Are we autonomous individuals, or inextricably bound to our communities? Is art created in freedom, for its own sake, or does it come into being to support a cause larger than itself? I've been having a look at these questions lately in relation to the poetry of W.B. Yeats, as part of the research for a Yeats & Eliot chapter of a book that now has the unfortunate working title Power and Poetics: A Social History of Aesthetic Autonomy and Poetry. The questions certainly haunted Yeats: as any study of his work will tell you, he came of age as a poet divided between the l'art pour l'art symbolism of the Rhymer's Club of the 1890s and the anti-colonial nationalism of the Irish Literary Revival.
The question of autonomy and community goes deeper than this, though: in fact, Yeats grew up in a household where the question was actively debated, and his father, the painter John Butler Yeats, was deeply interested in the question.
Reading JBY's letters, one frequently runs across statements that embrace the notion of the artist as a proudly isolated figure, disdaining the demands of the audience: "the artist must always be an aristocrat and disdain the street," he writes, or—echoing his favorite poet Keats, in Keats' rebuke of Shelley for putting politics, community, and philosophy before aesthetics—"if the lark were to bother itself about the 'Collective Soul'... it would not sing at all. Elsewhere he argues that "the chief thing to know and never forget is that art is dreamland and that the moment a poet meddles with ethics and moral uplift he leaves dreamland, loses his music, and ceases to be a poet."
JBY was the furthest thing from a systematic thinker, though, and like a true negative capabilty-having lover of Keats, he often presented contradictory opinions without any irritable reaching after some final resolution. "Art for art's sake," he writes at one point, "is for those who hate life... the great artist is also a man like ourselves." Moreover, he argues on behalf of "democratic art" in a letter to his son, saying that WBY should aim at art "that unites a whole audience" because the art for art's sake crowd is just "a coterie of discontented artists" lacking worldly experience and relevance and amounting to nothing more than "a tea-party of old maids discussing marriage and large families."
Sometimes JBY pulls off a kind of having-it-both ways move, in which the moral and political problems of Ireland are best served by artists who do not aim at addressing those problems, but at a totally autonomous art. This is a move one sees from time to time in the late nineteenth century, and it becomes an important principle of some avant-garde movements in the twentieth century: in fact, it's a major principle of Surrealist thought. Here's an example of JBY making the autonomous artist politically engaged despite himself: "Ireland is to be rescued neither by Belfast nor by England, neither by priest nor by parson, but by its artists," because they, with their independence and apparent unconcern for the orthodoxies of political faction or ideological battle, provide what no one else can, "freedom of thought and the intoxication of truth... an unshackled intellect." It's all very Matthew Arnold, isn't it? So very like Arnold's hope that a disinterested group of intellectuals, with their "free and fresh play" of ideas, will save the world from bitter partisan struggle. JBY was 30 when Arnold's Culture and Anarchy appeared, and it seems to have had an influence on his thought.
Anyway. If we want to see how these issues play out in Yeats' poetry, we can look in any number of places. But "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is a particularly good poem with which to start, since here the question of autonomy vs. community is linked to filial loyalty, to both father and fatherland, in ways often overlooked.
Here's the poem:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, and a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
At first glance, it's just a nice bit of pastoralism, a yearning for a rural retreat from the busy modern world. It is that, certainly. And Yeats' statement about the poem's genesis re-enforces this pastoralism: he famously wrote that the idea came to him when he saw an artificial fountain in a London shop window, and remembered the peaceful waters of Sligo. But what to make of the specific kind of pastoral retreat the poem proposes?
It's worth considering the phrasing of the first line, "I will arise and go now." It's an allusion to the King James Bible, to Luke 15:18, and the story of the prodigal son. "I will arise and go to my father" are the words of the prodigal son, just as he resolves to return to his father and confess his sins. So this isn't just a retreat to a quiet place: it is a son's return to the things from which he has guiltily strayed. The place to which he the speaker resolves to return is overtly Irish (the place name alone establishes that), and the world of gray pavements is most likely London (it was where Yeats had lived, it was the place where the inspiration for the poem struck him, and it is the great metropolis most readily identified with "pavements grey"). So the poem presents us not just with pastoral retreat, but with a kind of re-affiliation of the poet and his nation, and with the implication that his removal from that nation was as wrong as the prodigal son's straying away from his family duties.
But if the poem contains a kind of nationalism, and an implicit statement that the poet's place and duty lie back among his own people, it's a funny kind of nationalism. The plan for life at Innisfree, after all, is a plan of isolation — or more than that: of an almost Robinson Crusoe-like self-sufficiency, with the poet building his own dwelling and raising his own food in autonomous isolation. Is this nationalism or individualism? Political commitment or individual withdrawal?
The issue is further complicated when we consider another allusion, one so buried that it was probably not intended to be found, but that is mentioned in Yeats' autobiographical writings. As the critic Michael North has pointed out in The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, the bean rows of the first stanza of Yeats' poem come from the "Bean Field" chapter of Henry David Thoreau's Walden. And not only that: they come from Yeats' father reading passages of Walden aloud to the poet. As Yeats says in Reveries Over Childhood and Youth, "my father had read to me some passage out of Walden, and I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree... I thought that having conquered bodily desire and the inclination of my mind toward women and love, I should live, as Thoreau lived, seeking wisdom."
So just as the Biblical allusion to the story of the prodigal son signals that there is a communal or nationalist urge at work, this other allusion signals that there is a Thoreauvian individualist urge at work, re-enforcing the poem's Crusoe-like images of autonomy and self-reliance. The nationalist story comes with the authority of fatherhood behind it (the poet away in the great metropolis is the nation's prodigal son), but so does the individualist story, since the poet is reminded of his father in the individualist mode JBY so often (but so inconsistently) struck. Without Yeats' autobiographical writings this latter paternal-filial relation would remain invisible, but we have the autobiographical writings, and we aren't hung-up on sticking to the internal evidence of the text itself, are we? I mean, my name's not W.K. Wimsatt, and yours isn't Monroe C. Beardsley.
What to make of the poem, then? Clearly it isn't a simple pastoral, but neither is it simply a Celticist poem of national affiliation. Nor is it simply a poem of individual autonomy. Instead, it is a poem that tries to have things both ways, but offers no easy fusion of the competing urges, along the lines of what JBY had offered in his comment about autonomous writers saving the nation by virtue of their autonomy. Despite the poem's apparently placid surface, the fusion is incomplete, or perhaps we should say dynamic, with the nationalist urge and the autonomous urge oscillating endlessly. The poem, in the end, is a dog chasing its own tail, or an attempt to square the circle. It attempts something not quite possible, which will, after all, be the ambition of Yeats throughout his career.
|"The Return of the Prodigal Son," by Pompeo Batoni|