This is the third book review in the series “Poets on Poetry.” Reviews of books in this series can be found at “Poets on Poetry.”
In my mid-twenties, I spent a year reading all of Yeats books that I could at the time find in print. In my mind, I refer to it as my Yeats Year... though in reality it may have been closer to a year and a half.
I began by reading his Complete Poems cover to cover, then read volumes of his plays and prose works as I could find them: Essays and Introductions; Autobiographies; Mythologies; Explorations; Irish Myth, Legend and Folk Lore; Selected Plays; Complete Plays; A Vision; and volumes I have forgotten or lost over time. At the end of the year, I bought a newer used-copy of Complete Poems and read that again, cover to cover.
Since I was so immersed in Yeats and all things Yeatsian, that second read-through of the Complete Poems was simply magical. If there were “world enough and time,” that is the way I would read every important poet. In heaven – if there truly is a heaven and it is the way I like to think about it and I get to it – I will have “world enough and time” to read poetry that way… to do many things in a mindful and unhurried way.
According to my usual note on the inside front cover, I started reading Essays and Introductions in March of 1985. At that time I was living in Saginaw, Michigan. I spent my days as pastor of a small inner-city congregation, running an after-school program at a community center, and providing extra pastoral help for a large downtown congregation. I was busy… but I was single and filled with energy. I worked and I read.
By March of 1985, I knew I was going to leave the ministry. I probably also knew that I was going to stay at that congregation until at least August, or until they found a replacement (I ended up being there until October). I had no idea, though… as I still have no idea… of what I was going to do next.
I would have been reading Essays and Introductions then in my small congregation-provided apartment with borrowed furniture in an old Victorian home on the “white-side” of the river (my congregation was on the “black-side’). The copy I read, and still own, I purchased in a used-book store in Ann Arbor. The previous owner… a student at the University of Michigan I have always assumed, an obviously a male by the handwriting… made a few notes on the inside front cover and underlined or highlighted a just few lines in the first essay only.
I open now the volume that has sat on my bookshelves now for 26 years and read again lines I underlined and highlighted what now seems like a life time ago. The spine is cracked, and pages falling loose. As I turn pages I hear and feel more glue giving way. A great treasure in an earthen vessel.
I read now the words I see. Lines written by one of greatest of all poets about poetry and art, about other poets and other artists, about Ireland and language.
“Whenever one finds a fine verse one wants to read it to somebody, and it would be much less trouble and much pleasanter if we all could listen, friend by friend, lover by beloved.” (cf. essay “Speaking the Psaltery”)
“What was the good of writing a love song if the singer pronounced love ‘lo-0-o-o-o-ve,’ or even if he said ‘love,’ but did not give it the exact place and weight in the rhythm?” (cf. essay “Speaking the Psaltery”)
“I cannot now think symbols less than the greatest of all powers whether they are used consciously by the masters of magic, or half unconsciously by their successors, the poet, the musician and the artist.” (cf. essay “Magic”)
“[William Morris'] vision is true because it is poetical, because we are a little happier when looking at it….” (cf. essay “The Happiest of the Poets”)
“[Shelley] believed imagination a kind of death; and he could hardly have helped perceiving that an image that has transcended particular time and place becomes a symbol, passes beyond death, as it were, and becomes a living soul.” (cf. essay “The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry”)
“… there is for every man some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life, for wisdom first speaks in images, and that this one image, if he would but brood over it his life long, would lead his soul, disentangled from unmeaning circumstance and the ebb and flow of the world, into that far household where the undying gods await all whose souls have become simple as flame, whose bodies have become quiet as an agate lamp.” (cf. essay “The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry”)
“There have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the future mixed her breath into their breath and shook her hair about them, and hid them from the understanding of their times. William Blake was one of these men…. He announced the religion of art…” (cf. essay “William Blake and the Imagination”)
“I care not whether a man is good or bad, all I care is whether he is a wise man or a fool. Go put off holiness and put on intellect.” (cf. essay “Blake’s Illustrations to Dante”)
“Religious and visionary people, monks and nuns, medicine-men and opium-eaters, see symbols in their trances; for religious and visionary thought is about perfection and the way to perfection; and symbols are the only things free enough from all bonds to speak of perfection.” (cf. essay (“Symbolism in Painting”)
“… I doubt indeed… that love itself would be more than an animal hunger but for the poet and his shadow the priest….” (cf. essay (“Symbolism in Painting”)
“The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me, is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation….” (cf. essay (“Symbolism in Painting”)
“Man has wooed and won the world, and has fallen weary, and not, I think, for time, but with a weariness that will not end until the last autumn, when the stars shall be blown away like withered leaves. He grew weary when he said, ‘These things that I touch and see and hear are alone real,’ for he saw them without illusion at last, and found them but air and dust and moisture. And now he must be philosophical above everything, even about the arts, for he can only return the way he came, and so escape from weariness, by philosophy. The arts arts, I believe, about to take upon their shoulders the burdens that have fallen from the shoulders of priests, and to lead us back upon our journey by filling our thoughts with the essences of things, and not with things.” (cf. essay “The Autumn of the Body”)
“Three types of men have made all beautiful things, Aristocracies have made beautiful manners, because their place in the world puts them above the fear of life, and the countrymen have made beautiful stories and beliefs, because they have nothing to lose and so do not fear, and the artists have made all the rest, because Providence has filled them with recklessness. All these look backward to a long tradition, for, being without fear, they have held to whatever pleased them.” (cf. essay “Poetry and Tradition”)
“We artists have taken over-much to heart that old commandment about seeking the Kingdom of Heaven.” (cf. essay “Discoveries”)
“No playwright ever has made or ever will make a character that will follow us out of the theatre as Don Quixote follows us out of the book….” (cf. essay “Discoveries”)
“The imaginative writer differs from the saint in that he identifies himself – to the neglect of his own soul, alas! – with the soul of the world, and frees himself from all that is impermanent in that soul, an ascetic not of women and wine, but of the newspapers.” (cf. essay “Discoveries”)
“I think that before the religious change that followed on the Renaissance men were greatly preoccupied with their sins, and that to-day they are troubled by other men’s sins.” (cf essay “Art and Ideas”)
“Religion had denied the sacredness of an earth that commerce was about to corrupt and ravish, but when Spenser lived the earth had still its sheltering sacredness.” (cf. essay “Edmund Spenser”)
“A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedy, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness….” (cf. “A General Introduction for my Work”)
“Style is almost unconscious. I know what I have tried to do, little what I have done.” (cf. “A General Introduction for my Work”)
“I wanted all my poetry to be spoken on a stage or sung…. I have spent my life clearing from poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to syntax that is for the ear alone.” (cf. “A General Introduction for my Work”)
The last quote above sums up Yeats as a poet better than all the many volumes of critical study that have been written about him and his poetry. I close the volume again and place it reverently back upon the shelf. For a long time I sit looking outside… into the beautiful summer day.