The Arthurian language in “The Fisherman” threw me off a little. Medieval chivalry, Arthurian legend, and the dueling tradition of calling someone out as “knave” and “craven” is about as English as it gets. When W.B. Yeats uses English mythology to write poems about his ideal image for Ireland, we can’t help but think that he must be joking. “The craven man in his seat, / the insolent unreproved, / and no knave brought to book” he writes, in mockery of the Irish middle class. Knowing his attitude toward the bourgeois, we can only read the mockery as sincere. But it is the usage of Arthurian language in the first place that is ironic. I realized that medieval language is only highly suggestive of medieval Anglo traditions, not necessarily Arthurian England in particular. However, the language still suggests the chivalry and dueling tradition within Anglicized Europe. In using words that sound Arthurian as the most Irish of Irish figures, he underscores a core paradox of Irish cultural nationalism, that all of the poems, plays and songs, in order to be digestible by a gentrified audience, must be in English. The whole project of resurrecting and preserving an Irish national spirit with English tools is fundamentally paradoxical.
When reading “The Only Jealousy of Emer” it may not seem to be a nationalistic play, however, if you interpret Emer to be a representation of Ireland, it can be. Emer remains faithful to Cuchulain, despite the fact that he has courted other women because she knows that eventually he will tire of these other women. She knows he loved her once, and will always love her. That being said, if Emer represents Ireland in this scenario, one could argue that Cuchulain represents the people of Ireland. Ireland knows her people love her and will always love her, even if, at the moment, the people feel loyal to another country. Eventually the people of Ireland will tire of their “mistress” country and return to their beloved Ireland. In the mean time, just as Emer refused to give up her hope that he will return to her in exchange for the life of her husband, Ireland refuses to give up hope that her people will come back to her in order to save their lives. Even if her people die, Ireland knows they love her, and she loves them in return. Of course, this was not exactly what Yeats had intended when he wrote the play, saturated in references to his own life and his own loss, but the undertones are still there.
I (being a somewhat politically-minded sort) noticed some parallels between the Yeats’ observations on the problems with the various Irish Nationalist movements and similar groups in the present and recent past. Simply put, the “Curse of Heterogeneity” Yeats decries (and wrote The Only Jealousy of Emer in a sort of protest to) is what brings down a lot of movements that seek changes in the social order; it’s why the Tea Party movement gained so much ground and became a major force in American politics while the Occupy Wall Street protests (and those they spurred elsewhere in the world) largely went nowhere: Progressive politics can mean many things, while the message of Conservativism is very simple and easy to swallow. “We want to change things” can’t be a rallying cry because it demands further specificity, while “keep things the way they are” (while not terribly catchy) tells you all you need to know.
Yeats, having orbited Maude Gonne, written plays with Augusta Gregory, and watched Synge and other Irish poets try and fail to spark a sustainable revolution, had seen this factionalism doom Irish culture to what seemed to him a slow, painful, middle-class death. His trepidation was understandable.
Yeats gives extremely specific stage directions in The Only Jealousy of Emer, which is unusual in the plays that I’ve read. Now I’m not a drama expert, but I found it strange that the stage directions were so specific about the costumes of the musicians being exactly the same as in The Dreaming of the Bones, and the dance scene with the Sidhe was so specific about her metallic appearance and her other-than-human qualities. In other respects of staging, however, Yeats is purposefully ambiguous, as in his including in the stage directions that “The stage as before can be set against the wall of any room.” In either case, Yeats is very controlling of what his play will look like, because he wants it to affect his audiences in a specific way. He imagines that there is a single formulaic way to do that and he includes the critical elements of that formula in stage directions.
I have been told that stage directions are often tossed to the wind when actually putting on a play, and that playwrights are generally aware of this, so that they provide only very general stage “suggestions” more than stage “directions.” Not so with Yeats. He writes so much of his own vision into this play that it would be tough for lots of different directors to stage it differently. I think therein lies the point, that Yeats imagines his plays as art that does something, that pushes audiences’ buttons in specific ways to achieve a specific effect. For example, including in a stage direction that the stage can be in any room invites people to put on the play in garages, shops and warehouses and not just theaters. If the working class takes Yeats up on his offer and produces the play in local underground, this would diversify his audience and possibly attract the lower class to his and the cultural nationalists’ vision for Ireland. Specifically including that the Woman of the Sidhe should look otherworldly, “more an idol than a human being,” nicely epitomizes Yeats’ vision for how women are to be used in his art, as symbols rather than people. Yeats wants to make absolutely sure that exactly his vision for the play is what audiences see, to that they are affected in exactly the way that he has calculated.
Here’s a link to a recording of Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Inisfree”
Yeats’ own reading of this poem is really interesting in that it definitely changes how I first thought of the poem. Initially, “Innisfree” sounded like a homage to romanticism with beautiful nature imagery and even an allusion to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden with the line “Nine bean rows will I have there.” However, Yeats’ reading drones on almost as if he is grieving, which would make sense since he wrote “Innisfree” in 1888, during his early period when he was young and idealistic, and this recording is from 1935, closer to the end of his life and after his transition into a much more bitter and disillusioned phase. Moreover, it’s worth pointing out that Yeats was inspired to write “Innisfree” by a water advertisement, which is like the total antithesis of what you would consider romantic. How did this recording change your reading?
I found this interesting report from the Forest Service Department of Agriculture that catalogues the precipitous loss of Ireland’s forest coverage over the last few centuries. The loss can be blamed in part on English colonization and the establishment of large plantations in the middle of the sixteenth century. Large-scale exportation of timber to be used as fuel and raw materials in English industrial centers since the early seventeenth century also played a role. Finally, the quadrupling of the Irish population from 1700 to 1840 undoubtedly put a strain on resources.
I believe statistics such as these must have had a profound impact on Yeats’s psyche during his middle and transitional periods. Primeval forests and the mysticism associated with them are vital to those who wish to dredge up an image of an ideal Celtic past. Perhaps the final straw was the Land Act of 1881, which allowed middle class Irish to parcel up the estates held by the aristocracy for centuries. Before passing over the title deeds, many pragmatic aristocrats clear-cut their gardens and forests for quick profits. Those trees that survived the initial sweep were scalped and sold by their new middle class owners. This means that, all over the country, orchards like Augusta Gregory’s Seven Woods were quickly disappearing. The report cites that in 1908, the Departmental Committee on Irish Forestry estimated that only 1.5% of the land mass of Ireland was covered with substantial forest. These few acres were what the landed gentry managed to hold onto after the Land Act. This loss must undoubtedly be what Yeats refers to as “Tara uprooted” in “In the Seven Woods” (line 6). It is interesting that his departure from Romantic ideals somewhat coincides with the loss of forests in Ireland. He shifts toward the political as the mythical is taken away from him.
I believe that his transitional phase reflects his belief that in order to unite oneself with one’s true self, they must wear the mask of their anti-self. By disregarding his dreamy, magical demeanor and utilize the forms of prose and couplets, he is clearly writing in a style not typical of his self, but ultimately cultivates his true self in doing so. This transitional phase also emulates the fact that his poetry, while not being literal, autobiographical, accounts, they are autobiographical in their subtext. Through his poems on lost love, we see his despair in not only losing the supposed unattainable Maud, but realizing that she was attainable, just not to him. Of course, by not writing his poetry completely autobiographical, recounting his own personal experiences, but by writing with a sort of vague demeanor, the people can identify with the emotions embodied in his work and are unified, by his words, in their thoughts; which he believes is the ultimate goal of art.
In class we talked about “Adam’s Curse” within the context of poetry being a labor for Yeats that is unable to be understood by the middle class, due to its intangible and unquantifiable value to the self and to society. During this discussion, I noticed that in the third to sixth lines: “And you and I, and talked of poetry./ I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;/Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught. ” that Yeats details his work with a certain level of irony, immediately drawing attention to the many hours that he must have put into the construction of this poem itself. Yet Yeats says this in a quoted section, implying that he said this and the following stanzas. This simple “I said” thereby highlights the fictive element even further. These quotations, if Yeats has indeed labored for hours on making them fit exactly as he needed them to, so that they may “seem a moment’s thought,” intentionally undercuts himself so-as to make his own hours of “stitching and unstitching” naught and pointless.
This cynicism in regarding his own poetry works on a similar theme as the feelings of loss of love he has for Maud. After Maud’s sister replies in the 2nd stanza that women know they must labor at being beautiful – a noticeably short segmented quote that has no rhythm or rhyme, and distinctly lacks preparation and the labor of poetry – Yeats replies in another quote, working on the nature of beauty and love, which takes a full 3rd stanza. He thinks out loud that lovers usually “…would sigh and quote with learned looks/ Precedents out of beautiful old books”. However, this time, when he notes the natural tendency for lovers to quote things that are not their true thoughts, a tonal and thematic shift occurs in the poem. The rhyme scheme, which in this stanza was rhyming couplets, abruptly breaks into the final line “Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.”
This final line causes the group to go quiet. Time and the beauty in the scenery both pass in the next stanza, which Yeats contemplates. There are no more quotes or mentions of spoken words. The final stanza has the line “I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:” , which again, deals with the disjunction between the spoken and written word, while calling also upon the original emotion and thoughts that precede their expression. With the emphasis on his subject’s ears, Yeats implies that he would be telling her what follows. Yet we as the readers never know if he actually did, or would, tell her of these thoughts on her beauty – which leaves us to question whether Yeats’s written word is more or less authentic than his speech or thoughts.
Yeats’ transitional phase is marked with his disillusionment with his muse, Maude Gonne. Yeats had previously idealized Maude, seeing her as the amazonian goddess, Cathleen ni Houlihan with “the walk of a queen”, an almost Aoife-like figure who was untouchable by Yeats because she was something noble and venerated. This illusion was destroyed by the revelation of Maude’s affair with Lucien Millevoye, during which she had given birth to two illegitimate children. This revelation and its effect on Yeats’ poetry hints at his conception of the ideal woman, and his idealism in general: the ideal is never attainable, it is always just out of reach. But for women, this restricts their sexual liberty. The ideal woman is desired by men, but never obtained. Like the hallowed Cathleen ni Houlihan, who traps breathing woman beneath the weight of a symbol, this ideal of Yeats leaves real woman with an unsolvable quandary. As long as they are young and beautiful they can inspire desire: they are neither to let themselves be obtained, nor die old and wasted and alone.
The more I read of Yeats’ poetry and the personal life behind it, the more he sounds like the stereotypical “Nice Guy” whining about how unfair women are. The woman he had a crush on spurns him? He changes his entire poetic form. Much of his earlier writing (Most blatantly Cathleen ni Houlihan) is aimed at impressing or attracting Maude Gonne, and one of his first poems after she unequivocally “dumps” him is a two-stanza affair comparing her to Helen causing the destruction of Troy. Combined with the “Bitch/Witch” switch he just seems incredibly petty. I wonder if this emotionality is a necessary part of writing great poetry. I think the lesson to be learned here is that it is impossible to truly separate oneself from one’s poetry and prose.