Thursday, 24 November 2011
W B Yeats, The Tower (1928)
Chancing upon a box-set of Penguin 'first edition' volumes in a charity shop I was moved to do something I haven't done since I was an undergraduate: to read through Yeats's The Tower from first to last. (Indeed, I didn't even do that as an undergraduate, confining myself to reading the Yeats poems were were assigned from the Big Green Book of Complete Yeats we were all instructed to buy). And the Penguin 'first edition' reprint of The Tower is a lovely little thing: beautiful cover image (up there) good quality paper, nice typeface and no distracting editorial matter or notes.
So I read the whole collection in one go -- on a train journey, actually: it's 58 pages, easily manageable. Of course, much of the poetry here is just magnificent: thrilling, haunting, powerful, fully deserving its reputation. But at the same time, in large doses the idiom does start to feel a bit creaky, a bit too-deliberately-stilted. And the Homes & Gardens architecture of the collection as a whole -- all these Byzantine palaces, gold mosaics, towers and stately homes with peacocks trailing over their lawns -- is rather cloying. It's not the privilege that sticks in my craw so much as the incipient naffness: the way the tower is modishly decaying, like an eighteenth-century folly; the fact that there's so much Gothic-y moonlight, hooting owls, death and mystery, 'glittering swords in the east' and so on. More, the collection as a whole can't make up its mind whether its main theme is the tragic grandeur of national life filtered through magical and mythic lens, or a lot of grumbling at the fact that Yeats himself is not as young as once he was. Is the pathos of 'Meditations in Time of Civil War' a new-born country tearing itself apart, or is it Yeats's advancing age and receding hairline?
That's not fair, of course. And actually my point isn't ad hominem. Indeed, I wonder if the power and the majesty here is in an intriguing way complicit with the naffness -- the magical unicorns, the rhyming 'barrel' with 'star, all' [you'll find those two on pp. 7 and 16 respectively]. As if the two actually exist (transcendence/bathos) in a functioning dialectic, aesthetically speaking, the function being 'the numinous', 'the sacred', 'the ascent'.
One thing that hadn't occurred to me about the title poem (for instance) is that Yeats's 'tower' is not really a structure, or building, so much as it is a mechanism for ascent. 'Being dead, we rise' he insists; and the poem's reiterated insistence upon going upwards ('climbing the mountainside'; 'up Ben Bulben's back'; 'climbed the narrow stairs') is about the dream of swan-flight, or reaching the moon, or in other ways getting a better perspective on things. All the circles (man, this volume is full of circles) start to get on one's nerves, symptoms of a stare-eyed idée fixe. And reading 'Leda and the Swan' in this context slightly diminishes the poem, I think -- though you'd hardly think that possible with a poem of such power. But there are so many swans in this slim volume, and such an undercurrent of mystic fascination with the force of overpowering, that the light in which the bird's rapist power/knowledge combo is presented comes over as more suspect than it might otherwise do. But 'Sailing To Byzantium' is still one of the single greatest poems ever written in the English language, so there's still that.