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.