On the night of October 24, 1917, William Butler Yeats was just four days into an already inauspicious honeymoon. At fifty-two, he had married a twenty-five-year-old named Georgie Hyde-Lees, but only after proposing marriage first to his longtime love, Maud Gonne, and then to Maud’s young daughter, Iseult. After both of them said no, he turned to George, an Englishwoman whom he knew through their common interest in magic and the occult. Between the age difference and Yeats’s continuing love for the Gonnes, things did not look promising for the newlyweds.
But that night, George found a way to win and keep Yeats’s attention: she started to talk to ghosts. For the next seven years, she would regularly go into trances and receive mystical information from spirits, which she channeled through sessions of automatic writing. As the communications from beyond got more and more elaborate, Yeats decided that what George was really trying to teach him was the secret system of the universe, a mystical plan that would explain all of history and human nature. The biographer Brenda Maddox has argued, I think convincingly, that these sessions were actually George’s half-conscious efforts to teach Yeats how to be a better husband, by paying attention to her and taking her seriously as an intellectual partner.
In any case, George’s ghosts had an important result for the history of literature. After the first session, Yeats told the ghosts that he would happily give up poetry to spend the rest of his life “explaining and piecing together” their message. “No,” came their response: “We have come to bring you metaphors for poetry.”
This instruction proved to be the most important one that Yeats received from the spirits. He did write a book, called A Vision, that tried to codify everything he had learned from George, using an elaborate system based on cones and gyres and phases of the moon. But in his introduction to A Vision, after detailing all the weird experiences he had gone through—trance states, odd coincidences, telepathic communications, even inexplicable smells—Yeats admitted that “if sometimes, overwhelmed by miracle as all men must be when in the midst of it, I have taken such periods literally, my reason has soon recovered.” His mystical symbols, he decided, were really metaphors.
What the spirits taught Yeats, underneath all the odd machinery of A Vision, was that the world is not as it appears; that there is another order in the universe, a hidden and majestic and powerful order, which a few choice spirits can learn to see. For Yeats, this revelation confirmed the definition of poetry he had long held: that it was a matter of disciplining and transforming the ordinary world. “As I look backward upon my own writing,” he once said, “I take pleasure alone in those verses where it seems to me I have found something hard and cold, some articulation of the Image which is the opposite of all that I am in my daily life, and all that my country is.”
This was the opposition that Yeats meant to capture when he wrote that his mystical metaphors “helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.” The famous phrase could be the motto of the whole generation of poets that we now know as the high Modernists. For poets such as Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens, reality—the world as it is, as we see it in the newspapers and on the street—is incomplete on its own. It needs to be balanced, corrected, and maybe even replaced by a contrary vision of justice—the world as it should be, and as it can be in great works of art and literature. For Yeats and Pound, in particular, the effort to “hold in a single thought reality and justice” was responsible for what was best in their poetry. But it was also responsible for much that was morally questionable—which helps to explain why one of their greatest successors, W. H. Auden, came to repudiate that high ambition.
* * * *
What did the ideal of “justice” mean for Yeats’s own poetry? First of all, it meant a certain tone of voice. No poet sounds more imposing than Yeats: the strong rhythms, the lofty rhetoric, the prophetic point of view, all make his poems sound more like incantations than ordinary speech. That is one reason why few poets are more dangerous to imitate: when you sound like Yeats, everyone can tell. But this tone of voice, which might sound silly or arrogant coming from another poet, is completely natural to Yeats, because it echoes his major theme: his longing to replace his ordinary self with a sublimely artificial substitute—or, as he often put it, to cover his natural face with an artistic mask.
He makes this idea most explicit in the poems he wrote just after he started communicating with George’s ghosts. In “Ego Dominus Tuus,” from the 1919 collection The Wild Swans at Coole, he divides himself into two speakers, which he calls “Hic” and “Ille,” after the Latin words for this and that. These two sides of himself are really the spokesmen for reality, on the one hand, and justice, on the other. Ille, speaking for justice, declares: “By the help of an image / I call to my own opposite, summon all / That I have handled least, least looked upon.”
This provokes an objection from Hic, speaking for reality: “And I would find myself and not an image.” This is the voice of sincerity, of what would later be called the confessional poet: to find yourself means to be true to reality as it is, warts and all. But Yeats, in this phase of his career, has no patience for this kind of poetry, which he sees as merely sentimental. “That is our modern hope,” replies Ille, “and by its light / We have lit upon the gentle, sensitive mind / And lost the old nonchalance of the hand; / … We are but critics, or but half create, / Timid, entangled, empty and abashed.”
Armed with this conviction, Yeats would go on to write, in his fifties and sixties, the best poems of his career, and some of the best in the language. They are poems of incredible musical and formal strength, overpowering poems, and they are about the way art can overpower nature, the way justice can get the better of reality. That is the theme of perhaps his most famous poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” which leads off his great book of 1928, The Tower.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music, all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
The city of Byzantium, the capital of the late Roman Empire—today it is the city of Istanbul, in Turkey—is Yeats’s symbol of a world where art has completely replaced nature. It is a wonderful image of what Yeats’s kind of poetry hopes to achieve, and at its best really manages to do. He gives myths, symbols, and metaphors such musical power, and such intellectual conviction, that while the poem lasts they seem more real than reality.
Yet there is also a cost to this way of writing poetry, which you can see in some of Yeats’s other poems from this period. For if the world as it should be is all that matters to a poet, the world as it is can’t help looking a little contemptible—and that goes for all the people in it. That contempt can be heard in Yeats’s poem “The Phases of the Moon,” one of the poems most explicitly based on the ideas in A Vision. In this dialogue poem, Michael Robartes—another one of Yeats’s mystical spokesmen—complains about “Reformer, merchant, statesman, learned man, / Dutiful husband, honest wife by turn, / Cradle upon cradle, and all in flight and all / Deformed.” They are deformed because they are merely themselves, and not what Yeats called their anti-selves, the ideal that the artist strives to become.
But this kind of transformation is not easy; it can even be violent. Michael Robartes makes that clear when he says: “For perfected, completed, and immovable / Images can break the solitude / Of lovely, satisfied, indifferent eyes.” The word “break” is crucial here, and so is the contempt behind the words “satisfied” and “indifferent.” In lines like these, we see how Yeats’s longing for justice can lead to being indulgent towards violence, or worse. After all, this contempt for the petty satisfactions of bourgeois, civilian life was one of the common themes of European intellectuals after World War I, and helped to prepare the ground for the perverted vision of justice that was Fascism. Yeats—who briefly flirted with an Irish Fascist group, the Blueshirts—knows that violence can be made seductive.
That is what happens, I think, in Yeats’s mystical poem “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
You can see in the poem’s first stanza that Yeats is afraid of this Second Coming, but also fascinated by it. The “rough beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem,” later in the poem, is at once terrifying and purgative, a second Christ who will transform the world beyond our recognition. “The blood-dimmed tide” may threaten to drown the “ceremony of innocence,” but it is also necessary to wash the world clean.
But Yeats does not, in the end, give in to the mystique of violence. Just as he remains rational enough to recognize that the system he propounded in A Vision was finally a metaphor, not a revelation, so he recognizes that the kind of transformation he writes about in “Sailing to Byzantium” cannot be brought about in any actual city. His respect for reality is finally greater than his passion for justice.
You can see this in the beautiful poem “The Stare’s Nest by My Window,” from the sequence “Meditations in Time of Civil War.” The destruction caused by the Irish Civil War (1922–23), which Yeats witnessed firsthand, helped him to realize that any attempt to impose a vision of justice by force leads to inhumanity. “We are closed in,” he writes, “and the key is turned / On our uncertainty; somewhere / A man is killed, or a house burned, / Yet no clear fact to be discerned.” In the midst of this chaos, Yeats imagines the possibility of healing through an image of natural renewal. In the poem’s refrain, Yeats describes an empty bird’s nest—belonging to the “stare,” or starling—and invites the bees to come and build their hive in it. In other words, Yeats is no longer asking to be “out of nature”; instead, he asks nature to repair itself. In the same spirit, he acknowledges that the opposite of reality is not always justice. The opposite of reality can also be mere fantasy:
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
* * * *
To see how dangerous it can be for a poet who does not know that the heart can grow brutal on fantasies, we only need to look at Ezra Pound, whose need to impose his private vision of justice on reality led him to complete moral disaster. Pound was a close friend and disciple of Yeats—they lived together for some time during the First World War, and Pound married the daughter of one of Yeats’s old lovers. It was for more than just personal reasons, however, that Yeats introduced A Vision with a long letter “To Ezra Pound.” Yeats could tell that his own desire to make reality resemble art would find an ideal audience in Pound.
In fact, Yeats quotes Pound’s poem “The Return” as an example of the kind of resurrection of myth that he himself was attempting. “The Return” is one of the first great Modernist poems, not just for its free verse and broken lines, but for its vision of the rebirth of ancient, pre-rational ways of thinking. For Pound, as for Yeats in “The Second Coming,” such a resurrection of myth and the gods of myth was frightening, yet extremely seductive. Here is “The Return”:
See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
and half turn back;
These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”
Gods of the winged shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
sniffing the trace of air!
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.
Slow on the leash,
pallid the leash-men!
Like Yeats’s “rough beast,” Pound’s new divinities are bloody and violent, presences to be admired but also feared. These gods are hunters, who take pleasure in the kill. Already in a poem like “The Return,” which was published in 1912, you can see the possible dangers of Pound’s style of mythical thinking. Perhaps those dangers wouldn’t seem evident if we didn’t know how Pound’s life and work were going to develop. But as time went on, and especially after he saw some of his most talented friends killed in the First World War, Pound’s fantasy of a perfect society—his private vision of justice—became an obsession.
Seeing how badly the European order had failed in 1914, Pound came to feel that actual human society was completely corrupt, a failure that had to be erased so that the world could start again. You can see this total disdain in his postwar poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” when he writes:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.
Language like this is full of implied violence; it calls out for the destruction of what it condemns. It is no wonder that Pound soon began to commit the mortal sin of the Modernist generation—he believed that the kind of order you can create in a work of art can also be imposed on human life. In short, he became a Fascist.
Fascism, Pound helps us to see, is at bottom an aesthetic idea. It means treating society as though it were a work of art, which can be ruthlessly shaped in order to achieve perfection. That is the vision that animates Pound’s major work, The Cantos, the long poem or series of poems that he worked on from 1917 until his death in 1972. Ironically, for a work that is so wildly incoherent, the Cantos’ central theme is the beauty of order—not just artistic order, but social and political order. Long stretches of the Cantos are dedicated to praising, or even just quoting, historical figures whom Pound saw as ideal leaders, who created societies as harmonious and symmetrical as a work of art. That is why he likes Sigismondo Malatesta, the Renaissance tyrant, and Confucius, whom he calls by his Chinese name, Kung. Here is the speech that Pound gives to Confucius in Canto 13:
And Kung said, and wrote on the bo leaves:
If a man have not order within him
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
His family will not act with due order;
And if the prince have not order within him
He can not put order in his dominions.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And he said
“Anyone can run to excesses,
It is easy to shoot past the mark,
It is hard to stand firm in the middle.”
Pound’s idea of order, of standing firm in the middle, is related to Yeats’s idea of “the artifice of eternity.” The difference is that Pound was not satisfied with eternity; he wanted artifice in the present, and he believed that Mussolini could create it. That is why, during the Second World War, Pound remained in Italy and made propaganda broadcasts over the radio, praising Fascism and the Fascist dictator. If you look at a pamphlet that Pound wrote in 1942, called A Visiting Card, you can see that the themes of his propaganda are identical to the themes of his poetry. He wrote that “the idea is not achieved until it goes into action. . . . The idea that does not go into action is a truncated idea.” Poetry and politics, according to this standard, are two parts of the same process: the vision of justice that begins in the poet’s mind should be carried out by the leader, even at the point of a gun.
When the war ended, Pound was arrested as a traitor and incarcerated in an American Army camp in Pisa. There he wrote what became known as the Pisan Cantos, which many readers consider the best part of the whole work. Published in America in 1948, The Pisan Cantos provoked a major controversy when it was awarded the Bollingen Prize by a committee of the Library of Congress. The public objected to the idea of giving such a prize to a traitor, who had only escaped execution by being put in a mental hospital. But many literary people, including the prize judges, argued that the quality of Pound’s work had nothing to do with his personal conduct.
Yet if you read the Pisan Cantos today, what is most striking is the way that their best parts, as well as their worst, seem deeply implicated with Pound’s politics. Early in Canto 74, Pound writes beautifully that his dream was “To build the city of Dioce whose terraces are the colour of stars.” This is a vision of the just city that Yeats would have understood. But Yeats would not have gone on to write what Pound does, later in the same poem: “the yidd is a stimulant, and the goyim are cattle … and go to saleable slaughter / with the maximum of docility.”
This is more than the wandering obsession of a mentally disturbed man; there is an essential connection between Pound’s idealism and his anti-Semitism. Jews, to Pound as to Hitler, had no place in the perfect society. And Pound had no hesitation about sweeping away persons the way he might have struck out a bad line in a poem. This disregard of actual human beings, this willingness to destroy real people in pursuit of an idea of perfection, was not as far removed as we would like to think from Pound’s Modernist poetics. He was not a poet who happened to stray into Fascism; he made himself into a Fascist poet.
* * * *
Pound was born in 1885, and lived through the First World War as an adult. For writers of his generation, especially in Italy and Germany, Fascism often looked like a tempting alternative to liberal democracy. Since democracy had not managed to stave off war, or the economic and social chaos that followed it, perhaps dictatorship could do better. For writers of the next generation, however, it was the extreme Left, not the extreme Right, that seemed to hold the key to the future.
Wystan Hugh Auden, who was born in 1907, was just eleven years old when the World War ended. He was one of the first major poets to write naturally about a recognizably modern, twentieth-century world. This marks him off sharply from poets like Yeats and Pound, who in different ways were repelled by the democratic and technological features of modern society. For Auden, there was no need to escape from a world of automobiles and power lines into a fantasy of Byzantium, like Yeats, or of the medieval troubadours, like Pound.
Yet Auden shared Pound’s sense that Western European civilization was in crisis. Auden’s early poems, written when he was barely out of his teens, are full of brilliantly disturbing images of a sick, elderly, and doomed society. You can feel this ominous atmosphere in his very first mature poem, written in 1927, when he was only nineteen:
Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass,
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine
At Cashwell raises water; for ten years
It lay in flooded workings until this,
Its latter office, grudgingly performed.
And further here and there, though many dead
Lie under the poor soil, some acts are chosen,
Taken from recent winters. Two there were,
Cleaned out a damaged shaft by hand, clutching
The winch the gale would tear them from; one died
During a storm, the fells impassable,
Not at his village, but in wooden shape
Through long abandoned levels nosed his way,
And in a final valley went to ground.
This is a post-apocalyptic England, living in the ruins of its former greatness. But Auden, like many writers his age, hoped that Communism would give England back the sense of energy and purpose it had lost. If Yeats and Pound made idols out of Art, Auden’s idol was History: he believed that Communism was the future, and that the poet should try to hasten its coming. This was his own solution to the problem of reconciling reality and justice. And in a way it was even more perilous than the solution the high Modernist generation had found, because Auden’s vision of justice was not primarily metaphorical. He believed that reality actually could be corrected by a new political order, and that his own work could play a role in that process.
Like every young writer of the 1930s, Auden saw the Spanish Civil War as a crucial test. Spain’s left-wing Republican government represented the hopeful future, but it was under deadly attack from a Fascist rebellion led by General Franco. At this crisis, Auden could not resist the siren song of political violence. The most notorious example was his poem Spain, written in 1937 and published as a pamphlet. Its refrain is “To-day the struggle,” and it concludes with a rousing call to arms:
To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,
The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;
To-morrow the bicycle races
Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.
To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;
To-day the expending of powers
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
To-day the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette,
The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert,
The masculine jokes; to-day the
Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.
The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.
In Yeats, and even much of the time in Pound, the seduction of violence is veiled and metaphorical; but in this poem, Auden calls explicitly for “necessary murder.” “Spain” is a thrilling poem, but a deeply disturbing one, because it shows how easy it is for a gifted poet to use his gifts in the service of violence.
Before too long, Auden himself came to the same conclusion. In 1939, as Europe was on the brink of a Second World War, he left England for America, where he would spend most of the rest of his life. He was widely criticized for this move by other English writers, who thought he was deserting his country in a time of danger. But in Auden’s own view, leaving England was the only way for him to rescue his poetry from a different kind of danger. For a decade, he had been read as an oracle of the future, and in the name of the future he had written things—such as the lines in “Spain”—that he now believed were inhumane. Only by striking out on his own would he be able to escape the gravitational pull of history, and find a new way of reconciling reality and justice.
Starting in 1939, then, Auden made himself into a very different kind of poet. Early Auden was ominous, obscure, and politically engaged; later Auden would be rational, eloquent, and religious. He showed how serious he was about this transformation by refusing to print “Spain” in later collections of his work. It was one of his most powerful poems, but he had come to believe that its message was wrong, and he saw it as his responsibility to disavow it.
Auden’s later poetry changed a great deal in form and style, and readers have always debated whether it was a change for the better. Reading early Auden is like eavesdropping on a radio broadcast from the future: even when you can’t make out exactly what the words mean, their tone is unmistakable and thrilling. Reading later Auden, on the other hand, is more like listening to the table talk of a very cultivated, slightly campy don: he is almost comically articulate. For some critics, this was a sign of decline. The poet Philip Larkin, a great admirer of the early Auden, thought Auden’s work of the 1950s was “fundamentally unserious.”
Today, however, this verdict looks definitely wrong. In fact, Auden’s poetry changed as it did because he had become much more serious about his responsibilities as a writer. Above all, what changed in Auden was the way he thought about the relation between reality and justice. In the 1930s, he thought justice meant transforming reality in the name of a political ideal. In the 1940s and after, he began to think that this kind of utopianism was actually a sure path to injustice—as it had proved to be in the Soviet Union. Instead, he started to think that the true definition of justice was doing justice to reality, by registering the world as it is, in all its variousness and complexity and individuality. This was a new, essentially postmodernist and antimodernist, view of the relationship between art and the world.
The poem where Auden makes this new understanding clearest is “Homage to Clio,” written in 1955. Clio, in Greek mythology, is the Muse of History, and Auden’s poem is cast as an address to her. But this History is not the stern, remorseless History Auden had invoked in “Spain,” where he wrote: “History to the defeated / May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.” Clio is History as a recorder and observer, who impartially remembers everything that happens: as Auden calls her, “Muse of the unique / Historical fact, defending with silence / Some world of your beholding.” Clio’s silence is the silence not of indifference but of cosmic acceptance. She accepts everything into her gaze—Auden writes, “I have seen / Your photo, I think, in the papers, nursing / A baby or mourning a corpse”—and so she is the ally of the powerless and voiceless, and the enemy of the powerful, whom Auden in this poem refers to as “the Big.” “So few of the Big / Ever listen,” he writes: “that is why you have a great host / Of superfluous screams to care for.”
Auden’s mistrust of the Big can be seen as his repudiation of the poetics of Modernism. The dictators and philosophers that Pound wrote about in The Cantos were definitely Big; so were the aristocrats and mythical Irish heroes that populate Yeats’s poetry. Modernism, one might say, was an attempt to earn Bigness, to turn reality into something grander and more perfect than it is. For poets after Modernism, starting with Auden, that kind of Bigness is automatically suspect; it has too much in common with the arrogance of totalitarianism, and not enough respect for the claims of the powerless. It is no coincidence that Auden’s understanding of history, and his conception of the poet as something like a witness, was shared by postmodernist poets such as Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, and Seamus Heaney, all of whom write about and against the tyranny that results when people try to impose their vision of justice on reality. Only if we remember that witnessing is a proud role for the poet, as well as a humble one, can we understand the famous definition of poetry that Auden put forward, appropriately enough, in his elegy for W. B. Yeats:
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
Published with the support of Ohio Wesleyan University.