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Poetry and Phantasmagoria

ISSUE:  Summer 1991
Yeats and the Poetry of Death: Elegy, Self-Elegy, and the Sublime. By Jahan Ramazani. Yale. $21.50.

Yeats believes that poetry and phantasmagoria are one. “The poet is never the man who sits down to breakfast,” he reminds us in “A General Introduction for My Work,” “there is always some phantasmagoria.” The poet is the one who is reborn as “an idea,” perfected, become complete. He does so by facing and responding to the most difficult prospect, the absolute violation of his radical innocence, the ultimate loss of love in death, with the grandest phantasmagoria, the most sublime poetry. “I shall find the dark grown luminous, the void fruitful, when I understand that I have nothing, that the ringers in the tower have appointed for the hymen of the soul a passing bell.”

Such poetic confrontations call forth an impersonal compensatory energy and produce the antithetical mask of all that one is as the imaginative counter-ideal to what has been lost. “Does not all art come when a nature, that never ceases to judge itself, exhausts personal emotion in action or desire so completely that something impersonal, something that has nothing to do with action or desire, suddenly starts into its place, something which is as unforeseen, as completely organised, even as unique, as the images that pass before the mind between sleeping and waking?” Experience is then for Yeats what it is for Emerson in his great essay of that name, the field of loss, what Yeats in A Vision calls “the Body of Fate.” And art, particularly poetry for Yeats, becomes thereby the human will’s constructive aesthetic response to all-devouring time.

Although in this formulation, as Ramazani shows, there are echoes and parallels to a variety of theorists from Longinus, Kant and Nietzsche to Heidegger and Freud and beyond, the origins for this ecstatic romantic model of tragic sublimity are essentially literary, Shakespearean. In Shakespeare, as the tragic hero faces his own or a loved one’s death, there is an enlargement of his vision that the heightening of his rhetoric embodies: “The heroes of Shakespeare convey to us through their looks, or through the metaphorical patterns of their speech, the sudden enlargement of their vision, their ecstasy at the approach of death.” Tragic knowledge brings tragic joy, as the poetic mask and the muse of death become, momentarily, one.

In Yeats and the Poetry of Death, Jahan Ramazani understands all this. And he presents it lucidly, even elegantly, in three substantial and tightly interwoven chapters that define, respectively, Yeats’s experiments with the elegy form in such poems as the Gregory elegies and “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” his tragic visionary aesthetics of the sublime worked out in such poems as “The Magi,” “The Second Coming,” and “Lapis Lazuli,” and Yeats’ perfection of what Ramazani, referring to such late masterful lyrics as “The Circus Anaimals’ Desertion” and “Man and the Echo,” rightly terms “the self-elegy.” Drawing on the great body of scholarship, criticism, and theory now surrounding the poetry, Ramazani synthesizes and subordinates these secondary materials, putting them in service to the formal perspective created by his sensitive reading of the primary sources, with the result being that the reader feels the formal dimensions of the poetry have truly been uncovered, rather than buried, by this theme.

For Ramazani, Yeats’ poetry, especially his elegies and self-elegies, are ecstatic acts of intellectual and imaginative deliverance, a wresting of order from the chaos of life, brought about by the confrontation with death. Citing a relevant passage from A Vision about the soul after death in judgment upon itself, Ramazani tellingly translates Yeats’ gnostic spiritualism into his more familiar tragic aesthetic: “Like a Shakespearean hero before the moment of death, Yeats’ Spirit reviews the most intense experiences of its life, purges them of the trivial and circumstantial, and fits them into an aesthetic totality, before finally gaining its freedom.” So, too, the Yeatsian speaker in the elegies and self-elegies achieves this comprehensive overview only at the brink of death.

The problem with this extremist aesthetic, this composing poetic versions of one’s life always in the midst of destruction and death, is that the occasions that make the poetry possible become sought out as “the desolation of reality” that inspires sublime song, and so become valued and valuable, as a necessary vision of evil. Personally and politically, this can lead to disaster, as Yeats casts a cold eye on life, on death, or becomes intoxicated with the prospects of destruction a new Fascist barbarism is sure to produce. Given Yeats’ quest for “tragic joy,” then, one can all too easily become a connoisseur of catastrophe in one’s life and in the world around one. The aesthetics of the sublime in Yeats’ hands at times becomes the aesthetics of moral disaster: “In psychological [and political] terms, the hero and the poet surmount the threat of the destructive father [and destructive authority] through identification with” such irrational authority. We now know the terrible costs of such identifications all too well.

The thing that may redeem Yeats in the end, according to Ramazani, in such poems as “Man and the Echo,” is that he brings himself to judgment on precisely this point, and finds himself guilty and worthy of annihilation in the “great night,” memorializing not one more moment of tragic joy, but instead the simple death of a rabbit whose torturous cry has distracted his self-consuming thought:

Man.        O rocky voice
Shall we in that great night rejoice?
What do we know but that we face
One another in this place?
But hush, for I have lost the theme
Its joy or night seem but a dream;
Up there some hawk or owl has struck
Dropping out of sky or rock,
A stricken rabbit is crying out
And its cry distracts my thought.

Whether or not one can agree with even this partial exculpation is the major theme of Ramazani’s eloquent “Coda” to his book.

I myself have written on Yeats many times, have taught his poetry even more times, and have found it impossible to reach a definitive moral judgment on the vision in his work. Aesthetically, there is no poetry in English, in the 20th century, filled with more memorable lines. Whole poems come unbidden into the mind, even when the ostensible subject to be illustrated in class or in an essay is not even remotely connected with poetry. On this aesthetic ground., Yeats must be judged to have been a great success in gaining a significant measure of symbolic immortality by coming to possess our minds. And yet, in the concluding lines of Ramazani’s excellent study, one of the finest books on Yeats in some time, I cannot help but hear the echo of my own thoughts:

“In such poems as “A Dream of Death,” “Lapis Lazuli,” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” Yeats shows us that he depends on death for his poetries of mourning, of joyful assertion, and of self-definition. It is true, however, of poems like “Under Ben Bulben,” so I have tried to unravel the rhetorical and psychic structures by which a few such poems grant themselves their power over us. And yet any such attempt at demystification—unpacking the power relation among Yeats, death, and the reader—ends up reinscribing itself in another mystification; for the very focus of this study on death, and its own desire to persuade, must duplicate the sometimes coercive use of death that it tries to interrupt and analyze. “Man has created death,” Yeats proclaims, but with its power to dignify, inspire, and tyrannize, death sometimes seems to have created “Man.”“

And certainly, however wonderful the poetry produced from this aesthetic, we cannot afford to indulge in it any longer, can we?


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