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.

The Red Wheelbarrow and Jung’s Synchronicity (plus Keats)

so much depends                                                                                                                     upon

a red wheel                                                                                                                       barrow

glazed with rain                                                                                                                 water

beside the white                                                                                                                 chickens

(William Carlos Williams, 1923)

The first thing readers often notice about Williams’s poem is that it seems so arbitrary – just an arbitrary set of domestic images, with no philosophical propositions, no apparent symbolic referents, no historical context. Just the “thing in itself,” as Williams liked to say. In some other context, a red wheelbarrow may have a practical function, but here the images are stripped of practical value. This is exactly what liberates us to see them through the lens of pure aesthetic wonder. At least that’s the imagist idea.

Formal construction of the poem supports this imagist project. The line structure breaks each substantive unit (wheel / barrow, rain / water, white / chickens) as if to retrain the eye, bringing you through a double-take back to the thing in itself. The one verbal unit – “glazed” – puts it all under a glass coat for aesthetic gaze.

So if that’s the agenda, the question remains, why these images? Why not “the pile of dog / shit / by the black / shovel”?  For the imagist, it’s a trick question. The arbitrariness is itself the key. Of all colors, red on white! The arbitrariness gives a fragile sensory beauty that cannot be achieved in more cerebral poetry.

When the poem rips its subject from practical and historical standards of value, you might say it rips away the causal nexus that brought the objects into this configuration. This is where the imagist poem intersects with Jung’s idea of synchronicity. For Jung, there are two modes of assigning value: via causality or via synchronicity. You can explain things by looking at the external string of causes that brought them here, or you can strip away the causal nexus and look at the things in themselves in their unique and arbitrary aspect. The imagist poem focuses through the lens not of causality but of synchronicity.

While I can appreciate the imagist project, I still like to think that I can appreciate the poem on both levels (despite the poet’s intention, as it were). I can place the imagist poem into historical perspective as a countercultural thread within modernism. Key features of modernism – fragmentation, the loss of depth and of transcendental meaning – which may cause paralysis and despair in the poetry of T. S. Eliot or the prose of William Faulkner – are turned by the imagist into a celebration of the arbitrary fragment, of the colliding surfaces themselves. One might in this respect align the fragmented, colliding surfaces of Picasso with the imagist poets, as a counterweight within the angst-ridden modernist movement.

But when the historical placement is done, it’s still nice to go back and bask in the immediacy of the imagist poem. It is, after all, the flash of synchronicity which re-opens a vista for modern Westerners who have in many cases lost the register for that kind of raw, meaningless beauty.

Compare, finally, to the closing lines of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819):

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Noteworthy is that Keats attributes these lines to the urn itself and not the speaker of the poem. Indeed, the lesson we might apply from the imagist poem is that truth is NOT beauty. “Truth” is the cornerstone of causal thinking. We compare a proposition to the world it references and determine its truth-value. “Beauty,” on the other hand, is the cornerstone of synchronicity. Its value lies in its immediacy. The urn in those final lines tries to marry the two together, but the real poignancy in the Keats ode lies in the fact that that marriage is tenuous. Keats may have already sensed at the writing of the poem the tuberculosis that would soon kill him. Certainly, in any event, the tension between the mortality of the poet and the immortality of the figures on the urn is an operative force in the poem. The young lovers depicted on the urn will remain “forever young,” and therein lies their beauty. But the truth is that they will never feel the warmth of the kiss, their lips forever an inch apart.

The poet has an advantage over the marble figures in that he will feel the human warmth of the kiss, but the cost of this warmth is that he and his beloved will soon wither. The urn’s beauty lasts forever, but the truth the poet must face is death – and very soon, in Keats’s case.

The image set in “The Red Wheelbarrow” is like the set of figures on the urn. Its beauty will last, as the poem has lasted for generations, its synchronic value unadulterated by time. But the imagist poem evades the truth of mortality. Or almost evades it. Williams’s first stanza (“So much depends / upon”) suggests a tiny hole in the imagist fabric, an element of urgency, an inkling of time and mortality, a slightest hint of the inexorable truth of causal reality breaking against the edges of its crisp and beautiful synchronicity.

A Digression on Abstract Art

With a secret preference for Renaissance and Impressionist styles, I don’t know if I can do this. Let’s start with language. Language is a conceptual mapping of the world.  It breaks the raw, unintelligible flux of experience into intelligible chunks (conceptually, not physically).  We first access the world conceptually not in simple chunks, but in complex but finite experiences, just as physically we see a table, not the atoms that make it up.  To see a table on its atomic level is more difficult.  We see the complex immediately, but to see the simples, perhaps ironically, requires some subjective mediation on our part.

In the visual arts, some works give us a holistic, complex scenario – a mother and daughter walking in the park.  This is immediately intelligible.  Thus, it almost guarantees some affect in the viewer.  We may or may not find it aesthetically pleasing or thought-provoking, but the artist has pretty much stacked the deck in terms of having the viewer process it on some affective level.  The amount of aesthetic value it has is not contingent upon its intelligibility, which is a given, but falls upon other matters of style, content, and cultural context.

Abstract art, on the other hand, “abstracts” the simpler, hidden building blocks of visual experience and recombines them.  There are of course many levels of abstraction between complex, holistic lived experience and absolute simples.  A Picasso painting may go one step deeper and depict a face with an eye on the chin and a breast hanging off the left ear (like a sheet of stained glass that’s been shattered and had the shards put back together in the wrong places).  An eyeball is still a complex, but is nonetheless not something we apprehend in the abstract in ordinary experience.  When we see someone, we don’t see an eyeball, an ear, and a breast.  So that painting has broken lived experience into smaller building blocks.  Part of the value of such a work will probably lie in how well it exposes for the viewer the abstract building blocks that are always already embedded (though not immediately recognized as such) in his/her lived experience.

A more abstract painting may go deeper toward even simpler, more abstract units of lived experience. Take Joan Miro’s compositions of straight or squiggly lines and half-formed figures, the archetypal fragments of geometry, or Rothko’s non-referential color patches, returning us all the way to the archaic building blocks of visual reality.

Bottom line: When the composition corresponds to a holistic unit of lived experience – a traditional representational painting – it is immediately intelligible (whether or not it has much aesthetic value).  The closer the compositional markings get to simple abstractions (i.e., the further from holistic, as-lived experience), the more subjective mediation is required for the work to be intelligible.

I think we will agree that it is silly to pronounce art at either extreme generically “good” or “bad.”  Great aesthetic value can be generated by art that deals in the holistic sequences of lived experience as well as by art that seeks to uncover and “make conscious” the hidden building blocks within lived experience.

20th-century poetry shows, generally but not universally, a much greater interest in the 2nd kind of art.  Call it the influence of a remarkable set of contemporaries – Einstein, Freud, Picasso, Joyce, Pound, etc.  This interest may take the form of imagist poetry, which isolates smaller and smaller chunks of lived experience, each of which remains holistic.  Take William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

so much depends                                                                                                                     upon

a red wheel                                                                                                                        barrow

glazed with rain                                                                                                                water

beside the white                                                                                                                 chickens

Because this backyard scene remains holistic, it is immediately intelligible – we know what is being said/depicted.  But because it so deliberately chips off such a small chunk of experience, we are unsure of the value/meaning of such a work.  I can tell you from having taught it repeatedly that despite anything Williams thinks or says, to see this poem as valuable or meaningful requires mediation.  Most readers immediately find it intelligible but do not immediately see any value or meaning in it.  To see it as valuable means rethinking your orientation.  The best imagist poems succeed in getting the reader to rethink his/her orientation; the worst fail to do so.  So this, tentatively, would be an important standard of value for an imagist poem.  And this standard of value – whether the poem succeeds in getting you to rethink your orientation toward smaller and less immediately meaningful chunks of lived experience– is more prominent in relation to 20th century imagist poetry than to other historical bodies of poetry.  It puts a different kind of pressure on the reader, and it also runs a different kind of risk – the risk of being too mundane to matter.  Naturally, some such poems succumb to the risk and some rise above.

Other poetry in the formative modernist years, say T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” or “Waste Land,” respond to the same changing world view (precipitated by Einstein, Freud, Picasso, the trench warfare of World War I, etc.) but respond differently.  Here the scene is larger but less holistic.  They strike the reader not as simple, digestible fragments whose meaning is in jeopardy (as in Williams), but as collections of incongruous fragments whose intelligibility is in jeopardy.  To take the simpler Prufrock, the path from line 1 to line 17 seems fraught with discontinuity.

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening…

Each phrase, image, concept, is clearly a meaningful fragment – a building block – of language, but the fragments at first reading don’t add up.  We’re not even sure who is doing what in the landscape of the poem.  The intelligibility of the poem is in jeopardy, and it requires much mediation for the reader to render the compositional markings intelligible enough to be valuable.  The poem’s success or failure in achieving aesthetic value is contingent upon whether or not it can reach that threshold of intelligibility for a given reader.  And this contingency is at the heart of much 20th century poetry.  The best of such poetry reaches that threshold, leaving the reader with the feeling that we’ve just juggled the building blocks of conceptual experience and come up with an expanded conceptual register of the world.  The worst of such leaves the reader feeling that it was just a silly, self-indulgent word game that didn’t pan out.

The Frenchman Robbe-Grillet

To the lay literati, fiction writer and theorist, Alain Robbe-Grillet, is no longer a household word, though he may have come close to that in the 1950s and 60s. The essays in For a New Novel are a kind of manifesto for the “objective” or “imagist” type novel. At the center of this collection is an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, Robbe-Grillet seems a heady recruit for my army of Fashion Anarchists, attacking all normative criticism by saying that every novel must create its own genre and cannot be measured against a pre-existing standard (e.g., the Balzac novel). On the other hand, he makes his own work into a norm, suggesting that only an inferior writer today could write in that “Balzac” genre based on psychological depth and storyline nuance.

Thus when Robbe-Grillet speaks of a “new realism,” I can see the connection to Kafka, Joyce, Faulkner, and all of the stream-of-consciousness writers whom he praises, but I don’t see the loss of depth as an absolute. To be sure, older centers of meaning like religion no longer provide a deep and fixed anchor as we move into modernist culture. One response to this is to allow oneself to be absorbed in the surface play. Robbe-Grillet, says structuralist icon Roland Barthes, describes objects as mere optical surfaces, which have “neither function nor substance” and are “susceptible to no thematic index whatsoever.” One might recall in this light the imagist poems of William Carlos Williams and the sliced surfaces of Picasso – perhaps even the fascinating, glassy world of Richard Brautigan’s adult fairy tale, In Watermelon Sugar. (My more intrepid readers might wish to plot my stories [e.g., The Clown and the Tiger] or small poems [e.g., Impressions of Rachael in Spain and Morocco] against these aesthetic coordinates.)

But it seems that other responses to a vanishing ground of meaning might be just as valid. The colliding surfaces and subjectivities of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse stir up all kinds of interesting undercurrents at the psychological depths. I myself have much enjoyed what I’ve read of Robbe-Grillet’s prose art, and I can read Brautigan all day long with sheer delight, but I don’t see why an appreciation of these essentially non-psychological, non-plotted, descriptive prose artworks can’t exist alongside an appreciation of novels that locate meaning at a depth or at an external distance from the objective markings of the prose.