Yeats is a complex poet. I really don’t want to launch off into a scholarly dissertation about it, but there are some bits and pieces I could throw out for consideration. Like Loren, when I discuss poetry in my blog it’s more of a personal reaction, a personal interpretation of themes and images which may or may not be academically “correct.” If I wanted to write academically about Yeats, I’ve got an inside track for that.
However, I think many things which are gleaned from reading scholarship or conversing with scholars help the process of deepening the resonance of poetry. The frequent tower image in Yeats is a good example. But before I launch into that I thought I’d offer a short description of what the work called A Vision is.
There were two primary editions of A Vision. Though it’s out of print right now, there are lots of used copies to be had. The first edition is incredibly expensive, as some may have noticed, and the second in its first printing also commands a high price. However, there are massive numbers of the paperback reprints of the second edition out there, starting at around $7.50. Just do a search on ABE and you’ll be able to find copies. What’s the big deal about the difference in editions?
The book was first printed with an introduction that was an elaborate subterfuge. Yeats describes how a book of metaphysical lore was passed on to him by a mysterious traveler from the east. It was written by Giraldus in Cracow in 1594, and it contained the system which Yeats had transcribed as A Vision. This was Yeats’s story in 1925.
In 1938, Yeats recanted through an epistolary preface entitled “A Packet for Ezra Pound,” telling the “true” source of the information in the book. He transcribed it from “spirit communications” which his wife produced through automatic writing while in a trance. The 3,000 pages of transcription of this “miracle” were eventually published separately as well, to try to lend credibility to Yeats’s story. This book supposedly has its origin in “the other side,” and the work known as A Vision is Yeats’s synopsis of the system revealed through his wife.
Regardless of the source, it’s a fascinating work. But I actually was going to talk about towers.
The image of the tower in Yeats is not the contemporary ivory tower of academia. Its source is probably best traced to Tennyson’s “Lady of Shallot.” Arthurian subject matter was a big thing in the Victorian era, which Yeats straddled during his poetic career. Like Hopkins and Hardy, Yeats is on the boundary line between Victorian and Modern. But to find the real source of conflict, you really have to go back to the Romantics, which Yeats himself did with great frequency, positioning himself in the company of Blake and Shelley.
Harold Bloom argued, as I have mentioned before, that the Romantic quest for self-knowledge was largely an internalization of the medieval quest-romance. Romantic values came into question dramatically in Tennyson, who dealt in alternating themes of engagement and withdrawal: to continue the search for self through art as a part of life, or to withdraw to a distant tower and create “art for arts sake.” There was tremendous anxiety of influence, to use another of Bloom’s terms, and the tower image is an encapsulation of a longstanding poetic conversation.
The Lady of Shallot sat in her tower, weaving a tapestry. When she fell in love with a knight far below, she traveled a river to find him and died. The message of this, to Yeats’s boyhood circle was that it was best to stay in the tower and make art. Withdraw into “art for art’s sake” as it were.
If you read Tennyson’s poem, in parallel with Yeats’s The Tower the image will become much clearer. Yeats repeats the same theme from a different perspective. The production of “art” occurs in the vista beneath the tower, rather than the tower itself. Yeats did seek to join art and life in a way far closer to the Romantics than the Victorians. But the overlaps in imagery are no mistake; he’s picked up Tennyson’s quandary and pushed it in an entirely new direction. It’s a theme that runs constantly through most of Yeats’s poems: the relationship between art and life.
But the tower is also a physical reality for Yeats. In 1917, he bought one. So when he speaks of “pacing on the battlements,” he actually did. Many of his pre- Raphaelite brethren painted the scene of the “Lady of Shallot.” Yeats went a step further and lived in a version of it.
I’m not a Yeats scholar, but I know one. Russell Murphy made Yeats live for me, and his presence haunts my thought a great deal of the time, which might be stating the obvious given the constant shadow he seems to cast over my blog. Yeats was a man with a troubled, multiple identity that shifts from poem to poem. Somehow, I can identify with that.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, I think that “Lapis Lazuli” has an affinity for Browning’s The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s, where the art looks on life with a somewhat wry grin. Yeats is like a bridge into the twentieth century, but it’s important not to forget that he is making his great stride from a start in the Victorian age.