Monday, May 01, 2006

Week 14, Joyce and Yeats

Notes on James Joyce’s “The Dead”

“The Dead”

Introduction: Joyce’s career is bound up with political troubles in Ireland. Of course those troubles go back beyond even Cromwell. In C19, the Irish had national leaders such as Daniel O’Connell and Parnell. The Republic came in 1920, but that didn’t end the problems. Joyce wanted to avoid being pinned down by the nationalist cause, so he exiled himself from 1902 onwards and lived abroad in Trieste, Paris, and Zurich. I believe he gave English lessons sometimes to make a living—Joyce was no aristocrat or wealthy man.

It’s tempting to romanticize Joyce as a high priest of independent Modernist art, but the problem with this view is that his texts consistently put such possibilities of aesthetic escapism on the rack, and his art-priestly characters such as Stephen Dedalus aren’t convincing in their assertions of autonomy for an art that can either incorporate or exclude the world outside. If you want to be a wise guy, I suppose you could say that this questioning doesn’t free him of the Modernist “high art” label: it could be argued that in Joyce we find Anglo-American High Modernism arguing with itself—with its own stylistic tendencies and claims to artistic autonomy that paradoxically set themselves forth as vitally important to entire cultures. And what could be more Modernist than that kind of balancing act?

In any case, it’s true enough that Joyce never really trusted other Modernists’ propensity to wield Classical and Irish myths as bedrock for the regeneration of the human spirit, and neither did he think that it was sufficient to return, as Yeats’ speaker in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” to “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” It seems that even the passionate and expressive moments that lead to artistic creation are always subject to some critical force beyond them and yet somehow connected with them. Everything, at all times, seems subject to mediation and change, in the texts of Joyce. There seems to be no “there there,” no starting point, no ending point, either for the characters in their attempt to set their life-lands in order, or for the artist reflecting upon the productions of his own mind. So the sometime “cool impersonality” of the Joycean narrator is not something we should take simply, in spite of his admiration for Gustave Flaubert’s fingernail paring. It implies a kind of disengaged, above-it-all artistic consciousness that exempts itself from the tribulations of the characters it creates. I think that Joyce sees this disinterestedness as a necessary pose, but is not following it out blindly. In “The Dead,” for instance, as Margot Norris says the bourgeois, Gabriel-happy narrative faces all sorts of “backtalk” and “palaver.”

In 1909, Joyce wrote an essay on Wilde. He was interested in Wilde because he was an Irishman who had to make his literary fame amongst the English, overcoming the barriers between them by his wit and genius. But Joyce’s fascination with Wilde stemmed in part from anxiety—Stephen describes Wilde as a court jester for the British. Joyce himself refused to make what he considered the humiliating pilgrimage to literary London. If one is an Irish artist, it may be possible to achieve something, but the English will never really accept you due to their racial and class-based pretensions. So Joyce saw being Irish as a trap, and turned internationalist, at least in a characteristically complex and ambivalent way.

‘‘Dubliners’’’ final story is “The Dead,” which stands out from the book and seems, at least if we accept the judgment of Gabriel at the conclusion, to swallow up all the other characters mentioned in the collection. As for Joyce’s style, I’ll take my cue from UCI’s Margot Norris. She says that most of Joyce’s work is based upon the language of desire—desire for recognition, for the overcoming of insecurities, etc. The characters speak not so much from conscious purpose as from such unconscious desires. And how does one construct a narrative that faithfully follows the movements of human desire? It is a very difficult task, no doubt, involving as it does all sorts of disjunctions and contradictions since our thoughts don’t always seem to come from anywhere specific or available to us, and they aren’t generally connected by any convincing sort of logic.. One could say with some justice that Joyce is a psychological realist, but that misses something vital if we don’t add that the narrative voice, even when it supports the characters’ streams of consciousness, doesn’t necessarily reduce to them. We have more than one track playing at the same time, and they aren’t necessarily in sync. Often the narrative voice or voices repeat or stage the main character’s blindness and inability to reflect upon their actions or motives. But this kind of repetition isn’t simple “copying”: it adds something, supplements the words and deeds of the character. And you should read your Derrida on a word like “supplementarity.”

What do Joyce’s characters desire? To be recognized by others, to overcome deep insecurities, to realize their erotic desires. The words they speak or even their internal monologues are produced by these desires, and so the overt narrative isn’t necessarily a trustworthy guide to “what’s really going on.” (We cannot count on a one-to-one correspondence between the words of the text and the internal discourse of the characters, which the narrative forces us to consider.) Often, too, the language in the text is borrowed from outside the text—from obscure historical references, persons, other literary texts, and even the language of commercial advertising. In sum, there is no unified narrative voice, so in Joyce, the narrator is not a principle of unity for the words others speak.

In addition, the language of desire is similar to ‘‘parole vide,’’ empty speech, speech that is not full. ‘‘Parole pleine’’ is speech plus gesture and context, environment, attitude. In Joyce, the meaning of what characters say is likely to be partly dependent on things that are going on as the words are spoken. What is done, and what is ‘‘not’’ said, may well account for much of the significance of a particular utterance. Gestures, positioning, and so forth, as on a stage, must be folded into whatever we draw from the utterances. Rather like a pantomime. The language of desire is a language that conceals aloud what the characters are like, what their real story or situation is—and of course such language produced by desire may well conceal these things from the characters themselves because they have a powerful need to conceal unpleasant insights or facts. Speech is concealment and self-concealment even as it reveals things overtly. Certainly Gabriel Conroy speaks this way in “The Dead.” What does Gabriel really think of his wife Gretta? Of Ireland? Etc. Is any of this ever captured raw, without mediation, even by the most brutally honest-seeming of his remarks as at the end of the story?

Moreover, sometimes a character will be talking, and all of a sudden another character’s gaze interrupts the flow of dialogue, stopping the speaker in his or her tracks. Often in Joyce, characters are forced to see themselves as they don’t want to be seen—as others see them. Refer to ‘‘Ulysses,’’ for instance: early in the work, Stephen Dedalus the would-be great artist is standing on the Martello Tower, along with Buck Mulligan his cynical Irish friend. He shows Stephen his face in a shaving mirror he has filched from the maid, saying “The rage of Caliban seeing his face in a glass,” and Stephen, catching the reference to Wilde’s witticism about literary realism’s failure, says, “It is a symbol of Irish art. The cracked looking-glass of a servant.” Stephen is afraid of becoming a servant of the English, as he thinks Wilde did. He holds out the mirror, looks at himself, and says, “as he and others see me.” That’s a primal fear in Joyce: that you will be seen in an unflattering light by others, and that their disapproval will prove damaging to you in your quest to achieve whatever you have set out to—gain artistic freedom, get free of nationalist struggling, etc. Worse yet, your high hopes may turn out to be pretentious illusions. One’s illusions may be stripped away by the gaze and speech of others.

Post-It Notes on “The Dead.”

The setting is the annual Christmas party at the home of the sisters Kate and Julia Morkan. Like Joyce and many Irish people, everyone here loves opera. Julia especially was once, perhaps, a talented singer. Gabriel is expected to carve the Christmas goose and make a little speech.

2241. Notice the interchange between Gabriel and Lily the caretaker’s daughter, a working stiff. Gabriel is middle class and well educated. Perhaps he looks down on others without wanting to admit it to himself. He supposes “we’ll be going to your wedding.” But he hears that men nowadays are “only all palaver and what they can get out of you.” This surprises him, cutting through his class and gender-based presuppositions or misunderstandings that structure Gabriel’s entire existence. She has interrupted him with a genuine working-class, unromantic view of men. Then Gabriel forces money on her, and she finds that insulting. By his standards, the act is well-meant, but Lily appears to see through it and get to the bourgeois condescension in the gesture. This is a typical kind of encounter in Joyce.

2242. Here the speech betrays Gabriel’s anxiety about how to relate to the others at the gathering. He must make a speech. Discomposed by Lily’s words and attitude, he fiddles with his clothing, and wonders if he should leave the line by Browning in. They might not understand the quotation. Perhaps Shakespeare or an Irish melody would be more to the purpose? He will surely seem pompous and self-promoting. Apparently, Gabriel lumps Kate and Julia with their servant—all are ignorant Irish folk.

2243. The exchange about galoshes. How does Gabriel relate to his wife Greta? This exchange illustrates what Norris says about how Joyce’s texts are structured by the language of desire. They are talking past one another. Gabriel’s solicitude isn’t quite what it seems, though nobody says that. Joyce’s narrator never takes the side of anyone but Gabriel—it doesn’t overly undercut him or think other thoughts. The narrator never exposes him or says “Gabriel was wrong.” Rather, the narrative voice is blind, perhaps in the same way that Gabriel is to his own flaws and to his inability to comprehend his situation. But how does Gabriel actually relate to his wife, insofar as we can tell by interpreting the scene as a whole, and not basing our view just on what the characters say? He makes her wear the galoshes; it’s a matter of control, not health—he never inquires what Greta thinks or feels. That failure will show most of all when we find out about Greta’s passion for Michael Furey, and even before then at the moment when we see her gazing up the stairs at the great tenor. Greta, too, conceals out loud the true relationship between herself and her husband. “The next thing he’ll buy me will be a diving suit.” Now there’s overdetermined language—the two of them are in an alien environment, estranged, insulated in their respective bubbles. For Gabriel, Greta is a Victorian “Angel of the Hearth.” What is done around him in this scene undercuts Gabriel: Aunt Julia cuts him down with “and what are galoshes, Gabriel?” She does not laugh along with Kate. Does Julia understand something about Gabriel and Greta that Kate doesn’t? A student says that Gabriel must feel like he’s the butt of everybody’s jokes. He’s on stage, and always anxious about how his performance is being taken—as during the after-dinner speech, where he hopes to shine and hopes to put Miss Ivors in her place because she has accused him of not being a good nationalist.

2247-48. The scene with Miss Ivors. Around this point Gabriel betrays ambivalence towards his mother, who had opposed his marriage to Greta, calling her “country cute.” We keep seeing the Irish/British rifts coming up, but the class divisions appear even within the same family. Then Miss Ivors accuses him of being a “West Briton,” someone who sees Ireland as a British colony. Gabriel suffers the hostile gaze of this new and sophisticated breed of nationalists. He defends his journalism as apolitical. But in this context, being apolitical is political. Silence speaks volumes, and Gabriel looks to Miss Ivors like a fence-sitter. He sees literature as above politics, but he can’t defend this view in her presence, and is doomed to be seen as he doesn’t want to be seen. On 2248, Gabriel is drawn into saying that he is “sick of his country.” She has heated him, making him look ridiculous in front of others, and all Gabriel can do is play the gender card: she’s just a woman anyway.

2251. Julia used to sing in the choir, and had a budding career. She may not have been a great soprano. Mr. Brown the protestant intruder plays a role here, introducing Julia as a “discovery.” She’s treated as a wayward child who need defending; her thoughts never get much attention. Kate is more of a radical, criticizing her own religion. She says the Pope was wrong to keep women out of Church choirs, but Julia is embarrassed to hear such talk in front of the outsider Mr. Brown.

2256ff. Gabriel makes his speech, and his theme is the tradition of Irish hospitality, as evidenced in his hosts’ kind offer of an annual gathering. But of course Gabriel himself is no fan of Irishism, and doesn’t seem to think much of the ignorant old women who are his hosts. So there’s some hypocrisy in his speech, which he turns into an occasion to get back at Miss Ivors. (Wasn’t it written beforehand? Did he change it to suit the occasion?) The anecdote on the late Mr. Patrick Morkan, his grandfather, “the old gentleman,” makes fun of the family’s ancestors. There’s something uncannily realistic about this dinner: no wonder holidays are so depressing for so many of us. We wind up our dysfunctional relationships and watch them go.

2260. Gabriel and Greta’s relationship. How does he perceive her at the bottom of this page? He has an idea of Greta, she is an aesthetic object to him. He recognizes her clothes first, and builds up an image of her. If we didn’t know Gabriel somewhat, we might consider this a romantic moment. But since we are aware of his anxieties, we can’t read the moment that way. He’s turning his wife into a statue to be viewed with Kantian disinterestedness.

2262-63. Gabriel’s disinterestedness turns into erotic desire when Greta walks alongside him after the party. But this romantic pursuit turns frankly sexual, though Greta seems unaware of Gabriel’s emotions. It seems he has been hoping that the trip to the Morkan gathering would rejuvenate his marriage, the “secret” part of it.

2266-Conclusion: But the snow has been falling all along. Mary Jane brought it up at 2261; the “snow being general all over Ireland.” Social and marital conventions may be one thing that the snow symbolizes, dampening the fire of the soul and the passion in Gabriel and Greta’s marriage. Michael Furey was a hopeless consumptive romantic youth, and he makes an obvious contrast with Gabriel throughout the marriage. Gabriel is confronted with Michael as Greta’s hidden past; this is because he never bothered to ask her any questions. Gabriel sees himself as others see him, at least to a great extent, and his wife has unwittingly been instrumental in this epiphany. Does he fully accept the harsh picture of himself that now appears to him? Whether he does or doesn’t, does his current perspective change anything?

On the snow: sometimes symbols of this sort have a transformative power upon the narrative or the characters: it unites disparate threads and realizations. But is that true here? Has Gabriel been granted an epiphany about the meaning of his life? It seems to me that this literary symbol retains the wetness and blanketing, voiding qualities of real snow: it erases and blurs all sense of distinction and difference, the whole attempt on Gabriel’s part to sort things out concerning his marriage and his status with regard to Irish politics. The characters fade into the dreary landscape and unite with the dead, whose story is now over. To me, it seems that the whole narrative has led inexorably to this fading away into insignificance, as if there never was any way up or out. But why not? Is it Gabriel’s fault? Is it something else or something in addition to his past thoughts and conduct as an individual?

Notes on William Butler Yeats


Yeats was a poet of many phases, not as clearly marked as critics imply: romanticism and symbolism, Irish politics and folklore, aristocratic values, Modernist stylistic compression and an interest in poetic texts as containing entire symbolic systems. But he never left behind his early phases even after moving on from them. Yeats was always concerned with the power of art in relation to other areas of life, with poetry’s status as expression, with its approximation to religion and the stability and ultimate insight religions offer. His poetry becomes more and more complex in its investigation of all these matters. ‘‘A Vision’’ is his prose attempt to create, in the manner of Blake and Swedenborg, an integral system, a mystic yet accurate way of dealing with change in individual identity, the collective unconscious, and world history. Whether all his talk of “gyres,” “will/body of fate,” “creative mind / mask,” and so forth makes a theosophic system is beside the point: the whole affair is a vehicle for his poetry. His complex mature period blends with the ~np~Anglo-American~/np~ Modernism of Eliot and Pound, among others. Take the Symbolist insistence that art constitutes a higher reality all its own, add the allusiveness and integrative power of myth, the spiritual imperatives of mysticism, a paradoxical yet genuine engagement with politics, and a willingness to question his broadest claims for poetry’s truth-status and relevance—and you get Yeats the High Modernist. There is a certain aloofness in Yeats’ manner, an aristocratic contempt for those who want nothing but pleasure from art, as if, to borrow from Bentham, pushpin were as good as poetry. Like most Modernists, Yeats despises middle-class materialism, preferring the genuineness of the poor and the nobility alike. This carries forth a long romantic and Victorian tradition—recall Carlyle’s thundering at “Bobuses” who think of nothing but upward mobility and their stomachs.

But then, the argument over whether art should simply please us or improve us into the bargain is an ancient one; most critics and artists, even the most defiantly aloof among them, have implied that it should be a force both for social cohesion and for spiritual realization and transcendence. The Russian Formalists’ watchword “make it new” isn’t so new, and Modernists believe that art is a powerful shaping force over the spirit and intellect, even if they don’t trust themselves entirely when they say such things. The notion that Modernism doesn’t trust itself calls for an explanation: Yeats, with his occult and elitist tendencies, knows the risk he runs of his art collapsing into aestheticism or romantic solipsism. He’s fashioning a holy book out of his own semi-private symbolic language, a Book that promises special insight to the initiated. Even his use of the past’s myths and history throws down the interpretive gauntlet to us as readers—Yeats is a difficult poet who demands that we turn away from ordinary notions, step out of our individual selves, and understand him on his own terms. The self and the ordinary are cast as barriers to understanding and connection with others.

Yeats’ hero Blake wrote about religion’s tendency to become the province of an evil priesthood, a cynical hieratic class that feeds on the mysteries it propagates and guards. Mystery at its best—even the kind of manufactured mystery we see in the Victorian sages—can flow from genuine wonder at the complexity of humanity and the cosmos; but it can also take its origin from fear, ignorance, and misinterpretation, with consequent need for priestly elites. Modernist myth-making could easily amount to ideology in the service of somebody’s politics. ~np~Anglo-American~/np~ Modernists seem to know this, and yet they find it necessary to offer us a religion of art. Yeats is a man of dilemmas—he’s all for universal myths, yet remains an Irish nationalist; he’s deeply personal and subjective, yet breaks down the barriers of selfhood. And above all, the phrase applied to Tennyson in the nineteenth century—“Lord of Language”—is just as appropriate to Yeats among his twentieth-century peers.

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

An early poem, symbolist. The speaker will remove himself from the everyday world and hear what the “deep heart’s core” has to say; this alternative reality will have an order and a peace all its own. The poem has the force of a decision: “I ‘‘will’’ go to the place that’s calling to me.” He hasn’t done it yet, and the chant itself is part of the process whereby he will convince himself to go. There’s some genuine pastoral imagery, a touch of romanticism’s descriptions of beautiful things in nature. Innisfree is symbolic—it is at least as much a state of mind as a real place, perhaps more so. The poem speaks the reality that calls the poet forth, so language participates in the making of something real, whether a state of mind or an actual place.

“Easter 1916”

Yeats here treats an act of Irish nationalism and martyrdom as a work of art, something that transfigures even those participants he didn’t get along with. But in the final stanza, doesn’t Yeats also bring up the dangers of nationalism? See his line, “Too long a sacrifice…” Nationalism is a temporary tactic; Yeats never supported violent revolution, and shows a preference for art and myth as shaping and continuity-providing influences in collective life.

“The Second Coming”

The Russian Revolution occurred in 1917; a new world is being born, and it seems neither rational nor predictable. The Sphinx Riddle, at its core, concerns human nature, and the Oedipus myth turns on a series of outrages against a civic order taken as natural or in alliance with nature. Oedipus commits the scandal of incest (incest is both a universal taboo and yet a local violation, so it is scandalously natural and cultural—see Claude Lévi-Strauss). Will this new world be like the one ruled by Shelley’s cruel Pharaoh Ozymandias, whose image remains to glare at us as a recurring possibility even though the artist mocked him? An Egyptian tyranny? Yeats is drawing upon his own and on the collective European symbolic system to describe the birth throes of a new age. In uttering his prophecy, he rejects optimistic C19 narratives about progress and the upward march of the spirit. Change is inevitable, but not necessarily change for the better. The “rough beast” stalks obscenely into the world, its crude sexuality reminding us that we haven’t left behind the worst in ourselves or in history. History has been called “the pain of our ancestors,” and here is some new monstrosity shaping up. Yeats’ imagery comes from ancient myth and religion; history is disjunctive. It proceeds by terrible leaps and thunderclaps. So we need the artist as a wielder of myths new and old to make the world intelligible again, to whatever degree possible. This is a claim that High Modernists have adapted from romantic poet-prophets like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake.

What is intelligible may not comfort us, but we are responsible for confronting it in any case. Yeats had read Nietzsche on eternal recurrence—can one face all but unbearable realizations, yet remain willing to do it all again? Here we are confronted with our own recurrent power to tyrannize, setting up fear and dread abstraction as our gods (recall Blake’s “hapless soldier’s sigh” that “runs in blood down palace walls” in the poem “London”). And his ideas resemble Jung’s notion that there’s a collective unconscious—Jung was going beyond Freud’s psychology, which was centered on the bourgeois individual. Yeats’ accomplishment is to wield Jung-like collective myths with the fiery individualism of Blake: “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another’s!” Not that his is a narrowly self-based poetics; Yeats isn’t a romantic creator pure and simple—notice that he often writes as if he were being dictated to by a medium, an automatic writing that wells up from the collective unconscious, an archetypal image bank that comes from the ‘‘Spiritus Mundi.’’ Neither does he try to play the stage father with the meaning of his poems—he respects their status as words to be interpreted. His emphasis on the subjective side of existence is characteristically Modernist: they privilege impressions, subjective responses.

“Sailing to Byzantium

How to cross over into what lasts? Yeats’ speaker explains why he has come to Byzantium, abandoning the boundaries of his ego and traveling to a region where he hopes to metamorphose into an eternal life in artistic form. This is truly a religion of art. Yeats refashions ancient symbols, grants us a vision of the Holy City, which is not Jerusalem in this poem but rather a decadent-phase Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The poem alludes to the poetic process itself, the magical hammering out of a world of eternal aesthetic artifacts. Like a Byzantine goldsmith’s handiwork, the poet’s sacred chant and symbolic system spanning many texts would fashion this world by what Shelley calls “the incantation of this verse.” But I’m not sure such claims for an eternal unchanging state of things suits Yeats’ theosophy in ‘‘A Vision,’’ as it emerges later. It seems to me that everything is dynamic in that explanation—Yeats, after all, borrows from the Pre-Socratics who are always talking about change as the only constant.

Stanza One: A personal poem about growing old and facing up to what one’s art has meant to oneself. The claim is that art transcends the “mire” of the material realm and human desire without simply rejecting them. Well, the first stanza rules out remaining in the world of natural generation, void of subjectivity. This kind of harmony and music don’t satisfy the self-conscious speaker about to pass on. Nature is “careful of the type, careless of the individual life,” as Tennyson writes in ‘‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’’

Stanza Two: Notice the incantatory power here, the ordering power of rhythm: song of a different sort overcomes the mortal decay implied by first stanza. Byzantium is in its decadent phase, a self-referential city wrapped up in artistic processiveness, in aestheticism. But Yeats is drawn to this beautiful solipsism, a place for intense concentration on what is eternal. This is not irresponsibility, I believe, but honesty—the speaker is old. Therefore, not having found his answer in physical nature, he has crossed waters, symbolizing creative power and life, and has come to this holy city. An old man must escape his dying self and enter into a different creative process—art.

Stanza Three: This stanza shows a turning away from the body and towards the forms of the sages on the Ravenna frieze mentioned in the Norton Anthology note. He prays to the sages, who have themselves been transformed into a work of art. He wants to be in the phase of existence they have reached, not remain where he is. His prayer is itself an outflowing of the phase in which he now finds himself.

Stanza Four: Once he has made the transition to a new world free of dying nature and the body, the artist will be wrought into his own artifice and become eternal. This poem confronts mortality, but not by reaffirming selfhood—instead, he confronts it on the grounds of his symbols and artifice, measuring his own endurance by their lasting power. A wish to merge with them. But will that be granted?

“Leda and the Swan”

Here the speaker handles poetic insight into history as a violent and dangerous gift. The rape of Leda engendered Helen, the Trojan War, and European history. What price insight? Many of the ancient prophets—Tiresias, Cassandra, Orpheus, gained their powers as compensation for terrible loss, or suffered for what they had been granted. Poetry is not merely pretty words. It is allied with prophecy and divination, and has been at the heart of civilization as a human task and process. The Modernists often describe poetry as an inseminative, male power. But is Zeus the only poet here, or is Leda also inspired? Does myth or poetic insight allow us to control such a process, or only describe it and face up to it spiritually? Coming to terms with the violent but necessary transitions from one epoch to the next seems to be the current poem’s task. This demands that we not dismiss the violent past, but try to make our knowledge of it worth something in the present—if that’s possible. Nietzsche says in “Homer’s Contest” that if we understood the Greeks “in Greek,” we would shudder—certainly Yeats’ choice of myths here doesn’t place him among the calm C19 Hellenizers. He says that the politics went out of the poem when he began to write it, but it still asks about the relationship between art and a given political order, indeed any political order. To what extent is poetic insight and language complicit in the violent events and transitions it presents? Leda and other myths, after all, were how the Greeks understood their own history and culture—at least early in their history, until C6-5 BCE, they lived within the framework of their myths. It is only with the presocratics that they begin trying to explain natural phenomena in scientific terms. Different cultures will read the same myth differently; the myths recur but are subject to reinterpretation.

“Among School Children”

Here “the child is father of the man,” as Wordsworth wrote. But Yeats may not draw as much consolation as Wordsworth did in his “Immortality Ode.” The romantic poem cheered up the speaker, but Yeats’ speaker tries to reassure children that he’s not such a frightening schoolmaster or old scarecrow. His smile is a mask, like a Gno-mask, a conventional role. Hollow, he wants to fulfill his public office, which entails one generation’s responsibility towards another.

Stanza 5: Refers to the ancient myth of metempsychosis, as in Wordsworth’s line “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” See also Plato’s ‘‘Symposium’’ and ‘‘Phaedrus.’’ Is the pain worth it?

Stanza 6: What is real? Philosophers sought abstract wisdom, and can’t tell. They propagate Bacon’s Idols of the Theater”—the strange errors that come with the territory of philosophers bent upon explaining the world with the help of huge thought-systems. Yeats’ autobiography ‘‘A Vision’’ shows his dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy. Much philosophy is an attempt to capture the relationship between self and world, to build up a vast framework for arriving at what is ultimately intelligible and enduring. It comes to seem a vain and self-isolating endeavor. I think Yeats is making the traditional complaint that philosophical explanations don’t ‘‘move’’ us, don’t make us able to act in the world and bear up under its stresses as they occur.

Stanza 7: Here a different relationship between thought and object emerges: images that move us.

Stanza 8: The reference to the chestnut tree is pure romantic organic metaphor—you can’t dissect a living thing without killing it. The whole is more than the sum of the parts, and you can’t divide up a person easily into the Seven Ages of Man. Neither can we “know the dancer from the dance.” This is a complex metaphor—the point in reference to Yeats’ theories in ‘‘A Vision’’ that states of mind, acts of will, etc., are not separable from the particular phase in which a person currently is. So the Yeats-like speaker is an older man, still somewhat wrapped up in his own subjectivity. He does not see the huge and luminous world of the more objective-phase child. So his poem is a product of where he is in terms of spiritual phase. His final words may seem like romantic poetry in the optative mode, as in “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” But the trouble is that he ‘‘isn’t’’ dancing, that he cannot reenter the thoughts and dreams of childhood. He can only reflect upon his past, but the activity is not necessarily a comfort or a useful thing to him—he’s trying to come full circle, reflect back on his childhood and draw sustenance for his old age, wrap his mind around his life as a whole. But that kind of reflection is in itself Hamlet-like, and leads to further alienation, not to recuperation of the past. And so he remains distant from the children even in the midst of them.


What’s happening in Byzantium once the pilgrim arrives? We find spiritual transcendence being wrought from matter, from Roman “mire” and centuries of more vital history. Art and death have come together productively. Byzantium, in Yeats’ description, has become a place of transcendence, not the practical, political world of the Roman Empire.

Stanza 1: What has been made by human hands withdraws, disdains its makers and their mixture of mud and spirit. The domes and cathedrals are pure, illumined with celestial, not human, light.

Stanza 2: Mummy-cloth… is the winding path death? Is that the way out of mire?

Final Stanzas: Yeats was never satisfied with nature as an answer to the problems of self-conscious humans. You can see from “The Wilde Swans of Coole” that he aspires to a higher vision than nature could ever afford us. So here we find images begetting images, generating an alternative world, or a state that differs greatly from the unhappy one in which the speaker apparently finds himself.

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