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- "The Humanistic Tradition: What's the Point?" the complete talk by John W. O'Malley, SJ (pg. 39)
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Waiting for Yeats
Boston College’s John J. Burns Library recently published online (and for the first time anywhere) William Butler Yeats’s first play—Love and Death, penned in adolescence. The little-known manuscript was tucked in a box of letters and other paper memorabilia acquired by the University from Michael Yeats, the author’s son, and its publication prompted these words by a noted Irish essayist:
There’s a case to be made that anything most authors wrote before the age of 25 should be burned.
So the question has to be asked: Why should we preserve, and publicize, this play Love and Death, which William Butler Yeats scrawled into five smallish notebooks in 1884, when he was 18? There are good reasons why the play was never published or produced. It is not a lost masterpiece.
Juvenilia can be looked at in two ways. The first is reductive. Youthful scribblings reduce the writer, show his feet of clay, his thought processes naked and raw. But you can also see such work as a point of departure, leading to a necessary self-invention. Love and Death helps us to understand how heroic an act that self-creation was in Yeats’s case.
Most of us are not geniuses, and so we like to imagine that it’s not our fault, that geniuses are born and not made. And that does happen. Arthur Rimbaud did all of his poetic work by the age of 19 and had nothing left to say. Keats died at 25, leaving a canon that remains extraordinarily radiant.
More often, however, geniuses have to make themselves. And they have to do it the hard way, gradually. This is, at first reading, why Love and Death holds our attention. We can’t take in a work like this innocently—as if we don’t know that it was written by a teenager who will become one of the great poets of the English language. But if we try to look only at the work, what we find is still moving: W.B. Yeats does not yet exist.
Yeats summarized Love and Death decades later in his Reveries over Childhood and Youth (1915): “It’s a long play on a fable suggested by one of my father’s early designs. A king’s daughter [Ginevra] loves a god seen in the luminous sky above her garden in childhood, and to be worthy of him, and put away mortality, becomes without pity and commits crimes, and at last, having made her way to the throne by murder, awaits [his coming] among her courtiers. One by one, they become chilly and drop dead, for, unseen by all but her, her god is walking through the hall. At last, he is at her throne’s foot, and she, her mind in the garden once again, dies babbling like a child.” Yeats’s summary leaves out a convoluted subplot that makes Miss Prism’s three-volume novel in The Importance of Being Earnest seem as snappy as an episode of The Wire.
Love and Death is all serpentine narrative, artificial vocabulary, and feverish borrowings (from Edmund Spenser, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Keats, William Morris and the pre-Raphaelites, and others), and it reads like a drama written by a person uninterested in people. It’s the product of days and nights alone in the bedroom and study.
And yet, a reader can glimpse a writer who is drawing from his literary influences the ability to inhabit a forceful linguistic rhythm. In retrospect, not in context, it is possible to hear the great poet in the making:
I see the company of timid ghosts
At evening also when the sun is low
Each with its finger to its lips goes by
Poor wild unutterable mysteries.
Yeats extracted one poem from the play, a poem called “Love and Death,” which in 1885 became one of the first he published:
Go ask the springing flowers,
And the flowing air above,
What are the twin-born waters,
And they’ll answer Death and Love.
What is most poignant about the play, however, is not these moments of fluency, but other, long, wearying moments, when, working in the stony soil of adolescence, Yeats labors over images he doesn’t know what to do with yet. To a remarkable degree, certain images that will be important to Yeats’s later work were already in his head at 18. There is a haunting sense of continuity when you come across these and think, my God, they will be with him all his life. Two brothers in Love and Death, one of whom is mortal and the other immortal, serve to foreshadow, as the late scholar Richard Ellmann put it, Yeats’s “later theory of the divided or double self.” Images of a big house (home to quiet gentility) and of a roofless tower (locus of wildness, violence, and the withstanding of violence) where “forever whirls the wind”—will also run through his work. As an adult, Yeats will idealize Coole Park, the big house of his friend and patron Lady Gregory, and choose to live in Thoor Ballylee, a 16th-century tower.
Perhaps the trope from the play that will have the most currency in Yeats’s later work is what has been called elsewhere Liebestod, the fusion of love and death. This is not at all a Yeatsian invention. It came to Yeats through an English tradition—the slightly feverish, sickly, pre-Raphaelite imaginings of Swinburne and Rossetti, and Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” a poem Yeats would later directly echo. The convention ranges in its themes from the male poetic love for a dead woman (Dante) to the lovers dying, like Romeo and Juliet, in each other’s arms. It is everywhere in the popular culture of the 19th century, including in song (“Barbara Allen”). In compositions known as murder ballads the undertones can be sadistic (young man seduces woman, then, because she struggles, he murders her violently).
Particularly after World War I—particularly in reaction to World War I—Sigmund Freud took the Romantics’ coupling of love and death and tendered it as eros and thanatos, the love instinct and the death instinct, as a way of trying to understand human behavior. Yeats’s great achievement as a writer is nearly the same as Freud’s—the transformation of a 19th-century aesthetic, in which he grew up, into a 20th-century one. In him, the Liebestod survived and changed, bridging the Victorian sensibility and the modernist view. He was able, eventually, to take it out of its sickly sweetness into the tough beauty of, for example, Deirdre’s farewell to her lover Naoise in the eponymous play Deirdre (1907): “Bend and kiss me now/ For it may be the last before our death./ And when that’s over we’ll be different;/ Imperishable things, a cloud or a fire./ And I know nothing but this body, nothing/ But that old vehement, bewildering kiss.”
The love and death theme is not entirely a male trope, but it is primarily a male adolescent fantasy. It sublimates a concern known well to teenage boys: the unavailability of a desired woman, indeed, sometimes, of any woman at all. It freezes eros in youth and purity. And it has the great attraction of fixing erotic passion while short-circuiting the messy business to which eros leads: living with someone, rearing children, and growing old.
Yeats would engage the love-death theme over the course of his creative life. It would become an adult fantasy that, in some later poems, he would take very far indeed, as in “He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead” (1899):
Were you but lying cold and dead,
And lights were paling out of the West,
You would come hither, and bend your head,
And I would lay my head on your breast;
And you would murmur tender words,
Forgiving me, because you were dead . . .
Yeats liked to imagine his beloved Maud Gonne—actress, muse, founder of the nationalistic Daughters of Ireland, who rebuffed him and married another man—as being dead. He wrote a poem called “A Dream of Death” in 1893 depicting Gonne in her coffin (“And they had nailed the boards above her face”), and he sent it to her.
As Yeats evolves from being a rather gauche 18-year-old poet to being a great modernist over the course of 25 years, you might expect he would find new themes. What Love and Death reveals is that this isn’t what happens with Yeats. The images of contrasting buildings, the Liebestod, the divided self—these remained with him. Among them they would account for a great deal of his work. For Yeats, the task would be finding the contexts in which those images could resonate.
And so this question: What experiences made Yeats a great poet? What elements are missing from Love and Death that will later live in his poetry?
I would suggest that the first missing element is his love affair with Maud Gonne. If he hadn’t met her in London in 1889, if she hadn’t refused him (repeatedly) and married John MacBride in 1903, if she hadn’t existed, Yeats would have had to invent her. In a sense, that’s what he did in his first play. He invented a doomed love that cannot be fulfilled except in death. Those later, spooky poems about her death while she was still alive have power because they’re about something real. They’re not literary tropes that he borrowed from books.
The second experience that changed him was theater. Very often, those who love Yeats’s poetry tend to tolerate his work in theater—as if, well, he had to be doing something when he wasn’t writing poems. Reading Love and Death is a reminder that the experience of theater, of forming language to hold its own on the stage, changed Yeats as a poet. You can see in Love and Death, in which he’s trying to write for the theater and can’t, how much this inability imprisons his poetry. If Lady Gregory—cofounder of the Abbey Theatre, transcriber of Irish legends—hadn’t urged Yeats into theater, compelling him to write language that functioned, Yeats might have become no more than the minor pre-Raphaelite he once seemed destined to be.
The third absence in Love and Death is perhaps the most crucial of all: It is Ireland. The only Irish stamp on the manuscript of this play is the name and mark of the stationer on the inside cover of the notebooks (“W. Carson, 51 Grafton St., corner of Stephen’s Green, Dublin”). The play’s literary influences and cadences are in the English tradition. Not that Yeats didn’t know he was Irish; but he didn’t know he was Irish as a poet.
In Love and Death, the teenage Yeats is desperately trying to write poetry that has mythic lift. But he hasn’t yet identified a way that doesn’t sound derivative, fey, and artificial. He hasn’t discovered the mythic Iron Age Irish hero Cuchulain, who will provide him with an endless source of dramatic narrative and poetic imagery. He hasn’t embraced the Irish mythology that will boost his aesthetic yearnings up onto the high wire, making them dangerous, making them political, and drawing resonance from their place in a revolutionary cultural movement. The question he would ask after the 1916 Rising—”What stalked through the Post Office?” (the answer being the spirit of Cuchulain)— has not yet occurred to him.
With the shift from Ginevra to Cuchulain, Yeats will go from staking nothing on his poems to staking everything. And that will do wonders for his imagination and his language.
I’ve long understood that Yeats, the later Yeats, did an enormous amount for Ireland, and brought honor to our country. Reading Love and Death, I’m reminded that Ireland did quite a lot for Yeats, too.
Fintan O’Toole is a columnist and theater and literary critic for the Irish Times. His books include Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009) and Shakespeare Is Hard but So Is Life: A Radical Guide to Shakespearean Tragedy (2002). His essay here is drawn from a talk he gave in the Burns Library on April 23, “Yeats’s Love and Death: A Writer’s Beginning.”