W.B. Yeats: The Fascination of What’s Difficult

William Butler Yeats, Irish poet

William Butler Yeats, Irish poet

I want to continue with the idea of modern difficulty but first, a digression. In my previous post I mentioned the irony inherent in W.H. Auden’s elegy to William Butler Yeats, ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’  (Link to Auden reading the first part of poem below.) The primary irony I was referring to was using a line of poetry to dismiss poetry. The second regarded the significance of the elegy. Yeats was an Irish Nationalist, however his active involvement in the cause varied through time. Despite this, he was a catalyst for the Irish Literary Revival and wrote some of the most significant elegies for the Irish political plight, immortalizing in verse the moment in time and those involved. This of course is not ‘nothing.’  In the poem, Auden questions the social viability of art but the irony is that he does it through poetry, or what he calls the mouth, perhaps the most viable option for change. The question to ask is how can poetry ‘make nothing happen’ while simultaneously being ‘a way of happening’? This is from part II of Auden’s elegy:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
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.

That’s the end of the digression. Some food for thought. Now let’s move on to Yeats’s poetics.

‘Modern Poetry’ anthologies often begin with Yeats because he straddled the line between Romanticism and what we call Modernism. Yeats struggled with his position both temporally and artistically. In terms of the latter, he often vacillated (poetically and politically, Yeats was clearly indecisive). In any event, in his poem ‘Coole and Ballyhee, 1931’ he wrote, ‘we are the last romantics.’ (Most poets after Yeats will have you believe they had severed all allegiances to Romanticism—don’t believe them. Eliot himself was a covert Romantic.)

Yeats’s poem ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’ (1912) is an interesting poem regarding his liminal position between romanticism and modernism. He begins by stating that the admiration for ‘what’s difficult’ has left him empty of spontaneous poetic power (Yeats was interested in the occult, especially Hermeticism and automatic writing); he is both ‘rent’ (without) of ‘natural content’ meaning poetic power and material and ‘content’ meaning happiness. He is complaining about the movement toward modernism and how the pedantry necessary for it will take the joy out of writing. However, the poem is also about freeing the Pegasus, the colt that symbolizes poetry. There is a natural strain in Yeats’s poem; at once a freeing and a containing: the bounding colt now seems as though it ‘drag[s] road metal’ and is stabled.

en: Portrait of William Butler Yeats by John S...

During the poem’s composition, Yeats was running the Abbey Theatre (consider the theme of the stage in the last post on Stevens). Here it seems it is the ‘Theatre business, management of men’ that pulled him from romantic Irish mysticism to the world of modernity. This poem, through form and content, so cleverly portrays the inherent struggle with desiring to move forward while longing for the past. It is a nostalgia recollected at the moment of significant, positive personal change. Yeats sees and understands the fascination of what’s difficult. In pulling out the bolt he frees the Pegasus, allowing him to write however he wants. He refuses to give in to the pedantry of modernism, to ‘shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt’, and so should readers of modern poetry. Yeats was a modern poet but he never lost sight of the Pegasus. So take from all poetry what you see and capitalize on change but never compromise yourself.

Here’s the poem.

The Fascination of What’s Difficult

The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood,
Nor on an Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,
Theatre business, management of men.
I swear before the dawn comes around again
I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

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9 responses to “W.B. Yeats: The Fascination of What’s Difficult

  1. I was reading this last night and hoping you would post something on Yeats. 😀 Thank you.

  2. Excellent!! Yeats was such a fascinating writer and I think you nailed the analysis. Cheers!

  3. Hi thebrokentower. Thank you for liking ‘Few’ Best Wishes. The Foureyed Poet.

  4. I’ve read a few Yeats poems, and liked most of them, but this one was new to me; thanks for the introduction. And thanks for liking my “Logistics” poem!

  5. I have always perceived a certain sense of frustration in the last two lines of this poem. Essentially, the freedom he would achieve could come only by unleashing the poetic process in its agitated (Modern) form. I don’t know that I believe what he swears, that he will “find the stable”, as if this is an action he cannot fully picture, and thus cannot fully perform. That release never comes within these lines, and therefore I’ve always assumed that the object here is not to free oneself from what is difficult, but rather to revel in the multitude of intellectual, emotional, linguistic, and cultural opportunities that present themselves to a poet in a shifting world. To remain fascinated.

  6. This blog post was very interesting. I have not read that much about Yeats, so I am unfamiliar with his work, but I have been thinking a lot about the American poetic tradition and what that tradition looked like in the rise of Modernist poetry. I find it interesting that Yeats felt that Modernist poetry: Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
    Spontaneous joy and natural content
    Out of my heart.
    I have been studying the minority poets of this time in the 20th century, and many of them desired more “freedom” in their poetry, but the poetic tradition was primarily characterized by Eliot and Pound, therefore “good” poetry was judged against their poetry. I have enjoyed studying this topic, and I enjoyed your blog about Yeats. Now, I shall go read more Yeats!!

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