Prose from Poetry Magazine

Responsibilities, by W. B. Yeats

by Ezra Pound
I live, so far as possible, among that more intelligently active segment of the race which is concerned with today and tomorrow; and, in consequence of this, whenever I mention Mr. Yeats I am apt to be assailed with the questions: “Will Mr. Yeats do anything more?”, “Is Yeats in the movement?”, “How can the chap go on writing this sort of thing?”

And to these inquiries I can only say that Mr. Yeats’ vitality is quite unimpaired, and that I dare say he'll do a good deal; and that up to date no one has shown any disposition to supersede him as the best poet in England, or any likelihood of doing so for some time; and that after all Mr. Yeats has brought a new music upon the harp, and that one man seldom leads two movements to triumph, and that it is quite enough that he should have brought in the sound of keening and the skirl of the Irish ballads, and driven out the sentimental cadence with memories of The County of Mayo and The Coolun; and that the production of good poetry is a very slow matter, and that, as touching the greatest of dead poets, many of them could easily have left that magnam partem, which keeps them with us, upon a single quire of foolscap or at most upon two; and that there is no need for a poet to repair each morning of his life to the Piazza dei Signori to turn a new sort of somersault; and that Mr. Yeats is so assuredly an immortal that there is no need for him to recast his style to suit our winds of doctrine; and that, all these things being so, there is nevertheless a manifestly new note in his later work that they might do worse than attend to.
      
“Is Mr. Yeats an Imagiste?” No, Mr. Yeats is a symbolist, but he has written des Images as have many good poets before him; so that is nothing against him, and he has nothing against them (les Imagistes), at least so far as I know—except what he calls "their devil's metres."

He has written des Images in such poems as Braseal and the Fisherman; beginning, “Though you hide in the ebb and flow of the pale tide when the moon has set;” and he has driven out the inversion and written with prose directness in such lyrics as, “I heard the old men say everything alters”; and these things are not subject to a changing of the fashions. What I mean by the new note—you could hardly call it a change of style—was apparent four years ago in his No Second Troy, beginning, "Why should I blame her," and ending—
                  
Beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in any age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?


I am not sure that it becomes apparent in partial quotation, but with the appearance of The Green Helmet and Other Poems one felt that the minor note—I use the word strictly in the musical sense—had gone or was going out of his poetry; that he was at such a cross roads as we find in
            
Voi che intendendo il terzo ciel movete.


And since that time one has felt his work becoming gaunter, seeking greater hardness of outline. I do not say that this is demonstrable by any particular passage. Romantic Ireland's Dead and Gone is no better than Red Hanrahan's song about Ireland, but it is harder. Mr. Yeats appears to have seen with the outer eye in To a Child Dancing on the Shore (the first poem, not the one printed in this issue). The hardness can perhaps be more easily noted in The Magi.

Such poems as When Helen Lived and The Realists serve at least to show that the tongue has not lost its cun-ning. On the other hand, it is impossible to take any inter-est in a poem like The Two Kings—one might as well read the Idyls of another. The Grey Rock is, I admit, obscure, but it outweighs this by a curious nobility, a nobility which is, to me at least, the very core of Mr. Yeats’ production, the constant element of his writing.

In support of my prediction, or of my theories, regarding his change of manner, real or intended, we have at least two pronouncements of the poet himself, the first in A Coat,* and the second, less formal, in the speech made at the Blunt presentation.** The verses, A Coat, should satisfy those who have complained of Mr. Yeats’ four and forty followers, that they would “rather read their Yeats in the original.” Mr. Yeats had indicated the feeling once before with

Tell me, do the wolf-dogs praise their fleas?


which is direct enough in all conscience, and free of the “glamour.” I've not a word against the glamour as it appears in Yeats’ early poems, but we have had so many other pseudo--glamours and glamourlets and mists and fogs since the nineties that one is about ready for hard light.

And this quality of hard light is precisely what one finds in the beginning of his The Magi:

Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side.


Of course a passage like that, a passage of imagisme, may occur in a poem not otherwise imagiste, in the same way that a lyrical passage may occur in a narrative, or in some poem not otherwise lyrical. There have always been two sorts of poetry which are, for me at least, the most “poetic;” they are firstly, the sort of poetry which seems to be music just forcing itself into articulate speech, and, secondly, that sort of poetry which seems as if sculpture or painting were just forced or forcing itself into words. The gulf between evocation and description, in this latter case, is the unbridgeable difference between genius and talent. It is perhaps the highest function of art that it should fill the mind with a noble profusion of sounds and images, that it should furnish the life of the mind with such accompaniment and surrounding. At any rate Mr. Yeats’ work has done this in the past and still continues to do so. The present volume contains the new metrical version of The Hour Glass, The Grey Rock, The Two Kings, and over thirty new lyrics, some of which have appeared in these pages, or appear in this issue. In the poems on the Irish gallery we find this author certainly at prise with things as they are and no longer romantically Celtic, so that a lot of his admirers will be rather displeased with the book. That is always a gain for a poet, for his admirers nearly always want him to “stay put,” and they resent any signs of stirring, of new curiosity or of intellectual uneasiness. I have said the The Grey Rock was obscure; perhaps I should not have said so, but I think it demands unusually close attention. It is as obscure, at least, as Sordello, but I can not close without registering my admiration for it all the same.


* Vide this issue, page 60.

** Vide POETRY for March, 1914, p. 223.
Originally Published: October 30, 2005

COMMENTS (2)

On April 6, 2007 at 2:45pm Bill laurent wrote:
I've stumbled upon this site;my longing has been to survive the parched plains of plainess.

I read this man's voice, and I'm briefly soothed;

not by his ideas, rather by the expression of his ideas.

Cheer up not all are mesmerized by blinking lights and tribal thumps.

On April 2, 2008 at 5:12pm Gil Dekel wrote:

I do wonder whether Yeats was a symbolist? His 'automatic speech' experiments with his wife suggest that he had access to source of wisdom, which cannot be contained in language, thus requires the use of symbols in poetry.

This is not a matter of a poet moving ‘upwards’ to the spiritual by use of symbols in poetry, but rather a matter of a poet moving ‘downwards’ from the spiritual to the earthy, by minimizing his expanded wisdom through use of symbols in poetry…

Gil Dekel

www.poeticmind.co.uk

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This prose originally appeared in the May 1914 issue of Poetry magazine

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