Walking naked: how Yeats's work just got better and better
He turned a mid-life crisis into a period of brilliance, says Adrian Paterson
Most of us are in decline after fifty, but WB Yeats gives us hope. As a poet he got better and better. 'Changed, changed utterly' by events in Ireland and married to a woman half his age, he embarked on a burst of late creativity.
Weighing his life in the balance 100 years ago Yeats found it wanting: everything, he said, "seemed a preparation for something that never happens". Not many of us turn a mid-life crisis into such poetry. The change is described in his poem 'A Coat'. Having 'made my song a coat| Covered with embroideries| Out of old mythologies' the poet slips his fancy garments and stands alone. 'For there's more enterprise| In walking naked'.
The searing honesty of such reinventions makes all of Yeats's poetry worth reading. He wrote so few bad poems it is hard to choose between them. Any duff ones were grimly rewritten, sometimes over years, until they came right.
Those 'embroideries' of Yeats's early work were threaded with gold. Yeats himself often began readings with 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' because, as he wrily remarked on the radio, "if you know anything about me you would expect me to begin with it". It remained his greatest hit.
Yeats found he could make sonically-charged lyrics with natural words in their natural order. So 'The Song of Wandering Aengus', 'A Mad Song' in its original version, tells simply of a hallucination, as a fish transforms into a fleeing, fleeting girl and poor love-lorn Aengus follows her in endless pursuit. There's something airy about Yeats's early poems, and not just because of their attachment to the windy gods of the Sidhe.
Those from the volume The Wind Among the Reeds are elemental in the strictest sense, air combining with water, earth, fire, as here, to make a truly alchemical transformation. Verbally this transformation is effected by adding liquid 'l' sounds to harder consonants which combine to form a 'glimmering girl' and the 'silver' and 'golden apples' of the close: a metamorphosis so complete it is only really our tongues that can tell.
Staging his struggles with the Abbey in 'cold and passionate' poems such as 'The Fisherman' helped make Yeats a modern poet.
Historical events played their part, as they do in the tragi-comedy of 'Easter 1916' ("No, Willie, I don't like your poem," wrote Maud Gonne), but such dramatic welding together of opposites in language ('a terrible beauty') and of public and private affairs is conceivable in no other consciousness.
The later poetry is more fun than this implies. Yeats's theology embraced randy Greek gods and mad Irish heroes as well as deific Buddhists. As he wrote to his old flame Olivia Shakespear, "only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind: sex and the dead". 'Supernatural Songs' combines the two, busying the Free State's censors no end.
Embodying a pagan Ireland's reaction to the arrival of St Patrick and his masculine theology, the gleeful ragged hermit Ribh (an unlikely feminist) redraws the Christian trinity to contain man, woman, and child: "That's how all natural or supernatural stories run".
After this any reader surely mouths rather than hears the long sinuous lines of the primordial 'What Magic Drum?': 'Down limb and breast or down that glimmering belly move mouth and sinewy tongue'. God does have the last word, calling time on us in 'The Four Ages of Man'.
Still, one lyric, 'He and She', whether really about the soul or the nature of love, articulates in a kind of ecstatic astronomy the astonishing survival of desire, that endless incorrigible instinct manifest in the longing of wandering Aengus and the dissatisfactions of the poet's own best work.
She sings as the moon
sings 'I am I, am I;
The greater grows my light
The further that I fly'.
All creation shivers
With that sweet cry.
Adrian Paterson is Lecturer in English at NUI Galway and a founder member of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society