W.B. Yeats’s Convincing Conflicts: a Quick Note on the Selection of the Translated Poems
W.B. Yeats was a poet whose writings were generated by conflict: they often focused on the relations between the living and the dead, between material and spiritual life, between imagined and real life.
In early poems like “The Song of Wandering Aengus”, “Fergus and the Druid” or “The Rose of the World” these relations are represented through the motif of metamorphosis, where past, present and future lives mix and mingle; in later work, like “Leda and the Swan”, this interaction of times is strongly eroticized.
Interactions between life and death get more edge in the early “The Ballad of Moll Magee” where a poor woman kills her child out of despair and is driven out by her husband; unlike Aengus, her wandering is not driven by desire but by deepest sorrow. All people in Yeats’s poetry are driven, especially the heroes of “Easter 1916”: while they were ignited by “excess of love”, the poet says it is “our part”, our task, to keep that love alive.
Yeats also believed that the excess of emotional energy a person had at death would linger and live itself out in the person’s afterlife, and so he seemed bent on generating as much energy as possible from his own life. Maud Gonne was the perfect catalyst here: since Yeats had met her, he was a “poète maudit” and far gone. Not getting her drove him on Aengus’ path of desire of desire. This state of stretched desire may have sharpened the poet’s sense of a spiritual reality that was palpable. We find this in “The Withering of the Boughs”, where dreams seem to have more impact on the boughs than the wintry wind. In “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” both “the heavens' embroidered cloths” and “my dreams” seem on a par; the beloved has to “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
While Yeats may have touched on a sentimental note in that poem, “The Cold Heaven” moves him to a different register: it may be Gonne’s distance which drove Yeats to a lexicon of nakedness, coldness and exposure to lasting things, as we find later in his essays: “all that is personal soon rots; it must be packed in ice or salt. … Ancient salt is best packing. … The heroes of Shakespeare convey to us…the sudden enlargement of their vision, their ecstasy at the approach of death.” (“A General Introduction for My Work”, Essays and Introductions 522-3)
When Nietzsche urged his readers to use all available contradictions of life to heighten the drama of existence this touched a deep chord in Yeats. He had actually been practising this inner drama all along, like when he used “the pavements grey” of London to intensify the nature scenes of his childhood into the summery Sligo scenes, summoned in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”. Later, in “The Tower”, Yeats uses his indignation about the old battered kettle at the heel to fuel his imagination and make his song wilder than that of the young. This idea is further exfoliated in “Sailing to Byzantium”, itself a development of “A Coat”.
Old age is played off against youth, war against peace. Indeed, in times of peace his speakers are wild, desiring what they do not have, as in “The Wheel” ,“What Then” and “An Acre of Grass”. When war is looming and violence abounds the tone is more philosophical, as in “Byzantium”, “Meditations in Time of Civil War” and “Lapis Lazuli”. Likewise, honesty is pitched against authority in “Crazy Jane talks with the Bishop” where the overbearing and yet strongly sexualized speech of the Bishop is successfully mocked by the Hag of Beare- like Jane.
In the light of such self-dramatizing poetics it is no wonder that the Dialogue poem is one of Yeats’s favourites. “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” summarizes the poet’s whole programme of the reliving of one’s life:
I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch,
A blind man battering blind men;
Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.
At every stage of his life Yeats sought a new pitch and each time it demanded a change of style. In his last period the poet wrote quite a few poems about his poetics, one of which states that a poet should never let himself be inspired by politics, he should only “Seek those images/ That constitute the wild” (“Those Images”). In “High Talk” he is more precise: he has to keep away from (pre)modernist rhetorics and from any kind sensationalism that might go with it. Instead, he must go beyond the fashion of his own age to touch upon the deathly cold where “barnacle goose” fly and “great sea-horses” swim: only there will he find a new language to forge a new unconscious for his world in some “terrible novelty of light”.
Indeed throughout his long writing career Yeats has picked up, tried and dropped masks, coats, stilts; he has dived deep down into the self to find the monsters in his darker self which gave him this authentic voice. Time and again, in his Autobiographies, Mythologies, Essays and Introductions, he pleads for honesty as the only way to find a way forward in the complexities of our human existence. If his art is honest it will give him the discipline to coral all his selves into a poem which will be vibrant with connotations.
Many of the translators said it was the layeredness of Yeats’s texts which had most appealed to them. A translator of Yeats must get his b(e)arings, and each of them tried to render the complexity of his rhythms, references and connotations. It seems as if the brave and never-ending interaction between the poet’s conflicting selves and souls is still reverberating in his texts. These will now find further echoes throughout the whole of Europe, thanks to the translators’ magnificent work.
A big thank you to all participants!