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Poetry and History

ISSUE:  Spring 1975

In another essay, “What Was Modern Poetry?” I spent almost all the time on what I called imagism—not the movement called Des Imagistes, but, much more broadly, the many and recurrent movements in modernist poetry that had in common a wish to exalt the senses, especially the sense of sight, at the expense of the mind. Indeed, these movements, like some movements in philosophy (and not in the branch of aesthetics alone), found themselves impelled, by the necessities of rhetoric if by nothing more serious, to a contempt for mind, and since this contempt for mind in general had to include of necessity the mind that was being contemptuous, not to mention the mind that was writing the poems that exalted the senses at the mind’s expense, some contradiction was always involved, though it was not always acknowledged. For to proclaim, as the first Imagists did, that one must do away with “Cosmic Poetry” is to proclaim that one must do away with metaphysics, which is, however, a metaphysical decision; and as Owen Barfield says, “It is a failing common to a good many contemporary metaphysical theories that they can be applied to all things except themselves but that, when so applied, they extinguish themselves.”

Having tried to illustrate by certain poems of William Carlos Williams what theoretical considerations, what problems and what solutions belonged to this movement of the mind, I wish now to ask why. Why should it have happened to so many talented men and women, in poetry, in the novel, not to mention in painting, to put such an exclusive emphasis upon sensing, so exclusive that it led them in many instances to a contemptuous or fierce rejection of mind and thinking and explicitly stated meaning? One would have thought there could never have been a poet or novelist or painter so foolish as to be against accuracy of perception, accuracy of notation, or against the sympathetic concentration upon nature which alone could enable such accuracy— but why was it, why is it, this stress on seeing, almost always as if of necessity accompanied by an assault on the still and mental parts?

I remind you of some of the forms this twinned attitude took during the early part of the period, where the stress is upon immediacy of experience either in neglect of reason or more often in denial or contradiction of reason. Eliot, who gave us the “objective correlative,” also praised Donne because his thought was as immediate to him as the odor of a rose. Hopkins, whose visionary contemplation of divinity both in and behind nature proceeded by an “instress” in the self that corresponded with an “inscape” in the object, made an appealing slogan for his procedures: What you look hard at seems to look hard at you. D.H.Lawrence interested himself fiercely in a relation to the universe that should proceed directly to and from the genitals and the solar plexus, omitting as entirely as might be the brain he thought responsible for the world’s damage; he wanted, poetically and piously, to see process instead of result— “the perfect rose is only a running flame,” he said—and cursed the mind with all his mind. Even Proust in his great work yields an example of this strange contradiction: a man patiently and laboriously researching the past in minutest detail, and constructing by the habit of the hardest daily work a book whose two main principles are that voluntary memory is futile and that habit prevents us from seeing truly. Many more instances, among the great and the not-so-great, will occur to you. But I must now try to say why it was so.

My answer is an hypothesis, and it can take form both simple and complex. Most simply: history was—and still is— becoming elusive as well as ever more uncomfortable. Poets and novelists are people whose vocation it is to see and say as much as possible the whole of things rather than their division into categories; they are sensitive to a wholeness they believe to be really there and really prepotent over appearances even if it can be grasped only by synoptic and symbolic vision attending to minute particulars.

When one tries to specify a little more this elusiveness of history, the same hypothesis takes a more complicated, more problematic, maybe even a more dubious form. This form has to do with the amazing growth of the scientific way of viewing the world, and with the corresponding growth of the technological way of changing the world that went along with it. Most plainly, the poets have never been happy under the reign of Newtonian mechanics and Kantian criticism. Their distrust of, their protests against, the consequences entailed upon life and thought by this physics and this philosophy form a major strand in the movement known as Romanticism, which indeed may not be over yet. For it was the effect of Newton to remove mind from the cosmos except as a passive recording instrument, and the effect of the dominance of Kant’s philosophy to remove from remaining mind any access whatever to ultimate reality. Whereas poetic thought can proceed beyond the minimal affirmation of parlor verse only upon the supposition that the world is equally and simultaneously perceivable as real and as transpicuous, or sacramental, and that no percept is ever divorced entirely from concept. Poetic thought is indeed in this respect primitive, though its primitivism may take highly sophisticated forms; and it is beautifully described by Claude Lévi-Strauss in talking about savage thought, “definable,” he says, “both by a consuming symbolic ambition such as humanity has never again seen rivaled, and by scrupulous attention directed entirely toward the concrete, and finally by the implicit conviction that these two attitudes are one.” A page earlier, indeed, he makes the parallel in a piquant and illuminating way: “Whether one deplores or rejoices in the fact, there are still zones in which savage thought, like savage species, is relatively protected. This is the case of art, to which our civilization accords the status of a national park, with all the advantages and inconveniences attending so artificial a formula.”

I am neither historian nor philosopher, and this is not the occasion for a philosophical discourse or one on the history of mind. One proposition that follows from my hypothesis is that imagism in its varieties arose as one response of the imagination to a development that saw mind—often by the hardest thought—progressively being read out of the universe along with gods, devils, spirits, the spirit, and so much else. As I have tried to show, imagism seems to me a crippled and crippling response, though it has its rare triumphs; what it amounts to is abandoning what has been lost and making costume jewelry of the little that remains; and its ultimate effect is in a sense on the side of technology, as poetry becomes simply one more specialization. A linguistic philosopher said to me, in the course not of trying to convert me but of showing that I was in fact already one of the happy flock, “You could still write your poetry, so long as you were quite clear it was . . .poetry.” Where he paused I silently supplied the word “only,” and I don’t think I was in error to do so.

What I hope to do in this essay is to discuss examples of other kinds of poetic response to the question of history. For reasons of time, though, I am not going to bother with the biggest examples, which have in common not only their size and other things formidable about them but also the fact that they are extremely well known to all who do not read them; I mean “The Cantos,” “Paterson,” “The Dynasts,” “Finnegans Wake,” “The Anathemata”; even “The Waste Land,” whose compactness allows it to be read though it is in other respects comparable to the works I have named, is not to my purpose, for it has been too much discussed. Instead, I shall use smaller and more compassable examples, short poems that appear to me to grow from within, by the reader’s meditation upon them, rather than by accretions and additions from without.

Before presenting my examples, however, I should say a word or so about science, for it is very likely that some of you will accuse me of being against it. And so far as a somewhat called science can be isolated for inspection— and that is fairly far—I should feel sorry, as well as look silly, to be thought against something so massively and so brilliantly present and part of reality.

But owing to that sense of wholeness I spoke of earlier, the poets whose poems I have chosen to bring evidence for my hypothesis do not separate out, at least in their poems, a somewhat called science to be for or against. They seem to me to be looking at, and trying to phrase in the lightning instant of their figured speech, as much as possible of what happened in the world since, say, the Renaissance. What they see is terrible, and what they say ranges from the neutrally diagnostic to prophetic sorrow and prophetic rage, but it is not, I think, against science, if only for the reason that in poetic thought science cannot stand alone but must be taken along with many other forces and their results. There may be much gold, the poets seem to say, though even of that we are sometimes doubtful; but you will be plain foolish if you pretend that the gold is not guarded by a dragon, or if you pretend that the gold is real and the dragon is not. Satis quod sufficit.

Yeats included in “The Tower” (1928) a poem of two parts to which he gave the unusual, hence suggestive, title of “Fragments.” The first of these fragments may stand as a text to any sermon I might give on the relations among modern poetry, modern science, and modern history:


Locke sank into a swoon;
The Garden died;
God took the spinning-jenny
Out of his side.

There it is, a four-line creation myth, possibly the shortest one ever made. The second fragment does nothing to make our way easier, but we ought to have it before us anyhow:


Where got I that truth?
Out of a medium’s mouth,
Out of nothing it came,
Out of the forest loam,
Out of dark night where lay
The crowns of Nineveh.

Nineveh was characterized by the Lord in a rare flash of sardonic humor: “that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle” (Jonah 4.11). It might be a type of the modern metropolis.

John Locke, English philosopher, lived in the seventeenth century. He is remembered chiefly for “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” and what we chiefly remember about that essay, I think, and what makes Locke appropriate to Yeats’ myth, is his separation of primary from secondary qualities, the primary ones being present in the object as in our experience of it, the secondary ones, such as smell and color, being in the object, if at all, in some mode other than the mode in which they are experienced by the senses. It was a momentous separation, and a step on the way to the curiously contradictory attitude of modern science and Kantian philosophy toward the senses, simultaneously relying on and discrediting their evidences. I think it is this separation, leading on to that all too well known modern division of subjective and objective, that Yeats has in mind in rewriting the creation of woman as it is told in the second chapter of Genesis.

The spinning-jenny, the first machine for making wool or cotton into thread, and said to be the prototype for mass production, may be taken as a synecdoche for the Industrial Revolution generally but it has some special appropriatenesses of its own. One is, of course, that it is a girl’s name, another is that it echoes “Genesis,” from whose root it may ultimately have derived, and a third, perhaps more compelling still, is that the Fall of Adam and Eve (or Locke and the spinning-jenny) from innocence to guilt is specifically marked by their awakening to shame over their nakedness and their consequent haste to make themselves aprons, or, as one translation said, breeches. Which may be why we now wear underpants labeled Fruit of the Loom. Had Yeats had that happy conceit to hand, might he have written “Fragments, III”?

The Mechanical Bride, McLuhan said;
And now the access to the womb,
The path that leads among the dead,
Hides in the cotton fruit of the loom.

Maybe. But notice anyhow that while everyone nowadays knows all about McLuhan, not to mention sex and birth and death, readers unprovided with the right underwear would find the poem obscure, perhaps impenetrably so.

Having got so far as that, I stopped for a few days; for the immediate if trivial reason that the book from which I wanted to quote my second example was several miles away. But while I stopped I began to think, and everyone knows that is injurious to a writer. What I began to think about was myth and truth, and what one of this pair had a right to demand of the other. I said that Yeats’ witty and elegant four lines made a creation myth; by correspondence with the story of the birth of Eve, and by making us think of the consequences of that birth and of this, he is giving us one version of how the modern world, so different from the other one, came into being. And I suppose now that what stopped me, apart from the missing book, were two related questions: What does this myth tell me about the emergence of the modern world? and Do I believe it? At the risk of running off the planned path of this essay altogether, it seems to me that I ought to consider these questions for a little while. I do not believe so much as I formerly did in the efficacy of “close reading,” or explication; I should far rather be able to take the little poem as a talisman, something to say over to oneself as though it meant something rather important, without inquiring too closely into what the importance might be. And yet it seems as if I should be leaving the account badly unfinished, did I not look more closely into what is going on.

Locke sank into a swoon; The Garden died. . . . Several things about this. Locke is, I suppose, among the foremost of those philosophers who limited their account of human understanding to what went on in consciousness, to the daylight side, and who preferred judgment over wit, or as we should say, reason over imagination. He sank into a swoon. Compare Genesis 2.21.”And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept.” And contrast Yeats’ own and lovely line: “When the bride-sleep fell upon Adam.” The first two lines may suggest, anticipating Berkeley, or rather, anticipating a common and erroneous reading of Berkeley, that the world of experience is sustained only by our attention (in the true reading, it is sustained by God’s attention); an erroneous reading out of which Yeats made three splendidly eloquent lines:

And God-appointed Berkeley that proved all things a dream,
That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its
 farrow that so solid seem,
Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme.

        —Blood and the Moon, II

You can read the first two lines of “Fragment I” in two opposed ways. Either the Garden died when and because Locke lost consciousness; or else Locke’s sinking into a swoon is a sarcastic representation of Locke’s conscious thought itself as tantamount to what Blake had called “single vision and Newton’s sleep.” Not only innocence was lost by the separation of primary and secondary qualities, in this myth; but the secondary qualities themselves, all the properties of things least amenable to measurement, what Hopkins would think of as the dapple and piedness of experience—all these were by that separation on the road to being lost, and the world, in consequence of Locke’s kind of thought, was started on a course of mechanizing at first things and then peoples and the thoughts they had.

It is true that Yeats was resentful of science, as he was of democracy and trade and logic and a good many other what he thought of as leveling notions; in a much-quoted passage of his “Autobiographies” he speaks of being deprived of the simple-minded religion of his childhood “by Huxley and Tyndall, whom I detested,” and of his making “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 of poets and painters with some help from philosophers and theologians.” But this Fragment is not directed simply at science; rather, it involves in its grotesque parody of creation and fall a strange, indeed paradoxical, association of mind and matter. Both Fragments assert the primacy of myth over reason, of nothing over something; the second is like the first in being an account of how one kind of thing emerged out of another kind of thing; it suggests that even a thought must first be a picture, a story, and that this picture or story, this “truth” as he calls it, does not proceed from reasoning at all, but comes first from a medium’s mouth (matching the “swoon” of the first fragment?), then, beyond that, from “nothing,” up out of the “forest loam,” “Out of dark night where lay / The crowns of Nineveh.” And yet it is precisely these dark absences and emptinesses and swoons and trancelike sleeps that cause to arise the myth about a history in which machines are reasoned up out of the earth by the change in a philosopher’s mind; for it seems pertinent to the history of the past few centuries to say that it is the history of mind producing, as the result of a striking new attitude toward its own experiences, machines which then become models for the mind and for thinking. In some such way, says the myth, the world changed, and in Yeats’ view it changed for the worse. The change was from a real or presumed fourfold unity of sense, thought, feeling, and intuition, giving rise to a fourfold unity of letter, allegory, moral, and anagoge, to “single vision and Newton’s sleep,” it was in the first place a change in vision, for as Blake saw and said in so many ways, “You become what you behold,” and it produced the mental world that Blake characterized as “the Loom of Locke, whose Woof rages dire, / Washed by the Water-wheels of Newton,” the world committed to think ever more on mechanical principles and by means of mechanical models at the spirit’s expense. Yeats, who had edited the works of Blake and been among the first to heed “The Prophetic Books,” was much at home among such phrases as I have quoted, and in effect, in the “Fragments” and elsewhere, he is taking up the song a century after Blake left it.

These reflections began more or less in the consciousness of their being digressive; yet now I think I can tie them up and even justify going a bit further with them, at the expense of what comment I might have made on my other examples. My subject, after all, is Poetry and History, and though Yeats was by no means alone among modern poets in addressing himself to the theme of historical change, and especially to what sort of change produced the world of the twentieth century, he held himself to this theme more consistently, and made his account of it more coherent, than most.

It is a striking thing about many of the intellectual heroes of the present age, that those of them that lived long were able to experience two quite different worlds; their childhood and youth were passed in the old world, their productive maturity and age in the new. In some instances, too, the new they experienced was the new they had in part themselves created. I think here especially of Einstein and Freud, but would also bring into this category the literary and artistic folk whose works are both diagnostic and prophetic of what I shall call The Great Change.

I hope to stress this point without overstressing it. No doubt history was present to the man of 1890 as to the man of 1920; or maybe not quite so present, not quite so immediate, not quite so overwhelming. And the world has always been a sufficiently terrible place for most of the people in it. Yet there did come The Great Change, and there is ample evidence of its having been experienced as such by the writers and artists that lived through it. The War of 1914-1918 in part was this great change, and in part was but the astounding revelation of its more continuous and subtle workings over a long time. History swallows so much so easily that it may take a considerable effort of the mind for us to place ourselves in a situation so unprecedented as then confronted the most civilized intelligences of Europe. It seemed to Freud to reveal that “the state has forbidden to the individual the practice of wrong-doing, not because it desired to abolish it, but because it desires to monopolize it, like salt and tobacco.” And to Valéry, beginning an essay in 1919, the lesson was as clear as it was somber: “We know now, we other civilizations, that we too are mortal.” The recent histories by Barbara Tuchman are most helpful on this theme, “The Guns of August” showing how utterly surprising and unforeseen were the events let loose upon 1914, even among those most responsible for the decisions immediately leading to them, “The Proud Tower” recording with picturesque charm and in much detail some of the ways in which Before was decisively different from After. In fiction, it is perhaps Ford Madox Ford’s great tetralogy “No More Parades” that more than any other work will give us a sense of this incredible discontinuity in experience, and not more by the events it records than by the stylistic substitutions and dissolutions of the successive volumes.

Yeats’ experience of the Great Change came in the first place more from Irish than from European history, from the Easter Rising of 1916 and from the Civil War that won Ireland its independence, however much he attempted poetically to generalize these events and to mythify them, later on, as elements in his necessitarian model for history. All the same, the shock in his poems reflecting upon this change is unmistakable: he is bewildered, even stupefied, perhaps bewildered and stupefied into becoming a great poet. The Fall of Man appears not only in the little gnomic epigram I have quoted, but in a number of the poems of the books following The Great War, and by bringing in evidence from some of these I may perhaps be able to make the myth about Locke and the spinning-jenny more richly unfold its inward workings.

What I have to show is speculative, and must remain so, yet I hope it will seem a probable set of relations. For a poet, especially one who is productive over a long period and through the several stages of life’s way, develops his own vocabulary, which though not necessarily in denial of meaning assigned the words in dictionaries is nevertheless not entirely confined to those meanings; especially in relation with one another his favorite terms develop extra and hidden relations.

The moral of Yeats’ great meditation “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” corresponds closely with one of Freud’s conclusions in the essay I have already quoted from; Freud considers it “a consolation”: “that our mortification and our grievous disillusionment regarding the uncivilized behavior of our world-compatriots in this war are shown to be unjustified. They were based on an illusion to which we had abandoned ourselves. In reality our fellow-citizens have not sunk so low as we feared, because they had never risen so high as we believed.”

In the same way, for Yeats,

The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

The same figure returns as a savage epigram:

We, who seven years ago
Talked of honour and of truth,
Shriek with pleasure if we show
The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.

The main sense of the whole poem is not that man has fallen, so much as that his fall has now been made evident even to civilized and cultivated persons who unthinkingly may have believed otherwise, who may out of security have been permitted to think otherwise. Accordingly the tone of the poem is bitter exultation: not civilization only, but we also who believed in it, who relied on it, who reposed in it our utmost confidence, are fraudulent and always were. The loss of innocence becomes a kind of brutal blessing, the stringent and salutary awakening from an illusion, as the poet savages himself and his contemporaries for their naivety in never having realized how precarious, contingent, and uncertain were the certainties in which they lived. The emblems of these certainties are Athenian: “An ancient image made of olive wood . . . Phidias’ famous ivories / And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.” These are, in the beginning of the poem, “ingenious lovely things” that had seemed immortal, “Protected from the circle of the moon / That pitches common things about.” And yet they are gone. “We too,” he continues,

We too had many pretty toys when young:
A law indifferent to blame or praise,
To bribe or threat; habits that made old wrong
Melt down, as it were wax in the sun’s rays;
Public opinion ripening for so long
We thought it would outlive all future days.
O what fine thought we had because we thought
That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.

We ought to have known, the poem seems to say, that no work can stand; we ought to have known, for “Man is in love and loves what vanishes, / What more is there to say?” And yet men never do know; the Athenians didn’t know, and wouldn’t have spoken of it if they did:

            That country round
None dared admit, if such a thought were his,
Incendiary or bigot could be found
To burn that stump on the Acropolis,
Or break in bits the famous ivories
Or traffic in the grasshoppers and bees.

What attitude to take? or, as he says, what comfort? On this point the poem wavers inconclusively between philosophical resignation, apatheia of the Stoics, “ghostly solitude,” and the desperate, half-rejoicing cynicism of the epigram already quoted, and of this that comes just before it:

O but we dreamed to mend
Whatever mischief seemed
To afflict mankind, but now
That winds of winter blow
Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed.

In part V, the song beginning “Come let us mock at the great,” the cynicism turns also upon itself at last, for after destroying the pretensions of great, wise and good, he ends:

Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.

And the poem finishes with an image of chaos come again, evil gathering head, the supposedly banished demonic spirit returning upon the world.

Henceforth Yeats’ poetic life is lived in a tension between turning away to “ghostly solitude,” to “the cold snows of a dream,” and passionate, brutal, savage, sexual acceptance of “mire and blood.” In a late poem, “Meru,” he puts one aspect of the doubleness this way:

Civilisation is hooped together, brought
Under a rule, under the semblance of peace
By manifold illusion; but man’s life is thought,
And he, despite his terror, cannot cease
Ravening through century after century,
Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come
Into the desolation of reality.

“Man’s life is thought.” And it is thought, then, that will lead to “the desolation of reality.” It reflects upon Locke, in the swoon of whose thought the Garden died. And thought comes whence? from God? from nothing, from the “dark night” where lay the crowns of Nineveh? I take those crowns to be the towers of the city, and this is certainly the most speculative leap I have to convince you of, but here is the evidence for it, that thought, crown, and tower are explicitly associated by the poet in a phrase drawn from Shelley, who called towers “thought’s crowned powers.” If you can accept the connection on so slender evidence, here are some of the things that follow.

The tower with its winding stair, and ruined top is probably Yeats’ most deeply inwoven emblem. It is associated on the one hand with ghostly solitude and hermetic meditations such as those of II Penseroso’s Platonist, but also with the opposite, with history, the history of thought in particular, and with involvement in that history. The top of it is sometimes thought of as the human head. The tower is the human counterpart of mountain (such as Meru) or tree, but the tree, the great-rooted blossomer who is neither the leaf, the blossom, nor the bole but continuously present in all, stands for an inseparable wholeness, of which the tower is the maimed imitation in mind and in history:

Is every modern nation like the tower,
Half dead at the top?

The source of that last phrase related tree, tower, and mind; it is something Swift said to Edward Young about his apprehensions of approaching madness; pointing at a lightning-blasted oak, “I shall be like that tree. I shall die first at the top.”

The tower, the top of the tower, is a place of vision, on the lines of Donne’s “Up into the watch-towre get, / And see all things despoil’d of fallacies.” But it is also a wounded, imperfect, and ruining vision that is obtainable from there, it is half-dead at the top; and, in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” as well as in “Blood and the Moon” immediately following, it is a question whether one ought to use its eminence for thinking about history and the chain of past and future, or for denying thought entirely in favor of a darkness indistinguishable from the soul, whether to belong to power or to wisdom:

For wisdom is the property of the dead,
A something incompatible with life; and power,
Like everything that has the stain of blood,
A property of the living.

So far, our associations have moved outward, have diverged from the fable of Locke and the spinning-jenny. And I am conscious of imposing a little on your good nature in getting from the “Fragments” to the tower on so slim an association as the crowns of Nineveh coupled with their association in the poet’s mind with towers and with thought on the basis of a phrase taken from Shelley. Now, however, having gone so far away, I may be able to bring us back.

For there is one more main thing about the tower: it contains a winding stair, and this stair develops great density of meaning throughout Yeats’ poetry, from the literal “climb up the narrow winding stairs to bed” of a relatively early poem to “I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare / This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair,” of “Blood and the Moon.”

Now this stair, and especially the winding and spiring of it, is pre-eminently the poet’s image for several things: for thought, for the course of history, for the course of the individual’s life, for the period after death that he calls “the dreaming back,” when the soul “unpacks the loaded pern,” for the spinning motion of the sages in “Sailing to Byzantium” who are asked to “perne in a gyre, / And be the singing-masters of my soul,” for the spiral flight of the falcon “Turning and turning in the widening gyre,” and even for the winding spiral in which the mummy-cloth is wound upon the corpse, which is itself a figure for the life of thought.

Wound in mind’s pondering, [at the end, mind’s wandering]
As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.

As one commentator, Morton I. Seiden, says, bobbin, mummycloth, winding path, and gyre are correlative symbols in Yeats’ poetry. To them we may add “pern” and the poet’s note about it telling us that in his childhood the pern was another name for the spool on which thread was wound in the mill near his grandfather’s house.

By these considerations we can see a little why the spinning-jenny comes so pat in the small creation story. It is not only a spinning-jenny, but a spinning jenny, the whirling, spiraling course that is followed not only by the individual’s life and in reverse after his death, and at all times by his thought, but also by history, which proceeds in the same spiraling way, a gyre interpenetrated with another that in time will reverse it and spin up its own thread while unspinning the other.

A couple of other items, if you can tolerate more of these strange associative procedures—but if a poet has a logic it may well be an associative one, and hidden to the other kind—may be put into this cluster of thoughts that began with Locke and the spinning-jenny.

As I interpreted that poem, it represents the thought of Locke sinking into the kind of swoon that Blake had called Single Vision & Newton’s Sleep. Blake associated Locke with Newton in this single vision which, to him, produced the world as mechanism, from the starry wheels of Urizen’s astronomical heavens down to factory and mill; and Yeats tells the same story. The spinning-jenny, among so many other things, is the product of a peculiar kind of vision.

Now vision is not mentioned in those four lines, though they are themselves a vision. But it is everywhere in Yeats’ poems; he called his principal expository work on history “A Vision,” and it is filled with notions relating historical tendency to eyesight, and especially to the eyes of statuary. For instance, a brief instance,

When I think of Rome I see always those heads with their world-considering eyes, and those bodies as conventional as the metaphors in a leading article, and compare in my imagination vague Grecian eyes gazing at nothing, Byzantine eyes of drilled ivory staring upon a vision, and those eyelids of China and India, those veiled or half-veiled eyes weary of world and vision alike.

A few pages later he speaks of a Byzantine technique of drilling the pupil of the eye in ivory, which gives “to Saint and Angel a look of some great bird staring at miracle.” Birds, it needs no stressing, are this poet’s image for the soul: swan, falcon, even “a portly green-pated bird.”

There is a place, a single line though repeated as a refrain, where ever so much of this constatation of figurative thought —which I have somewhat too laboriously tried to ravel out for its better visibility—occurs in unity. If there truly is something one might call “poetic thought” distinguishable from the other kind, the rational, linear kind (though existing neither in opposition to it nor in independence of it), this instance is one of its most striking appearances. In “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” a poem concerned with the same themes as “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” the sixth part is a lyric called “The Stare’s Nest by My Window.” “In the West of Ireland,” the poet tells us, “we call a starling a stare, and during the civil war one built in a hole in the masonry by my bedroom window.” Given that chance —that a starling is called a stare—this is what he makes of it.

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

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.

The poem is immediately lovely, immediately appealing, all by itself; even more so with our entertaining remote and perhaps parodied echoes from the parable of the lion and the honeycomb. But taken as the flowering of an entire poetic language, for which I have tried to trace through the poetry some of the elements, it becomes even further charged, as the refrain brings indissolubly together in one phrase the meanings I have indicated in separation. The empty house of the stare, for the bird has flown. The empty house of the stair, the winding stair which brings one out to the summit of mind and the end of history, where the tower—we are told by Jeffares that it had never been roofed according to Lutyens’ plan but had a concrete roof instead—resembles every modern nation in being “half-dead at the top.” And the empty house of the stare, the eyes staring out of an empty head, madness within staring at civil war without.


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