Poetics and Poetry Discussion
Self-imagery in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats
Copyright by William F Dougherty
The spinning coin of Yeats’s poetics bears his personal profile on one side and his self-projection on the other. His poetry of “personal utterance” thus avoids personalized subjectivity by exploiting the notion of the self and anti-self, as he categorizes those supposedly antithetical profiles in his theory of the mask. Yeats adapts persona and mask to prevent the “accidence” of his personal life from distracting from his calculated “personal utterance” in print, and thereby creates associated fables of his mythology of self, embodied by the heroicized or visionary company that populates his poems.
The masked poet projects not a Homeric image of his true self, but a feigned image of his anti-self. Yeats, an aesthetic introvert, becomes an intrepid guide to the violent events and myths in Irish history. In poems and several plays, he takes as his ideal opposite Cuchulain, the Achilles of Irish mythology, an untamed warrior and cultural hero. See the poems “Cuchulain Comforted” (Yeats 332) and “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea” (Yeats 33) . Yeats cultivated a technique that preserved his vaunted “personal utterance” without slipping into the sentimentality that marred the poems in Crossways (1889) or that draped the poems in The Rose (1893) with brocade.
By adopting the “Doctrine of the Mask, ” as John Unterecker reminds us, Yeats devises a strategy that turns a dreamy persona into an active persona (4-5) and hardens his imagery from rose-bordered hems to steel blades and cold dawns. The obsessive imagery of birds, trees, towers, statues, sun, and moon relate diverse poems to one another and form a mask of symbols to complement the mask of his anti-self. A new style entails new approaches; to Yeats, style was the laborious making and remaking of the stylist. “Style, personality—deliberately adopted and therefore a mask—is the only escape from hot-faced bargainers and money-changers” (Yeats, qtd. in Unterecker 18) .
The mask enables Yeats to create his own mythology of self and to incorporate as semi-mythical figures the cast of his poems. Yeats parades relatives, friends, writers, public figures, legendary heroes, and occultists across his painted stage; since they embody values that closely reflect his own, he enhances his own values whenever he idealizes or apotheosizes theirs. He introduces relatives, friends, and laureate figures, and later alludes to them in other poems as if they were archetypal figures for ideas, qualities, or traits in his own mythology.
To escape subjectivity and sentiment, Yeats interlaces his reveries and recollections with strands of classical myth, Irish legend, contemporary cultural issues, or cycles of history, and thus constructs an exterior, objective frame of reference. Helen, Troy, Pegasus, Sidney, Aengus, Cuchulain, and Duke Ercole serve as handy but dim archival allusions. Maud Gonne, Lady Gregory, John Synge, and other friends and luminaries in Yeats’s circle assume the stature of icons. “The Municipal Gallery Revisited” serves as a biographical repository: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, / And say my glory was I had such friends” (The Poems 321) .
Yeats’s masks project appearances—images—of a public rather than an interior self. Donning these public images provides a protective coloration: an introspective esthete shuffles into a schoolroom wearing a smiling public face in “Among School Children, ” or a mythological poet impersonates a vengeful Gaelic warrior in the Cuchulain poems and plays. Although he sometimes overplays the strategy, Yeats knows that “true feigning, ” speaking as someone other than himself, as in the Crazy Jane poems, disinhibits his magisterial tour-conducting manner and frees him for a fly angler’s freckled yawp. Putting on a painted face, Yeats says in his Autobiography, frees the poet from personal memory and from the “terrors of judgment” (340) . It is child-like in that it can ignore reality and entertain infinite possibilities without qualm. The stage-face disguises the limited, fallible personality and liberates the imagination from the personality’s mundane moorings.
Yeats’s antithetical mask as anti-self protects his sensitive inner self. As a poetic device and psychological defense mechanism, the mask projects an alternative aspect of the self rather than a direct opposite, in contrast with the shadow, the repressed unconscious and unwelcome self at the heart of C. G. Jung’s analytic psychology. Yeats’s notion of a mask, his astrological characterology in A Vision, and his goal of a unified self parallels Jung’s personality theories about psychic resolution in significant ways.
Since Yeats defines the mask as an antithetical self, the theory rationalizes his social behavior as much as it elucidates his poems. The theory of the mask, in fact, explains the personality mechanism in A Vision—astrological wheels, gyres, and recycled time. Rhetorical analysis, using the conventional concepts of persona, aesthetic distance, tone, and point of view, suffices to read all but a handful of the poems. “Persona” means mask. By extension, it means the image of a writer—the public persona of William Yeats or a Robert Frost or a Papa Hemingway. Thus, Richard Ellmann, one of the foremost Yeats scholars, cross-indexes mask with “pose” in Yeats: The Man and the Masks, and Hazard Adams in The Book of Yeats’s Poems interprets the mask as a means the making life artfully real. The poetic device is self-evident in poems like “The Mask, ” “The Fisherman, ” “Ego Dominus Tuus, ” “The Gyres, “and “Supernatural Songs.” In truth, a dramatic mask, which served as megaphone in the Greek amphitheaters, is merely a mouthpiece: the poetry inheres in the ventriloquism.
The first aim of W. B. Yeats’s self-characterizations is to dramatize his personality a self-referential with direct, passionate speech. His strategies differ according to the subject, theme, and occasion, but his self-referential poems show how autobiography (with linked images and allusions) informs the carefully arranged mythology of his personal utterance. To achieve this passionate personal utterance, Yeats dons the poetic mask to manage a credible, unsentimental, discursive tone. Without the mask as a distancing device, Yeats’s self-characterizations could easily degenerate into mere self-expression. The artifice of an extroverted persona (his anti-self) allows him an emotional buffer between personal passion and self-pity. One way he gets his points across without hand wringing is to exploit a grammatical demarcation.
In “Adam’s Curse” Yeats objectifies the toil and pain of creating poetry and beauty by using the plural pronouns “we” and “us.” Even the “I” that closes the last stanza in the historical present sounds more declarative than subjective. To realize how drastically the mode of self-characterization determines the poem’s tone (and thus its emotive message) one could change the voice to the first person: “A line will take me hours” or “My stitching and unstitching” (The Poems 80) . Yeats’s strategy for using himself as the persona in his poems calls for dramatizing rather than sympathizing. Such self-characterizations highlight an attitude or theme without spotlighting the speaker as a wholly self-referential “I and only I.”
Yeats characterizes himself in “Adam’s Curse” as lover and poet discussing with Maude Gonne and another woman elevated notions of rigor and style in poetry, beauty, and love. In one of the Yeats-Gonne variations, love diminishes over time like the pastel, hollowed moon. More significantly, “Adam’s Curse” marks a turning point in Yeats’s style of self-projection from the pastoral manifesto of “The Happy Shepherd” and symbol-festooned “The Wanderings of Oisin” to a conversational tone and modernized form. To escape “accidence, ” daily intercourse with fools, and what Norman Jeffares calls his “defeatist devotion” and unrequited love of Maud Gonne (167) .
Since the mask is an attitude, it can be donned in any structural endeavor. In “The Cold Heaven” the crossed-love theme surfaces within a sudden epiphany of a cosmic over-arching, an incident of dreaming-back after death (an occult notion elaborated in A Vision) , and a closing question. The strategy of “A Prayer for My Daughter, ” on the other hand, takes advantage of the conventions of address inherent in an apostrophe. “The Tower” tumbles through an acceptable testamentary discursiveness, and “Dialogue of Self and Soul” uses the strategy of an interior debate to introduce a Nietzschean dithyramb of tragic joy and cyclic recurrence.
If “Adam’s Curse” represents a change in Yeats’s style, “Dialogue of Self and Soul” represents a change in his attitude. He dramatizes his own internal conflicts as opposites and reconciles them with a Dionysian credo. Self-mastery replaces lamentation. Sato’s blade, an unspotted soul-symbol, replaces pastel weariness, remorse, and longing. Heaven is no longer cold. Ecstatic recurrence replaces unforgiving punishment; reality replaces romantic dreaminess and dislocated desire. Instead of a battered kettle in “The Tower, ” the body becomes the sheaf of the timeless sword-as-soul. “Dialogue of Self and Soul” also exemplifies one of Yeats’s favorite modes of self-characterization—summoning memories to maintain a coherent context for his self-characterizations, and thereby dramatizing his evolving outlook. Friends and associates serve as supporting actors; concrete items in his daily life—restored tower, Sato’s blade, the wind off the coast—become emblems or props in complex meditative poems.
Over time, his self-characterization becomes something of a self-institutionalization—he carries his own frame of public reference. Yeats’s poems enumerates old themes well before he writes “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” The specimen poems here, especially “The Tower” and “Dialogue of Self and Soul, ” enumerate themes found in poems only; the wayward circus animals emblematize themes found in his narrative and dramatic writings.
In “A Prayer for My Daughter” Yeats dramatizes public and internal opposites to show his way with of thinking and feeling. From his convulsive experience with Maude Gonne’s violent politics he draws the antitheses of those aristocratic qualities he invokes for his daughter—beauty, custom, ceremony, innocence, kindness, emotional balance, and domestic rootedness—symbolized by the centered, sheltering, spreading laurel tree, reminiscent of the chestnut tree in “Among School Children.” His self-characterization, based on the old dictum that the style is the man, includes a compulsive interweaving of images and symbols as a recurrent, personalized code.) The prayer that his daughter will eschew social turmoil and political hatred illustrates the role of accumulated self-characterization as one of the apparent aims of his poetry.
In this sense, his poems cannot be isolated without a contextual loss. Precedents from old books in “Adam’s Curse” become the precedents from Yeats’s own previous books of poetry. Thus, it is insufficient to read “A Prayer for My Daughter” without the context and carry-over connotations from Yeats’s anguishing Maude Gonne poems, nasty public controversies, feminine militancy, and Dublin’s political paltriness. Similarly, the virtues he envisions for his daughter incorporate his self-dramatizations in a dozen poems idealizing the aristocratic environs of the Gregory’s’ Coole Park. Yeats’s self-characterizations, especially in the comfort zone of trusted friends, not only illuminate his poems but also enhance his ideal of the unity of self.
Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. New York: Norton,1978
Jeffares, Norman. W. B. Yeats: A New Biography. New York: Farrar,1998.
Kermode, Frank. The Romantic Image. London: Routledge,1986.
Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. New York:
Yeats, William Butler. Autobiography. New York: Macmillan,1965.
-. A Vision. Final Revision. New York: Macmillan,1965.
-. The Poems. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats.
Vol. I. New York: Macmillan,1989.
(12/20/2012 4:04:00 PM)
It's my best Christmas present this year! I just noticed it in the forum.Thanks! S.
(11/30/2012 3:31:00 PM)
Dr Bill: It's great to find a posting of this quality here... juicy and richly eloquent with penetrating thought and learning. As a mere dabbler in Yeats I found this brilliant, fascinating and utterly convincing. There's no escaping context, conscious and unconscious, in my view, but it was encouraging that you gave its place so clearly and persuasively. Adam's Curse being a favourite of mine it was refreshing to see it being given so much scholarly attention. I'd love to read your detailed thoughts here on his Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen and similar works if you're ever so inclined and have the time to spare. Much thanks for this.