Review of Richard Ellmann, The Man and the Masks and Donald Stauffer, The Golden Nightingale.

["Yeats's Mind." Review article on Richard Ellmann, The Man and the Masks and Donald Stauffer, The Golden Nightingale. Yale Review 39.1 (Sept 1949): 165-7.]


There was always hope that Yeats’s amiable indiscretion in keeping careful personal records and preserving drafts of poems would redress the shimmering evasiveness of his published autobiographies.  Mr. Ellmann has gained access to some 50,000 pages of unpublished Yeats manuscripts – surely one of the most exciting “releases” of this century.  All students of Yeats will be grateful for the selection of self-revealing documents woven into this inner portrait.  By placing slight emphasis upon the poet’s public life, Mr. Ellmann concentrates upon the intimate shaping forces of family, education, friendships, and love.  He traces the problem of interpreting Yeats’s poetry to a fundamental conflict between emotions and ideas, and analyzes the conflict around a thread of narrative.  He distinguishes two preliminary attempts at synthesis, and finds “Easter 1916” to have been the turning point from which the resolution of final maturity grew.  The myth upon which this resolution rested is described in some detail.

There can be no question that Mr. Ellmann has clarified a number of cruxes in Yeats biography and that he has published materials invaluable for the study of Yeats.  But in spite of his announced intention of representing “as fully as possible the development of Yeats’s mind,” preliminary drafts of poems have been little used, and the account of the earlier poetry leads one to wonder how Yeats won the Nobel Prize when he did.  In fact, this study scarcely approaches that “abyss of himself” which Yeats explored with unflinching courage.

In “The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination” Professor Lowes revealed the alchemy of a creative mind working at its highest pitch to produce two poems.  An equally sensitive account of Yeats’s long struggle out of the Celtic Twilight towards “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea” of his greatest metaphysical poetry would perhaps show what integration is essential to full imaginative activity, and how far poetic creation plays a part in that integration.  Although Mr. Ellmann seems to have these questions on the fringe of his attention, he never specifically raises them.  Indeed, the rigidity of his psychological presuppositions prevents him from adopting an attitude delicate enough to discover the arcane workings of a poet’s mind.  “We have ceased to regard our poets as creatures apart,” Mr. Ellmann explains; and addresses himself to his task as though there were no mysteries left in all the world.  The uneasy equivocation of his chapter of “Conclusions” shows that the difficulty is not merely terminological, or even literary, but fundamental and metaphysical.

Yeats, we are invited to consider, was not simply a poet but also a “myth-maker” and a “symbolist.”  At no point does the author inquire directly into these terms.  All questions about reality and our relation to it, he seems tacitly to have assumed, are settled (by science? by “common sense”?): everything else is “supernatural,” fantasy, dream, and undoubtedly rather reprehensible.  Consequently, there is a note of condescension in the accounts of Yeats’s occult activities.  Now whatever our detached view of occultism may be, we are still obliged to ask why Yeats set so much store by it.  To say that he sought petards to hoist “the materialists,” or proofs to convince the incredulous, or even nostrums to heal his own life, is not enough.  For the way of occultism runs though Yeats’s whole poetic life, and culminates in the personal synthesis of “A Vision,” from the firm ground of which he wrote his finest poems. 

But how can a mythology be firm ground?  Can it be that poetry is in the literal sense metaphysical: that poetry can create, not merely a dreamworld or even a world, but the world?  Can it be that the experiential reality of poetry may be more real than the “reality” constructed out of demonstrable “facts”?  The Yeats materials in this study force such questions upon us; and when Yeats, late in life, describes himself as “ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come/Into the desolation of reality,” we are tempted to believe that he can give us luminous suggestions for answers.

If we understood precisely what metaphors, symbols, and myths are in the dynamic context of poetry it would matter little enough how a biography of Yeats was written.  But the tragedy suffered out in Yeats’s poetic life, and repeated in the work of Joyce, Pound, and Eliot, is the crisis of self-consciousness, of occluded awareness, of dissociated sensibility – a crisis which threatens the existence not only of poetry but of civilization.  Probably one of the sharpest lessons Yeats has to teach us is to be seen in the way he managed not to capitulate to any of the specious formulae with which he so perilously toyed.

Even if Mr. Ellmann has failed to pursue his study to its deepest springs, his book should be read for the light these new Yeats materials throw upon some momentous issues.

Professor Stauffer’s “The Golden Nightingale.  Essays on some Principles of Poetry in the Lyrics of William Butler Yeats” is very different in scope and purpose; and although it does not overlap Mr. Ellmann’s work, provides an admirable critical introduction to it.  Professor Stauffer examines in the light of Yeats’s published work four general problems: the nature of poetic belief, the embodiment of beliefs in a poem, the range of the lyric, and “the good of poetry.”  The three central essays, where the argument is entirely shaped by the coherence of Yeats’s theory and practice, form one of the best accounts of the poetic symbol so far published.  But in the first essay, and to a lesser extent in the fourth, there is a tendency to synonymize terms which in critical theory require more and more clearly to be distinguished – belief and make-believe, feeling and emotion, truth and reality.  Fortunately Professor Stauffer manages to hold the metaphysical issues in suspension by asserting the principle of “Negative Capability,” and a serious threat to the best part of his book is averted.  These essays supply a valuable and stimulating introduction to Yeats’s poetry; and by their insistence upon the complexity of poetic experience and expression should help to direct criticism away from theories too exclusive and "scientific."