Self-Quarrelling Yeats

in Critical Survey
Graham MartinIndependent scholar

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These two familiar utterances differ both in the agreeable variousness of Whitman’s self-contradictions and the democratic hospitality he offered to one and all, whereas for Yeats, contradiction seems to have been suffered rather than welcomed, and against the more select range of contradictions he experienced, he waged a lifelong struggle. ‘Hammer your thoughts into a unity’, he would repeatedly tell himself, an aim sometimes realised only by suppressing one self-dividing trait in favour of its rival. I want to touch on some of these internal quarrellings, but it is first worth remarking upon that over-emphatic contrast between ‘rhetoric’ and ‘poetry’. What Yeats meant by rhetoric was writing aimed at persuading readers – or indeed listeners, the poet being no mean perfomer on public platforms – to adopt a particular course of action. Rhetorical writing was a product of the will, of that determined energy that in his early years Yeats thought essentially unpoetic. Victorian poets, brimming over with opinions, improvingly moral and socially progressive, had designed poems as vehicles for their effective propagation. Hence Yeats’ reservations about such as Tennyson and Browning, while a poet of his own time who fitted the same bill would surely have been Kipling. For the young Yeats, poetry could only emerge from the opposite state of mind, inward and contemplative, neither directed towards action, nor the vehicle of emphatic opinion of any kind, moral, social or political, above all, not energetic, and it takes no more than a glance at the poems of The Wind Among The Reeds (1899) to see how they illustrate that ideal.

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