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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Shadowy Poet 
The Speaker, January 19, 1901

 THE SHADOWY WATERS. By W. B. Yeats. Hodder and Stoughton

Mr. W.B. Yeats has achieved, with little or no opposition, the first place among poets now working worthily, and it is to be hoped that people will shortly pay him the tribute of ceasing to discover him. His master, William Blake, is a melancholy instance of how a man may be kept out of his throne as a classic by the refusal of his admirers to pay him the supreme compliment of criticism. While the great, but far smaller, Wordsworth is censured and rebelled against like a king, Blake is still being petted like a child. A small coterie are everlastingly surprised by his charming intelligence and his charming blunders, long after he should have assumed the independence and responsibility of a great man. This is the only possible danger or Mr. Yeats; cheap jokes about mysticism he has long outlived. It is only his admirers who can now keep him out of the pantheon.

It is hardly necessary to say that The Shadowy Waters is a beautiful poem, especially to those who read the Prologue published in THE SPEAKER some weeks ago. For certain private reasons, and because it upholds the dignity of the Press (the Palladium of, &c.), it is necessary to pretend to criticise a poem in these columns. But it is really a contradiction in terms to speak of estimating a poem in prose. Any tolerable appreciation of a poet, if it is to be written at all, could only be written in an imitation of the poet's own style. A description of the personality of Browning we ought, properly speaking, to open with some such phrases as:-
Oak-tree of England: yet a twist i'the roots
Gargoyle-grotesque, and arms asprawl to stars.
For a picture of Mr. Swinburne we ought to invent some lines beginning:-
O bitter, O bountiful master,
Made sick with unchangeable change.
To write a poem on Mr. Yeats poems as Mr. Yeats would write it is a far subtler task. But if we wished to say what we really think of his position, our poem would open:-

The worker of sad silver and pale gold
Who built the seven gates of Fairyland.
Whenever we think of Mr. Yeats it is instinctively as the builder of the gates. He is not a denizen of fairyland: no poet ever carried more obviously the heavy burden of the heart of man. But, at the same time, no poet ever realised so clearly those intuitions which we have all experienced vaguely- the intuitions which seem to tell us that certain places are upon the border of another land; that ten yards from us the trees have a strange twist, the flowers a strange tint, the whole scene a strange silence. Sometimes this forgotten frontier is a wood, sometimes a well, sometimes a stony street. But Mr. Yeats has marked them all for his gates. In his last poem, The Shadowy Waters, he has added another, the gate of the sea.

It is in his attitude to this unknown world that the most arresting significance of Mr. Yeats is to be found. He marks a vast and singular change that has come over the whole modern world. During the first half of the century, from the time of Shelley to the time of Swinburne, ardent and aesthetic young poets invariably rose in revolt against the supernatural, and devoted themselves to singing the praises of the natural. But we can now see how huge a part of the secularism of Shelley and Swinburne was due to a juvenile love of breaking windows, and especially stained-glass windows. The old orthodoxy vanished; in its place came another orthodoxy- that of the agnostics- which claimed to settle the limits of knowledge as the old churches had settled the limits of faith. Phrases like "things beyond the power of human decision," "questions which can never be solved," were as common on the lips of the great agnostics as the Bible on the lips of a revivalist; and, for some mysterious reason, no one seems to have ever noticed that to define the possible limits of knowledge was far more irrationally dogmatic than to believe in the sealed pardons of Joanna Southcote. At any rate, the erection of the rationalists into the position of universal schoolmasters has contributed not a little to the general revival of spiritual hypothesis, and, above all, to that revival among the perverse race of poets.

The scientific dictators have seen the strangest, yet the most natural result of their veto. By making faith a sin they have made it a pleasure. Instead of being "dragooned into heaven," like the subjects of Louis XIV., the modern aesthetes creep into heaven with all the delight of trespassers. Foremost of these wild boys is Mr. Yeats, who plucks, in his own beautiful words—
"The silver apples of the moon
The golden apples of the sun"
with all the ecstacy of an urchin.
As a poem The Shadowy Waters is admirable, as a play its appeal depends largely upon the degree of our conversion to that novel institution, "the drama of mood." The characters are Forgael, a-wandering and world-weary, looking for fairyland, his friend Aibric and a girl named Dectora, who is treated with great contempt by every one else because she has not got tired of being in love. Perhaps the best way to sum up the limitations of the "drama of mood" as here exhibited is to say that it would be admirably suited to a toy theatre, "a penny plain and twopence coloured." All that is needed to bring out its charm is exquisite scenery, stately and motionless figures, a certain amount of blue and green fire, and Mr. Yeats himself under the table to intone the words in the proper manner. Now this manifestly separates it from everything that we understand as acting drama, the most modern as well as the most ancient. It would scarcely do, for example, to present the Norwegian plays in cardboard and tinsel in Skelt's Juvenile Drama. A series called "Ibsen for the Young" might be created, in which the figures should be cut out in the old melodramatic poses, Gregers Werle straddling piratically and pointing both ways at once, but paling before the luxurious gloom of "Dr. Ranke (second dress)." But we can hardly think it would be a success, or that the scheme is likely to be taken up even by the most modern educationalist, consumed with an eternal impatience to teach bald-headed babies to brush their hair. But Mr. Yeats' play positively would be the better if the figures were a race of dignified dolls under the control of a transcendental ventriloquist. The arbitrary but haunting symbolism of Mr. Yeats, a kind of celestial heraldry, would make the task of drawing and colouring delightful. With what joy should we paint on the sail the three hounds, "one dark and one red and one white with red ears;" as for the silver lily on Aengus's breast we should not paint it at all: we should even cut it out of actual silver paper and paste it on that motionless hero. Some people would say that this was the reductio ad absurdum of the "drama of mood." We do not think so, for we can see nothing absurd in a toy theatre.

Another characteristic of this play which separates from what is commonly called drama is that there is no change of sentiment. A number of melancholy events happen to the hero, but, to do him justice, he seems to be just as dismal before the events as after them. That attitude of sad but serene prescience which he maintains at the beginning he maintains at the end. He is equally incapable of Macbeth's self-flattering ambition and Macbeth's raging pessimism. We admit that to us the function of a drama is to show the same figure in many poses, as in the mirrors fixed round a room. But Forgael (being cut out of cardboard) can only be looked at from one point of view. From another he would vanish into a streak.

But the truth is that the whole of this beautiful poem is dominated by one conception, very native to Mr. Yeats work and connecting it not only with the mythological but even more with the mediaeval spirit- the conception of the finite character of all things, even of heaven and earth. Superficially it might be said that the imaginative man would have to do with eternity, but it is not so. Imagination has to do with images—that is to say, with shapes—and eternity has no shape. Here the finite note is perpetually struck: the whole ship of Forgael is drifting to the last seas, where-
"Time and the world and all things dwindle out."
In this poem Mr. Yeats treats this finality of all things with an even deeper melancholy than is his wont. We must admit that to us there seems nothing so unsupportable in these boundaries and that to complain that youth, for example, has a beginning and an end is like complaining that a cow has a head and tail. An outline must be a limit. Above all we can have no sympathy whatever with that far older and idler pessimism which makes capital out of the disproportions of the cosmos. The size of the fixed stars no more makes us insignificant than the size of the animalculae makes us divine. The beauty of life is in itself and is as indestructible whether it lasts as long as a planet or as long as a violin solo. If it be true that to the gods—
"Armies on white roads
And unforgotten names and the cold stars
That have made all are dust on a moth's wing."

if we are to adopt this magnificent image of Mr. Yeats and conceive of the whole Cosmos as a moth, its wings coruscating with moons and stars, fluttering in the dark void, the only thing to say of the moth is that it is a very fine specimen. It is at least better than an endless catepillar.

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