Thursday, March 17, 2016

Seamus Heaney on W.B. Yeats: Happy St. Patrick's Day

by Seamus Heany, The Atlantic, Nov 1997
"Already, at the age of thirty-six, Yeats was something of a legend. In his day-to-day life he presented a very deliberately composed profile to the world; in the course of his writing he equally deliberately re-presented himself. In the first schoolboy letter collected in the first volume of his correspondence he told about his efforts to walk on stilts (and provided a sketch of himself doing so), and from that point onward, right down to his final, valedictory poem, "Under Ben Bulben," in which he put himself into the third person and into history as "Yeats," the compulsion was always the same -- to raise himself to a new plane and a new power. His affectations, in other words, were just one consequence of his egregious need to manifest the artistic temperament. He famously declared that the man who sat down to breakfast was a bundle of accident and incoherence, whereas the man reborn in a poem was "intended" and "complete"; one way to see his life's work is as a pursuit of that intention of completeness. A writer's style, Yeats believed, is the equivalent of self-conquest, and he always envisaged his art as the reward of labor. The guardian angel of his "unchristened heart" was Plato's ghost.
His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
The word "apprentice" in the subtitle of this magnificent first volume of Roy Foster's biography endorses the poet's view of himself as a toiling intelligence, a Dantesque spirit pushing toward ever higher levels of visionary understanding and stylistic mastery. But the word "mage" is a reminder that the stylistic was not the only kind of mastery that Yeats sought. He would have liked to be able to boast with Shakespeare's Glendower that he could "call spirits from the vasty deep," and from his youth he committed himself intensely to the project of becoming an adept in the occult sciences. It was, for example, mediums rather than madams that he visited when he was in Paris in 1914, whereas twenty-seven years earlier, in London in 1887, he had found his way to Madam Blavatsky, one of the founders of the Theosophical Society, a personage who proved as attractive to the realist in him as to the occultist. He liked her Russian horse sense and perspicacity; she was "a sort of old Irish peasant woman with an air of humour and audacious power," a woman who could say, "I used to wonder at and pity the people who sell their souls to the Devil, but now I only pity them. They do it to have somebody on their side."

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