Clive James

Slogging to Byzantium

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W. B. Yeats: A Life: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939

R. F. Foster

Oxford University Press, pp. 832, £

Yeats was a great poet who was also the industrious adept of a batso mystical philosophy. Do we have to absorb the philosophy before we can appreciate the poetry? If we are lucky enough to be in a state of ignorance, the question won’t come up. The poetry will get to us first. Suppose you’ve heard this much: that Yeats’s best stuff came late. So you pick up the 1950 edition of the Collected Poems and start from the back. The last few lines in the book are the first you see.

And now my utmost mystery is out:

A woman’s beauty is a storm-tossed banner:
Under it wisdom stands, and I alone —
Of all Arabia’s lovers I alone —
Nor dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost
In the confusion of its night-dark folds,
Can hear the armed man speak.

Forty years ago, when I first read those lines, I had to remind myself to start breathing again. They still hit me with the same force, and I still can’t fully understand them. But I began to understand them when I realised that putting together a phrase like ‘dazzled by the embroidery’ was something hardly anybody could do. ‘A woman’s beauty is a storm-tossed banner’ is something an averagely gifted poet might fluke, although not often. To write ‘dazzled by the embroidery’, however, you have to possess the means to put ordinary- sounding words together in an extraordinarily resonant way.

That was what Yeats really meant by his seemingly twee talk of ‘articulating sweet sounds together’. In his earlier poetry that richly combinative capacity was always operating, if only intermittently condensing to full force, and in his later poetry —say from ‘Responsibilities’ onwards — it attained incandescent fusion more and more often, until, with The Tower and all the poetry that followed, far into his old age, he was tremendous all the time. Except for Professor Ricks, who finds the later Yeats less a poet than a rhetorician, nobody sensitive to poetry doubts the magnificence of Yeats’s steadily maturing achievement, his wresting of complexity out of mere fluency; and the professor could have reached his contrary opinion only after a small asteroid had passed through his brain, perhaps while he was listening to Bob Dylan.

Apart from such cosmic interference, nothing can get between Yeats’s mature poetry and the reader except the magnitude of the attendant scholarship. Unfortunately that magnitude has now received a massive augmentation. The second and final volume of R. F. Foster’s whopping biography of Yeats is Pelion, just as the first volume was Ossa, and now both mountains are piled on top of what was already a great dividing range, with Yeats’s unassisted voice squeaking thinly on the other side of it, hard to hear even in its valleys. Many learned reviewers will be grateful for Foster’s thoroughness. Let’s try not being.

The defiant lines spoken by the Arabian lover (ah, how I did, how I do now more than ever, fancy myself as that Arabian lover, poised on a racing dromedary) put a rousing end to ‘The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid’, which was pinned to the tail of the 1950 Collected Poems only as a result of a posthumous round-up, and is actually not a very late poem at all. Barely lateish, it was first published in 1923. Alas, it was not published in The Tower, Yeats’s mightily confident 1928 book of poems that contained ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, ‘Leda and the Swan’, ‘Among School Children’, ‘All Souls’ Night’ and other knockouts in such profusion that even Professor Ricks must sometimes wonder whether Blonde on Blonde quite survives the comparison. But ‘Desert Geometry, or The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid’, to give it its full title, made its debut as the introduction to Book II in the first, 1923 edition of A Vision, Yeats’s prose summa of all things mystically deep. This gives Foster the chance — nay, the mandate — to explain a living poem in terms of a stone-dead rigmarole. Here is a sample of Foster:

The alternative title, ‘Desert Geometry’, hints that against the phases of astrologically determined personality a diagrammatic version of historical process is to be sketched out. This replicates a spiral movement, for which WBY found authority in philosophers back to Heraclitus, and which also expresses the form of each person’s journey into consciousness, in constant tension with his ‘daimon’.

Clearer now? Foster follows up with a sample from A Vision. Risking our sanity, let us do the same.

As man’s intellect, say, expands, the emotional nature contracts in equal degree and vice versa; when, however, a narrowing and widening gyre reach their limit, the one the utmost contraction the other the utmost expansion, they change places, point to circle, circle to point, for this system conceives the world as catastrophic, and continue as before, one always narrowing, one always expanding, and yet bound for ever to one another.

Keeping that up for hundreds of pages, Yeats may or may not have added to the discoveries of ‘philosophers back to Heraclitus’, but he certainly added more than his share to the flimflam cranked out by every tent-show seer from Madame Blavatsky through Ouspensky and Gurdjieff to L. Ron Hubbard. It would be good to think that having codified his vision he got it out of the way and left himself room to synthesise experience in the only mode that mattered: the poetic. In fact, however, he was still tinkering with his revelations to the very end, and published a reworked edition of the book not long before he died. So we are stuck with the connection between the high art of his poetry and the low comedy of a self-deceiving boondoggle. The question that matters is whether the connection is important. Surely Joyce was merely being polite when he regretted that Yeats didn’t put the ‘colossal conception’ of A Vision into ‘a creative work’. There is nothing colossal about A Vision except its waste of time. Except, of course, that Yeats didn’t think so. Genius has to be forgiven its foolishness. Newton was just as interested in his wacko chronology as in his celestial mechanics. But about Yeats’s rickety paranormal hobbyhorse, his secretary Ezra Pound spoke the cruel truth early on. He said Yeats’s ideas about the phases of the moon were ‘bug-house’.

Startlingly, Yeats’s otherwise patient wife George thought the same. This is where Foster’s book comes good, although it takes a long time doing so. On the publication of A Vision, she told a friend that there was ‘nothing in his verse worth preserving but the personal. All the pseudo-mystico-intellecto-nationalistico stuff of the last 15 years isn’t worth a trouser-button.’ George emerges from this book as a model of good sense. Foster would have done the same if he had taken a tip from her at the start, and viewed the spiritualist claptrap with a more dismissive eye. Admittedly George was up to her neck in it. At the long sessions of automatic writing, George was the channel, or control, or whatever you care to call it. But on the evidence of the wearisomely cited transcripts, George was serving her own ends. Having seen off the poisonous Maud Gonne and her even more dangerous daughter Iseult, both of whom Yeats had proposed to in rapid succession, George wanted to make sure that the Gonnes stayed gone. Magically, voices from the Beyond instructed Yeats that he should spend more time in bed with his wife. This could have been funny if humour were among Foster’s tools.

To regret its absence is not necessarily frivolous. For a critic, humour is primarily a means of compression, and compression is what a book like this needs most. At least a third of it is junk be cause it analyses junk, and junk analysed is still junk. That being said, it is gratifying to have all the details that prove Yeats’s stature as a practical politician. After he recorded the birth of the terrible beauty, Yeats had a right to think that the literary revival of which he had been such a prominent member had ushered in the new Ireland. But in the Free State there was no automatic welcome for his Protestantism, for his Ascendancy background, and above all for his liberal, tolerant outlook. (Although he had some noxious views about hierarchy and due deference, to paint Yeats as a fascist is a waste of breath: he believed in free speech, for example, which no fascist does.) As a Senator who vocally insisted that Ulster could be won for a united Ireland only by an example of enlightened domestic policy, he was in danger.

Worse, so was George, whom he loved despite her devotion. Bullets spattered the windows of their grand house in Dublin. George played it cool, just as she did in his last phase when monkey-gland injections helped harden — if that’s the word we want — his perennial conviction that wisdom was to be found under the storm-tossed banner of a woman’s beauty. He was already in his dotage when he found himself between the sheets with a 27-year old stunner called Margaret Ruddock. He cast her horoscope, which failed to tell him that she was not only giftless but psycho. She ended up in the bin. Other mistresses gathered around his death-bed, where George kindly marshalled the traffic. She forgave both them and him that he had written immortal poems so often to them, and so seldom to her. But that was what they were for: to be wild swans, to flood the everyday with the unknown, to ready him for Byzantium.

This book will be essential to Yeats scholarship, but ever since Professor Donoghue, following Dr Leavis, decided that Yeats’s poetry needed too much explanation, the burning question has been about how essential the scholarship is. If it keeps young students from some of the greatest poetry ever written, then the answer is easy: about as essential as a suit of armour to Ian Thorpe.