Hard Things

I told myself years ago that I was not going to continue to beat my head against the words of difficult poets. I thought I had broken free, but for days now I’ve been reading Milton and Blake, Yeats and Keats. I told myself to keep my nose in the rhetoric of science in photography. It didn’t work. I can’t help but try to cut a few agates.

I was busy with a single art, that of a small, unpopular theatre; and this art may well seem to practical men busy with some programme of industrial or political regeneration—and in Ireland we have many excellent programmes—of no more account than the shaping of an agate; and yet in the shaping of an agate, whether in the cutting or in the making of the design, one discovers, if one have a speculative mind, thoughts that seem important and principles that may be applied to life itself. Certainly if one does not believe so, one is but a poor cutter of so hard a stone. (Yeats, Essays, 219)

Teaching today, I felt compelled to talk about how hard writing is. It is a social activity performed in private—essentially oxymoronic to the core. How one perceives the social aspect depends on the construction of an audience for the piece. In Paradise Lost, Milton was the vehicle for the heavenly muse to transmit his explanation to mortal man. However, in Areopagitica Milton was an author making a speech. Much is said of the prominence of his name on the title page; little is said of the fact that “speech” appears in boldface type larger than any other word. Books are born and have a life all their own; speeches can only be made by a human voice. The audience for the former breaks the boundaries of time; the latter speaks of responsibility. Books, it might be argued, have no real responsibility. However, it must be granted that some form of “social contract” applies to both.

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Author > Text > World

Though in one breath Yeats claims the William Blake was an author uniquely concerned with the future, in the next he claimed that the relationship between author, text, and world was not one of obligation. In his preface to the Modern Library edition of Blake’s works he edited, Yeats finds nothing troubling about Fredrick Tatham’s burning of Blake’s manuscripts after his death:

Blake himself would have felt little anger, for he had thought of burning his MS. himself, holding perhaps as Boehme held, and Swedenborg also, that there were many great things best unuttered within earshot of the world. Boehme held himself permitted to speak of much only among his “schoolfellows”; and Blake held there were listeners in other worlds than this. (xl-xli)

Yeats makes a bold move in severing the text from the world, given his corpus of politically activist poems. He holds a different perspective on philosopher/poets such as Percy Shelley. Yeats viewed Shelley as a philosopher who communicated through poetry; citing Mary Shelley’s observation that Shelley’s meanings “elude the ordinary reader by their abstraction and delicacy of distinction, but they are far from vague” (Essays 66). Further appropriating Mary Shelley’s words, Yeats assumes that “It was his [Shelley’s] design to write prose metaphysical essays on the nature of man which would have served to explain much of what is obscure in his poetry” (Essays 66). Indeed, Yeats himself seemed to follow Shelley’s design, providing copious prose to illuminate otherwise obscure poetry. The poet’s duties were not necessarily to the future of this world, but perhaps to some other. But the philosopher has a duty now for the future.

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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, and if he spoke confusedly and obscurely it was because he spoke of things for whose speaking he could find no models in the world he knew. (W.B. Yeats, Essays, 111)

I do not agree with Yeats’s appraisal. David Erdman’s Prophet against Empire makes a compelling case the Blake was indeed moved by the politics of his age to model much of his poetry against it. The world he knew was a world of conflict, and part of that conflict was the contest between reason and observation. Writing not quite a century later, for Yeats, the two had collapsed together.

The reason, and by the reason he [Blake] meant deductions from the observations of the senses, binds us to mortality because it binds us to the senses, and divides us from each other by showing our clashing interests; but imagination divides us from mortality by the immortality of beauty, and binds us to each other by opening the secret doors of all hearts. (112)

What Yeats calls “imagination” was what Blake labeled “reason.” Observation and deduction, as typified by Newton, were not equivalent with reason. Reason, for Blake, is more closely allied what might be called “self-evidence.” Beauty is the self-evident concept used by Yeats and Eliot to “bind us to eternity” through imagination. The future is a cruel mistress, for beauty seems hardly self-evident to me. The cult of Life with its capital L, with its pleasures endlessly deferred, seems hardly more than a fairy tale used to overlook the engagement and embodiment represented by each person’s struggle to make sense of it all. And yet, we cannot live without this fairy tale:

No matter what we believe with our lips, we believe with our hearts that beautiful things, as Browning said in his one prose essay that was not in verse, have “lain burningly on the Divine hand,” and that when time has become to wither, the Divine hand will fall heavily on bad taste and vulgarity. (112)