Yeats and the Sculpture of Self: A Critical Essay
By Monika Rose
W.B. Yeats’ progress as a writer sprung from deliberate plans of self-improvement and exploration, especially as it pertained to his development of craft. His “passion for making and remaking himself led him to revise his early work…to conform to a later pattern” (Kermode 1683). Yeats cross-referenced his themes in several different modes of discourse–poems, essays, journals, plays, fiction, etc.–and worked on them continuously. The amount of material regarding the researching of his methods of composition is vast, ranging from detailed studies of his prosody and versification, to exploration of his writing influences and associations with people who would become symbolic emblems in his work. The most valuable and provocative of Yeats’ ritualistic writing practices, however, stem from his recording of occult experiences such as those experienced via his involvement in the Order of the Golden Dawn, Rosicrucian participation in seances, ritualistic ceremonies, dream recording, automatic writing through mediums, and other activities. Luckily, his methodical habits of composing prose, drama, and in particular, poetry, that involve compulsive, rigorous, methodical cross-referencing and extensive notes, editing, and revision kept him “hammering his thoughts into unity” (qtd. in Kermode and Hollander 1680). These two areas seem radically different, yet in order to control and shape the evolution of his ideas, I believe Yeats needed the system of careful composition he devised in order to channel the mystic visions and experiences into unified forms of expression. According to Kermode and Hollander, he sought a place called, after Plotinus, “There,” some center where everything came together, and “what he was trying to get together, for the sake of major poetry, was himself” (1682). And as Yeats said in a letter to Dorothy Wellesley, “I live in my own mind and write poetry; can go into a dream and stay there” (qtd. in Kermode and Hollander 38).
Yeats had a system for recording experiences and ideas that would seem challenging to the average person at first glance, but it was a system that afforded him opportunities to document material recurring in various genres, and it would become a method that would serve as a sort of cyclical reincarnation of ideas. He kept various bound journals and notebooks, and later, loose-leaf journals, which provided a vast workshop for his reveries and musings, as well as a place to store his observations that would become a basis for his text be it a dramatic work, a poem, or even a passage in his autobiographies (Bradford 3). Studies of his manuscripts provide the insights to his textual changes, which were frequent, before and after publication (Bradford “Preface” vi-ix).
In light of Yeats’ constant self-construction, Daniel T. O’Hara summarizes Jahan Ramazani’s book, Yeats and the Poetry of Death: Elegy, Self-Elegy, and the Sublime, by concluding that “the poet is the one who is reborn as ‘idea,’ perfected, become complete…” (qtd. in O’Hara 547). Yeats’s poems are “ecstatic acts of intellectual and imaginative deliverance, a wresting of order from the chaos of life” (549). Thus, Yeats creates himself as an entity in his notebooks and works, documenting the evidence of his identity, and he becomes a director of his own life, acting on the stage of his own tragedies (Neuman 56). In his reveries, mystical musings of the past as recorded in journals which would later become part of his Autobiographies, Yeats reports that he was, at puberty, first attracted by the thought of determining his life’s form as he would “shape a poem.” This process was influenced by the works of Shelley, as Shirley Neuman reports. Yeats stated that he “began to play at being a sage, a magician or a poet…as I climbed along the narrow ledge. . . (60). He “shaped his life as he might a poem….” Thus, this deliberate self-shaping began early, with Yeats trying out different poses and masks of himself, Hamlet-like (60).
As Vereen Bell relates, Yeats knew that “poetry and even thought are fictions, but he believed in the power of such fictions to shape and direct human life and in the ability of narrative logic to give coherence and dignity to the erratic human enterprise of becoming,” thus the Collected Poems of Yeats stood for his own life story (495). Bell explains that Yeats was not really suited for the job of being a “cutting-edge modernist,” since the realm of his life experience included Yeats claiming to have had a meeting with a queen of a band of fairies who discussed the fairy kingdom with him. Another incident, in which Yeats told Dorothy Wellesley that the immortality of the individual soul could be proved and upheld in a court of law, reiterates a tie to the ancient relics of the past, not to mention the practice of consulting daily astrological charts worked out by Yeats and his Uncle George to forecast events (Bell 496). “Hammer your thoughts into a unity,” one spirit had instructed Yeats (Bell 497) and by Yeats’ own desire to create a reality with its own qualities, he believed he could “call, declare, make, summon, tell,” and continue shaping his life as a poet in a physical sense (498). Natalie Crohn Schmitt reports Yeats’ statement, “Whether it is we or the vision that create the pattern, who set the wheel turning, it is hard to say, ” and that Yeats continues by saying that he is full of uncertainty, not sure “when he is the finger or the clay” (174). Thus, Yeats struggled with identifying the nature of his soul as a writer and as a Magi, a role he so much wanted to acquire, continuing his process of self-shaping (Croft 135).
Writing was painstaking for Yeats, and by 1895, he had developed the habit of writing many drafts of his prose and poetry, staying with a work until ‘much hammering’ had worked it into shape. But it was a tedious process, writing in a slow longhand, working mainly in the early morning hours on his poetry from 9 until noon (Wellesley 38, 44),revising as he went along. In his later years, he would often get up at 4 A.M., work at proof sheets until 5:30, then go back to bed until breakfast at 7:30. Then he would write poetry until noon (Wellesley 82). His handwriting was nearly illegible to others, so he dictated from his manuscripts and notebooks for a typist, sometimes his wife George. If he were interrupted during dictation, he would be disoriented and his secretary had to write what she thought she heard, going back later and correcting errors in the transcribing of his poetry, misreading his writing, with Yeats often missing the corrections needed, himself. Yeats’s writing contained atrocious misspellings, horrendous over-punctuation of commas and dashes, and his sentences were hard to discern due to lack of end punctuation and capitalization. He would do such things as trail off at the suffixes, so that those wanting to examine actual manuscripts for prose style had a difficult if not impossible task of trying to decipher his process (Bradford “Preface” iii).
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