A Vision “Twofold Always” in The Wild Swans at Coole
Blake closes a letter to his friend Thomas Butts with the verses of a prayer: “Now I a fourfold vision see / And a fourfold vision is given to me / ‘Tis fourfold in my supreme delight / And three fold in soft Beulah’s night / And twofold Always. May God us keep / From Single vision & Newton’s sleep” (479). For Blake, as well as for Yeats, poetic vision means seeing the world given to the senses as doubled and redoubled in patterns of meaning that transcend sensation. Blake’s “Single vision [of] Newton’s sleep,” or what in “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” Yeats calls “grey truth,” can see in the shape of human lives only the convergence of contingencies; man’s desires and predicaments become the mere epiphenomena of an atomic chaos, or Tate’s “drowsy cubes of human dust.” Poets seek to see more. A symbolic poet such as Yeats or Blake is fiercely aware that, in in this search, he resists the fundamental disposition of his age, even its “truth.”
In the solitude of lyric form, a poet shapes out of his inner life a symbolic language to reenshrine the complexities of human experience. A poem is a “twisted echo-harboring shell” that repeats the human story “in melodious guile” turning “fretful words” over and over until they “melting fade in ruth / And die a pearly brotherhood.” If so, the poet himself is a kind of oyster that slowly, out of a constant inner irritation, spins a pure globe into being. Louise Cowan writes that “The lyric mode depicts what Keats describes as ‘the wakeful anguish of the soul’ at the still center, when it feels its own separation from plenitude” (13). In the process of the poem’s rewording and reworking, its original irritated impulse to cry out may “melt” and “fade” into the silence of its englobed and finally impenetrable form. This will not be the blank silence of materiality though, but a hushed attentiveness that intuits unheard depths in experience. As A.G. Stock writes: “Yeats set out from the belief that there is that in man which underlies all experience. Poetry is a discovery of the inner soul, which emerges when all outward preoccupations are stilled, like a shy ghost, to possess the deserted landscape” (38). The Wild Swan’s at Coole, perhaps the first collection of Yeats’ artistic maturity, brings together poems ranging in mode from meditation set within life’s natural backdrop, to the commemoration of dead friends, to attempts at metaphysical allegory. While the combination may jar modern sensibilities, Yeats bound these poems in one volume because–like Dante–he saw correspondences among the orders of nature, human relationships, and spiritual destiny, and because–like Blake–he was committed, even when reflecting on the “natural” or familiar world, to see with a double vision always.
The collection’s opening and title poem signal the beginning of a new poetic phase for Yeats. Louis Macneice notes that, in this collection, “most noticeabl[y different from Yeats’ prior work] are the direct poems he wrote about his own experiences—the people he really knew, the swans he really saw” (109). The collection gains power from setting aside mythical material, allegorical figures, and conventionally “poetic” language. Macneice writes that “what [Yeats] is saying is still often very peculiar, sometimes esoteric, but he says it with an air as if it were the whole man speaking” (110). Yeats sheds his coat of lovingly embroidered “old mythologies,” judging that (his first attempts at a mysterious style being too easy to cheapen by poor imitation) “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” And in “Wild Swan’s at Coole” we are addressed by a grippingly “naked” voice, one that does not presume bardic impersonality from the outset but wins its authority in following through on transformative trajectories already present in experience itself. The technique Yeats adopts here—dramatic monologue where the actual man and his poetic persona appear in simultaneous and constant interplay—he will employ to the end of his career, exploring very strange territory indeed.
In the “Wild Swans at Coole,” however, we seem to be securely in the human world. The poem gives voice to an ordinary mind in a natural landscape, musing (as if) casually on its muted concerns. Swans, autumn forest, still sky, and lake-top are what they are. The pure and unchanging cycle of nature speaks to the poet of human difference and aging. Looking in the still mirror of nature, he recognizes that, over the course of the last nineteen years (the first of the twentieth century), everything that in itself has remained the same has become starkly different to him: “all’s changed.” The spare and unassuming beauty of the poem’s images, gliding in a cool, quiet current of seemingly undirected meditation, nevertheless betrays the emergence of a certain pattern–a spiritual movement all the more convincing because arising as if unsummoned from “familiar matter of today.”
The first stanza simply lets us find ourselves within the autumn scene. Yet within the serene extroversion we catch small enlivening indications of focus and care in the eye that composes the scene. That the ground of that care remains unexpressed makes the whole picture uncanny, full of possibility. The eye, accompanied by a walking-pace ballad meter, falls downward from the autumn trees to the “dry path” then down again to the surface of the lake. But here suddenly, the focus sharpens, the meter slows and intensifies: “the water / Mirrors a still sky.” There is the merest flash of a conscious image, as well as (though this reversal is perfectly orchestrated by the logic of the landscape itself) a sudden shift of the eye from listless decline to a wide awake leap to the sky. Something in the pane of natural description has been disturbed, doubled in its presence. This turn is underscored by the poem’s insistence on the count of the swans: “Upon the brimming water among the stones / Are nine and fifty swans.” The numeral implies the force of each swan in the viewer’s awareness—and his own attempt to see them individually and together at once.
In “The Mimetic Principle,” John Crowe Ransom compares the kind of imitation done by a camera and that a painter makes. What is the special value of the latter? “The photograph is a mechanical imitation perhaps but not a psychological one. It was obtained by the adjustment of the camera and the pressing of the button, actions … that … indicate no attitude necessarily, no love; but the painting reveals the arduous pains of the artist. We are excited by these pains proportionately; they give the painting its human value; … we never discover in the work a single evidence of technique, discipline, deliberation, without having the value enhanced further. The pains measure the love” (209). While its credibly human voice emerges without effort from its natural scene and takes its color from the ambiance of the season, Yeats’ poem is undoubtedly a “psychological imitation.” With partially effaced but nevertheless willful care and decision, he applies “that stern colour and that delicate line” of “our secret discipline / Wherein the gazing heart doubles her might.” Yeats remains concerned with life’s transcendent trajectories, and the pain out of which this poem grows is the inescapable sense that his own life-energies, “passion and conquest,” will inevitably dissolve into the grey “twilight” of a merely natural life—“rolled round in earth’s diurnal course.”
The sharp, white outlines of swans against the fading light gain focus from his recollection of how they appeared nineteen years before–defying gravity in an Iliadic “sudden … mount[ing] / And … wheeling in great broken rings / Upon their clattering wings”–gain focus from the memory of how he too “[t]rod with a lighter tread” to hear “the bell-beat of their wings” nineteen years ago. The passage of time, his growing older, and his soreness of heart that “all’s changed” for him since then–the very difference between his present and remembered selves complicates and sharpens the beauty that birds possess for him. Their pure, graceful embodiment of life and power, the immediacy of their movements, their self-continuity in time, represent a mode of being from which his accumulated experience alienates him. The birds thus enforce on him his human difference, his capacity for sustaining loss. Out of this self-knowledge arise psychic possibilities not intuited before. One of these–that of human community-through-poetry–where losses may take on meaningful form glimmers in the query of the final lines:
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
The swans have become an image of the poet’s lost singleness of passion—an image that lives in a poem. So in asking what the swans will be, him absent, the poet figures the acceptance of his death, and offers up these now external symbols of his inner world to the unknown life they will live in the “delight” of other “men’s eyes.” Even if he himself will be drawn ungraciously back into the material ground, the spiritual impulse that he followed through to poetic form will continue to live in the human community.
The swans, then, are real and natural swans, but they appear finally in a doubled and tripled poetic vision. They are seen through the eyes of Yeats’ present attention as signals of his life’s alienations and complexities; they are seen through the eyes of his recollected joy as images of the human drive to self-transcendence; and they are seen through the imagined eyes of “other men” as prayerful projections towards a shadowy human communion. The four folds of the image—as natural object, as soul-unifying focus, as signal of human differences, and as opening through the pain of alienation the possibility of human communion—are all implicitly present in a single moment of vision. By embracing the limits of voice and depiction imposed by the conventions of a Wordsworthian naturalism, the poem engages the modern mind’s drift toward materialism and, ultimately, manages to incorporate the weight of that drift toward death-in-life into a shadowing-forth of the world of the spirit.
The subsequent poems of the collection unfold orders of meaning implied in the image of the swans. In poems dealing with the deaths of Robert Gregory and Mabel Beardsley, Yeats shows how individual lives may shine within (and somehow beyond) the realm of human relationships. The elegy, “Shepherd and Goatherd,” near the center of the volume, forms an imaginative bridge between commemorations of dead friends and the allegorical visions with which the collection ends. The pattern of the whole volume, then, reveals the coherence of Yeats’ poetic cosmos, unfolding its highest metaphysical configurations out of the world of familiar relationships. Yeats can be seen as a poet with the sort of “symbolic imagination” exemplified by Dante who, according to Allen Tate, “not only begins with a common thing; he continues with it, until at the end we come by disarming stages to a scene that no man has looked upon before. Every detail of Paradise is a common thing; it is the cumulative combination and recombination of natural objects beyond their ‘natural’ relations which staggers the imagination” (300-1). In bearing with, and reflecting on the conflicts and graces wrapped up in human loves, one begins to intuit possible reconfigurations of the world “beyond its natural relations.” Here that intuition is occasioned by Yeats’ seeing the marks of heroism or high style in the lives of friends: how a Robert Gregory or a Mabel Beardsley, dying, has realized some pure and unique commitment or impulse.
Like “Wild Swans at Coole,” “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” presents a moment in Yeats’ personal life, set in the familiar world. The poem’s monologue is addressed to his recently married wife, and develops out of the couple’s loneliness in their new home; the couple’s anxieties of adjustment are present in the background. They are imagined as “almost settled” in their house, but with no other company to “sup with us / Beside a fire of turf in th’ancient tower.” House, hearth, table, married couple—these are symbols of communal gathering, hospitality—spiritual centers around which human relationships form. But this house is empty, and (Yeats reflects with somewhat cynical wisdom) to gather one’s disparate friends is as likely to cause confusion, strain, and quarrel as harmony. Such difficulties are doubled, if one bring together the friends of two very different individuals, especially if married perhaps:
Always we’d have the new friend meet the old
And we are hurt if either friend seem cold,
And there is salt to lengthen out the smart
In the affections of our heart,
And quarrels are blown up upon that head;
The soul-shaping claim of friend on friend leads instinctively to the desire to bring one’s friends together. If “the close companions of many a year” become “A portion of [one’s] mind and life,” then the uniting of all one’s friends—each of whom calls forth and partially owns a different aspect of one’s person—might bring together all the dimensions of one’s being, expressing them in the many mirrorings and re-inflections of self in other and other in self that characterize a community of love. But to the extent that humans are creatures of heat rather than light, one’s inner loyalties will pull against each other. “Quarrels,” wounds, and “smarts,” exacerbated by the stinging “salt” of persistent affections, are part of the “hammering into unity” that is the work of any community, marriage, or individual life.
Sometimes it is better that the home be empty of living guests. To invoke instead those friends that have been simplified by death, Yeats suggests, has special power to move one’s being toward unity. The shadowy claims they represent are no less essential, but somehow quieter than the warmer ties of the living: “[N]ot a friend that I can bring / This night can set us quarreling, / For all that come into my mind are dead.” The finished lives of Lionel Johnson, John Synge, George Pollexfen each represent an ascending movement through life’s tensions towards unity. And though these dead friends are like calming touchstones for the mind, the fact that they have been dead for some time perhaps oversimplifies their power: “[they] seem to look / Out of some old picture-book; / I am accustomed to their lack of breath.” Robert Gregory, just over the threshold of death, is the more appropriate psychopomp for quieting and deepening living minds and hearts. His death still possesses the freshness of an affront, a “discourtesy,” and his claim on Yeats still possess something like the heat of life, though already strangely altered by the fact of death. Glenn Arbery argues that, because of Achilles’ raging ties to the dead Hektor and Patroklos–“one of them beloved, one of them hated”–their passing souls hold transforming powers for his own. Because part of him dies with them, they “precede the hero into death” and precipitate his anagnorisis and transformation. Only through releasing friend and foe and reconciling his passions in a surpassingly intimate embrace of death’s mystery does he enter into his own depth of soul (50).
Indeed, part of what calls to Yeats in Robert is the fact that his image still lacks the completion he perceives in those of his other friends. As poet, Yeats will seek out and bring to presence the inner simplicity, the formal radiance of his life. Macneice writes that “Yeats in his poems treated … Major Robert Gregory in the same way that Shakespeare treated his tragic heroes and heroines; the hero is conceded full individuality. … This means simplification, means … the elimination from the tragic figure of all psychology except some simple trends, it means the explanation of a man not by his daily life but by one or two great moments” (109). In the process of the poem’s composition, then, Yeats and Robert will each become a pyschopomp for the other. Yeats, through the healing work poetry and memory (whose patterns move in an opposite direction to those of life), draws his friend’s broken story toward its full and radiant image. Robert, receding deeper into death, leads his friend inward to the realm of psyche, where life’s self-forgetful and strangely unmotivated graces and powers may be found.
But this mutual guiding and deepening of souls requires that Yeats first of all explore how the common, this-worldly regions register his friend’s absence. He calls to mind the wrongness of Robert’s death, the excellences that it cut short. His daring as a horseman caused the “astonished” crowd to “shut their eyes”: “and where was it / He rode a race without a bit? / And yet his mind outran the horse’s feet.” As a painter, he shared with Yeats’ “our secret discipline” of the “stern color and the delicate line.” This “secrecy” implies an art impelled by the urgencies of aloneness, and fulfilled for its own sake. Nevertheless, such a discipline, if true to itself, also possesses the unselfconscious freedom and “intensity to have published all / To be a world’s delight.” Skilled “in all the lovely intricacies of a house,” Robert could have bestowed a touch of ennobling grace and humanity on the couple’s still unfamiliar home. Yeats tells his wife how the young man “might have been your heartiest welcomer” to the region, since his painter’s eye loved all the surrounding landscape’s “minute particulars”–its shadowy composition of man-made structures and nature’s shifting life. “And all he did [was] done perfectly / As if he had but that one trade alone.” Each of Robert’s “trades”—“soldier, scholar, horseman”—are seen as free unfoldings of a simultaneously self-completing and self-transcending inner life.
In naming the dead man his own bride’s “heartiest welcomer,” and in imagining him as the supreme embodiment of all that he admires in himself, Yeats self-emptyingly endows his friend, making riches out of his own sense of insufficiency. For Yeats sits uncertainly by his wife, “burn[ing the] damp faggots” of his now aging life, in a lonely house that he cannot fill with the warm welcome of living friends. In stark contrast, oppositely in fact, Major Robert
The entire combustible world in one small room
As though dried straw, and if we turn about
The bare chimney is gone black out
Because the work had finished in the flare.
Through this stark antithesis between them, the young man becomes an image of Yeats’ soul. Yeats is adopting the heroic form of his friend’s life as the pattern of his own poetic calling. He can recognize Robert Gregory’s self-sacrifice–how all his psychic energies met and consumed themselves in sudden a blaze of glory–only because he inwardly participates in a like dedication. To enshrine the dead man in a poem becomes, for Yeats, an act of self-dedication to everything implied in the shared possessive, “our,” “our secret discipline.” Where the rest of the crowd “close their eyes” at the horseman’s daring leap, Yeats looks on. In a self-purifying and finally self-forgetting trance, Yeats sees the young man go ahead of him to death. And, in forgetting himself, he enters into the death-in-life of his poetic calling, a secret discipline that transforms as it consumes the energies of natural life into the autotelic forms of spiritual activity.
“In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” is immediately followed by “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death,” which Yeats speaks in the voice and persona of Robert Gregory. Only the poet’s self-forgetting act of imagination can speak with authority from within the hero’s act of self-sacrifice, restoring his voice. According to a mapping Yeats would recognize, the spiritual courses of poet and hero double back over and recapitulate each other.
The last poems of The Wild Swans at Coole are arranged according to Yeats’ mappings of human life onto the phases of the moon. Man’s life is drawn back and forth between its movement towards dissipation in a material chaos (represented by the moon waning dark) and its movement towards plenitude and form (represented by the moon waxing full): “caught between the pull / Of the dark moon and the full.” To the extent that either movement comes to pure fruition, it lies just beyond the limit of conscious experience. The mimesis either of life’s fulfillment–an active composure that is “still and still-moving”–or of its dissolution occurs only through a symbolization of experience.The realization of either of these states would either dissolve or entirely resolve the region of separation in which representation takes place. Cleanth Brooks writes, in reference “Among School Children’s” great-rooted blossomer and mysterious dancer, that “[f]ull life is instinctive. … It is a harmony which is too blind to be aware of its own harmony. … Or, again as Yeats liked to put it in his last years: ‘man can embody truth but he cannot know truth’ ” (190). Equally, if less mysteriously, pure materiality is a chaos too blind to be aware of its own chaos. Thus, in “The Phases of the Moon,” Yeats’ speaker Michael Robartes says that, under the full or the blank new moon, human life either ceases altogether “or is cast out and cast away / Beyond the visible world.”
These final states appear in poetry as figures to tempt the contemplating mind towards patterns of activity that, lying beyond the realm of poetry, may nevertheless work out their embodiment in a life’s emergent forms: “Man can embody truth but he cannot know truth.” As Tate writes, “The intricacies of Yeats’s system provide for many of the permutations of this relation [between pure inwardness and pure externality]; but it cannot foresee them all, and we are constantly brought back to the individual man, not as a symbolic counter, but as a personality rich and unpredictable. … [T]he system is constantly absorbed into action” (308). In the Paradiso, Dante’s imaginings of one radiant life after another rise continually upward, until finally he bends “high fantasy” to its breaking point to shadow forth the union of God with man. The image must fail. Yet, by gathering all the achievements of his poetry and unifying all imaginative powers toward this projection, he is initiated into that kind of unconscious movement which one can only represent through participation in it:
Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already—like
a wheel revolving uniformly—by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
The great power of allegorical poetry is to bend contemplation to a self-transcending limit and, by drawing thought together in a living image, put it to rest within its own self-sheltered center. Yeats’ tiny but perfect allegory “The Balloon of the Mind” represents this movement:
Hands, do what you’re bid:
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.
The folding of the mind’s great bellying balloon into “its narrow shed” recalls how the shepherd’s “fretful story” moves toward silence in a “twisted echo-harboring shell,” how Yeats’ meditation on “friends that cannot sup with us” will eventually lead him and his wife “up the narrow winding stair to bed.” In “The Phases of the Moon” the “strange reward” won in a life that tosses the human being backwards and forwards, inwards and outwards, is that “[t]he soul begins to tremble into stillness, / And die into the labyrinth of itself. / … / All thought becomes an image and the soul / becomes a body.” In the “Shepherd and the Goatherd,” the goatherd imagines that the shepherd who “died in the great war across the sea” will now begin to live his own life backward, unraveling the skein of his accumulated knowledge and experience until he finds its inner, quiet source:
To his own dayspring,
He unpacks the loaded pern
Of all ’twas pain or joy to learn,
Of all that he had made. / … /
Knowledge he shall unwind
Through the victories of the mind,
Till, clambering at the cradle-side,
He dreams himself his mother’s pride,
All knowledge lost in trance
Of sweeter ignorance.
Perhaps poetry itself is, as Warren writes in “Bearded Oaks,” “an hour’s term” that we can spare “in practice for eternity.” The musing memory of poetry begins to live life backward—to find emergent patterns within what life is doomed to live blindly, chaotically forward. Kathleen Raine writes that, in his “system,” Yeats “describe[s] in detail … the gradual purification, through the painful ‘dreaming back’ of our past life, ‘perhaps many times, until the spirit finds its celestial body.’ … This is what Yeats meant when he wrote that ‘wisdom is a property of the dead’” (59). What else of distinctive value do poetry’s re-writings and re-readings of experience perform if not a “dreaming back” of our shared and solitary lives towards their ultimate possibilities?
In the final poem of the collection, “The Double Vision of Micahel Robartes,” Michael Robartes sees a vision of the human world under the aspects of the new moon and the full—life as the death-in-life of sheer materiality and as the life-in-death of spiritual plenitude. Under the full moon, Robartes sees a Sphinx and a Buddha, representing the intellectual and affective dimensions of contemplation, and between them the dancing, self-forgetful soul:
O little did they care who danced between,
And little she by whom her dance was seen
So she had outdanced thought.
Body perfection brought,
For what but eye and ear silence the mind
With the minute particulars of mankind?
Mind moved yet seemed to stop
As ’twere a spinning top.
Helen Vendler interprets the figures of this animate allegory: “As all the human faculties move together—as intellect scans things known and unknown, passion scans things loved and unloved, and body transmits those activities into kinesthetic patterned energy—contemplation reaches its apogee … in dance-form” (366). In the final section of the poem, Michael Robartes is cast back upon the limited vision of ordinary experience, where the movements of the natural and spiritual life are painfully, inexplicably tangled. While his natural energies drive man blindly and often chaotically forward, his contemplative powers turn his life over again and bend it backward toward its source. These movements may seem to counter each other in rude and startling succession. But at moments—whether the “hour’s term” spared for poetry, or the kairos a heroic deed achieves—they harmonize in the unforeseen steps of a dance. As John Unterecker writes, “The first part of the poem presents a vision of elemental chaos; the second part presents a vision of elemental order. Yet life—as Yeats never wearies of pointing out—is neither one nor the other. Living man … is a compound of body and soul; experiencing simultaneously a sense of chaos and order, only in rare moments of insight can he see the whole design or contemplate its extremities. Michael Robartes, granted his double vision, does the best he can” (155). This inescapably double vision, then, is the horizon of earthly experience. In its fullest and richest moments, poetic images tempts us toward the embrace a fuller and purer sight. Such moments are given to instill in the “blind, stupefied heart” those living movements and rhythms whose sources remain somewhere just beyond our waking vision.
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