist poet's aesthetic, then, there is a private religion, a 'religio poetae' irreconcilable with the exigencies of the public world."


  5. It's fascinating stuff, isn't it? What I've been interested in lately are the historical conditions that lead to these beliefs. Last summer I wrote a chapter of my book that tried to tie the flourishing of this kind of poetry to the social position of poetry in the nineteenth century, with what I think of as mixed results. But I did come across some great stuff by Hippolyte Taine, who contrasted the Tennyson-loving English with the de Musset-reading French. Tennyson met the broad audience on their own terms, but de Musset appealed to a different kind of person, more self-consciously alienated from society at large.

    Here's a bit of it, though it doesn't really excerpt well:

    The English and their Tennyson:

    "We converse with our host. We very soon find that his mind and soul have always been well balanced. When he left college he found his career shaped out for him; no need for him to revolt against the Church, which is half rational; nor against the Constitution, which is nobly liberal: the faith and law presented to him are good, useful, moral, liberal enough to maintain and employ all diversities of sincere minds. He became attached to them, he loves them, he has received from them the whole system of his practical and speculative ideas... He is not carried away by theories, dulled by sloth, checked by contradictions. Elsewhere youth is like water, stagnant or running to waste; here there is a fine old channel which receives and directs to a useful and sure end the whole stream of its activities and passions. He acts, works, rules. He is married, has tenants, is a magistrate, becomes a politician. He improves and rules his parish, his estate, and his family. He founds societies, speaks at meetings, superintends schools, dispenses justice, introduces improvements; he employs his reading… his fortune, and his rank, to lead his neighbors and dependents amicably to some work which profits themselves and the public. He is influential and respected…. He knows that he has authority and he uses it nobly, for the good of others.
    Does any poet suit such a society better than Tennyson? Without being a pedant, he is moral; he may be read in the family circle by night; he does not rebel against society and life; he speaks of God and the soul, nobly, tenderly, without ecclesiastical prejudice; there is no need to reproach him like Lord Byron; he has no violent and abrupt words, extravagant and scandalous sentiments; he will pervert nobody. We shall not be troubled when we close the book; we may listen when we quit him, without being shocked by the contrast, to the grave voice of the master of the house, who reads evening prayers before the kneeling servants."

    The French who read de Musset:

    "…crammed round their little marble tables, persecuted by the glaring light, the shouts of the waiters, the jumble of mixed talk, the monotonous motion of gloomy walkers, the flutter of loitering courtesans moving about anxiously in the dark…. All the enjoyments of these people are factitious, and, as it were, snatched hurriedly; they have in them some- thing unhealthy and irritating. They are like the cookery of their restaurants, the splendor of their cafés, the gaiety of their theatres. They want them too quick, too pungent, too manifold. They have not cultivated them patiently, and culled them moderately... They are refined and greedy; they need every day a stock of word-paintings, broad anecdotes, biting railleries, new truths, varied ideas."

  6. More Paz (page 104): "The contradiction between the era and its poetry, between the revolutionary and the poetic spirit, is vaster and deeper than Trotsky thought. Russia provides an exaggerated but not exceptional case. There the contradiction took atrocious shape: poets who were not murdered or who did not commit suicide were silenced by other means."

    Another perhaps not exceptional case: England 1890-1920. Thirty years during which England killed or suicided or silenced by other means every poet it could. Consider Ezra Pound entering the London poetry scene in 1910 to encounter the 56 year old Oscar Wilde, the 43 year old Ernest Dowson, the 43 year old Lionel Johnson, the 44 year old John Gray, and how many other notables at the height of their accomplishment and fame . . . or see Eliot's 'The Waste Land' in 1920 sharing a shelf with new books by the 42 year old Edward Thomas and the 36 year old James Elroy Flecker and the 33 year old Rupert Brooke or the 30 year old Isaac Rosenberg or the 27 year old Wilfred Owen and, and, and, the list goes on and on—

    The Wilde trial didn't kill as many poets as Stalin, but it did brutal the suppression and silencing of 'decadent' 'aesthetic' poets in England ... (if Yeats had been Brit, they would have offed him too)—


  7. The "tragic generation" indeed! It's fascinating to see what happened between the 1860s and the 1890s to change the relation of poet and nation so much in England. From Tennyson building a mansion with royalties and getting a lordship for his poetry to the garret-dwelling, alienated Rhymers is quite a trip. I'm going to stop myself from quoting the entire chapter I wrote about this last summer.

    About Yeats: he's in an odd situation, since on the one hand there's the pull of aestheticism, which has the allure of freedom to be as arcane or out-there or edgy as one likes; on the other hand, he's got something the English aesthetes didn't have, a colonial audience. In Ireland, the majority of the people didn't see their values represented anywhere (the schools, the army, the flag, even) but they could turn to poetry. And Yeats could have an audience. Of course he wanted it both ways: the freedom of the outsider aesthete, and the influence of the nationalist poet. For me, these cross currents are the most interesting thing in all of Yeats -- I suppose that's what I was driving at in the little reading of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree."

    Wilde didn't particularly seem to want an Irish audience. I think he wanted to be the ambassador to established society of the whole underworld of art and sex. A risky job, as it turned out.

    I'm sure you're right: had he been English, he'd have been as alienated and despised as Dowson.

    I've got to read Paz again. It's been forever. I translated "Blanco" (quite poorly) when I was quite young. I think it was good for me.

    1. Very interesting reading and discussion. I stumbled upon this blog by accident through a search for 'samizdat,' but I was actually researching somewhat similar questions in the modernist and contemporary periods. Thank you for sharing.

    2. Thanks, Polina -- glad it was useful!

  8. I teach this poem to my college students, so thanks for the info.

    You're right: lose that title. Maybe: The Poets And The Powerful(!)

    1. I'm terrible at titles. In the end, I always find someone else to give the titles to my books.

  9. I think Yeats' poetry demonstrates what much Irish poetry does; a kind of necessary schizophrenia whereby the poet writes to the Empire and against it simultaneously. Very much a conflict of colonialism.

    Poetry on one side slightly, it's interesting to me that Paris of the late 1800s was where many female British artists/sculptors went for the freedom of expression, to have the chance to draw nudes alongside men etc (rather than draw from sculptures of nudes as they would have to in Britain) - an equality of sorts - and yet, for many Irish, Britain represented freedom (ironic to say the least). Really, it represents exposure and the potential to earn from your art; it's difficult to bit the hand that feeds you, even if it did starve you first.

  10. Lots of interesting stuff about London in Yeats' autobiographies -- he spent so much of his life there, and disliked it so intensely...