Sunday, September 26, 2010

Yeats' "foul rag and bone shop of the heart"

Here is the poem, "The Circus Animals' Desertion" (1939) which that image concludes:

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animal were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

What can I do but enumerate old themes?
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride?

And then a counter truth filled out its play,
The Countess Cathleen was the name I gave it:
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy,
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.

Those masterful images, because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse, of the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

This is one of the last poems that Yeats wrote. Looking back over a brilliant  career, as perhaps the last  romantic poet, and one of the greatest, he is inclined to be dismissive of what now strikes him as mere theatricality: 

Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animal were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

As if he had somehow gotten it all wrong and confused dreams, images, metaphors with reality:

Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.

What's left?  Maybe now, "being but a broken man, I must be satisfied with my heart," which sounds promising: isn't that what all poetry, or at least all romantic poetry, is about? But what does it mean to be "satisfied" with one's heart? The heart is an ambiguous organ in some religions and is at least as likely to lead you astray, or tell you what you want to hear but shouldn't, as to put you back in touch with reality. Still, Yeats' meaning here is plain enough: the heart is where a poem starts. What's stunning is Yeats' way of characterizing that place as a junk shop, and not just any junk shop, but a place jammed with the debris of used-up lives, down at the bottom of the economic food-chain, where the only customers are the poorest of the poor and the proprietor—or at least the creature who runs the place—is nothing but a "raving slut." Who but the lowest of the low would want to run—or even enter— such a place?

No one starts out with such a heart; Yeats is talking about something that happens to us all, including poets, as we age: our hearts, like our houses, fill up with junk: worn out ideas, feelings, thoughts, theories, griefs and grievances. And it gets harder and harder to turn this stuff into poetry—to imagine how that might be done, or the price one might have to pay "that raving slut who keeps the till": the heart doesn't give up its secrets for nothing. Its currency is pain, the pain of remembering what one might prefer to forget but can't, the words one wishes one had never said or should have, the failures that can never be undone; remembered pain.

It takes imagination to turn such pain into poetry. That's the trick that Yeats pulls off here, near—very near—the end of his life. I like what William Pritchard has to say about these lines in his wonderful book, Lives of The Modern Poets:

"The final lines from Yeats's very late poem, 'The Circus Animals Desertion' are often quoted as evidence that here, at last, the poet sees through his own enchantment with dreams and images, and after a long career of pursuing them now turns in a radically new direction—inwards, to a more humanly gritty response to the world. But has there ever been a more sensational promise to lie down? We all have hearts, presumably, but only Yeats can call up a 'foul rag-and-bone shop' of one at the very instant when he claims to be bidding farewell to "masterful images." It was a fitting way to end his career of not lying down."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Emily Brontë's "Remembrance" (1845)

Cold in the earth—and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time's all severing wave?

Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern leaves cover
Thy noble heart forever, ever more?

Cold in the earth and fifteen wild Decembers,
From those brown hills, have melted into spring;
Faithful indeed, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!

Sweet love of youth, forgive if I forget thee,
While the world's tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!

No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life's bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life's bliss is in the grave with thee.

But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.

Then did I check the tears of useless passion—
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.

And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory's rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?

This poem of loss and grief is, like Wuthering Heights which was published a few years later, entirely imaginary. Both are works of fiction, and that's all they have in common. The novel, like the poem is about loss and grief, but with what a difference! The poem is about moral and emotional discipline—"Then did I learn how existence could be cherished, /Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy"— about having your grief and holding on to it without letting it consume you. The novel is about a woman who has no moral or emotional discipline—Catherine Earnshaw (and has been endlessly romanticized on that account); and a man, Heathcliff, who loves her and no one else and digs up her coffin after she dies for another look—the novel coming very close at this point to necrophilia. He knocks the side of her coffin loose planning to have the corresponding side of his own coffin removed when he is eventually buried next to her. What could he be thinking of? Does he really think that they will literally be reunited there in that churchyard? As if that weren't enough, EB adds a bit of spookery. When Heathcliff doesn't die fast enough, Catherine's spirit comes after him and tells him to hurry up, which he does: a man in perfect health wills his own death.

You wouldn't think the same person could have written this poem and this novel. The poem is all about discipline and delicacy, as well as intensity, of feeling; the novel is about intensity—of love or hatred or contempt—and self-indulgence, and not much else. Both poem and novel are romantic: both, for instance, take it for granted that love is the highest good, but it is only in the poem that we are shown with dramatic (occasionally melodramatic) clarity the choices that the romantic lover faces, whether knowingly or not, when the loved one has been lost: you can make your grief the center of your life, or you can, stoically, figure out how existence can be cherished, strengthened, and fed, in an "empty world", without the aid of joy. Or, as one of Samuel Beckett's characters says, "I can't go on. I must go on." One has promises to keep.