“Like gentle blood”: Does Art Infallibly Yield Transformation?



Something powerful that I have found in reference to the readings for Monday is Yeats’s distinct separation between the domain of creativity and that of politics/ “logical” progressions of thought. Consider Yeats’s essay on Poetry and Tradition where he states, “[…] artists have made all the rest, because Providence has filled them with recklessness […] the others being always anxious have come to possess little that is good in itself, and are always changing from thing to thing.” With this, the reader can infer that Yeats believed artists were given a provincial gift—something they could not escape or ignore. Those that do not identify as “artists” are given the title of “others,” leading one to conclude that there is something superior in the “essence” of an artist that sets them apart. The “recklessness” that Yeats mentions seems to convey positivity: a reckless motivation for generating change or forging movements with the power of art. The notion that art is akin to spiritual possession—the creative colonization of the soul—shapes Yeats’s poems in the Responsibilities collection.

I am particularly captured by “To a Shade.” The poem’s complexity reveals a sort of “code” where the reader is left outside the work, urged to use knowledge of Yeats’s life to surmise whom the “shade” or “shadow” represents. A popular theory among critics stands that the spectre in the poem is Charles Stuart Parnell, Irish nationalist deemed (in his day) “the uncrowned king of Ireland.” Evidence that supports this claim can be found in Yeats’s other poetic references to Parnell: for example, “Parnell” and “Parnell’s Funeral.” “To a Shade” does not directly address Parnell, but it is perhaps stronger in that vein: the poem remains applicable to other Irish activists that have passed, and could fluctuate between public figures or take on a collective nature.

It seems to me that the “town” that Yeats’s calls the spectre (or “shade”) to revisit is Dublin. He claims, “they are at their old tricks yet,” signaling that the politicians of the time had not marooned their inherently malevolent agendas. This reinforces what Yeats has mentioned in his essay on Poetry and Tradition: the artist and what he/she brings to his/her culture extends beyond the pell-mell sphere of “grey” modern existence. Yeats seems to further suggest that the artist or pioneer (like his admired figures: Parnell, Hugh Lane, etc.) provides children with “loftier thought” and “sweeter emotion”—elements that, according to Yeats, have the power to transform the individual by way of the emancipating nature of art and passion.

A sadness emerges as the poem progresses, and Yeats appears to establish (once again) a sharp distinction between the artists (the “passionate few”), and “the others.” The poem states, “Sweeter emotion, […]/ like gentle blood, has been driven from the place,/ and insult heaped upon him for his pains.”  Could the “he” of this stanza be referring to the artist? Under this assumption, the poem operates on a melancholic axis, suggesting that art and passion continue to be smothered by forces too large for Yeats, or any other actively interested artist, to fray. The poem closes with a resignation: “you are safer in the tomb.” This may speak to Yeats’s troubled spirit as he despondently realizes the fruits of artistic labor are not being registered or absorbed into the public memory—and the bold alterations he fought for did not seem fully attainable.


Yeat’s is a SMASH Hit: “Never give all the Heart” in Song

I was considerably moved by Yeats’ “Never give all the Heart”, particularly the imagery regarding the speaker as he attempts to play his beloved’s heart like a musical instrument: “For they, for all smooth lips can say, / Have given their hearts up to the play. / And who could play it well enough / If deaf and dumb and blind with love?” This image of the heart being an instrument is a theme that occurs often in poetry, but the connection that Yeats makes with the evocation of human emotion through melody is particularly unique.  Instead of the heart being a tool, in his piece it is a foreign object to the speaker, who is incapable of working his beloved’s heart properly because he is so consumed with love for her.

Yeats’ ultimate message in this poem, I find, is that he is heartbroken upon discovering that Maud Gonne mothered two children with another man, while he has been pursuing her for so long, his love unrequited.  However he keeps the subject of the poem general, as if he is writing an advice column to all men, explaining that to give your whole heart to a woman is to doom yourself to disappointment and pain.  He claims that love for a woman fades easily between people and things, and that their hearts are incapable of being tied down to a single person or circumstance.

After reading this piece I found a song entitled “Never Give All the Heart” performed on the t.v. show SMASH.  Here I’ve attached a Youtube link as well as a link to the written lyrics of the song:

Never Give All the Heart- SMASH Performance

Never Give All the Heart Lyrics

What I find particularly interesting about the song is not just that it so idolizes Yeats’ work, but that it completely reverses the gender roles of the original piece.  Where Yeats warns men that women will only hurt them, the performer of the song, Katherine McPhee, sings that Yeats’ writing is so effective, and that it resonates with so many people, that it is the reason why she cannot find a man who will commit to her.  Ironically enough, where Yeats indirectly plays the victim of unrequited love, McPhee instead names him to be a keen observer, as well as a proponent of her inability to find someone willing to give her all of his heart.  So, essentially, the it is Yeats’ fault for being so capable of articulating the truth about love, this otherwise intangible emotion, and his understanding of how it works is the reason why people so fear it.  I thought this was a very unique modern take on his work, and it impresses me that his work can be so appreciated and discussed even in modern media.

Performance in Love and Poetry in “Never give all the Heart”

So I just read Yeats’ “Never give all the Heart” and thought it was an interesting play on the Shakespearean sonnet. In this poem Yeats addresses the performative aspect of attraction, and love. The speaker is wary of his object of attraction due to his assertion in the first few lines to “Never give all the heart, for love / Will hardly seem worth thinking of / To passionate women if it seem / Certain” (1-4). In other words, the speaker thinks that women don’t like guys who are too desperate. The speaker then reiterates, “O never give the heart outright, / For they… / Have given their hearts up to the play” (8-10), meaning that love is a performance and a game. Next he asks, “And who could play it well enough / If deaf and dumb and blind with love?”  Love and desire depend on a performance, but if you’re actually in love you can’t play the game well enough to attain your love. Though, the point I want to make is that this performance idea becomes interesting in the context of a Shakespearean sonnet, which in my opinion is the most performative poetic form due to its long history and staple in english poetry. The speaker recognizes that love needs to be “played well enough” to  attain the woman of his desire. Similarly, poetry must be “played well enough” to be good poetry, and, as with love, trying too hard comes off as desperate and no one’s attracted to that. The poem is written in sonnet form as an ironic example of poetry that tries too hard to play well enough and comes off as desperate and obvious. This also explains the rhyme scheme’s (AABBCCDDEEAAGG) divergence from the typical ABABCDCDEFEFGG, as a lame attempt to mix up the sonnet in order to play it well.

Subjective Nationalism and the Immaterial: In the Shadow of the Glen

As Irish playwrights attempted to revitalize a sense of Irish nationalism through their pastoral plays, readers come to understand that the “true” Ireland is immaterial, and exists either in an archaic rendering of the past or an ultimately politicized future.  As discussed in class, John Synge’s expression of nationalism is one of lament over a thing dead and gone- his nationalism seems to be one of mourning, echoed in the keening of a mother whose sons were taken by the sea. In the artistic momentum of the cultural revival, nationalism expressed both strength and weakness as an intangible and ultimately subjective sensation.

If we look at Nora within “The Shadow of the Glen,” we see the struggle of her nationalism as it searches for a place to settle and express itself.  Nora’s nationalism doesn’t exist in her domestic sphere, constructed by an economic system that ultimately commodifies her- nor does it exist in the idealized rendering of the land presented by the tramp. Though pastoral tradition was the poster child the nationalist movement, and more specifically an Irish cultural revival, Synge brings darker substance to the construction of  “reconnecting with the land”: as Nora leaves behind her husband and her domestic sphere, she understands that she is going resigning to freeze out in the Glen- or worse, perhaps end up as the pandering, toothless woman. For Nora, what could “giving herself to Ireland” really mean? To be contented in a a domestic sphere that limits and objectifies her? Or to die freezing out in the rolling green hills? For poets and political orators, the immaterial nature of nationalism is a strength, because it is constructed of promises or gestures toward tradition, never having to deliver in the realm of the now. For characters like Nora, there is no space she can adequately occupy that will express her love for Ireland.

Real nationalism, then, can only be expressed in terms of subjective sensation. Nora’s nationalism does not exist within the home or without, but in the moment of her choosing. The moment she chooses to return to the land, and pursue some sort of ancient authentic, she is experiencing the True Ireland. But this experience is entirely individual to her, and vanishes after the idealism of her choice has faded. And so there is no objective space in which nationalism exists- true Ireland lies neither ahead nor behind, but in the choices of an individual. It exists in that moment, and as such can be inspired, but not preserved.

Yeats and the Courtly Love Tradition Parallels the Use of Dreams

As mentioned in class Yeats’ poem “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” is abnormally formal and ironically the last poem he wrote before becoming aware of Maud Gonne’s relationship in France. The poems harkens a likeness to the courtly love tradition that requires an unattainable goal (Gonne) and the attempt to win said “prize” over with thoughtfully crafted rhetoric and often (empty) promises. This poem fits the bill perfectly, although it is interesting that the word “poor” in line 6 stands out so profoundly, as the courtly love tradition was often practiced by a noble class in which the woman was of affluence and the man, usually a knight or of a lower status. This forbidden aspect of love is what creates the possibility and excitement associated with the courtly love tradition and corresponds accordingly with the Yeats/Gonne relationship (or lack there of). It seems that Yeats already recognizes that he cannot gain Maud in reality and therefore can only attain her in his dreams, or through mysticism, the only gateway that Maud ever allowed their relationship to exist and so it would only be natural for Yeats to offer her his dreams, as they are more valuable to Yeats than any reality ever could be. This is crucial to maintaining Maud as a symbol, for in a dream she can continue to represent whatever Yeats wishes, it keeps her at a safe distance, which is the same end goal of the courtly love tradition.

Douglas Hyde and Tommy Tiernan

Some Context: Tommy Tiernan is one of Ireland’s most highly awarded standup comedians, winning international awards every 2 or 3 years since 1996. He’s still a huge mainstream act. I was amazed by the common ideas of his opening bit of his 2008 world tour, Something Mental, and Hyde’s 1892 essay, The Necessity of De-Anglicizing Ireland.

Hyde: “Its inroads have been silent, because, had the Gaelic race perceived what was being done, or had they been once warned of what was taking place in their own midst, they would, I think, never have allowed it. When the picture of complete Anglicisation is drawn for them in all its nakedness Irish sentimentality becomes suddenly a power and refuses to surrender its birthright…”

“If all this were done, it should not be very difficult, with the aid of the foremost foreign scholars, to bring about a tone of thought which would make it disgraceful for an educated Irishman especially of the old Celtic race, MacDermotts, O’Conors, O’Sullivans, MacCarthys, O’Neills — to be ignorant of his own language — would make it at least as disgraceful as for an educated Jew to be quite ignorant of Hebrew…”

Tiernan: If the link doesn’t work try: Tiernan and Hyde , start 2:30 end 4:15.

When I read Hyde’s I immediately thought of Tiernan. I am amazed by how closely these writers are related ideologically despite the 120 years that separate them. Tiernan’s free and spontaneous style puts off how deeply rooted his material is in hotly political long-standing conversations about Irish national identity.

Tiernan says “the Irish soul is a much more fluid thing than [the English language],” which he ultimately cites as the reason for his severe words. He says, with mighty leaps and wild gesticulating, as if to make up for the handicaps of English to communicate his energy, that only the most intense English curses can stimulate the human core in a way that Gaelic does, to make a profound spiritual connection with the audience that “rises up mightily into the stars.” And he premises this by saying he should be speaking Gaelic, even though he doesn’t know it at all. This idea of “should be speaking” as the best way of giving voice to “the Irish soul” echoes Hyde’s idea that Irish people, being of the Celtic race, have a relationship to Gaelic and should speak it even if they don’t understand a word of it, and should reject the English language as an encroachment upon the soul of their race. In his words, “in all its nakedness Irish sentimentality becomes suddenly a power that refuses to surrender its birthright…”  In his conversational, infinitely charming though obtrusively vulgar way, Tiernan echoes Hyde’s central idea: that there is an Irish essence, a “Celtic soul,” and that the Irish essence cannot be expressed or linguistically fulfilled by the English language.

When I saw dates like 1840 and 1790 on the papers we read on Irish national identity, I thought the current Irish cultural attitude toward these issues must be different from back then, and that we are only reading such papers for their relevance to Yeats and his own political context. The implications of this idea, the “language that should be spoken,” are of course completely different for the literary scholar of 1892 and the comedian of 2008, where one cites it as grounds for large-scale political reform and the other uses it as a premise to a standup show. However, what strikes me is how prolific this idea of an Irish “connection” to Gaelic is, and how it still sells, even as the opening segment of a world comedy tour, as it did as a springboard for political reform.

The two Irelands of “The Lover tells of the Rose in his Heart”

Within Yeats poem “The Lover tells of the Rose in his Heart” , the speaker presents two distinct visions of Ireland in images meant to evoke a modern, Anglicized nation in contrast to and lacking the essence of the true Ireland found in the natural, eternal world. The modern nation is presented in specific, short images of                                                     “The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering                                                                   cart,                                                                                                                                                                                          The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry                                                                    mould”(2-4).                                                                                                                                                                       These images present disjointed elements of the natural world, a child and the winter ground, reacting violently with a cry and splash in response to modern presences such as a roadway or the steps of a laboring ploughman. The structural form of the poem creates division and isolation within these images to parallel the fragmenting power of modern, regimented existence. This is in contrast to the easy flow of the speakers description of the true, essential Ireland  expressed when he states                                                                                          “I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,                                                            With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made, like a                                                                   casket of gold”(10-13).  The speaker hungers, a base instinct of desire that ascribes to Irish sentimentalism, to construct the physical formation of a green knoll out of the “the wrong of unshapely things”(8) or the immaterial constructions that taint the image of Ireland in attempts to assimilate its essence to an English pragmatism. The images here present an interconnected union between nature and the speaker. The structure of this section also fragments segments of verse yet the emphasis of the natural Irish essence, “a casket of gold” is more rewarding than the  “cart” or “mould” of modern Ireland. Please comment if you see any other structural devices or images that support or challenge my interpretation!

Astrology and Yeats’ Notion of Irish Identity

The influence of the sun and moon are apparent the physician's investigation of the cosmological influence of the sun and moon on the human body and soul.
An Illustration from Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi. The influence of the sun and moon are apparent in the physician’s investigation of the cosmological influence on the human body and soul.

“If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single line…The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”

–Yeats writing to his friend, Thomas Moore, in 1925

Abundant images of the Sun and Moon in his poetry reflect Yeats’ role as a mystic and astrologer, while pointing to a more complex interpretation of the role Celtic Astrology plays in Yeats’ juxtaposition of cosmological meaning and Irish nationalism. In his poem “The Man who dreamed of Faeryland”, Yeats conjures a whimsical portrayal of the Irish essence, suggesting that there is an intrinsic Celtic nature in the modern Irish man by underlining it with descriptions of “a gay, exulting, gentle race / under the golden or the silver skies” (20-21).  In line 23 of the same poem as well as in the last two lines of “The Song of Wandering Aengus” the sun and moon indicate Yeats desire to draw from their astrological significance and underpin his belief that human beings are born with an essence that is proven in the stars. Searching for this ancient, true, Ireland, Yeats’ speaker in “The Song of Wandering Aengus” vows to “walk among long dappled grass, / And pluck till time and times are done / The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun” (21-24). The sun and the moon act dually as icons of nature in a spiritual sense and a scientific sense, for they hold a mystical power that is “an unexplained rule of thumb that somehow explained the world” (Mann 4) and can be mapped out through means of studying astrology. Reminiscent of the zodiac, which, as we know, is based on a combination of the moon phases and the Sun’s movement throughout the year, Yeats incorporates astrological symbolism in his illustration of Irish identity in order to suggest that there is a parallel between the distinct Celtic element that encompasses the Irish race and the 12 signs delineating humanity into essential characteristics. Yeats presents this conviction that the universe is “symbolical of the personal spiritual life” (Mann) in “He wishes his Beloved were Dead” where the lines “But know your hair was bound and wound / About the stars and moon and sun” illuminate the notion that Ireland’s identity is a fundamental constitution of the mind and soul that is traceable through ancient sources.

Mann, Neil. “Astrology.” W. B. Yeats and “A Vision”:. Clemson University Digital Press, 2012. Web. 04 Feb. 2014.

Mann, Neil, Gibson, Matthew, and Nally, Claire V. “W.B. Yeats’s A Vision Explications and Contexts”. Clemson University Digital Press. 2012. Web. 04 Feb 2014.

“The Song of Wandering Aengus” as a Critique of Cultural Nationalism

As discussed today in class, the basic interpretation of “The Song of Wandering Aengus” is straightforward. The narrator, Aengus, represents nationalists seeking to return to an idealized Ireland, as symbolized by the “glimmering girl,” (13). Like traditional Ireland, the girl may or may not exist and, because of this, the narrator will never reach her. However, the embedded mythology complicates this simple cultural nationalist reading. The poem immediately alludes to Celtic folklore when the narrator declares he “went out to the hazel wood” (1) as the hazel tree traditionally represents wisdom. In Irish myth, the concentration of the wisdom and knowledge was believed to reside in the hazelnut. The wisdom could be transferred into a salmon if it ate the hazelnut and a human could then imbibe the wisdom by cooking and eating the salmon. Yeats’ poem alludes to hazel trees, not only by setting the poem in the hazel wood, but also when Aengus fishes with a “hazel wand” (3) and uses what is presumably a hazel berry as bait. Despite these similarities to Celtic myth, Aengus uses a berry, not a hazelnut, when fishing, and ultimately catches “a little silver trout” (8), not a salmon. The poem suggests that Aengus is attempting to emulate the myth, yet his misinformation in regards to Irish tradition prevents him from doing so. In fact, instead of manifesting itself as wisdom, the trout becomes a beautiful girl, or an object of desire. In this way, the discrepancies from the myth result in a sort of antithesis of wisdom in that Aengus becomes consumed with the unknown rather than becoming more knowledgeable. Just as Aengus becomes consumed with the mystical and desirable “glimmering girl,” cultural nationalists became enamored with a romanticized version of traditional Ireland. Aengus’ misinformation concerning Celtic mythology becomes his undoing, just as an image of traditional Ireland, romanticized beyond reality, becomes a symbol that cannot be reached.

Conflicting Ideals of Feminism in Cathleen Ni Houlihan

An interesting and notable fact about this play is the fact that it was clearly written by two different people; the first half by Lady Augusta Gregory, and the second by W.B. Yeats. Even without knowing this, there is a clear contrast in the ideals of the two halves of the play, in the distinction between the two obvious. While the play in its entirety is political, there appears to be two different political statements within.

Lady Augusta Gregory is very well known for her feminist ideals. She strongly believed that the best way to empower women was by giving them a voice within the home. Gregory, although coming from an upper middle-class background, was familiar with the life-style of the peasants and therefore had a good understanding of how to approach feminism in a way that would be realistic to their way of life. This ideal is seen in the beginning of Cathleen Ni Houlihan when Bridget, the mother and wife of the household, is clearly in charge of what goes on within the household with the manner in which she speaks to her sons, as well as her husband. Gregory gives Bridget an authority that wasn’t necessarily common for women by having her talk back to her husband and by keeping the men in their respective places.

Yeats’ contribution to the play is in stark contrast to Gregory’s. As opposed to having a play about feminism in the peasant household, Yeats’ turned the main point to Irish nationalism. Although he did not take away the feminist ideals altogether, he gave women an empty symbol to identify with instead of an empowered woman. While Cathleen Ni Houlihan, played by feminist Maud Gonne, did, in a sense, represent female empowerment because she was able to, through her stories and her song, convince Michael, the eldest son about to be married, to leave his ordinary life and fight for Ireland. In this way, however, Yeats turned women from powerful voices in the home, to a mere symbol for men to fight.