Notes to myself on William Butler Yeats: a terrible beauty is born

“Terrible beauty” is the signature oxymoron in William Butler Yeats’s “Easter 1916.” I am not particularly a Yeats scholar, but it seems to me that this is also the signature oxymoron of Yeats’s poetic landscape in general.

If I were to presumptuously set up a one-session primer on Yeats, I would include “Easter 1916,” “The Second Coming,” and “Leda and the Swan.”

All three have to do with rupture, paradigm shift, or, to wit, the moment in which some “terrible beauty is born.” In “Easter 1916,” numb Victorian complacency shatters with a revolutionary eruption, beautiful in its sudden move from deadening complacency toward freedom, passion, and authenticity, but terrible in its violence.

On a personal level, the rupture may recall for some the Romantic move from Innocence to Experience (explicit in Blake but implicit in all six canonical Romantic poets). For Yeats, this may be best marked by his sudden, disruptive passion upon meeting Maud Gonne, whom he loved unrequitedly for decades.

On the level of cultural history, the vision is one not of gradual evolution but of long ages punctuated by violent eruptions/paradigm shifts. Although the paradigm shift in “Easter 1916” is political, a spiritual world view infuses Yeats’s vision. Look at “Leda and the Swan” and “The Second Coming” and you see supernatural eruptions every 2000 years that determine the next historical cycle (Helen of Troy is conceived in “Leda and the Swan,” Christ is born about 2000 years later, and in “The Second Coming” Yeats sees forces gathering at the beginning of the 20th for another supernatural explosion). This sense of paradigm shift was shared by Yeats’s younger contemporaries like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. And indeed it was a cultural paradigm shift that cut across all disciplines. The modernist style of Joyce and Woolf and Eliot broke radically from the Victorian style of Dickens and Tennyson. Cp. Picasso in painting (sense of depth yields to colliding surfaces), Stravinsky and DeBussy and the sudden rise of atonal, impressionistic music that would have been utterly nonsensical a few years earlier (and indeed was still nonsensical to many contemporaries), Freud, Einstein, the rise of existentialism. Not to mention the drastic review of the “meaning” of life precipitated by the trench warfare of World War I and then the rise of Hitler.

You can see this stuff all over in our selection – “Leda” begins with a “sudden blow” and drives forward with a swirling mix of beauty and terror, a power both gigantic and indifferent, richly sensual but cosmic as well. This is not a rational, Newtonian universe. And it applies on all levels – personal growth, political/cultural history, cosmic/mythological history. (For an exquisitely personal sense of this alien omnipresence indifferently driving our fates, you might see Emily Dickinson, also a contemporary of Yeats though a cultural world away.)

“The Second Coming” starts with an almost pure physics approach to the same kind of break, “turning and turning” toward the rupture point when all hell will break loose. It’s a combination of the Book of Revelation, trench warfare, the premonition of Hitler, the obliteration of innocence, etc., etc., all delivered in richly concrete terms.

Much more could be said about particular word choices and image patterns, but I’d close by saying that, for me, the key things to look for in Yeats are suddenness, fracture, power, terrible beauty, and the three primary levels to frame them with are cosmic/mythic, historical/political, personal.

Freud’s Wolf Man and Joyce’s Dubliners

It’s hard to read Freud’s case histories of the Rat Man (1909) and the Wolf Man (1918) and not be fascinated. Most intriguing of all is how Freud slowly pieces together the patient’s unconscious backstory using what little the patient gives him, small memories that have stuck with the patient for some reason: he was holding his mother’s hand as a toddler, and she was lamenting her illness to a doctor she was seeing off at the train station, and her words made a deep impression; he was standing with his governess in front of the house watching a carriage drive off with his father, mother, and sister, and then walked peacefully back into the house with his governess; there was a picture book with a wolf standing upright that his sister had used to frighten him. Each snapshot seems insignificant but left its mark, and indeed these “insignificant” moments become defining moments, albeit unconsciously, that shape all the subsequent life of the patient’s psyche.

Notice the similarity to James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). Joyce spearheaded a turn in the history of the novel away from the perfectly crafted plotlines of Dickens toward something more subjective. What happens when you can no longer rely on plot milestones and neat closures to frame the flow of meaning? What happens – at least if you are in the early 20th century – is you stumble into a Freudian frame of meaning. In Dubliners, each story captures a moment with no big drama but with an impression left on the protagonist’s mind – the character’s disappointment in “Araby” when he arrives too late at a fair and is unable to get a gift for the girl he secretly loved, the child’s sense of the corpse’s presence at an in-home wake (“The Sisters”), the sense of something peculiar and transgressive in the old man’s approach in “An Encounter.” These moments have the same kind of vitality as the memory-scenes in Freud’s case histories. No bells and whistles, but they capture an impression that leaves a deep mark on the psyche.

I don’t know how deliberate Joyce’s Freudian ground of meaning was, but history makes some cross-pollination inevitable. Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press was offered (but declined) Joyce’s Ulysses for publication around the same time that they were publishing English translations of Freud’s on-going works (and poems by the likes of T. S. Eliot). Certainly all these towering early modernists – Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Pound, D. H. Lawrence – were moving in the same circles, with Woolf’s Bloomsbury Group as one of the nuclei. But however tenuous the cross-connects, there is no doubt that Joyce’s Dubliners participates in reshaping the form of fiction away from the organizing principles of plot and climax. (Woolf’s To the Lighthouse [1927], to me, would be the greatest example of the modernist novel built around subjective points of reference, but Dubliners is closer to the kick-start.) Joyce thus helps to reshape modern identity – first by changing the form in which we see these human stories transacted, and secondly by changing the role of the reader. The reader must orient differently to Dubliners than he had to Dickens. No more of the objective markers that make Dickensian characters so memorable (one thinks, e.g., of Gradgrind, “whose head was all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie”), or of the dramatic climax that brings all the plot threads together. In the trajectory of fiction from Dubliners to Woolf, the reader herself is cast into the role of psychoanalyst, peering into the minds of minor characters, looking for how lasting impressions are made of seemingly trivial events. It’s not about what the characters are doing so much as it is about the dynamics of being.

So was Joyce deliberately deploying Freud? Was Freud perhaps influenced by modernist writers and artists of the day? I’ll let others measure out the exact influences, but I’d recommend this experiment for my own readers: Pick up a copy of Freud’s Three Case Histories, which includes the Wolf Man, notice how reading it places you into the role of psychoanalyst, and ask yourself if the reader is not cast into the same role when he or she reads Dubliners or To the Lighthouse. And ask yourself if that shift in orientation about how we read does not partly reflect and partly implement a shift of human identity into its modern form.

Related: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon/Sula; Jung on Joyce’s Ulysses