A Sudden Flaming Word
Critical Essay by Dianna Henning on William B. Yeats, published in Psychological Perspectives, a Journal of Jungian Thought, 25th Anniversary Reflections, Issue Thirty One-1995
“The wandering earth herself may be only a sudden flaming word.” From: “The Song of the Happy Sheppard,” William ButlerYeats
In his introduction to Yeats, Rosenthal says: “Byzantium became for Yeats the purest embodiment of the union and subsequent transfiguration through art of the fleshly condition and the ideal of holiness.” Work like “Sailing to Byzantium” achieves its symbolic scope, first by the writer’s quest for earthly knowledge, then by his quest for significant renderings of the soul. In the city of Byzantium, once the center of European civilization, Yeats searches for his much sought after Unity of Being. He knows that without it: “An aged man is but a paltry thing, /A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/Soul clap its hands and sing.”
In an unpublished lecture on “Modern Ireland,”Yeats wrote: “And style, whether of life or literature, comes, I think, from excess, from something over and above utility which wrings the heart.”Yeats’s proclivity for excess came from his obsessive concern with time, with how quickly it catapults one into old age. In “The Old Men Admiring Themselves In the Water” he says: “I heard the old, old men say,/Everything alters,/And one by one we drop away./They had hands like claws, and their knees/Were twisted like the old thorn-trees/By the waters./I heard the old, old men say,/All that’s beautiful drifts away/Like the waters.” In “Lamentation of the Old Pensioner” he reveals a similar concern: “My contemplations are of Time/That has transfigured me…/I spit into the face of Time/That has transfigured me.” Here he has capitalized time, thereby giving it significance. This keen sense of time’s passage leads the poet into excess—the splurge of the moment a temporary stay against the fleeting qualities of mortal life.
“When composing a poem in a manuscript book, Yeats often established a center, so to speak, and then worked out in both directions,” wrote Bradford. This method defies the logical mode of understanding how literature is put together, but logic is sometimes a poor measure of the artistic process. What is important to note in the previous quote is that Yeats established a center which perhaps arose from his desire for unity within himself. The center is that point around which everything else revolves. It is a place of concentrated activity, the porthole of focus. Out of need for a central point in his own life, Yeats worked from the center outward, aware that the circumference of possibility was larger by doing so—from there all directions become options.
Yeats knew that poetry demands that one delve into the most vividly portrayed moment, to feel intensely, and employ discipline as though it were the governing hand. In his 1909 diary Yeats reveals how he gained entry into such moments: “Every note must come as a casual thought, then it will be my life.” Keeping that in mind, the work, as musical notation, played through him. His seventh entry in the same diary reads: “It seemed to me that true love is a discipline and it needs so much wisdom that the love of Solomon and Shebamust have lasted, for all the silence of the Scriptures. Each divines the secret self in the other, and refusing to believe in the mere daily self, creates a mirror where the lover and the beloved see an image to copy in life.” Yeats, once touched by the powerful image reflected in his mirror, was infused with vision which enabled words to spring from his flaming heart. The poet, in a sense, becomes that which he studies.
Northrop Frye says in Fables Of Identity: “In the highest phases love is a spiritual education and a discipline of the soul, which leads the lover upward from the sensible to the eternal world.” Allen Tate says in his essay: “The lesser poets invite the pride of the critic to its own affirmation: the greater poets—and Yeats is among them—ask us to understand not only their minds but our own.” To address others from the “….foul rag-and-bone shop“ of the heart is a powerful example of devotion which results from a life lived with emotional intensity. “Every emotion begins to be related to every other as musical notes are related. It is as though we touched a musical string that set other strings vibrating,” Yeats wrote in his Vision.Clearly, emotions are the music the body plays—art, the furthering of that music.
“More than most poets, he continually worked his association with particular men and women and his personal problems and predicaments directly into his poetry,” writes M.L. Rosenthal in his introduction to his book on Yeats. Such daring holds the capacity to then stir others, whereas disembodied poetry obscures what it means to be human. What is truly admirable in Yeats is that he shared his journey, daring to reveal the early juvenilia poems, his diaries, letters and early work-sheets. We have a documentary of the soul’s progress. It takes strength of character to leave behind the worksheets, the embarrassment of one’s struggles. This requires trust that what one reveals will not be used against one. Such trust acts as a psychic opening, revealing more and more to the poet. Bradfordsays in Yeats At Work: “Part of the greatness of Yeats’s later poetry comes from his paring away of everything that can be pared away, revealing by that paring the stark, inevitable outline.”
Yeats rewrote much of his poetry throughout his life and was satisfied with only a few poems at the end of his life. In his introduction to the collected essays, John Unterecker says: “Yeats’s idea of craft was a very old-fashioned one of technique that in final draft conceals itself in the appearance of effortless, casual speech.” Enduring art takes the temperature of life with such accuracy that the artifice of craft never comes between the page and the reader. Then one no longer knows whether poem or life itself speaks, both fused into a seamless work.
His recorded journey as a poet inspires others to engage in their own acts of courage, transcendence and occasional ecstasy. Writing that corresponds to the reader’s experience becomes another rung in the ladder of transcendence. For Yeats the poet was an amalgamation of everything, a strange hodgepodge of conflicting paradoxes which made for the arguments he experienced with himself, a contradictory nature spurning him on. And it is also from this conflict that he sought harmony. In “Vacillation” he says: “Between extremities/Man runs his course.” Instead of tight-rope walker, the poet could more accurately be called paradox balancer. To maintain equilibrium in the midst of duality over a long period of time is no simple feat. Words, given an opportunity under the skill of a good writer, gain a sacred and magical quality, for the magical is only the sacred as yet unrecognized. The artist not only converses with angels, but also frequents the disruptions of the underworld. Devotion surely drives the poet on. In Latin devo means: to vow, to pledge, to give one’s life to a particular end. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer. /Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” What held the center for Yeats was writing poems which interestingly enough sometimes began in the middle.
In “A Dialogue Of Self and Soul” there is a clue to what kept Yeats balanced:
What matter if the ditches are impure?
What matter if I live it all once more?
I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch . . .
I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
. . . .We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.”
He was well read in many sacred texts as well as in philosophical texts. His notes at the back of his collected work might very well say more about Yeats than he himself consciously knew: “Has not Plotinus written: ‘Let every soul recall, then, at the outset the truth that the soul is the author of all living things . . . . itself formed and ordered the vast heaven and conducts all that rhythmic motion.”
Soul lives in a house of heart and Yeats furnished his rooms with steadfastness and a great adoring love. If sound is a magical equivalent that sets off heavenly movement, then surely Yeats was a master of such evocation. Just as the sun conducts the rhythmic motion of the universe, so too does good singing. The soul is not a mere chapter, nor even a single book, but is entire volumes bound by heaven’s breadth, instructing all towards higher realms of being. If the earth herself is a sudden flaming word, how great must be the song within the vast universe as it pulsates with carefully wrought gifts from those who said, I will send myself a very long way into all I love. The flame that glows within is what finally becomes the great illumination of the pen.
Yeats At Work by Curtis B. Bradford
Fables of Identity, Studies In Poetic Mythology by Northrop Frye
A Vision by W.B. Yeats
Yeats, A Collection of Critical Essays, Edited by John Unterecker
The Collected Poems by W.B. Yeats
The Autobiography Of William Butler Yeats
Selected Poems and Two Plays of William Butler Yeats
Edited and Introduced by M.L. Rosenthal