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The Extension of Poetry in Time

ISSUE:  Summer 1940

Last Poms and Plays. By W. B. Yeats. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.75. The Collected Poems of A. H. Housman. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $3.00. The Spirit Watches. By Ruth Pittcr. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.50.

William butler yeats, in more than one poem, has given us a figure by which to measure poets in their courses. It is the gyre and he has used it strikingly in “Last Poems and Plays.” Applicable to his work as the essential pattern, it there furnishes the most hopeful symbol for events in our time. This Yeatsian analysis of immediate events has been executed by him with so much clarity, in “The Gyres” and other poems here, that it is as though the spirit had flamed up in the minute before dissolution. It would have been the simpler way of dying to have dismissed our time as vile and unworthy of the effort of a patrician mind. The temptation presented itself to Yeats:

And all seems evil until I Sleepless would lie down and die.

But, as patrician as Yeats’ mind often is, it is also enduringly tough; and toughness in his case is a high spiritual quality. It is a quality which has always insisted that he be better than himself:

That were to shirk

The spiritual intellect’s great work. . . .

The pole of Yeats’ life action has been this spiritual insistence. Motive elements have been the deep pull of the senses, of personal pride and of national history, of a love of people, of the effort not to scorn the people, and the push of the hard argument of the mind. He has kept all of this directed with sternness; and it has never been more visible than in this book that his course has not been the flat spiral, but has been the rising helix of the screw. The voluptuous beauty of “the golden apples of the sun” and such imagery has grown harder as the volutes widened and the strictest control of mind pitches this last amazing upward turn. He gathers himself—all that he has thought of women, of friends, of politics, of the spiritual overworld—in these poems, to give the firmest of farewells.

The plays seem less good. They do not stand alive as his poetry stands alive. They are less thoroughly realized in his own nature. “Purgatory” is such family pride as might approach the criminal did it not recognize in the last lines its own crime and the futility of it. Cuchulain, in “The Death of Cuchulain,” is a grand and heroic figure, and lonely in his grandeur and sad; but the play also gives evidence that not even the old Yeats was chastened. A man might know the most exquisite dancers of the world without being greater in appreciation by spitting at Degas’ ballet dancers. And it was not untypical of Yeats to have spat. This book, as most of his books, shows such personal weakness; yet, there are no poets of whom I know whose last book was written so close to death and written with such defiant lucidity and such firm achievement as is this.

The Yeats volume, for one who admired both poets, is a poor preparation for Housman. “The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman” is a sobering experience. Here, beautifully and probably finally organized, is a whole career in poetry. How exquisite, one by one, each small volume seemed and the few individually printed poems, to the last. And here they are, the total gathered, indexed, with all available chronological information. Read “Spring Morning,” from “Last Poems.” By itself it is as full of morbid beauty as is, say, poem VI from “A Shropshire Lad”; and it might as well have been in that volume. This is true of poems from “Additional Poems.” It is a satisfying experience to hear a young man sing in clear tones the small tragedy of becoming two-and-twenty. It is not so satisfying to hear a note not much greater, a note hardly varied, from a man at the end of a sheltered, full, informed career which had its opportunities for spiritual growth. Irony toward war, pity toward man are noble attitudes when expressed by anyone. But the mood must deepen, the attack grow more enlightened, the maneuver as clear but more striking, if in the end the impression is not to be monotonous. Housman’s voice once affected everyone writing after him. It is as though he had infected the English-speaking world with a dainty Anglo-Saxon mal du siecle; for it was dainty, in spite of the moonlit gallows and the lovely muck. It is, finally, a shock to see so totally demonstrated that Housman’s poetic career was but one small unrising circle perfectly turned.

These patterns are completed. There is one which, I hope, is just making a strong beginning; that is the poetic career of Ruth Pitter. In “The Spirit Watches” a bright clean spiral curves up from flesh to spirit. On all of this small book there is an inner and an external light—light of the spirit, lucidity of the technique. Sensuous, passionate, compassionate, rhythmical, it is given form by one of the surest senses of restraint. It has been said that there is too much of Yeats in her work. That is a fault with some virtues and the judgment is, besides, not sufficiently based. But, granting its possible exactness, she is still the surest sign of the continuation of true poetry now visible on the English scene. The difference between her and her contemporaries is a watching and deep spirit. This is the most hopeful book among many volumes of modern poetry.

This hopefulness is no facility of spirit. It is hard-won, a wrenching from circumstance of some significance to which the mind may hold:

Even through my tears, I see her twine

Among her deathless locks divine

The star of evening, and the morning star.

Or, from the poem, “Honour to Ivan Mestrovic”: Here our long pain is justified; See where large consolation stands Perfect in love, pure from all pride, Clothed on with eyes, and limbs, and hands.

As though, in this age, ashamed of her own stubborn intention to find hope and courage, she can at times be stoically remindful of the existence of complete fatalism, as in “The Tigress,” which is odd in its derivations from Blake and from Hopkins. But even the manner of thinking there is a borrowed manner. Her natural and particular manner is one full of love, which has the varied expressions to be heard in “1938,” “The End of Fear,” “The Fishers,” and others.

Her courage and her love are matters for the spirit. But there is also matter for sight; imagery is bright in this volume and clean and individual. “The Chimneypiece” is full of the visual excitement typical of most of these verses; and there are few moments when the imagery is excessive, as it might be said to be in “The Tigress.”

If generations before us have produced the circle of Housman and the gyre of Yeats, we too shall, in spite of all circumstances, have our patterns in time. It is my expectation that Ruth Pitter’s work will be one of the best examples of our upward-turning wills and minds.


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