On Helen Vendler’s Thoughtful Yeats

In Helen Vendler’s Poets Thinking (Harvard UP, 2006) let’s briefly examine the chapter entitled “W.B. Yeats Thinking: Thinking in Images, Thinking in Assertions.”  Therein Vendler addresses two great poems: “Among School Children” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” (For an annotated print version of “Among School Children,” click here; for Vendler’s online video lecture, click here).

A good critic allows a reader the freedom of creative engagement–she guides us into points of entry and shows us pathways so that we are able to mill around textual corridors on our own, thinking about words, images, and rhythms, to ascertain a unique angle of vision.  I will comment on Vendler’s treatment of Yeats’s “Among School Children” to amplify certain aspects of our understanding of the poem.  Her basic idea is that Yeats was a significant “thinking” poet.  This is actually an important claim.  Although Yeats is often considered to be a “poet’s poet,” such that he had remarkable instincts for the poetic line, he is rarely considered a “thinking poet” in the same way that, say, T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens is considered to be philosophical, thinking poets.  If anything, we could characterize Yeats as a follower rather than an original thinker.  He followed Irish mythology and legends rather closely, often integrating mythic themes and symbols into his poetry, and he was very much a devotee of occult and paranormal activities.  As we know, he was an active member of the Golden Dawn, attended theosophy meetings, and performed various psychical research.  In fact, he firmly believed in a mystico-magical connection between words, images, and symbols.  In this way, our standard understanding of Yeats’s thinking  involves  unorthodox philosophy.

Vendler cannot be blamed for wanting to avoid the metaphysical details of Yeats’s biography.  Her main claim is that we can best recognize the poet’s thought in his composition process and formal choices: stanza selection, rhyme and sound schemes, and imagery.  For Vendler, the conceptual emerges from and is secondary to the formal aspects of the poem– the conceptual is intelligible only to the extent that the formal aspects of the poem contribute to its meaning.   In a way, like the chicken and the egg we have reason to inquire which came first: formal techniques–the crafting of the poem through various drafts–or the conceptual framework.  This is not an insignificant inquiry since we know something about Yeats’s composing process, for example that he considered internal and end-rhyme words prior to drafting lines of poetry.  For Yeats, as it seems, rhymes and sound patterns came first.  This notion seems rather unremarkable, obvious, and unchallengeable, especially as we examine versions of his poems in the Cornell manuscripts or study Jon Stallworthy’s scholarly Between the Lines.

Moreover, if we turn to Yeats’s biography for details to support our hunches about his composing process, we soon discover the poet in arduous labor.  While composing poetry, Yeats often paced back and forth, chanting his lines aloud.  While staying in Stone Cottage, as James Longenbach tells us, the young Ezra Pound recalls the elder poet loudly repeating over and again words that became poems–the “Peacock’s eye.”   Yeats aggravated over the precision of words; it was a difficult labor for him to make sounds represent images.  He has the best ear of any poet in the English language.  To Vendler’s credit, she demonstrates the scope of Yeats’s skill as a master poet with prodigious formal abilities.  Rightly, Vendler demonstrates that Yeats’s formal choices help convey his conceptual meaning.  But for Yeats there’s simply more to it than that.  As I argue, the conceptual scheme came first–the ideas and imagery–these were the “fire in his head.”  For him, the struggle involves putting ideas and images into harmonious rhythms that could be sung like the lyrical ballads of ancient times.

The problem with Vendler’s reading is not that it is wrong or misguided, but it hovers too much on the surface of the poetry.  If anything, Yeats invites the reader to dig deeper–to take a swan dive into the swell of images that language conveys.  And surely, Vendler pays attention to imagery, but her reading doesn’t quite reveal the direction of the swan dive we should take in Yeats’s language.   In other words, at the expense of a deeper reading Vendler’s exposition echoes the limitations of the hallowed lecture hall. Rather, we need to explore how Yeats blended auditory dynamics and visual imagery for conceptual ends, merging the two for philosophical or quasi-mystical affects.

Yeats was a thinker inasmuch as he wanted to express an unique metaphysical vision.  He believed that the sound of poetry could reveal in ways that discursive philosophical procedures could not a dream world beyond the categories of fiction, the search for truth, and ever as real as the light tread of Odysseus’ foot on the shores of blind Homer’s far-reaching mind.  As a thinker, Yeats created worlds beyond the lived expanse of our lives.  Through the conceptual categories of his imagination he instituted a version of Kant’s Copernican Revolution: the mind makes the world and the world is limited only by the sublime reach of the imagination.  For him, the Ledean dream exposes the weaknesses of modernity to thwart human potential–the divine spark within a poet’s breast.

Can everyone be a poet?  Sure, why not.  Can everyone be the kind of poet that Yeats or Shakespeare was?  No, and the job of the critic is to show us how and why.

In my next blog post, I shall advance the details of my own argument.

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