The Thinking Yeats

Helen Vendler makes the following argument:

“Yeats’s images usually appear to him in the form of Blakean antinomies or opposites.  They structure Yeats’s work in Heraclitean fashion, as they die each other’s life, live each other’s death.  But the nature of such antinomies is intensely queried in the later work….’Among School Children’ is Yeats’s most harrowing investigation by means of images, of the worth of his antinomies as a mental principle of order….Yeats, as I see it, arranges his images in several antithetical diptychs, and then layers those different diptychs one upon another until they form a single dense palimpsest.”  The sequential structure of the poem, as Vendler says, “becomes harmomic” and it “is the best evidence of the poet’s thinking in images as he composes” (Poets Thinking, p. 93 & 102).

Do we find the above statement particularly insightful or informative on Yeats’s  composing process?  Vendler’s statement seems perfectly apt, but how does it provide the reader with a better understanding of Yeats “thinking in images”?  Again, my point is not that Vendler is wrong.  The problem is that her statement doesn’t dig deep enough in grappling with the poem.  My point is: if we temporarily ignore the “Blakean antinomies or opposites” formulation in the above statement, then we could adequately find antinomies, contraries, binaries, or “differential” images (aka Perloff) in just about any poem, Yeats’s included.  In this way, almost any poem can be described as a palimpsest.  Despite her ambivalence to biographical details, her statement presupposes them.  For instance, we need to know that Yeats was particularly fascinated with Blake’s antinomies.  But Yeats’s interests ranged beyond Blake.  Thus,we also need to know that independently of reading Blake, Yeats studied philosophers who advanced views on antinomies, logical contradictions, paradoxes, and dialectical thinking.  He began with the ancient Greeks–Heraclitus, Empedocles, Zeno, and Plato–and he discovered similar discussions in Plotinus, Aquinas, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel, and Croce.

Yeats thought in antithetical images because he believed that the world and our perception of it is dualistic.  Vendler hints at this without going into detail.  Fundamentally, Yeats adopted a Kantian picture of the mind: categories of understanding structure intuitions or impressions of the world.  The mind is not passive like a camera lens receiving impressions, rather it actively orders percepts with mental categories of space and time.  Whatever we think of Kant’s picture of the mind, which happens to generally correspond with current scientific research, an issue remains on whether we can comprehensively know that objects in the world exist.  Can we know objects as things-in-themselves?  Kant posited that the scope of human knowledge is limited; at least on one interpretation he posited a ‘two-world’ view of reality.  Thereby, he employs specialized terms such a ‘noumena’ and ‘phenomena.’  We can apprehend phenomena in experience, but noumena is merely intelligible.  Kant also posited several irreconcilable metaphysical antinomies on space, time, immortality, God, and free will.  These abstract concepts greatly interested Yeats, and “Among School Children” is his own Kantian laboratory, for there he rehearses his ideas on the scope of Kant’s antinomies.

The best way to proceed is not necessarily by pointing out the structure of ‘Blakean antinomies’ in the poem.  But since Vendler takes up the procedure, we can adopt it for a trial run.  Briefly, let’s look at the first stanza:

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

Here the speaker in the poem is the poet himself.  With Yeats, this is not always the case, but we know it is here because as an Irish Senator he was tasked with surveying schools to evaluate education and curriculum policies.  This poem is based on actual events in Yeats’s life.  The word ‘questioning’ in the first line creates a kind of suspended tension: What did the public man question?  What role did his questions play?  How were they taken?  Did he enact a formal inquisition?  Were his questions rather pedestrian and perfunctory?  Yes, they were.  We know this because the language in the stanza is rather dull and ordinary.  However, the questions that truly mattered to him were ones that rebounded in his soul–memories of the past.  Many binaries are present in the stanza, but the most obvious is the collision of images between past and present, age and youth, love and loss.  The old nun is juxtaposed with children learning; academic study is juxtaposed with practical vocational study; modern methods are contrasted with old school methods.  But we perk up when we read the end rhyme “eyes” as Yeats attempts an imperfect or slant rhyme with “replies” and “histories.”  Indeed, the children’s eyes are upon him; they stare at him in “momentary wonder.”  Who is this man?  Why is he here?  Are we in trouble?  What’s he to do with us?  Tension.

In the meantime, Yeats the poet feels a tad irrelevant, smiling fraudulently while fulfilling his duties.  Perhaps we can imagine his thoughts by means of the images in the stanza.  The children are indeed young and they do not yet understand so many things.  But how does the older generation convey such things to young ones who have little concern for the wisdom of aged experience?  What can a poet say that would expand the knowledge an old nun provides in the modern classroom?  What knowledge would the children accept from an old poet?  Or would it be preferable to follow the old nun’s teaching methods?  The primary question is generational: What knowledge can a sixty-year-old public man impart to children?  What could they possibly understand?  What is the relevance of poetry in the modern world?  Tensions, antinomies, irreconcilable questions.  Here, Yeats is a Nietzschean existentialist.  He describes an ordinary scene in ordinary language, but a congress of emotional torments reside just beneath the surface.   Indeed, the visage of the smiling public man could very well be the public face he prepares in the mirror to meet the faces he encounters.  We think of Gregor Samsa, Bartleby, Sisyphus, or Prufrock.  A smiling public man is an absurd man.  We have watched him come and go, asking questions, smiling away.

The children stare in wonder at a smiling public man without knowledge of his life experiences, the whips and scorns of his toils, which could only be conveyed in poetry or other sorts of imaginative literature.  The primary opposition in the stanza is implicitly between what the children see in wonder–their vision–and what Yeats envisions.  He sees the children, but his mind is in reverie, contemplating a Ledean dream.  Would the children ever have that knowledge?  What will be their dream?  Are dreams more true than reality?  Yeats brilliantly states the ordinary to allow us to read between the lines to meditate upon our own questions and our own dreams.

Vendler may be right about triptychs in the poem, but “Among School Children” also serves as a triptych between poems in the collection.  It is hinged between “Leda and the Swan,” “On a Picture of a Black Centaur by Edmund Dulac,” and “Colonus’ Praise.”  The first poem in the series ends with the question: “Did she [Leda] put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?”  Certainly, this imagery is crucial in our understanding the Leadean dream in “ASC.”  The poet doesn’t make a claim to having knowledge, but rather he conveys an image of power: Zeus incarnated as a swan meagerly holding Leda.  The poet has power to convey in words imagery of overwhelming value and to ask questions of overwhelming importance.

The poet can also imagine the sounds of hooves stamping “at the black margin of the wood,” whereby only he dreams in a “long Saturnian sleep.”  “Black Centaur” also ends with an implied question: Who is “fit to keep a watch and keep / Unwearied eyes upon those horrible green birds”?  The birds are both real (Maud Gonne’s caged birds) and imagined (as in the “white birds on the sea”).

“Colonus’ Praise” also meditates upon a Sophoclean dream world, the “wine-dark of the wood’s intricacies / The nightingale that deafens daylight there.”  We imagine the “Immortal ladies” who tread the ground and “Dizzy with harmonious sound, / Semele’s lad a gay companion.”  In contrast to “ASC’s” staring wonder of children is “The great grey-eyed Athena”staring at the old marvels of “the self-sown, self-begotten” shapes that gives “Athenian intellect its mastery.”  The modern world with its “grey truth” stands opposed to folkloric pagan values.  The genuine image that Yeats wants us to wonder at, too, is not specifically in these poems but created in our minds as we read them: the image of a decadent modern civilization that can only be saved by grey-eyed poets who have wondrous dream visions of inestimable cultural knowledge.

How can we know the dancer from the dance?  Indeed, how do we know the poet from the poetry?  The thinker from the thought?  The dreamer from the dream?  Although Yeats fervently believed in Unity of Being–as Vendler says, structural “harmony”–the fact that he posed a question at the end of the poem reveals an irreconcilable tension of colliding opposites.  Against Coleridge’s organicism, Yeats believed harmonious unity of Being, the reconciliation of opposites, to be little more than a mortal dream.

The critic shows us that such dreams have no bounds, no end, and “words alone are certain good,” for if anything remains as eyes dim and weary hearts fade away, the poet’s harmonic resonance originates with intellectual discord.


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