YEATS – THE MYTH OF THE MASK

2 Aug

 

 

WILD SWANS AT COOLE

 

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In earlier poetry Yeats used the concept of the mask to both identify with and promote an essence of something beyond the scope of political wrangling. His vision of a tangible Ireland circumvented land boundaries and harkened back to an age, that with a little poetical persuasion, “could be realized in the hearts of an awakening people” (Unterecker p.17). The knowledge of a much older Ireland contained within the stories of the uneducated classes was something he’d recognized and utilized to create a patriotic foundation, by asserting a national provenance based on myth. Every nation could trace it roots back to a period of time more shrouded in superstition than reality and Yeats utilized this pretext on which to found an Irish identity. The mask was simply a framework on which to drape the fabric of nationhood. In later life, Yeats used his own experience and maturity to color his writing, lending it a discernable tincture than can be found in “Unterecker’s” allusions to poetical division in the subgenres of “survivor,” “defeated lover” and “scholar.” Rather than a mask or a pretense of origin, Yeats incorporated life experience to frame his later poetry.

               In 1919 when “The Wild Swans at Coole” was published, much had changed, not only in Yeats’ life, but with the world in general. The First World War had been fought and won by the allied powers, the Easter Rising, although crushed, had reawakened Irish nationalism and his long standing romantic entanglement had been resolved (although not necessarily for the better.) Yeats was now a married man in middle age with an invigorated interest in the occult. The automatic-writings of his wife had led to new inspiration and an insider view of what it was to be alive in a world that most people couldn’t begin to perceive. Armed with what he believed to be the truth, he set about applying fresh visages to old subjects. Imbued with the sentiment of loss – hardly surprising given the perception of life in the early years of the 20th Century after the debacle of the trenches – his work was more retrospective than contemporary.

               Although an older man, Yeats was now a poet with perspective, one who’d experienced life and who’d used his own maturity to embellish his work. The objectivity of hindsight created an awareness of mortality: a consciousness of diminishing time, rather than the optimism of burgeoning youth, that allowed the poet pause for reflection. Rather than masks – as “Unterecker” suggests – Yeats applies perceptible veneers to his writing. There’s no longer any reason to mask his work as being in the most stable position – financially and socially – of his life, he’s able to view the world around him in with an objectivity never before expressed. “The Wild Swans at Coole” was a milestone in Yeats’ career. He no longer had to be illusive, but could wholeheartedly express the hopes and fears of a mortal man aware of the juxtaposition of both regret and fulfillment.

               There’s undoubtedly a sense of survival in his work. Ensconced within the philanthropy of Lady Gregory’s estate, Yeats reflects on both the death of her son and the realization of the temporality of life. On the one hand, a young man has been destroyed by political forces beyond his understanding and on the other Mother Nature, who’s simply exacting that which is hers. Confronted with death, Yeats recognizes the inevitability of his own. In the poem “Wild Swans” Yeats expresses these viewpoints succinctly. Caught up in the carnage of romantic rejection, advancing age, mortality and the ever present Irish Question, Yeats outdoes himself in what is probably one of his greater poetical endeavors.

               Yeats counts the swans upon the water, “Upon the brimming water among the stones, are nine-and-fifty swans,” an experience he’s enjoyed during each of the nineteen summers he’s spent on the estate. Nothing is more constant than the birds that swim – an allusion to the monogamous love in swans but not in people – “lover by lover,” than the swans that greet his annual arrival. Except this time, there’s something unusual. There’s a deliberate recognition of their number. Rather than a round, poetical sixty, they total only fifty nine. The swans are missing one of their numbers, a creature of the air, just like themselves, who’s failed to return to the Arcadia of Coole. Lady Gregory’s son was that “swan.” A pilot lost to the Great War: an inevitable absenteeism of which Yeats is profoundly aware. The concept of the swans as a constant summer feature strikes a note with Yeats, as although they’re seemingly immune to change, he and the world about him are not. They swim, whilst he treads with a heavier footstep: an allusion to the progress of old age and the burden of experience. What Yeats really questions, is what will happen when he’s no longer there and the swans are still swimming? Although a survivor himself, it’s the swans, or at least their progeny, that will outlive him as they “Delight men’s eyes when I awake someday, to find they have flown away?” The swans are forever, rather like – although unbeknownst to him at the time – his verse which continues to fly from ear to ear despite the demise of its creator. The estate at Coole is both a memory and an Elysium, the association of all its facets forever captured in rhyme. Yeats survives, despite his mortality, just as the swans continue to reappear.

               Choosing “neither King nor Keiser” Yeats did not fight or support the factions of the war. Instead he chose the dubious neutrality of Ireland which aligned itself philosophically against the morality of a rogue nation invading a lesser nation and yet endured the political contradiction that understood the jackboot of colonialism. “Unterecker” refers to the mask of the scholar but perhaps it’s more a taint of political savvy that pervades Yeats poetry instead of the brilliance of the man himself. Yeats was asked during the progress of the First World War to add his voice in poetical support of the war which he cannily didn’t do. Despite the fact that thousands of Irishmen fought for Britain, Yeats refused to involve himself. Instead of adding to the diatribe on the political misadventure of trench warfare, something that was all too common in the broadsheets, he instead penned a remittance which now can be seen as self-serving. The poem’s original title, “To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations,” suggests a “toysome evasiveness regarding the politics surrounding the war.”(Haughey p.162) Unlike any other period in his life Yeats, as a poet, chose to be silent. This was entirely new, something he’d never done before, guilty as he was of having penned pedantic poetry to disparage an organization that wouldn’t hang the paintings of a friend. Yeats had always been political and yet in this one instance chose to remain silent. “On being asked for a War Poem” is a jibe at the political class suggesting that poets have, “no gift to set a statesman right.” This tongue-in-cheek statement is quickly followed with the mocking, “Who can please a young girl in the indolence of her youth,” which expresses in its comparison, Yeats’ true position. In later years Yeats refused to include the poetry of “Wilfred Owen” in a compilation of British poetry, something which rather than political can only be seen, at the extent of charity, as “simply wrong-headed and churlish in his evaluation.”(qtd. web #2) Yeats was a political animal and yet with the scent of rebellion and Irish independence in the air, was coy enough to keep his own counsel.

               “Unterecker’s” third suggested mask is that of the defeated lover. Yeats rejected in love by Maud Gonne and disturbingly by her daughter as well, settles to an unfaithful marriage. Rather than a man looking for the peace of matrimonial partnership, he can never relinquish the emotions of a love lost. “Broken Dreams” is such a poem of unrequited longing and the encroaching, inevitability of death. Not dissimilar to “When you are old,” Yeats nods by a fire and peruses the book of memory, in which he finds his old love Maud Gone. Described as an old lady “for whom young men no longer suddenly catch their breath when [she is] passing.” He can’t help but reflect on the woman she once was, and of her, “beauty deep.” A quintessential emotion of human regret, that Yeats profoundly captures. Although slightly disparaging, it freezes – “When age might well have chilled his blood” – a moment in time. When the poet is asked by the young man to, “Tell [him] of that lady, the poet stubborn with his passion sang us,” Yeats surprisingly reflects on eternity and a supernatural reconciliation. Given that Yeats was a fervent occultist, this may reflect more on inspiration gained from his mystical-meddling than mature religious reaffirmation. In either context it does reveal that despite her loss and the years in between, nothing really changed in the way he felt about her.

               “Unterecker” although alluding to differences in the poetry styles contained within the book is incorrect in his immediate associations with masks. Yeats’ poems are clearly themed: a lucid presentation of maturity and a profound recollection, that help to frame his work. Not choosing to dissemble with romantic association, Irish nationalism, or Celtic mysticism, Yeats instead is forthright in his representations, exhibiting both an honest and a recognizable sensibility. Rather than a mask or a pretense of origin, Yeats incorporates his own life experience to frame his poetry.

Works Cited

  1. Haughey, Jim. The First World War in Irish Poetry Bucknell University Press (2002) p.162. Print
  2. http://www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Yeats.html. Web
  3. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats, Unterecker, John; Syracuse University press; New York, 1959. Print
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