An interpretation of poetry that comes from a penetrating understanding of what it is seems to be about the rarest item in that rare genre, literary criticism. But here we have it in a book by Donald Stauffer entitled “The Golden Nightingale.” Professor Stauffer is the artist scholar as was the late John Livingston Lowes. Too often the scholar is a teacher who may not have had much feeling for literature as an art in the first instance, or, if he happens to have it, he is in danger of acquiring a mentality impervious to poetry through having year in, year out to regard it as material for the instruction of students. Then the ordinary biographer feels constantly obliged to apply the Sainte Beuve critical formula, the identity of the man with his work, that the writer’s work can be explained by his life. This critical principle often works well as regards novels or narrative writing, and sometimes even biography, but its application to poetry is dubious: there is really no way of translating back to the life experiences of the poet what lives in essence in his poetry.
Professor Stauffer makes no attempt to do this. There is a subtitle to “The Golden Nightingale” — “Essays on Some Principles of Poetry in the Lyrics of William Butler Yeats,” and in the chapter called “The Progress of a Poet” he announces that he has disregarded biography and secondary sources and has concentrated on Yeats’s own writing. “I have held in the main to his critical essays and to the lyric poems of his artistic maturity.” Though the principles he has evolved would be useful in the study of many poets, he draws all his examples from the work of Yeats, whom he believes, as does the present writer, to be the greatest poet of his time.
Professor Stauffer states he was first attracted towards Yeats’s poetry because of two qualities: his philosophical force and his humor. A sense of man’s limitations. Professor Stauffer conceives, is inherent in humor. With this I disagree: a sense of man’s limitations is inherent in any high literary talent, but it is not necessarily a part of humor.
It is with the later philosophical Yeatsian lyric that Professor Stauffer concerns himself, and one can only describe his treatment as masterly. However, he is obviously one of those readers referred to by A. Norman Jeffarfes in his very fine book, “W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet,” who came late to Yeats’s poetry, and the readers who came late to it are inclined to discount his early poetry. It is more or less a fashion of the moment to disregard it, but the reader who has followed the whole work with understanding from the beginning knows that the early work is major poetry also, though of a different kind from the later. Professor Stauffer is also inclined to discount the plays, saying, “How could such a theorist write drama? The answer is, of course, that Yeats rarely did.” In my opinion, he generally did. A major test of a play is its effect on the audience, and Yeats’s audience listened to his plays almost as if they were enchanted. Professor Stauffer would surely change his opinion if he saw and heard them played as Yeats wished them. Apart from the plays, but for his theatre experience and the experience of listening to his own words spoken from the stage, he never could have developed the language, the dramatic impact of the words, in his later poems. Before his stage career began, his vocabulary, though effective, was small. William Archer, in his “Poets of the Younger Generation,” estimated it at about 500 words
but he tapped a new source as he worked for the theatre and was able to write, “I have come unto my strength / And words obey my call.”
These two books are complementary to each other. “W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet” deals with all of his work and with the facts of his life, relating the life to the work where this can really be done without straining the credulity of the reader. Professor Stauffer’s interpretation of both the life and the work indicate that he is either an Irishman or one extremely familiar with Ireland. He has had access to the library and the unpublished documents that Yeats left behind and he has made such an accomplished and dignified use of the material that it seems a pity that, without much judgment, it has been put at the disposal of other and less knowledgeable investigators.
The great men have their great air, as Thackeray said: Jeffares leaves Yeats with his great air, and for this his readers ought to be thankful. When he writes about the man he is able to make credible the great poet he was and when he writes about the poetry, he is able to make credible the powerful man with the multiple personality and multiple gifts who did so many different things in life and did all of them effectively. Now when so many youths and maidens are busily engaged in concocting theses or books on Yeats it may be disconcerting to state one’s conviction that Yeats is the most difficult of all modern masters to comprehend. But it has to be said that Irish literature, except of the narrative kind, is likely to be difficult to an outsider. For one thing, no books exist that are of much help to a student, neither a good political history, a good history of literature, nor a work on the traditions, beliefs, and patterns that have gone into literature and into the character, psychology, and expression of the people. A writer like Yeats was heir to the most conglomerate and heterogeneous lore, social outlooks, and principles of any country in Europe. Many things which Professor Stauffer regards as peculiar to Yeats and his father are part of the intellectual and artistic inheritance of the country. In his elucidation of that curious work “A Vision” Professor Stauffer is really authoritative. Norman Jeffares plainly throws doubts on Yeats’s own account of its genesis. The poet gave different accounts of it at different times and then suddenly started playing up the role that Mrs. Yeats’s automatic writing had in its construction. Actually, every student of Yeats’s work knows that there is not a thing in “A Vision” that could not have come out of the poet’s own mind, his reading, and his writing. Some of the
very sentences quoted from the “Communicators” were not unusual in his conversation or lectures.
Sometime, perhaps, a scholar will piece together all the evidence as John Livingston Lowes did in the case of Coleridge and find that the “Frustrators” and “Communicators” were all facets of Yeats’s own personality. Norman Jeffares has cleared up a good many of the puzzles embedded in this work; for instance, he has shown that the twenty-eight phases of the moon that it is all related to comes from as accessible a source as Chaucer and the “tinctures” from books on Boehme that Yeats had studied, and so on. Mrs. Yeats was a good helpmeet but her part in “A Vision” can be overestimated and has been fantastically so by the author of a recent book. She was a young English woman about twenty-five years his junior whom the poet married in his
fifty-third year, and until her marriage she had never been in Ireland. He became infatuated with domesticity and with being a pater familias. His marriage, it should be realized, did not add to his economic burdens—quite the contrary—and his creature comforts were well looked after. A man of immense emotional power, he had an apparent faculty for being in love, in different ways, with several people at the same time. Once attached to any person in love or friendship, he remained attached. There were many different kinds of relationships in his life and the comprehension of these is a strain on those commentators for whom all relationships must be of an elementary biological kind.
There is no doubt but that his accounts of the composition of “A Vision” are bewildering, and sometimes even bewildering nonsense, but with those critics who believe that these accounts reveal a lack of integrity I cannot agree. As with many writers, the creations of Yeats’s own mind had as much dimension and as much claim to belief as the creatures of everyday life. He would mention with approval that the doctor Balzac had called for in his last illness was a character out of one of his own novels. When questioned about his belief in his “Frustrators” or “Communicators,” he would say blandly, waving his hand with a fancy ring on a finger, “Well, yes, perhaps they are created beings,” meaning creations of his own imagination.
While Professor Stauffer’s interpretation of “A Vision” and the later poems is not likely to be surpassed in our time, for he has meditated on them with all the insight and equipment of a first-class critical mind immersed in poetry, I am obliged to disagree with him in his conclusion that a comprehension of “A Vision” is necessary for the understanding reading of the later poems. Instead, I should say that for a reader sensitive to and fairly learned in poetry a real knowledge of Yeats’s previous work is all that is necessary.
We are lucky to have, in the case of a great writer recently dead, two books of such competency and intellectual integrity. Norman Jeffares’s, like Professor Stauffer’s, is the book of a trained scholar and critic; he never makes a statement about Yeats’s personal life without giving in the notes the name of the person who supplied the information, and this is certainly welcome after all the unsupported statements that have been passed as facts about the life of this poet.
The accounts of Yeats’s attempts to find himself a wife would be hilarious if it were really possible to laugh successfully at anything he did. When he passed the fifty-year mark he became determined to marry, and if one lady would not have him, he asked another. And he hated growing old because it was only his body that was growing old—”this caricature, decrepit age that has been tied to me as to a dog’s tail. . . . My heart . . . sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal.”
He became enamored of youth and even tried to recover his own youth by undergoing the Steinach glandular operation. Whatever its effect on him —a disagreeable sex interest is shown in his last work, especially in the play “Purgatory”—he did not live five years after the operation and died at an earlier age than any of his long-lived family.
Often after a poet’s death his work sinks into semi-oblivion, but Yeats’s is becoming more and more felt. “Words I have that can pierce the heart,” he wrote in one of his last poems. The words pierce more hearts now than when he was alive. The symbolisms, the sense of correspondences that filled his life, were equally significant after his death. The hero of so many of his poems and plays was Cuchullain; his last play was “The Death of Cuchullain,” and he who often thought of himself as a symbol of Cuchullain was brought back to his final grave in an Irish battleship called Macha after Cuchullain’s residence in Emain Macha. The Irish Minister of External Affairs who received his body from the French Government was the son of his lastingly beloved Maud Gonne. The strong emotions of a lifetime won a tribute from death.