The Obsolescence of the Emperor of Byzantium

by Aidan Andrew Dun


W.B.Yeats is the most important English language poet of the last hundred-and-fifty years. Is this judgement Eurocentric? Even Tagore and Whitman have to concede to the Emperor of Byzantium.

In the triumvirate of Yeats, Eliot and Pound, it can be admitted that Eliot has the greater command of speaking voices. His dramatic genius culminates in ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, one of the three great works of art of the 20th century, these being: Sacre, Murder and Guernica. Yeats’ plays are poor in structure, stiff in language. His one compelling piece of stagework is the almost Rabelaisian ‘Pot of Broth.’ Yet this play’s supercharged vernacular dialogue was very probably the work of the poet’s great friend Lady Gregory. To judge by the usually cerebral and static architecture of his dramatic output this may well be true. Yet in the initiated ferocity of Yeats’ verse, in the timeless lamentation of his love-poetry, in the otherworldiness of his imagination, Yeats is far out in front of anyone else I can bring to mind.

Philosophically, cosmologically, a poem like ‘The Second Coming’ outclasses everything else written in a good century’s literature. Yeats’ ecstasy of consciousness here is little short of prophetic. The shaman wheels and spirals as he predicts dire transformations; Eliot cannot reach this fever-pitch. And Pound is too dizzy with the symbolic panorama to be able to organize his magical vision, compress it into three tight stanzas. Yeats, as hardcore Platonist, is able to access and manipulate levels of symbolism which remove him altogether from the field of his contemporaries. His preoccuptions are so far ahead of his time that only now – as three-volume biographies roll out, as literary and occult scholarship penetrates deeper the mysterium of his psyche – do we begin to take stock of his real frame of reference, appreciate his wide-angle lens. And yet there is a snag. There is a worm in the rose. Something stops me admitting Yeats to the company, say, of Rimbaud, Dante, Rumi, Milton, Homer. And it is this.

Yeats’ imagery is not grounded in his own time. He looks backward to assemble his cast of players from mythology, Irish and Greek for the most part, though Indian and Theosophical cosmologies participate. Only once in Yeats does an aircraft cross the sky of a poem. This poet is retrospective in his selection of archetypes and leitmotifs. Part of his classical gravitas comes from his backward-looking choice of visual cues. Yeats escapes from the faux-romantic late nineteenth century by the skin of his teeth, and then, in the new century gets down to serious work, probing deeper and deeper into an alchemical world-view which is transtemporal. The poems of his twenties are somehow tainted with chocolate-box colours and Celtic revivalist sentimentality; early Yeats is slightly over-humid. Yet even as he shifts up a gear and ascends into more muscular mode, invoking the esoteric systems of the Order of the Golden Dawn, still his imagery remains retrospective.

To give an example. From the age of two till the age of eight William Butler Yeats lived under Primrose Hill, only returning to Sligo with his mother in 1872, (the year of Rimbaud’s first visit to London.) His boyhood street, Fitzroy Rd, just north of Regent’s Park, was brutally cut in half by the London and Birmingham Railway. As a boy of seven and eight Yeats must have peered over a brick wall at the bottom of truncated Fitzroy Rd into the writhing, steaming intestinal snakepit of the industrial age, he must have often watched the Flying Scostman ploughing northwards through the fog out of St Pancras. Yet I am not aware of a single reference to a train in Yeats’ poetic oeuvre. No one is suggesting for a moment that the poet should have populated his verses with the trivial locomotions of Betjeman, but where is the train as Uraeus serpent of the Iron Age in Yeats, where is the sudden enlightenment of artificial velocity, where is the overnight express bursting through the forehead from the dark tunnel of thought?

While in the general area of rolling-stock I must interject that Auden’s ‘Night Mail’ of 1936 set to a blazing groove by Benjamin Britten surely represents the first rap of the 20th century, worth checking for that reason though not the profoundest statement from that poet.

In early manhood Yeats would live in the shadow of the clocktower of St Pancras Railway Hotel for twenty-three years surrounded by the noisy, noxious phenomena of the first modern transportation hub, and still, no choo-choos! This was a fertile season for Yeats, abandoning his Celtic Twilight period and getting stuck into his Platonism and his Freemasonry (so detested by Maude Gonne, who as revolutionary socialist regarded magical orders as intellectual luxuries of an idle middle-class). Hosting his celebrated Monday night parties at his tiny flat in Woburn Place Yeats mingled with modern men of modern times. In this period the poet was slowly dragging poison thorns of unrequited love out of his heart, preparing the dark vintage of his mature verse. Yet his great poetry remains somehow backward-looking. An absence of mere steam-trains from his universe is only symptomatic of a general lack of contemporaneity which can objectively be interpreted as stigmatic. Yeats fails to take cognizance of what is all around him; he has a significant blindspot. Baudelaire, born more than forty years before the Anglo-Irish poet, today seems more contemporary than Yeats. And Eliot, though he must be regarded as a lesser poet, is a 20th century voice, while Yeats remains a 19th century singer.

Homer purified Greek civilization by strengthening archetypes of past heroic supermen, making them alive for his present and our future. He drew from the deep well of legend the most potent tropes and memes, filtered these to a luminous quintessence and made them potable to the people around him, acceptable – delicious – for infinite generations to come. Yeats at least attempted something similar in his valorous struggle to thrust Celtic mythology down the throats of modern Irishmen, yet he fails in his magnificent project of injecting vividness into antiquity; he cannot give life to his arcane shadows. In the theatre of W.B Yeats the poet retails stilted, cardboard figures, cerebrally interesting but ultimately devoid of fire. (Unfailingly the plays of Yeats were spat out on the pavements of Dublin by the same generation that drank up ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, greedily imbibed the small-scale sagas of O’Casey, the lighter potions of Wilde.)

Here is the key to the obsolescence of the Emperor of Byzantium. Yeats functions brilliantly inside his subjective universe but he does not mobilize his imagination in such a way as to incorporate the flesh and blood of the atomic age, a poor outcome in the light of his paramount genius. As Yeats fell out of step with the 20th century, English letters lost the man with the highest poetic aspirations since John Milton.