I have been looking at Modern Poetry selected and edited by Maurice Wollman (The Scholar’s Library: Macmillan, 1939), an anthology in which some of the big names of Modernism start appearing – W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Stephen Spender and W.B. Yeats.
In general, however, whatever the claims of the Introduction, the anthology is not Modernist in tone, and the poems representing the six above are not perhaps what we’d choose today.
W.H. Auden is represented by:
From Scars where Kestrels Hover
T.S. Eliot is represented by:
The Journey of the Magi*
The Hollow Men*
Thomas Hardy is represented by:
Any Little Old Song
I Am the One*
Snow in the Suburbs*
The Selfsame Song
D.H. Lawrence is represented by:
Stephen Spender is represented by:
I Hear the Cries of Evening
W.B. Yeats is represented by:
Quarrel in Old Age
Sailing to Byzantium*
The Death of the Hare
We all have our own favourite poems and poets, which I suspect says more about our individual tastes, lives and associations than we might care to admit, but, to my way of thinking, only the poems shown with an asterisk are worthy of inclusion. As usual with Auden, the technical skill is evident, but the short lines with their casual rhyming make the poem seem more clever than really convincing: it’s not the best form. Hardy is rather hit or miss: the lines seeming written as they came to him, often suggested by the rhyme, with little polishing afterwards (a plus in the eyes of some Modernist critics, of course). The Lawrence poems show his close observation of the natural world but can be a bit prosaic (Baby Tortoise ) or just silly (Humming-Bird). Rhyme leads the sense too much in the Stephen Spender poem.
Silliness can also be laid at the door of the pieces by Yeats. I share his interest in the occult, but wish he had read more on what he uses as symbols (what critics of the time called his ‘poetry affectations’ and ‘mumbo jumbo’). Sailing to Byzantium is a marvellously evocative piece, deservedly famous, but one I see now (as I didn’t on encountering Yeats so many years ago, and as many admirers perhaps still don’t) as entirely of his own imagining. It doesn’t correspond in the slightest with the real Byzantium, which was an astutely governed, theocratic and bureaucratic state, where Yeats would not have felt at home. Poems aren’t history crib-sheets, of course, but poetry and facts are not irreconcilable adversaries either.
Perhaps I should say something more about Sailing to Byzantium. The Internet has many helpful articles (1-5) but only PoetShape gets to grips with the many difficulties and contradictions in the poem, and to its excellent points I’d merely add:
A tattered coat upon a stick may be a scarecrow figure, something that’s outlived its usefulness and is used now only to scare the birds, i.e. is simply an ineffectual onlooker.
monuments of unageing intellect: Yeats had a gift for memorable phrases, but didn’t always think them through. What monuments – the Byzantine works of art? Their artists were craftsmen, not necessary thinkers. Then we have monuments repeated in stanza II:
Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence. What is the its referring to? And why of rather than to? Is Yeats now abandoning his search for the non-sensuous aspects of life?
Into the artifice of eternity. Did Yeats mean this, or the eternity of artifice? Is artifice the right word here – suggesting that the Neoplatonists whom Yeats read were not serious in their philosophic meditations. That’s a singularly odd view. Plotinus, Porphry, etc. (6) most certainly were serious, and many were attempting to give shape and meaning to what they had personally witnessed. Even Platonists talk of ideal forms, concepts that forever exist across all possible worlds.
And did Yeats really wish to see himself reborn into eternity as a golden bird or element of a wall mosaic? Or is he simply saying: now that I’m an old man, let me find the eternal and unchanging in existence, such as the Byzantine artists commemorated in their artistry, and which we can still admire today? If so, then perhaps he should have said so.
Pern and gyre have occasioned much scholarly ingenuity (well summarized on PoemShape) but I join the readers who largely throw up their hands in bewilderment – though with this proviso. Yeats was a devotee of the occult, and their ‘insights’ are not for the mundane majority. Symbolists (of whom Yeats is arguably one) also had their own, personal mythology, (7) which their poetry explored, often in an arcane and tentative manner, and is therefore not the evocation of anything concrete and sensible in the minds of readers, i.e. it was an inner world with its own rules. As with the Eliot in the Four Quartets, this playing fast and loose with concepts can produce marvellous phrases, but also the temptation to write things that simply ‘sound good’ – baffling to the common reader who wants a prose meaning, but of course providing generations of PhD students with accumulating commentaries on commentary.
No doubt I’m pushing interpretation further than merited by literary good manners, but it does seem that Yeats has produced magnificent phrases, pregnant with various and sometimes conflicting meanings, and linked them together with imagined aspects of an ancient, theocratic state in a way that doesn’t quite make sense. That may seem harsh, but good poems deserve sustained and sympathetic attention, not semantic juggling because they’re on the school syllabus.
Finally, PoemShape‘s metrical exposition is admirably clear, but prosody is frankly much more complicated than this (as I’m sure its author realizes) – there are many systems of notation, matters of cadence, vowel harmony, etc. (8) The imal of animal is not a simple a pyrrhic foot, for example: the last syllable takes a half stress or ghost of a stress. We should also not overlook how beautiful can be the verse the later Yeats writes – which prosody has to explain.
In my next post I wanted to look at what was promised last time – how poets inspire each other – but think I’d better finish off this analysis of Sailing to Byzantium.
End References and Further Reading
1. Sailing to Byzantium: William Butler Yeats – Summary and Critical Analysis http://www.bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/sailing-to-byzantium.html#.WCiWQ8lECic
2. Sailing to Byzantium. Spark Notes. http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/yeats/section6.rhtml
3. Sailing to Byzantium. Shmop. http://www.shmoop.com/sailing-to-byzantium/stanza-1-summary.html
4. Sailing to Byzantium. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sailing_to_Byzantium
5. W.B. Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium PoemShape. https://poemshape.wordpress.com/2010/11/06/wb-yeats-%E2%9D%A7-sailing-to-byzantium/
6. Neoplatonism. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoplatonism
7. Overview of A Vision. YeatsVision. http://www.yeatsvision.com/Overview.html
8. Writing Verse: A Practical Guide. Ocaso Press free ebook. http://ocasopress.com/versewritershandbook.html