Review of W.B. Yeats, Collected Poems, 1950.

[“Yeats's Quarrel with Old Age.” Review article on W.B. Yeats, Collected Poems, 1950. Queen's Quarterly 58 (1951): 497-507.]


William Butler Yeats was just twenty-three in 1886 when he published his first book of verse – a privately printed pamphlet entitled Mosada, A Dramatic Poem.  This was the first of some twenty-five volumes of poetry he issued during his lifetime.  Of these, only one had the virtue of completeness or the authority of the author’s final selection: the Collected Poems of 1933.  He suppressed much of his early verse and revised in detail most of what was left; and the earlier collection – the first volume of the Collected Works (1908) – is repeated in the first ninety pages of the 1933 volume.  Only well-stocked libraries have been able to keep pace with the successive volumes issued by various publishers and by the Cuala Press.  Last Poems, issued posthumously in 1940, served as a useful supplement to the collection of 1933; but it did not include A Full Moon in March and was produced in a style so different from the familiar Collected Poems that it had the deceptive appearance of a completely new style of verse.  The luxury of reading Yeats’ poetry as a single and fully rounded whole was denied until the Collected Poems could be completed.

The edition of 1950[1] reprints the 1933 text from the original plates, by inserting some eighty pages of his latest poetry between the poems from The Winding Stair (1933) and the earlier ‘Narrative and Dramatic Poems’.  This group is made up from A Full Moon in March (1935) and all the verse from Last Poems and Plays (1940).

The new section of the Collected Poems constitutes a fifth of all the poems that fall outside the group of Narrative and Dramatic Poems.  It is with this large addition to the selective canon, the fruits of the poet’s last five years of writing, that one is concerned; the rest having been constantly in print for seventeen years.  When the Collected Works appeared in 1908 – eight volumes somewhat in the style of Morris, with generous margins, copious notes and a bibliography, the best copies bound in quarter vellum and lettered in gold – the gossip went round Dublin that Yeats at forty-three had written himself out, that no more considerable poetry could be expected from him.  The Collected Poems of 1933 gave a more definite air of finality; and when the Last Poems appeared shortly after his death many critics expressed the view that these were the outcome of a well-disguised dotage, that there were signs of decrepitude in the flagrant directness of ‘a coarse old man’s’ horrible – because self-confessed – ‘lust and rage’; that the ‘old man’s frenzy’ exhibited not so much of the ‘eagle mind’ as an exhausted imagination spurring itself relentlessly into song.  “Never”, he had cried in The Tower,

                                                . . . . Never had I more

                        Excited, passionate, fantastical

                        Imagination, nor an ear and eye

                        That more expected the impossible.[2]

But ten years had elapsed since then.  Obscurity, violence, obscenity, trivial flippancy – all these charges were variously brought forward; and Yeats was not alive to meet them.

When we read the latest poems, not in perplexed and suspicious isolation, but in the perspective of all the poems he felt were worth preserving, what is the judgement?  Do they show that Yeats was maturing in the end?  Some critics have suggested that the Byzantium poems represent a final symbolic synthesis that Yeats outlived and outwrote.  For a lesser poet that might have been so.  But Yeats had never refused to ‘buy knowledge with my peace’.  Every synthesis is unstable; no sooner is it complete than it tends to disintegrate by repetition.  And at every synthesis, at every completion and halt, he had the courage to send himself out ‘naked on the roads’.  Despite his lifelong rage at the indignity of growing old, he seems to have said (like his man in Tara’s Halls):

                                    . . . . I think

            That something is about to happen, I think

            That the adventure of old age begins.

But how could he begin?  For his verse, it seemed, there could only be a retrograde and exhausted movement – a second but shorter-winded Excursion.  But his answer was ready.  “Why should not old men be mad?” he reflects, reciting some of the sorrowful transmutations of his life; and he sets forward with gay irony to seek ‘safety in derision’ –

                                                With an eye like a hawk,

                        With a stiff straight back,

                        With a strutting turkey walk,

                        With a bag full of pennies,

            With a monkey on a chain,

            With a great cock’s feather,

            With an old foul tune.

“I have spent my life saying the same thing in many different ways”: this was one of Yeats’ final comments upon his work, and it throws a clear light upon the nature of his successive new departures.  We do not find, and should not expect, something entirely new, something startlingly strange and original.  What one would expect of a poet of integrity is not a complete break with his past triumphs and the clarity of his most intense visions, but some completion, some final integration of what before may have seemed, for all its vividness, somewhat fragmentary and esoteric.  In one of his last poems Yeats tells how for six weeks he sought diligently for a theme only to find that his faithful circus animals had all deserted him.  “What can I but enumerate old themes?”  He tells them over with a note of familiar mockery – Oisin and his “faery bride”, the Countess Kathleen, the Fool and the Blind Man, Cuchulain.

                        Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start,

In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

He closes the circle of those symbols, draws them in a ring around the personal centre from which they had grown.  He had stalked out of a tear-dimmed fragrant mist into the ‘profane perfection of daylight’ – the light is harsh but liberating, the tone astringent but healing, as he runs over the old themes to a tune as spare as a picked bone.  The bitter beauty of civil violence and hatred, the primal mystery of sex, the ritual grace of innocence, custom and ceremony, and of blind courage redeemed by gaiety.  These themes are no longer isolated – they fuse into a single symbolic structure.  The last poems fall into recognisable categories – ballads, political songs, lyrical meditations; but each theme is now charged with cross-resonances with his other themes – his friends (most of them now dead), the ‘horrible splendour of desire’, ‘the crime of birth and death’; and there haunts him still

                                    . . . . that monstrous thing

            Returned and yet unrequited love.

Some change there is, but the new manner is not wholly new.  We have heard before something of this energy, the metaphysical compression, the taut and intricate instinctive rhythms; all this is now triumphantly confirmed and consummated.  The significant change had occurred in 1914 with the publication of Responsibilities; in that group of poems he had moved out of the Celtic Twilight.  At first he had courted the PreRaphaelite decadence, but with a morose detachment which prevented him from becoming more deeply implicated than in the languor of his rhythms and in certain dim and drooping effects gathered rather from PreRaphaelite painting than from literature.  For the change we must thank, not so much Ezra Pound with his strident blunt criticism, but the work of a sensitive and profound scholar.  In 1912 Sir Herbert Grierson sent Yeats a copy of his two-volume edition of Donne and Yeats replied:

I . . . find that I can at last understand Donne. Your notes tell me exactly what I want to know.  Poems that I could not understand or could but vaguely understand are now clear, and I notice that the more precise and learned the thought the greater the beauty, the passion.  The intricacy and subtlety of his imagination are the length and breadth of the furrow made by his passion.  His pedantry and the obscenity, the rock and loam of his Eden but make us the more certain that one who is but a man like us had seen God.

A single book, even when it is the work of a poet as great as Donne, is not enough completely to account for an important change in Yeats’ work.  But Yeats had found in a Jacobean tune and in the wrenched body of verbal passion a matrix for the hatred, lust, and bitterness forced upon him by intractable literary and social politics, and by the end of his long and desperate courtship of Maud Gonne.  The change is most easily detected in his versification.  The quick trimeter, picked up in his early struggles to write contemporary ballads, becomes crisp and takes on a new dimension.  In his portrait of Maud – That the Night Come – it is at once flippant and caressing; we hear it again in the assured arrogance of A Coat:

                                    I made my song a coat

                                    Covered with embroideries

                                    Out of old mythologies

                                    From heel to throat;

                                    But the fools caught it,

                                    Wore it in the world’s eyes

                                    As though they’d wrought it.

                                    Song, let them take it,

                                    For there’s more enterprise

                                    In walking naked.

That tune was to be even more richly fulfilled seven years later in Easter, 1916.  But already a terrible beauty was born into the rhythms of The Cold Heaven, which, in celebrating Maud Gonne’s disastrous marriage, first shows his personal compulsion for Donne’s technique.  Only arduous work could now establish that manner and make it thoroughly personal; the apparent spontaneity of Yeats’ best poems conceals how reluctant words were to obey his call.

At his best Yeats shows an astonishing sense of the values and rhythms of words: but his ear never overcame a certain innate coarseness.  His father tells in a letter of 1884 how Willie’s “bad metres arise from his composing in a loud voice, manipulating of course the quantities to his taste”.  Sometimes, but not always, he composed to a tune (“something like a Gregorian hymn if one sang them in the ordinary way”); but he was tone-deaf and recited his poems in a tuneless chant that most men and some women were inclined to find more grotesque than compulsive.  In his early verse, especially in The Wanderings of Oisin, he learned to be musical in a way that defied the character of language; and it would seem that his unmusical ear and an increasing preoccupation with the spoken word – Lady Gregory’s and John Synge’s version of passionate peasant speech as it enters Yeats’ work in The Old Age of Queen Maeve – were his salvation as a poet.  In Responsibilities those rhythms may constantly be heard.  What he is now striving towards is not the ‘pure gem-like flame’ of the Decadence, but something ‘cold and passionate as the dawn’ in ‘that stern colour and that delicate line that are our secret discipline’.  Sometimes in the middle period, in Wild Swans at Coole (1919) and Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), the verse stumbles; perhaps the words are being tortured into sense, or the sense tortured into words.  The final assured mastery came in The Tower (1928); the fascination of what’s difficult had fashioned language to his vision; his poetry, as he himself knew, had “gained in self-possession and power”.  In the last poems the old wilfulness returns, the occasional stumbling line, a tendency to twist the words to his will.  But this is not from flagging control; rather it represents the craftsman’s supreme achievement, making his craft embrace even his technical weaknesses and turn them to poetic effect.  The coarseness of ear is exploited finally with confident virtuosity, to image forth the hoarse violence of his final thought; it is a firm limit set against any return to the limpid sentimentality, the mellifluous smoothness which he had come to see was defensive and insincere.  Iseult Gonne had observed to him many years before that “Innocence is the highest achievement of the human intellect”.  And innocence is the only single term that describes the quality of mind informing his latest work.  And this note is persistently and paradoxically sounded in his final explorations of the sexual theme: Words for Music, Perhaps, A Woman Old and Young, and the Supernatural Songs – a total of nearly fifty poems.

The last poems are bound to the earlier work by firm symbolic links; but they do not represent the serene resolution of the calm deathbed, all passion spent.  In Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1917) he had foreseen this problem:

Surely, he [the poet] may think, . . . now that I have found vision and mask I need not suffer any longer. He will buy perhaps some small old house where like Ariosto he can dig his garden, and think that in the return of birds and leaves, or moon and sun, and in the evening flight of the rooks he may discover rhythm and pattern like those in sleep and so never awake out of vision. Then he will remember Wordsworth withering into eighty years, honoured and empty-witted, and climb to some waste room and find, forgotten there by youth, some bitter crust.

Yeats is assured of the incommunicable wisdom of old age – “What can they know that we know that know the time to die”; he has escaped the infirmity and apathy which are for the poet Death-in-Life, that crime of age that he had raged against since his early years.  But there is a note of perplexity and wonder, not quite remorse, not quite bitterness.

                                    Eyes spiritualised by death can judge,

            I cannot, but I am not content.

It is heard in the ballad refrains, an echo of hesitant sadness modulating the randy shrillness of street-song and marching tune:

            But time amends old wrong.

            And all that’s finished, let it fade.


            O what of that, O what of that,

            What is there left to say?

The ballad manner, that in his youth had not served him much better than it served Wordsworth, acquires a new scope and depth which is neither a medieval quality nor a note caught from the mysterious lilt of peasant song.

                        What remains to sing about

                        But of the death he met

                        Stretched under a doorway

                        Somewhere off Henry Street.

Twenty years earlier he had said: “I think that we who are poets and artists, not being permitted to shoot beyond the tangible, must go from desire to weariness and so to desire again, and live but for the moment when vision comes to our weariness like terrible lightning, in the humility of the brutes.”  Now that he has rejected despair, the past – sung before with bitter insistence – wells to the surface in a mood of abasement.  The incisive harshness is not reserved for political and social themes but cuts also to the heart of love and wisdom.

                        Civilisation is hooped together, brought

Under a rule, under the semblance of peace

By manifold illusion; but man’s life is thought

And he, despite his terror, cannot cease

Ravening through century after century,

Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come

Into the desolation of reality:

Egypt and Greece, good-bye, and good-bye, Rome!

And the mockingly distorted rhythms may sink suddenly into a miracle of evocation.

That civilization may not sink,

Its great battle lost,

Quiet the dog, tether the pony

To a distant post;

Our master Caesar is in the tent

Where the maps are spread,

His eyes fixed upon nothing,

A hand upon his head.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence.


That the topless towers be burnt

And man recall that face,

Move most gently if move you must

In this lonely place.

She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,

That nobody looks; her feet

Practise a tinker shuffle

Picked up on a street.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence.

And at the end Maud Gonne and Iseult take their places in the procession of images; with the ghost of Cuchulain stalking through the Post Office in the Easter Rising, with Homer ‘unchristened’ whose theme was original sin, with the child dancing on the seashore, the dancer and the dance indistinguishable, the same beach perhaps where Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea.  In the Municipal Gallery he sees the bronze head of that beauty who had time out of mind haunted and distracted him into song:

Human, superhuman, a bird’s round eye,

                        Everything else withered and mummy-dead.

There is no self-pity, no regret; but the uneasiness is not to be quieted.

All that I have said and done,

Now that I am old and ill,

Turns into a question till

I lie awake night after night

And never get the answers right.

Did that play of mind send out

Certain men the English shot?

Did words of mine put too great strain

On that woman’s reeling brain?

Could my spoken words have checked

That whereby a house lay wrecked?

And all seems evil until I

Sleepless would lie down and die.

It would seem that his prayer in Sailing to Byzantium is being fulfilled in a way he could not have dreamed:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.

In the lightning-flashes of grim gaiety, in the abrupt tenderness and insight, there is a singular clarity, a metaphysical immediacy that laughs in the face of all that had been obscure, decorative, or evasive in his earlier work.  There is no longer a system, but a self-contained, self-evident myth.  The Celtic mythology is interwoven with Homer and Troy and Helen and Leda; the successive masks of Aedhe, Owen Aherne, Michael Robartes, Ribh, and Crazy Jane mingle with the vision of Byzantium and the esoteric complications of The Phases of the Moon and A Vision.  All these are now luminous, purified into singleness, as the memory of his passionate moments strikes upon the nerve of Anima Mundi.

Some of his poems are disconcerting; others – Leda and the Swan, The Second Coming, The Cold Heaven – are horrible.  Yet the later poems body forth a poetic intellect as keen as that Japanese sword he owned, a sword made a hundred years before Chaucer was born –

Still razor-keen, still like a looking-glass

Unspotted by the centuries.

About this work there is something of an ancient, half-obscene, sphinx-like wisdom; uterine, animal below the waist.  For

            . . . wisdom is the property of the dead,

            A something incompatible with life; and power,

            Like everything that has the stain of blood,

            A property of the living.

This intersection of wisdom and death, brought into sharp focus in the two long meditations upon the sexual tragedy of the soul’s virginity, is the central preoccupation of the last poems.  All the complexities of mire and blood are transfigured, become birdlike, ominous – shrouds that live and speak in a dream.  In a mood of ‘laughing ecstatic destruction’ he had dreamed that

            . . . somewhere in sands of the desert

            A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

            A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

            Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

            Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

To the last breath he lives Cuchulain and the birds are with him: not those Celtic birds that thronged about the head of Aengus, not the swan that on a somber winter evening seemed ‘a concentration of the sky’, nor yet the ‘pitiless abstractions bald about the necks’; but something more solitary, distant and inscrutable.

            . . . A barnacle goose

            Far up in the stretches of night; night splits and the dawn

                        breaks loose;

            I, through the terrible novelty of light, stalk on, stalk on;

            Those great sea-horses bare their teeth and laugh at the dawn.

Three weeks before his death he wrote to Lady Elizabeth Pelham: “It seems to me that I have found what I wanted.  When I try to put all into a phrase I say, ‘Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.’ ” This closes another circle: and we see poetry, not as a renunciation of life, but as transfigured action –

            Character isolated by a deed

            To engross the present and dominate memory.

Whatever it cost him in patience and suffering and the heart-wasting fascination of what’s difficult, he was determined to ‘break the teeth of Time’.  His epitaph proclaims the naked irony of his courage.

                        Cast a cold eye

                        On life, on death.

                        Horseman, pass by!

[1] THE COLLECTED POEMS OF W. B. YEATS. (Second edition, with later poems added.) London: Macmillan and Company. Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada. 1950. Pp. xviii + 565. $5.00.

[2] For permission to quote extensively from The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats and to reprint extracts from two of Yeats’ essays I am indebted to Macmillan and Company, Ltd.