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Certain Good

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.50. Poems, 1924-1933. By Archibald MacLeish. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.00. Now with His Love. By John Peale Bishop. New York: Charles Scribncr’s Sons. $2.50. The Poetry Series, Pamphlets 1-8: A Wreath for Margery, by Horace Gregory; A Sheaf, by Raymond Ellsworth Larsson; Houdini, by Bob Brown,; Notre Dame des Cadres, by Lincoln Kirstcin; Two Poems, by Carl Rakosi; Two Poems, by Laurence Vail; Two Poems, by Paul Bowles; Apology for Love, by Kathleen Tankersley Young. New York: Modern Editions Press. 25 cents a volume.

The opening lyric of William Butler Yeats’s “Collected Poems” holds the line:

Words alone are certain good.

And as one passes from poem to poem, from the richness of those early songs that seem full of a Druid magic, a Druid majesty, on to the stripped sinewy lyrics of the later years, one feels that there is truly some benign power in words that does not lie within the gift of another art or of any activity save the poet’s and his reader’s. It is only the whole body of a man’s work that can so stir his audience, and, however Yeats may surprise us in his old age, the major portion of his work is here, to delight with its music, to exalt with its imagination, to satisfy with its passion. Here, no less than in his Autobiographies, one may read the story of the poet’s progress.

He spent his early years on the northwest coast of Ireland, in fear and admiration of his maternal grandfather, whom in childhood he confused with God and later with King Lear. For the influence of this mighty man was substituted that of the poet’s father, who, by giving him Huxley and Tyndall to read, outraged the boy’s strong religious instinct. Ultimately he made for himself “a new religion, almost an infallible church of poetic tradition, of a, fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions, inseparable from their first expression, passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters with some help from philosophers and theologians.” His early poetry drew on ancient Irish myth and folk-tale, and caught flame from the intellectual fire of Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound.” The symbolical books of Blake, the verse and the ideas of the French symbolists, were in time to nourish in other ways his faith in the miracle-working image, the living, invigorating symbol that the poet takes from his people.

It was when he became alive to Ireland’s political struggles that he tried to dispense with the colour and elaboration of his first lyrics, and to find a simpler, more personal utterance. “If I can be sincere and make my language natural,” he said, “I shall, if good luck or bad luck make my life interesting, be a great poet.” He was to know bad luck: the misery of “returned and yet unrequited love,” the bitterness of civil war; and good luck: intimate contact with the most powerful personalities of three generations of poets, playwrights, painters, and politicians. But his experience, however rich and quickening, and the development of however strong and muscular a, style, were not all that went to make Yeats a great poet. In Irish mythology and the dream of a free Ireland his art has had a stintless source. The stress alike of private tragedy and of public life, the submission to strict discipline in his art, a, tradition formed to satisfy his ineradicable mysticism, all combined to make William Butler Yeats the major figure in poetry that he is.

It is true that his mysticism has done as much to flaw his work as to perfect it. In the notes to his “Collected Poems” he writes of “The Cap and Bells” that he dreamed it exactly as he wrote it,—a, dream so beautiful and coherent that it was indeed closer to a vision. “The poem,” he adds, “has always meant a great deal to me, though, as is the way with symbolic poems, it has not always meant the same thing.” If the poet is puzzled about the significance of his poem, it is not strange that his reader should be so, and where, like Yeats, he traffics in Indian philosophy and medieval magic, it is not astonishing that the modern mind should be at once bewildered and repelled. His poetry has been saved by a physical vitality no less wonderful than its spiritual energy. “Donne,” he says somewhere in the Autobiographies, “could be as metaphysical as he pleased, and yet never seemed un-human and hysterical as Shelley often does, because he could be as physical as he pleased.” This is equally true of Yeats. No poet of our time has such sensual vigor, a vigor that brings both pathos and a certain coarseness into the work of his old age; and this physical exuberance, irradiating even his symbolical poems, redeems them from abstractness and unreality. Hostile to the intellect, although marked by an acute and nimble intelligence, Yeats’s genius is incapable of interpreting this age to itself. But the very body of myth and legend and dream that has stood like an impenetrable cloud between him and his more tough-minded contemporaries has lifted his poetry to a height to which, burdened by brute fact and confused by the disorders of the moment, they could not climb.

It is instructive to contrast Yeats’s performance, unified as it is by the tradition and the landscape which have in such large part shaped it, with Archibald MacLeish’s “Poems, 1924-1933.” MacLeish, like Yeats, has an intense physical awareness, and a deep love of his land. But if that awareness is not distorted by any faith in the supernatural, neither is that love transfigured by any tradition sacred to an ancient race. There is sufficient evidence in his book that MacLeish knows this, and is plagued by his knowledge. Such things as “American Letter” and the controversial “Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller’s City” bear eloquent witness to his nostalgia for what Americans have never had:

This is our land, this is our people— This that is neither a land nor a race.

MacLeish writes magnificent poetry. His music and his vocabulary show that he has studied Pound and Eliot, show too that the student has absorbed his lessons and become a master. His imagery is sharp and precise. His feeling is profound, his power superb. His integrity as an artist is not to be questioned. But when he would write at length, he must embroider on an Elizabethan motif, as in “The Hamlet of A. MacLeish,” or choose a foreign subject, as in “Conquistador.” His land has given him only the blue-jays in the apple-trees, his race has given him nothing. And he lacks the faith of those who have “read in d’books,” and believed: “you are all brudders.”

MacLeish has set the stamp of his approval upon John Peale Bishop’s book, calling it “work as sound as any in our generation,” This is fulsome praise, for Bishop’s verse, interesting as it is, wants the distinctive character that marks the poetry of his more important contemporaries. Too often the reader is reminded of the poet’s models instead of being caught up into the poet’s feeling. In his best work—and there are some excellent things here—there is evident his misery in the presence of a decayed civilization and his hopelessness of fertilizing a waste land. This mood was more common fifteen years ago than it is today, and a good deal of the poetry here seems to “date.” Bishop has not even the support MacLeish tries to find in his raw land. It is noteworthy that he too is tormented by the difficulty of being a poet without a mythos, as witness the opening piece, “Speaking of Poetry”:

The ceremony must be found

Traditional, with all its symbols

ancient as the metaphors in dreams . . .

The work of the eight poets represented in the charmingly printed brochures called The Poetry Series cannot be assessed by the one or two examples that each is allowed. The poems range from Bob Brown’s entertaining portrait of Houdini to Horace Gregory’s sensitive and, alas, misprinted tribute to the memory of Margery Latimer. All of these poets show an interest in technique, and some of them a good grasp of their material. Taken together, the pamphlets help to point the fact that the way of the poet is hard, and incline one to wonder whether, in an age of confusion, he is perhaps a transgressor. And then one returns to Yeats and is reminded that to live richly and to speak truly is to walk a, strait path indeed, and further, that such solace as we may find for our unfaith, such courage and joy as we may need to forge a new religion, come most surely from poetry. “Words alone are certain good.”


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