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George Orwell > W B Yeats > Essay

W B Yeats


One thing that Marxist criticism has not succeeded in doing is to trace
the connection between "tendency" and literary style. The subject-matter
and imagery of a book can be explained in sociological terms, but its
texture seemingly cannot. Yet some such connection there must be. One
knows, for instance, that a Socialist would not write like Chesterton or
a Tory imperialist like Bernard Shaw, though HOW one knows it is not
easy to say. In the case of Yeats, there must be some kind of connection
between his wayward, even tortured style of writing and his rather
sinister vision of life. Mr Menon is chiefly concerned with the
esoteric philosophy underlying Yeats's work, but the quotations which
are scattered all through his interesting book serve to remind one how
artificial Yeats's manner of writing was. As a rule, this artificiality
is accepted as Irishism, or Yeats is even credited with simplicity
because he uses short words, but in fact one seldom comes on six
consecutive lines of his verse in which there is not an archaism or an
affected turn of speech. To take the nearest example:

Grant me an old man's Frenzy,
My self must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call.

The unnecessary "that" imports a feeling of affectation, and the same
tendency is present in all but Yeats's best passages. One is seldom long
away from a suspicion of "quaintness", something that links up not only
with the 'nineties, the Ivory Tower and the "calf covers of pissed-on
green", but also with Rackham's drawings, Liberty art-fabrics and the
PETER PAN never-never land, of which, after all, "The Happy Townland" is
merely a more appetising example. This does not matter, because, on the
whole, Yeats gets away with it, and if his straining after effect is
often irritating, it can also produce phrases ("the chill, footless
years", "the mackerel-crowded seas") which suddenly overwhelm one like a
girl's face seen across a room. He is an exception to the rule that poets
do not use poetical language:

How many centuries spent
The sedentary soul
In toils of measurement
Beyond eagle or mole,
Beyond hearing or seeing,
Or Archimedes' guess,
To raise into being
That loveliness?

Here he does not flinch from a squashy vulgar word like "loveliness" and
after all it does not seriously spoil this wonderful passage. But the
same tendencies, together with a sort of raggedness which is no doubt
intentional, weaken his epigrams and polemical poems. For instance (I am
quoting from memory) the epigram against the critics who damned THE

Once when midnight smote the air
Eunuchs ran through Hell and met
On every crowded street to stare
Upon great Juan riding by;
Even like these to rail and sweat,
Staring upon his sinewy thigh.

The power which Yeats has within himself gives him the analogy ready
made and produces the tremendous scorn of the last line, but even in
this short poem there are six or seven unnecessary words. It would
probably have been deadlier if it had been neater.

Mr Menon's book is incidentally a short biography of Yeats, but he is
above all interested in Yeats's philosophical "system", which in his
opinion supplies the subject-matter of more of Yeats's poems than is
generally recognised. This system is set forth fragmentarily in various
places, and at full length in A VISION, a privately printed book which I
have never read but which Mr Menon quotes from extensively. Yeats gave
conflicting accounts of its origin, and Mr Menon hints pretty broadly
that the "documents" on which it was ostensibly founded were imaginary.
Yeats's philosophical system, says Mr Menon, "was at the back of his
intellectual life almost from the beginning. His poetry is full of it.
Without it his later poetry becomes almost completely unintelligible."
As soon as we begin to read about the so-called system we are in the
middle of a hocus-pocus of Great Wheels, gyres, cycles of the moon,
reincarnation, disembodied spirits, astrology and what not. Yeats hedges
as to the literalness with which he believed in all this, but he certainly
dabbled in spiritualism and astrology, and in earlier life had made
experiments in alchemy. Although almost buried under explanations, very
difficult to understand, about the phases of the moon, the central idea of
his philosophical system seems to be our old friend, the cyclical
universe, in which everything happens over and over again. One has not,
perhaps, the right to laugh at Yeats for his mystical beliefs--for I
believe it could be shown that SOME degree of belief in magic is almost
universal--but neither ought one to write such things off as mere
unimportant eccentricities. It is Mr Menon's perception of this that
gives his book its deepest interest. "In the first flush of admiration
and enthusiasm," he says, "most people dismissed the fantastical
philosophy as the price we have to pay for a great and curious
intellect. One did not quite realise where he was heading. And those who
did, like Pound and perhaps Eliot, approved the stand that he finally
took. The first reaction to this did not come, as one might have
expected, from the politically-minded young English poets. They were
puzzled because a less rigid or artificial system than that of A VISION
might not have produced the great poetry of Yeats's last days." It might
not, and yet Yeats's philosophy has some very sinister implications, as
Mr Menon points out.

Translated into political terms, Yeats's tendency is Fascist. Throughout
most of his life, and long before Fascism was ever heard of, he had had
the outlook of those who reach Fascism by the aristocratic route. He is
a great hater of democracy, of the modern world, science, machinery, the
concept of progress--above all, of the idea of human equality. Much of
the imagery of his work is feudal, and it is clear that he was not
altogether free from ordinary snobbishness. Later these tendencies took
clearer shape and led him to "the exultant acceptance of authoritarianism
as the only solution. Even violence and tyranny are not necessarily
evil because the people, knowing not evil and good, would become
perfectly acquiescent to tyranny. . . . Everything must come from
the top. Nothing can come from the masses." Not much interested in
politics, and no doubt disgusted by his brief incursions into public
life, Yeats nevertheless makes political pronouncements. He is too big a
man to share the illusions of Liberalism, and as early as 1920 he
foretells in a justly famous passage ("The Second Coming") the kind of
world that we have actually moved into. But he appears to welcome the
coming age, which is to be "hierarchical, masculine, harsh, surgical",
and is influenced both by Ezra Pound and by various Italian Fascist
writers. He describes the new civilisation which he hopes and believes
will arrive: "an aristocratic civilisation in its most completed form,
every detail of life hierarchical, every great man's door crowded at
dawn by petitioners, great wealth everywhere in a few men's hands, all
dependent upon a few, up to the Emperor himself, who is a God dependent
on a greater God, and everywhere, in Court, in the family, an inequality
made law." The innocence of this statement is as interesting as its
snobbishness. To begin with, in a single phrase, "great wealth in a few
men's hands", Yeats lays bare the central reality of Fascism, which the
whole of its propaganda is designed to cover up. The merely political
Fascist claims always to be fighting for justice: Yeats, the poet, sees
at a glance that Fascism means injustice, and acclaims it for that very
reason. But at the same time he fails to see that the new authoritarian
civilisation, if it arrives, will not be aristocratic, or what he means
by aristocratic. It will not be ruled by noblemen with Van Dyck faces,
but by anonymous millionaires, shiny-bottomed bureaucrats and murdering
gangsters. Others who have made the same mistake have afterwards changed
their views and one ought not to assume that Yeats, if he had lived
longer, would necessarily have followed his friend Pound, even in
sympathy. But the tendency of the passage I have quoted above is
obvious, and its complete throwing overboard of whatever good the past
two thousand years have achieved is a disquieting symptom.

How do Yeat's political ideas link up with his leaning towards
occultism? It is not clear at first glance why hatred of democracy and a
tendency to believe in crystal-gazing should go together. Mr Menon only
discusses this rather shortly, but it is possible to make two guesses.
To begin with, the theory that civilisation moves in recurring cycles is
one way out for people who hate the concept of human equality. If it is
true that "all this", or something like it, "has happened before", then
science and the modern world are debunked at one stroke and progress
becomes for ever impossible. It does not much matter if the lower orders
are getting above themselves, for, after all, we shall soon be returning
to an age of tyranny. Yeats is by no means alone in this outlook. If the
universe is moving round on a wheel, the future must be foreseeable,
perhaps even in some detail. It is merely a question of discovering the
laws of its motion, as the early astronomers discovered the solar year.
Believe that, and it becomes difficult not to believe in astrology or
some similar system. A year before the war, examining a copy of
GRINGOIRE, the French Fascist weekly, much read by army officers, I
found in it no less than thirty-eight advertisements of clairvoyants.
Secondly, the very concept of occultism carries with it the idea that
knowledge must be a secret thing, limited to a small circle of
initiates. But the same idea is integral to Fascism. Those who dread the
prospect of universal suffrage, popular education, freedom of thought,
emancipation of women, will start off with a predilection towards secret
cults. There is another link between Fascism and magic in the profound
hostility of both to the Christian ethical code.

No doubt Yeats wavered in his beliefs and held at different times many
different opinions, some enlightened, some not. Mr Menon repeats for him
Eliot's claim that he had the longest period of development of any poet
who has ever lived. But there is one thing that seems constant, at least
in all of his work that I can remember, and that is his hatred of modern
western civilisation and desire to return to the Bronze Age, or perhaps
to the Middle Ages. Like all such thinkers, he tends to write in praise
of ignorance. The Fool in his remarkable play, THE HOUR-GLASS, is a
Chestertonian figure, "God's fool", the "natural born innocent", who is
always wiser than the wise man. The philosopher in the play dies on the
knowledge that all his lifetime of thought has been wasted (I am quoting
from memory again):

The stream of the world has changed its course,
And with the stream my thoughts have run
Into some cloudly, thunderous spring
That is its mountain-source;
Ay, to a frenzy of the mind,
That all that we have done's undone
Our speculation but as the wind.

Beautiful words, but by implication profoundly obscurantist and
reactionary; for if it is really true that a village idiot, as such, is
wiser than a philosopher, then it would be better if the alphabet had
never been invented. Of course, all praise of the past is partly
sentimental, because we do not live in the past. The poor do not praise
poverty. Before you can despise the machine, the machine must set you free
from brute labour. But that is not to say that Yeats's yearning for a more
primitive and more hierarchical age was not sincere. How much of all
this is traceable to mere snobbishness, product of Yeats's own position
as an impoverished offshoot of the aristocracy, is a different question.
And the connection between his obscurantist opinions and his tendency
towards "quaintness" of language remains to be worked out; Mr Menon
hardly touches upon it.

This is a very short book, and I would greatly like to see Mr Menon go
ahead and write another book on Yeats, starting where this one leaves
off. "If the greatest poet of our times is exultantly ringing in an era
of Fascism, it seems a somewhat disturbing symptom," he says on the last
page, and leaves it at that. It is a disturbing symptom, because it is
not an isolated one. By and large the best writers of our time have been
reactionary in tendency, and though Fascism does not offer any real
return to the past, those who yearn for the past will accept Fascism
sooner than its probable alternatives. But there are other lines of
approach, as we have seen during the past two or three years. The
relationship between Fascism and the literary intelligentsia badly needs
investigating, and Yeats might well be the starting-point. He is best
studied by someone like Mr Menon, who can approach a poet primarily as a
poet, but who also knows that a writer's political and religious beliefs
are not excrescences to be laughed away, but something that will leave
their mark even on the smallest detail of his work.

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