Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Blood, Guts, and the Eternal Ideal: Notes on Yeats and Blake

[This is a draft of a section of the Yeats chapter of a book I've been working on that has the working title Power and Poetics: A Social History of Aesthetic Autonomy and Poetry.  And by draft I mean draft: I haven't even gone over it for typos yet.]
In February of 1891, when “The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” appeared in the National Observer, Yeats had been involved for some two years in the three-volume edition of Blake that he and Edwin Ellis would complete in 1893.  By the time the poem was republished in The Book of the Rhymers’ Club in 1892, the club itself had expelled the anti-aesthete John Davidson and his allies and fellow Scots, becoming overwhelmingly an aesthete’s concern.  Both facts are relevant to an understanding of the poem.  The context of the battle between Davidson, with his “blood and guts” ethos, and the Oxford aesthetes matters because the poem stages a debate between the life of ordinary desires and satisfactions, on the one hand, and a kind of neoplatonic, otherworldly removal from such things, on the other.  The context of Yeats’ ongoing work on Blake matters because “The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” bears such strong structural similarities to Blake’s Book of Thel that it begs to be read in the context of the earlier poem, and when read in such a context emerges as a stronger critique of the eschewal of the everyday than it would otherwise.  While Yeats sided with the aesthetes against Davidson, his poem is less sanguine about matters.
            The first three lines of the poem’s first stanza give us a man in a specifically Irish setting seeking to satisfy his yearnings for an ordinary, this-worldly love, and finding some modest satisfaction in the quest.  But a sudden supernatural encounter marks an abrupt volta in the poem, snatching away the man’s satisfaction:

He stood among a crowd at Drumahair;
His heart hung all upon a silken dress,
And he had known at last some tenderness,
Before earth took him to her stony care;
But when a man poured fish into a pile,
It seemed they raised their little silver heads,
And sang what gold morning or evening sheds
Upon a woven world-forgotten isle
Where people love beside the ravelled seas;
That Time can never mar a lover's vows
Under that woven changeless roof of boughs:
The singing shook him out of his new ease.

The conflict, here, is between the ordinary love of a man of flesh and blood and the vision of a remote ideal of timeless, eternal love.  That the fish are silver and sing of a “gold morning” is significant: Yeats had long been reading in the alchemical tradition, and knew that gold was associated with the masculine principle, silver with the feminine principle, and the two together were a form of perfection, analogous to the perfection of the soul in eternity.[1]  Knowledge of this realm of eternal love brings sorrow to the man, making him unable to enjoy the ordinary love he had finally found in this world.  The poem is by no means a simple allegory of Yeats’ cultural position.  Nevertheless, the fact that the man is associated with Ireland, combined with the fact that the poems’ ideal world is reminiscent of the neo-Platonic inclinations of Symbolist poetics, links the poem to Yeats’ concerns about the relative value of commitments to specific, worldly Irish affairs, on the one hand, and the world of the aesthetes, on the other.
            The second stanza is structured on the same principles as the first, with a three line description of the man’s quest for worldly satisfaction in a specifically Irish context, followed by a volta in which his vision of an ideal world makes him dissatisfied with his modest achievements:

He wandered by the sands of Lissadell;
His mind ran all on money cares and fears,
And he had known at last some prudent years
Before they heaped his grave under the hill;
But while he passed before a plashy place,
A lug-worm with its grey and muddy mouth
Sang that somewhere to north or west or south
There dwelt a gay, exulting, gentle race
Under the golden or the silver skies;
That if a dancer stayed his hungry foot
It seemed the sun and moon were in the fruit:
And at that singing he was no more wise.

Here gold and silver have both literal and symbolic, alchemical properties, and the doleful effects of the encounter with the ideal world are even more severe than they were in the first stanza.  Rather than simply losing his “new ease,” the man becomes financially improvident, and we can assume that his worldly circumstances actually deteriorate after the encounter with the ideal.
            The third stanza presents a slight variation on the pattern set up by the first two stanzas:

He mused beside the well of Scanavin,
He mused upon his mockers: without fail
His sudden vengeance were a country tale,
When earthy night had drunk his body in;
But one small knot-grass growing by the pool
Sang where - unnecessary cruel voice –
Old silence bids its chosen race rejoice,
Whatever ravelled waters rise and fall
Or stormy silver fret the gold of day,
And midnight there enfold them like a fleece
And lover there by lover be at peace.
The tale drove his fine angry mood away.

Here, rather than pursuing love of fortune, the man seeks something less universally regarded as positive: vengeance.  And the post-volta encounter with the ideal world (still symbolized by gold and silver) is not a matter of encountering an idealized version of the thing he’d sought in the quotidian world.  Rather, it is an ideal of the opposite of vengeance and hatred: an ideal of peace.  That this vision of eternal peace is unnecessarily cruel isn’t just a clever paradox: it shows how different the value systems of the ordinary and the neoplatonic realms are.  It is a conflict between the world of blood and guts and a world of complacency that turns its back on earthly feuds and conflicts—in short, it is a rough parallel both to the conflict between Davidson and the aesthetes, and to the conflict between Yeats the Irish political man and Yeats the aesthete.  
            The poem’s final stanza maintains elements of the pattern we’ve seen develop, but also brings us intimations of the man’s eventual union with the eternal:

He slept under the hill of Lugnagall;
And might have known at last unhaunted sleep
Under that cold and vapour-turbaned steep,
Now that the earth had taken man and all:
Did not the worms that spired about his bones
Proclaim with that unwearied, reedy cry
That God has laid His fingers on the sky,
That from those fingers glittering summer runs
Upon the dancer by the dreamless wave.
Why should those lovers that no lovers miss
Dream, until God burn Nature with a kiss?
The man has found no comfort in the grave.

The modest hope for an “unhaunted” sleep in the grave is denied by visions of holy grandeur.  Here, though, the man isn’t simply discomforted by the vision of eternity: he is given a hope of a final dream achieved, at the end of time, when God burns fallen nature away with his love.  While gold and silver do not appear in this stanza, the fire is a continuation of the alchemical imagery—indeed, it represents the purifying force that burns away dross and fuses higher elements into perfection (see Schuler 45-46).
            A criticism of idealizing turn from ordinary satisfactions (and, implicitly, a criticism of the aesthetic tendency in the Rhymers’ Club and the Symbolist and Decadent movement more broadly conceived) is clearly a strong element in the poem: the ideal torments the man and renders him incapable of satisfactions in ordinary love, ordinary pursuit of wealth, and in victory over his foes.  This criticism of the pursuit of the ideal is re-enforced when we consider the way the poem’s structure and cast of characters echo Blake’s Book of Thel, with which Yeats was intimately familiar, especially at this point in his career.  The parallels between the poems are strong.  Both poems offer us a protagonist on a quest whose encounters with interlocutors introduce them to the nature of the relation between the time-bound and the eternal, and whose speech frustrates them profoundly.  Both poems offer repetitions, with variations, of the same kind of encounter.  Moreover, both poems show the protagonist listening to humble speakers who can only be speakers in a fantastic environment: in Blake’s poem, Thel is addressed by a cloud, a lily of the valley, a worm, and a clod of clay; while in Yeats’ poem the man is addressed in turn by fish, by a lug-worm, by a knott of grass, and by coffin worms.  There is one significant difference between the poems.  While Yeats’ man lives in a very real set of Irish places, and is informed by his interlocutors about the existence of eternity and the ideal, Thel lives in Blake’s Vale of Har, a kind of Garden of Eden (Har, in Blake’s personal mythology, is a kind of Adam).  She has heretofore been sheltered from any concept of time or change, and her interlocutors try to inform her about mortality, and about how we are all subject to time and change.  While Yeats’ man is haunted by thoughts of the timeless and the eternal, Thel is haunted by the specter of time and mortality.  But this does not mean that the poems are not both critical of those who eschew the quotidian world of time and change: Yeats’ man would have been able to revel in ordinary satisfactions were it not for the intrusion of the ideal, and we see Blake’s Thel as a failure for her refusal to embrace the message of her interlocutors.  The poems, then, take alternate routes to a similar critique of the ideal and defense of the time-bound.  In a sense, Yeats’ “The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” is the masculine counterpart to the feminine figure in Blake’s Book of Thel.  This notion is re-enforced when we turn, again, to alchemical symbolism: for the alchemically-informed Yeats the melding of gold and silver represented a fusion of the masculine and the feminine leading to a perfection of beauty, wisdom, and love; and Blake’s poem begins with a motto for Thel that invokes both metals: “Can Wisdom be put in a silver rod,/Or Love in a golden bowl?”  Yeats might almost have taken it for an invitation for his own poem.
For all this, though, to say with M.L. Rosenthal that “The Man Who Dreamed of Faeryland” evokes “the malign seductiveness of romantic dreaming” (9) is to misunderstand the nature of the poem’s ending, which mitigates the critique of idealizing tendencies considerably.  True, the poem’s protagonist has consistently suffered through his encounters with those who point to an ideal world beyond this one.  However, the purifying fire at the end of the poem (and, in theological terms, at the end of time) promises an eventual union with the eternal and divine, a gathering of the man to the neo-platonically Christian deity.  This is not a poem that simply asserts that we should take pleasures in the quotidian and shy away from any fish or knot of grass we find speaking of an ideal world beyond our own.  The poem’s criticism of the ideal is very much in evidence, and dominates everywhere but in the penultimate line.  That line does not so much negate the rest of the poem as it exists in counterpoint to it.  Yeats’ attitude to the turn from the world to the ideal, then, could best be described as “critical but ambivalent.”  A look at the other poems of this period in Yeats’ career (if not, in most cases, of his prose) career confirms that this is his attitude toward those who turn away from worldly concerns to the realm of the visionary.

Works Cited

Rosenthal, M.L.  Running to Paradise: Yeats’ Poetic Art.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Schuler, Robert M.  “Yeats: Artist or Alchemist.”  The Review of English Studies, vol. 22 no. 85 (February 1971): 37-53.

[1] For a long, but by no means exhaustive, list of Yeats’ reading in alchemical texts, see Schuler  37n.5.