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Saying Simply

Yeats Afterthoughts


I go on being irritated by my year-after-year inability to be clear about the “Major Robert Gregory” stanza.


When I consider my own enjoyment of the poem, the enjoyment is inseparable from the formal aspects—the development of each stanza, the progression from stanza to stanza, the constant variations, the avoidance of monotony—or, really, of grandiloquence.

The poem is obviously in a rhetorically heightened mode. I mean, we don’t ourselves stand up and talk in elaborate stanzas, any more than we do our private thinking in blank verse. But it seems to me, as with the heightenings in much of Shakespeare, a heightening of normal modes of feeling.

And that stanza form feels so much a part of this.


I have now noticed something about Cowley’s “On the Death of Mr. William Hervey”, or at least in the passage that I gave you, that pleases me. There is a terminal punctuation mark (period, exclamation point, question mark) at the end of every fourth line.

Which is to say that each eight-line stanza consists of two very differently structured four-line ones, with a sort of closure or near-closure at the end of the shortened fourth line.


Suppose now that there were not that shortening, so that stanza three, for example, read:

My dearest Friend, would I had died for thee!
Life and this world henceforth will tedious be:
Nor shall I know hereafter what to do
If once my sorrows should prove tedious too.

And suppose, again, that the succeeding four lines were to read:

Silent and sad I walk about all day,
As sullen ghosts stalk wan and speechless by
Where their hid treasures undetected lie;
Alas! my treasure’s gone; why do I stay?

It wouldn’t be the same, would it—I mean, if the whole poem were like this?

That stanza would be denser and slower.

The first four lines would feel more like, and be, a pair of couplets, the fifth line would be diminished in importance because feeling like the start of a third pair of couplets, and the final line of the poem would also be diminished in importance because no longer contrasting with the shorter and faster-moving sixth and seventh lines.


Now, what Yeats does, and perhaps we might expect it by now, is largely to avoid that regular break or pause in the middle of the poem and to extend and intensify the expressive opportunities for further interplays between syntax and lineation.

In the first two stanzas, for example, we reach syntactical completion at the end of the fifth line, so that it is as if the shortened fourth line leaves things a little dangling in the mind’s ear (as shortened lines can do, particularly rhyming ones ).

And then the fifth line (the proper length restored) comes along and offers to clinch things (but imperfectly because not rhyming)

And then the last three lines come along as a kind of further thought.

In contrast, in stanzas III and V, there is a clear syntactical enjambment at the end of line five, so that we have to keep moving forward, in a way that may answer to the kinds of motions or reachings described in those stanzas.


And again, where the final lines of each stanza are concerned, some are free-standing and have more the effect of exclamations (“All, all are in my thoughts to-night being dead,” “What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?” ), while others are the completion of a sentence unwinding through two or three lines.


Here I must re-endorse that excellent point made by Len, namely that there is a difference between what is nominally a single sentence but consists of units each of which could have been terminated with a period, and a sentence in which we know when we come to the end of a line that we have to keep going because the syntax is incomplete.

Yeats, I am quite sure, appreciated this point, for what it does is make for degrees of pausing at the ends of lines.

When you see a period there, you know there’s completion. Contrariwise, when you have a construction like “and where was it/He rode a horse without a bit?” you know that you have to keep going.

But you can also, in Yeats, have a curious effect whereby (at least when you’re listening to the poem read out) a completion seems to have been reached but in fact something is added on in the next line, as with “Some burn damp faggots, others may consume/ The entire combustible world in one small room/... As though dried straw.

So that we can have, as here, both a magnificently absolute statement, and then, almost immediately, a kind of qualifying or anchoring of it that makes us aware of a thinking, rather than a merely proclaiming, mind at work.

At least this is one kind of relationship. I leave you to notice others elsewhere in Yeats.


I may as well also mention another way of marking degrees of certitude in what’s being said.


I said last time that Yeats liked, or came increasingly to like, generalizations.

I should rather have said, perhaps, that he more and more became a poet of memorable summations, as was, earlier, Baudelaire, and as were not, I would say, Hardy (in his great poems) or Bridges in those of his poems that we looked at.

At least, if you go to a dictionary of quotations, I doubt that you will find anything in Hardy or Bridges corresponding to lines like: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,” or “The best lack all conviction while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity,” or “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,” or “How shall we tell the dancer from the dance?”, or “For Love has pitched his palace in/The place of excrement,” or “Does the imagination dwell the most/ Upon a woman won or woman lost?,” or...well, there are plenty more.


But, as I said, this doesn’t necessarily involve Yeats in grandiloquence, the merely big statement.

His summarizing can extend down to his treatment of personalities (Lionel Johnson “loved his learning better than mankind,/ Though courteous to the worst”), and can at times, in that regard, be a matter of a single epithet (“that enquiring man John Synge.” )

It can be sardonic, as in “The Scholars”, with its closing “Lord, what would they say/ Did their Catullus walk that way?”

It can be technically dramatic, as in the imagined weighing and balancing of “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”.

It can extend to himself (“I have not lost desire/ But the heart that I had...”)


Nor, again, does it involve a consistent formal precision.

If Yeats was sensitive to the possibilities of syntax, he was also obviously sensitive to those of rhyme.

He was perfectly capable, as in a poem like “An Irish Airman” , of rhyming in a standard fashion. (After all, he had read a great deal of English verse, and lived for a number of years in London. )

He was also perfectly capable of using slant rhymes, as in “Hands, do as you’re bid,/ Drag the balloon of the mind,/ That bellies and drags in the wind,/ Into its narrow shed.”

And he could mix his rhyming in a single poem.

In the three-stanza “The Hawk,” for instance, all the rhymes up to the last three lines are perfect, and then, in those three (“knave,” “friend,” “wit”) we get near-rhyming (I mean with the three preceding lines) that obviously prevent the poem from reaching a tidily click-click closure.

In other poems, we may find ourselves moving back and forth between approximative and precise rhymes.


And with metrics, too, as we have amply seen by now, there are variations, at times perhaps too strong, in the degrees of precision.

In “The Wild Swans at Coole,” as was noted, it really does matter whether Yeats is sticking to a rule with respect to the number of stresses in each line, or is simply relaxing and being offhand.

With Hardy, there is manifestly a rule-following, so that one can figure out which syllables to stress, which in turn will affect the meaning, as in the first stanza of “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations.’” The same is usually true of the seemingly much wilder Hopkins.

And my own feeling now, for what it’s worth, is that in the fifth stanza of “The Wild Swans” one should perhaps say “Mysterious, beautiful” with a slight extra emphasizing of that last syllable.

This would save the line from slipping by too fast (in relation to the significance of those two epithets), as it’s always done in my own instinctive reading of the line.

But I can’t be sure, though, particularly since there are other poems in which Yeats plainly is breaking his own temporarily imposed rules.

And in any event, the point I’m making is that here too Yeats has at his disposal a means of modulating the definiteness of his pronouncements and ponderings.


So when things are going right in one of the “big” Yeats poems, which they don’t always do, everything works together.

The things said are (at least for me) intelligent and true-sounding enough, given the often dramatic modes (lyrical celebratings, comfortings, on-the-spot reflectings) of the poems.

The metres and rhymings bring the speakings slightly closer to ordinary speech, as does the syntax.

And in the larger stanzas, Yeats has the opportunity to make each stanza a mini-poem, with its own opening and closure, and, particularly in the kind of stanza that I’ve been talking about, vary the units, as defined by syntax-cum-metre-cum rhymes, into which each stanza falls—vary them in ways that are inseparable from meaning.


I find support for what I have been saying in some of the other poems that use the basic features of the “Major Robert Gregory” stanza, namely a difference between two main rhyming blocks, plus a shortened line in the first block, plus an abba structure in the second half, with shortened lines in that half which speed up the movement slightly, plus a return to a strong final line.

In “A Prayer for My Daughter,” Yeats’ companion piece to “Major Robert Gregory”, he uses the identical stanza form, but with differences of other kinds, as witness the opening stanza, which I am appending. I mean, he kept on exploring the potential of the form.

And in several other poems, he introduces his own variations on the form that he took over from Cowley. I am appending specimens of those too.


The discourse in his other favourite stanza, abababcc, with lines of equal length, is generally more stately and less dramatic.

At times, because it is less dramatic and perhaps involves fewer afterthoughts and qualification, it can invite, at least for me, questions about the truth of what is being said. At least the famous “Among School Children” affects me in that way.

I also find that in that poem in places he has more trouble getting from one stanza to the next. A poem like “Major Robert Gregory” seems a subtler and more dramatic rendering of the workings of a mind.

Yeats’ thought, as I have remarked, can at times be intrusive, in that complicated and sometimes very debatable ideas are introduced in too compact a form, as in some of what I irreverently called the garage-sale poems (e.g., “The Phases of the Moon”).

Yeats thinking is another matter, and it seems to me for that that he deserves especially honouring.


With respect to the obscurities in Yeats, I can now better see the point of Paul de Man’s insistence (as I understand him) that Yeats’s natural disposition was towards allegory and emblems, rather than towards the kinds of elusive symbolizings that we have been encountering in some other poets.

By “emblem” here, I mean the kind of image (the vehicle) that has a clear and determinate meaning and that, within limits, can be translated back into a clear and determinate non-figurative statement (the tenor).

In this regard, it differs strongly from images like Poe’s maelstrom , or Baudelaire’s seven old men in “Les Sept Vieillards,” or the evening landscape of Rimbaud’s “Larme,” or the paintings and prints of Odilon Redon.

Of course there is no absolute point of separation here between one kind of image and another, any more than there is between metaphors and similes.

But still, degrees can be significant.


In “Major Robert Gregory,” for instance, I note the epitomizing of Lionel Johnson’s mind-set by means of the analogy with Roland’s horn (whether at Roncesvalles or in Browning’s “Childe Roland”), the transposition of Synge’s uncertain earlier career moves and eventual discovery of his true subject-matter in the west of Ireland into terms of a journey (he did of course literally travel to the Arran Islands), and Gregory’s brief but intense life and abrupt death into the brilliant flaring and sudden cessation of a fire of straw.


And going on from there I notice Yeats as a “weather-worn marble triton/ Among the streams,” and the emblem of a man looking through a hole pierced in a hare’s collar bone, and the sun and moon personified as a dancing king and queen and the comparison of continual talk about one subject to the plodding of an old horse around a small enclosure and the comparison of the looming troubles of an artist who mixes sociably too much with coarse-souled people, and is too satisfied with ordinary small successes, to Jack and Jill falling down that hill of theirs.


I won’t keep going, and I don’t pretend to have unpacked the implied similes precisely.

As I said last term, translating into other words even a common idiomatic statement like “He has a chip on his shoulder” is not something that one can do instantly , nor can those words simply substitute for the image.

But this is not because there is anything mysterious about small boys placing chips on their shoulders and daring other small boys to knock them off.

When Yeats is obscure, it is normally, I would say, because one doesn’t know what or who is in fact being referred to at this or that point in a poem. One doesn’t know, for example, whether “you” or “she” is Maud Gonne, or Lady Gregory, or Eva Gore-Booth, or his wife Georgie.

Indeed, one may not know those names at all, let alone know anything about those ladies. Nor may one know, until one is told, that that Irish airman was Robert Gregory.

And at times his more esoteric allusions are simply off the map.


The up-side of this is that if one is a Yeats enthusiast one can fill in a lot of blanks and clarify a lot of references by doing some straightforward research reading.

The downside is that if one isn’t careful, one loses sight of what is effectively given in this or that poem itself and does one’s own allegorizing, so that “She” becomes instantly translated into “Lady Gregory” and the like. I may well be doing that myself with the highly condensed characterizations of Lionel Johnson and J.M. Synge.

This can mean that one is doing too much of the poet’s work for him or her.


If one were to come upon a poem called “Civil War” and it consisted only of the words “Ribbleton Creek”, one would be unlikely to get anything from it (since I have just made up that name) unless one were to engage in a Fishean bout of free association. (Ribble/rubble/rabble/rebel? Ton/tone? Creek/crick/creak/crack/croak?)

On the other hand, if the text of the “poem” simply read “Gettysburg,” a lot more would come flooding into one’s mind these days, I presume.

But I wouldn’t think that a critic would want to argue that the second “poem” was significantly better than the first, not even on the grounds that there was a much richer content to it.

After all, if Ribbleton Creek was an actual place in Georgia, and one’s great-grandparents settled there in 1823, and one had had glorious summers as a child in the the family house there (rebuilt after being burned to the ground during Sherman’s march), and was now an impoverished old lady living in Boston, those words might well bring more to one’s mind than the word “Gettysburg.”


Contrariwise, one can also weaken a poem by putting too much in.

After all, Yeats himself chose not to use proper names in a number of the poems in The Wild Swans, just as he struck a lot out when revising The Wind among the Reeds.

He was a good deal concerned with types—type individuals, type situations—, and with bringing out their representative significances.

So to start packing the deliberately spare and clipped phrases being (figuratively) spoken or thought by an Irish airman, most probably a young one (since pilots were mostly young then), with all manner of biographical stuffing would be to weaken it a lot.

Nor, of course, should one allow it to fill up with a lot of cliché images about laughing young cavaliers of the air, gallantly defending Civilization.


Winters’ essay on Yeats in Forms of Discovery is worth reading, at least if one has reservations oneself about Yeats and the kinds of specialists who are only too happy to bone up on Yeats’ somewhat screwy prose theorizings in A Vision about phases of the moon, character types, different periods in civilization, and the like and then point to places in the poems where things said in his prose are referred to in a more condensed fashion in some of his poems (actually, not all that many).


Winters is very largely polemical (though he singles out a few fine neglected poems by Yeats), and I have always had trouble seeing exactly why he feels that animus, since it seems a little in excess of the sins that he points to.

Obviously Yeats’ bardic stance had something to do with it, particularly in a time like the 1920’s when the Ireland Irish (as distinct from Boston and New York ward-bosses and the like) were very big in some American literary circles as types of the poetic temperament.

But it occurs to me now that part of the trouble may be exactly the kinds of imprecision, or degrees of imprecision, in formal matters that I have been talking about in these jottings.


Alas, though! I still haven’t talked in any detail about precisely what goes on in this or that representative stanza. I have the feeling that now perhaps I could. But enough is enough.


In the second of the two appended sheets, “Ancestral Houses” which is the opening section of “Meditations in Time of Civil War”(1923), demonstrates the kind of steady meditative progression that Yeats could achieve with his other favourite major stanza.

“Meru” is a late sonnet that has stuck in my memory.

“Long-Legged Fly” and “Lullaby” are praised by Winters in his essay. Before I read it, my eye had simply skidded across them when I browsed in the Collected Poems.


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Saying Simply Verlaine Mallarme Suspiciousness Referentiality Holderlin Yeats Hopkins Hopkins2 Woolf