Review of Richard Ellmann and Virginia Moore.

[Review of Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats and Virginia Moore, The Unicorn: William Butler Yeats's Search for Reality. Queen's Quarterly 52.4 (1955-6): 617-21.]


Mr. Ellmann’s title is a little perplexing; but perhaps there is no neat way of saying that he is going to show how Yeats achieved a coherence which at each stage of his development holds all his work together in an impressive unity.  Yeats called himself one of “The Last Romantics”.  There is, he asserted the primacy of imagination as a direct mode of seeing and expression which could disclose reality; he insisted upon seeing man and the world and all occasions of value as bound together into singleness, the sorrows and ecstasies of one person becoming (with luck) the symbols of an inscrutable life-order; against obscurantist science, common sense, and uncritical complacency he asserted that life is dynamic, fluid, ambivalent, in tension.  It was one thing to hold from the beginning the “romantic” view of imagination, another thing to find how to keep the imagination in action as the range of thought and feeling expanded.  Solidity and impersonality were the persistent objects of Yeats’s poetic search; and within three years of beginning to write poetry he had lighted upon a fruitful set of artistic limits.  The Irish setting gave root and substance to his eye – “The grass blade carries the universe upon its points”; the static stylisation of painting and tapestry could distance the merely personal; in the theory of correspondances and in the minute study of Celtic myth he found the means to analyse the structure of events, so that the ancient configurations sharpened and deepened his sense of the uniqueness and symbolic import of any single event.  If at first the method was limited in achievement, the symbolic inflexion was then established for good; there only remained refinement, increased precision, ease, and clarity.

From the beginning Yeats demanded a wide range for poetry; there must be room, not only for complex feeling, but also for philosophical thought and for a strong authoritative assertion which would not degenerate into nerveless dogma.  Since truth, for Yeats, was the dramatic expression of the complete man, poetry could become philosophical only by portraying “the emotions of a soul dwelling in the presence of certain ideas”.  The centre of a Yeats poem, then, is not an idea but a mood – one of those “states of mind” which he said were “the most real things we know”.  In his poems, by an extension of his symbolic procedure, he draws out the emotions of his soul in the presence of such ideas as reincarnation, a supreme existence, the end of the world, the relations of man to man, man to God, man to woman, man to death.  His extended use of the mask accentuates the dramatic centre of the mood, and imparts greater vitality, irony and complexity allowing him to render not only the moment snatched out of time, but the afterthought also and the aftertaste.  His growth as an artist marches with the strengthening of his poetic persona; the mythology becomes more actual, less “idealised” – Helen and images of unabashed sensuality enter with incisive and unromantic directness.  And he comes to command a style that can combine assertiveness with subtle qualification, the traditional authoritative manner of the poet with the tenderness proper to the intimate afflictions of his own heart.  The symbols never petrify, but are transformed from poem to poem, manifold but self-consistent.  The new cluster of symbols released by A Vision imparts furious movement to his work; the range expands to include cosmic, public, political, and domestic themes; his work becomes ritualistic when he comes to see each fragment of “powerful life” as crucial and sanctified, to be recorded ceremoniously.  At the end he turns back to early themes; for the shadow of death is upon everything.  He is in doubt, but avoids despair.  Death, he asserts, is man-made; the poetic process is a symbol of the life process.  And the final vindication of his long struggle to remain seer, victim, assessor – to see clearly from moment to moment the tense and ambiguous values of life – rests in his own words: “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.”

Mr. Ellmann pursues this theme with apt quotation and neat, almost epigrammatic carefulness.  It is a useful piece of expository synthesis, interspersed with passages of acute criticism and some interesting unpublished MS materials and early drafts; the book will commend itself as a clear account of Yeats’s poetic development undistracted by detailed excursions.  The appendix “Towards a Reading of the Poems” offers a set of firmly stated and well-informed notes, of a factual sort, on thirty-five of the poems; another useful appendix consists of a life of the dates of the poems as far as they are present known.  By limiting the subject severely and taking no chances, Mr. Ellmann gains an air of authority.  But the book is not as comprehensive as it appears to be: it gives an account of Yeats’s poetic career with all the turmoil removed, leaving the impression that Yeats reached his mature age by an unruffled attention to the perfection of his technique, guided by the clear knowledge that he was right at every turn.  One wishes that Mr Ellmann did not write as though he felt on his neck the hot breath of an academic critic: it gives what he has written an air of old age and weariness; he seems to be confirming – like a faithful butler – that all the windows are safely locked.

Miss Moore’s book, on the other hand, is energetic, exuberant, as full of puzzling new things as a garden is full of weeds at the end of summer.  She is on a new line and knows it; and writes urgently, without restraint, without caution.  No piece of formal criticism but a mental biography, the book is conducted with an impetuous sense of mission that will offend some, and a quaintness of erudition that will leave most readers a little breathless.  One might have preferred a style less unrelievedly feminine – less fidgety, elbow-plucking, repetitious, and breathless.  Nevertheless, it is worth making the journey even if one’s pigtails get a little disarranged in passage; for the book is a jungle of information of the sort the biographer of Yeats’s mind has always needed, and for lack of which the worst critics of Yeats have lapsed into condescension, and the best into silence.

The Unicorn (Yeats tells us) mean “strength, virginal strength, lasting, tireless strength.”  Miss Moore is concerned with the “metamorphosis” of Yeats, his capacity for changing without loss of integrity.  In a sense then the book has the same theme as Mr. Ellmann’s: except that Miss Moore is determined to winkle out – no matter what it costs herself or the reader – just about everything Mr. Ellmann takes for granted or passes in silence.

The problem lying at the centre of Yeats’s life, Miss Moore says, is “the problem of his religion”.  So impressive is the conflict among critics on this point that the question arises whether the critics have “the facts”.  Miss Moore, finding that no important writer has been “more clumsily treated than Yeats”, very properly decides that the critics have not the facts.  And proceeds to supply them.  The question of Yeats’s religion, condensing in the penultimate chapter into the question “Was Yeats a Christian?”, looks alarmingly narrow and specialised; but the theme proves to be fundamental, broad, and deep.  “The spiritual world never seemed far from me”, Yeats writes.  Again, “There is only one perfection and only one search for perfection, and it sometimes has the form of the religious life and sometimes of the artistic life”.  His published work shows clearly enough that he regarded dreams and the vision inducted by meditation as a true insight, that his cabalistic practices and spiritualistic experiments were serious and central; his manuscripts show that he had a lifelong preoccupation with the arcane.  If Yeats was serious about these things – and he obviously was – and if he was also a poet whose work is remarkable for its unification of his experience, (as both these books maintain) then the substance of his inner life cannot be neglected.  Miss Moore, with great daring and enviable self-assurance, addresses herself to the vast theme of Yeats’s arcane and intellectual life.  The result is fascinating, and – for the understanding of Yeats the man – indispensable.  For it is not a search for sources on the model of The Road to Xanadu, but an exploration of the country of Yeats’s mind and inner life through the medium of his reading and his occult practices.

The book opens with a statement of the problem, and a biographical chapter that sketches Yeats’s life to Maud Gonne’s marriage in 1903.  Three substantial chapters then examine in turn three major doctrinal influences: Irish lore and Druidism, Blake, and Hermetism.  Each of these, in turn and at time concurrently, commanded Yeats’s allegiance and deeper inquiry because he found them to be in resonance with beliefs he was himself bringing to a sharp point at the centre of his thought: the unity of Being, the theory of correspondences, the relation between good and evil, the immanence of the spiritual world, the evidence for reincarnation.  The study of Hermetism leads, in Chapter 6, to a detailed account of the beliefs and rituals of the Order of the Golden Dawn to which Yeats belonged for years and in which he made notable progress through the ascending orders of discipline and self-knowledge.  Yeats’s attitude to magic here is crucial; the detailed information is drawn partly from unpublished Yeats MSS and partly from the writings of the renegade Regardie who left the Order and, out of malice, broke his oath of secrecy – an oath by which Yeats himself was bound.  A chapter on the development of Golden Dawn symbolism is followed by an account of Yeats’s spiritualist activities – an attempt by Yeats, vain in the end, to prove to the mundane world the existence of the spiritual world.  The first edition of A Vision is then carefully analysed.  The second large section closes with a very interesting and detailed account of Yeats’s ten-year struggle with formal philosophy – at the age of sixty – to sharpen his thinking and clarify much that perplexed him in the Vision.  An impressive episode: as best he could, he tackled the whole of Western philosophy, energetically and fearlessly searching it to the vitals, arguing tough-mindedly and with unnerving incision against the few formidable professionals he knew.  Then the case for Yeats’s “Christianity”: this is argued fervently and not unconvincingly, though carried of course to a level where doctrinal niceties are of negligible account.  In the end, Miss Moore finds from MSS written shortly before his death and hitherto unpublished, Yeats had found that love is the single bond of the universe, that “we love only that which is unique”, that love is “a form of the eternal contemplation of what is”.  “Man can embody truth, but he cannot know it.”

A reviewer not thoroughly versed in Cabalist literature, in the Presocratics, Neoplatonists, Cambridge Platonists, and the more obscure literature of the arcane is at a loss to express any detailed opinions.  A short review cannot do justice to this book’s wealth of informative detail.  There is much important unpublished material in it – not least of all some new light on the enigma of Maud Gonne, and the text of Yeats’s “Seven Propositions” written shortly before his death.  If the style is tediously insistent, the book is a most courageous undertaking.  One of the strongest assertions of the book is that Yeats in his inner life is not “peculiar”, not obscure; he draws upon an ancient and continuing tradition, as urgent as religion itself, as perpetual as man’s questioning about God and the fate of the soul in this life and after death.  Yeats’s stature is greatly increased by this new evidence of his relentless search for a truth he knew could not be portable, this tribute to his integrity of purpose and vision.  Through this book, whatever its defects, one can share the strange confusing immensity and strength of Yeats’s strenuous mind – so clear and crisp in the poems, so terribly agonized and perplexing in the search.  The critic of Yeats may in future plead dyspathy; he can no longer plead ignorance.

It is a curious sensation to be confronted by two books on Yeats, both by the same publisher, one printed in London, the other in New York.  The London house has made a distinguished and authoritative looking book for Mr. Ellmann: it is set in the Fournier types now associated with Yeats biography and cased in the dark red cloth of the Poems: R. & R. Clarke have printed this crisply on a warm-toned paper of agreeable texture.  Miss Moore’s book is meanly produced by comparison – a graceless type on a dead-white fluffy-setfaced paper that makes one feel like tearing out each page after reading.  Surely these optical and tactile values have some importance for the reader’s sympathy and attention.