The End of the Poem: Oxford Lecturesby Paul Muldoon
In The End of the Poem, Paul Muldoon dazzlingly explores a diverse group of poems, from Yeats's "All Souls' Night" to Stevie Smith's "I Remember" to Fernando Pessoa's "Autopsychography." Muldoon reminds us that the word "poem" comes, via French, from the Latin and Greek: "a thing made or created." He asks: Can a poem ever be a free-standing structure/i>… See more details below
In The End of the Poem, Paul Muldoon dazzlingly explores a diverse group of poems, from Yeats's "All Souls' Night" to Stevie Smith's "I Remember" to Fernando Pessoa's "Autopsychography." Muldoon reminds us that the word "poem" comes, via French, from the Latin and Greek: "a thing made or created." He asks: Can a poem ever be a free-standing structure, or must it always interface with the whole of its author's bibliography--and biography? Muldoon explores the boundlessness created by influence, what Robert Frost meant when he insisted that "the way to read a poem in prose or verse is in the light of all the other poems ever written."
Finally, Muldoon returns to the most fruitful, and fraught, aspect of the phrase "the end of the poem": the interpretation that centers on the "aim" or "function" of a poem, and the question of whether or not the end of the poem is the beginning of criticism. Irreverent and deeply learned, The End of the Poem is a vigorous approach to looking at poetry anew.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Read an Excerpt
The End of the Poem
ALL SOULS' NIGHT
W. B. YEATS
Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell And many a lesser bell sound through the room; And it is All Souls' Night, And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come; For it is a ghost's right, His element is so fine Being sharpened by his death, To drink from the wine-breath While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.
I need some mind that, if the cannon sound From every quarter of the world, can stay Wound in mind's pondering As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound; Because I have a marvellous thing to say, A certain marvellous thing None but the living mock, Though not for sober ear; It may be all that hear Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock.
Horton's the first I call. He loved strange thought And knew that sweet extremity of prideThat's called platonic love, And that to such a pitch of passion wrought Nothing could bring him, when his lady died, Anodyne for his love. Words were but wasted breath; One dear hope had he: The inclemency Of that or the next winter would be death.
Two thoughts were so mixed up I could not tell Whether of her or God he thought the most, But think that his mind's eye, When upward turned, on one sole image fell; And that a slight companionable ghost, Wild with divinity, Had so lit up the whole Immense miraculous house The Bible promised us, It seemed a gold-fish swimming in a bowl.
On Florence Emery I call the next, Who finding the first wrinkles on a face Admired and beautiful, And knowing that the future would be vexed With 'minished beauty, multiplied commonplace, Preferred to teach a school Away from neighbour or friend, Among dark skins, and there Permit foul years to wear Hidden from eyesight to the unnoticed end.
Before that end much had she ravelled out From a discourse in figurative speech By some learned Indian On the soul's journey. How it is whirled about, Wherever the orbit of the moon can reach, Until it plunge into the sun;And there, free and yet fast, Being both Chance and Choice, Forget its broken toys And sink into its own delight at last.
And I call up MacGregor from the grave, For in my first hard springtime we were friends, Although of late estranged. I thought him half a lunatic, half knave, And told him so, but friendship never ends; And what if mind seem changed, And it seem changed with the mind, When thoughts rise up unbid On generous things that he did And I grow half contented to be blind!
He had much industry at setting out, Much boisterous courage, before loneliness Had driven him crazed; For meditations upon unknown thought Make human intercourse grow less and less; They are neither paid nor praised. But he'd object to the host, The glass because my glass; A ghost-lover he was And may have grown more arrogant being a ghost.
But names are nothing. What matter who it be, So that his elements have grown so fine The fume of muscatel Can give his sharpened palate ecstasy No living man can drink from the whole wine. I have mummy truths to tell Whereat the living mock, Though not for sober ear, For maybe all that hear Should laugh and weep an hour upon the clock.Such thoughtsuch thought have I that hold it tight Till meditation master all its parts, Nothing can stay my glance Until that glance run in the world's despite To where the damned have howled away their hearts, And where the blessed dance; Such thought, that in it bound I need no other thing, Wound in mind's wandering As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.
Oxford, Autumn 1920
I WANT TO SAY A WORD OR TWO about my choice of this somewhat booming, perhaps even slightly bumptious phrase, "the end of the poem," for the general title of this series of lectures. To begin with, the idea of delivering fifteen lectures over five years is an extremely resistible onematched only in its resistibility, I dare say, by the idea of receiving fifteen lectures over that same period. Who in his or her right mind would commit to a relationship that lasts longer than many marriages, and where one party in the contract, the aforesaid receiver of the lectures, is assigned much more favourable terms than the other? Whereas the receiver of lectures can always come up with some pressing, prior engagement to excuse his or her absencefor ten or twelve of the lectures, sayit's a little more tricky for the deliverer. Not only must the poor deliverer show upwhich, despite what Woody Allen says, accounts for about eight rather than eighty per cent of the success of any venturehe must positively shine, maybe even scintillate. And he must scintillate, be there three hundred in the Examination Schools or three. I have to confess that I had this latter figure of three quite firmly in mind when I hit on the idea of the general title, The End of the Poem, for, while I was confident that the three most perspicacious readers in the audienceyou know who you arewould continue to find it rich and resonant over the entire five years, I wasless confident of being able to persuade anyone else that the phrase might be rich and resonant for more than about five seconds.
When I began to think of where I might find a little toe-hold on the slippery slope of this huge subject, particularly in the context of an inaugural lecture, it struck me that "All Souls' Night" by W. B. Yeats was tailor-made for the occasion. I use the words "context" and "tailor-made" advisedly because, as we'll see, the poem turns out to be in part a shuttling, as it were, between the words "textual" and "textile," words that this notoriously poor speller might well have mistaken one for the other, though neither appears in the poem. (I'm reminded, with regard to the spelling, of the occasion on which Yeats misspelt the word "professor" in his letter of inquiry about a professorship at Trinity College, Dublin.) It's clear that Yeats was very conscious of an appropriateness of the slippage between these two words, "textual" and "textile," conscious that they share the Latin root texere, "to weave," just as he's very conscious of the etymology of the word "line," and that there's an etymological "line" running through the poem that is quite at one with, and mimetic of, its material. I'll also be looking at other invisible threads through the poem, mostly having to do with proper names, including the name of at least one other poet who looms large in "All Souls' Night."
The poem comes to mind most immediately, of course, as being tailor-made by virtue of the occasion and the setting, this being All Souls' Day in Oxford, the city where Yeats wrote the poem in the autumn of 1920perhaps, as Richard Ellmann suggests in The Identity of Yeats, beginning it on this very date. That the poem was written in Oxford in the autumn of 1920 might not ordinarily be of any great significance to anyone other than a literary critic, except that Yeats does indeed assign this information a significance, placing it, literally, at the end of the poem. There it is, in small italics: Oxford, Autumn 1920. Now, one of the unlikely, generally overlooked, aspects of reading a poem is that one may begin, as I just have, at the end. One may scan the poem as a shape on the page, taking in aspects of its geometry, well before one embarks on what we think of as a conventional line-by-line reading. Since I've begun at the end, let me continue by taking that piece of information, the dating and placing of the poem, and folding it back into the title "All Souls' Night." At first sight, the information that the poem was written in Oxford in the autumn of 1920can hardly be seen to extend the meaning of the poem. It's self-evident that All Souls' Night falls in autumn. And, as the poem begins, the setting is also self-evident:
Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell And many a lesser bell sound through the room; And it is All Souls' Night.
Now, I suppose that some of the first readers of "All Souls' Night" might have had a momentary sound-picture of the great bell of the twelfth-century Augustinian priory church in Christchurch, Hampshire, or the great bell of the Anglican cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, when they came upon something along the lines of the poem, either in The London Mercury of March 1921, or in its simultaneous appearance in the United States in The New Republic of March 9, 1921, when they did not have the benefit of the date and place. I speak of "something along the lines of the poem." I should say, "what passed for what we now take to be 'All Souls' Night.'" For, as we know from Allt and Alspach's The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, the poem began thus in The New Republic:
It is All Souls' night and the great Christ Church bell ...
while in The London Mercury, where a little smidgin of good old-fashioned poetic diction didn't raise an eyebrow, it read
'Tis All Souls' Night and the great Christ Church bell ...
with a version of what is now the opening line, "For it is now midnight," appearing as line 3. It's worth pondering what might have been going on in Yeats's mind when he made these revisions, and to judge what might have been gained, or lost, in the process. One gain would have been the mimesis of the tolling of the bell in the predominantly spondaic metre of what is now the first line:
Midnight has come, and the great Christ Church Bell And many a lesser bell sound through the room;
For what it's worth, one may divine (particularly if one's predisposed to hearing them) twelve stresses or bell-tolls in those first two lines before the release of
And it is All Souls' Night.
Another consideration that Yeats would have weighed, in the revision of the opening lines of the poem, would have been his urge to avoid the stress falling on the wrong foot, resulting in a loss of balance of sound and sense in the iambic "For it is now midnight." "And it is All Souls' Night" is an altogether more effective rounding out of the spondaic pattern, with almost equal stress on each of those five syllables. The word "spondee," if you recall, has at its heart the idea of duration, the duration of the pouring of a drink-offering or libation to the gods or, as it turns out in this poem, the ghosts of the dead.
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel Bubble upon the table.
The recurrence of the word "and" at the beginning of three consecutive lines results in an extraordinary combination of the incantatory and the carefree, the negligence which in Yeats is often merely apparent, sometimes massively real. (It's always worth remembering that we're dealing here with a man who was ignorant of which side his ancestors had fought on at the Battle of the Boyne, as is evidenced by an early version of the "Introductory Rhymes" to his 1914 volume Responsibilities, when he names James II as the "bad master" of his "old fathers.")
I seem to recall a critical discussion of these present lines centering on whether muscatel is indeed a wine in which we could decently expect to meet a bubble, the implication being that it's introduced here to meet what commentators used to refer to as "the exigencies of rhyme." This question of whether muscatel, not to be confused with muscadet, does indeed "fume" is one on which I propose to do a great deal of research over the next five years, and I'll report back to you when I have a finding, though, as I'm sure you'll realise, the likelihood of my making any finding will depend largely upon funding. For Yeats's purposes, it's vital that this particular bottle of muscatel exhibit a certain sparkle,given that it announces the contiguous spirit-world associated with All Souls' Night.
As the Encyclopaedia Britannica reminds us, this is
the day appointed in the Roman Catholic church for a special commemoration of all the faithful departed, those baptized Christians who are believed to be in a state called purgatory because they have died with the guilt of lesser sins on their souls. Catholic doctrine holds that the prayers of the faithful on earth will help cleanse these souls in order to fit them for the vision of God in Heaven ... The institution of a day for a general intercession on November 2 is due to Odilo, abbot of Cluny (d. 1048). The date, which became practically universal before the end of the thirteenth century, was chosen to follow All Saints' Day, November 1st ... The feast was abolished in the Church of England at the Reformation but has been revived in Anglo-Catholic churches.
In the Britannica entry for "All Saints' Day" we're reminded that "in medieval English usage the festival was known as All Hallows, and its eve is still known as Halloween." It's as "Halloween" that Yeats would have known, as a child, the November 1 festival, though by the turn of the century he's more likely than not to have come to think of it by another term, Samhain, the Celtic New Year. The word "Samhain" means "summer's end" (from the Old Irish sam, summer, and fuin, end), and it was, as James MacKillop reminds us in his very handy Dictionary of Celtic Mythology , "the most important of the four great calendar feasts of Celtic tradition ... The antiquity of Samhain is attested to by the Coligny Calendar [the series of bronze tablets dating from the first century B.C. unearthed in 1897 at Coligny, in eastern France] which cites the feast of Samonios ... Samhain's equivalents on the Christian calendar are All Saints' Day (introduced by Pope Boniface IV in the 7th cent. to supplant the pagan festival of the dead) and Halloween." Samhain was, if you recall, the name of the house magazine of the Irish Literary Theatre, which appeared intermittently between the years 1901 and 1908 and was, of course, edited by Yeats.
Another of the unlikely, generally overlooked aspects of reading a poem has to do with the intermittent quality of our reading, so that havingbegun it, and proceeded a little into it, one may now leap back to the beginning, now again leap forward. This is particularly true of poems with which we're familiar, as Walter Fenno Dearborn pointed out in The Psychology of Reading (1906):
That which we ordinarily do when we run over in "our mind's eye" the lines of a page which we have just been reading or of a passage which we have committed to memory offers an instance of a movement of attention over a field that is not present in the visual sense, except as a memory image ... As is well known, many can recall during the recitation of a memorized passage a pretty constant image of the general appearance of the page and of an occasional word or group of words.
Now, one group of words that leaps off Dearborn's yellowed page is the phrase "mind's eye," which we also meet in line 33 of "All Souls' Night," an allusion to the best-known usage of the phrase, by Shakespeare, in Hamlet, where the prince sees the ghost of his father"In my mind's eye, Horatio"a not inappropriate allusion in the context of this poem about familiar spirits.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me go back to the line
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
There's a great deal of data packed into these seven words. To begin with, these "two" glasses take the place of "two" people, two people who have had an intimate dinner, perhaps, and are about to toast each other in a strong, sweet dessert wine. The glasses are "brimmed," about to overflow, just as the line itself flows over, the verse turns, into the next, with the violent enjambment on "muscatel/bubble." The last syllable of "muscatel" most certainly sends us back to "bell" and signals that we have entered what might be described as a restricted area. For it's only now, as we come to where the fourth line ends on "muscatel," that we fully understand that we are in a stanza, or "room," through which "the great Christ Church Bell / And many a lesser bell sound," the internal perfect rhyme now defining the very chamber through which its chime echoes and reechoes. When I say "perfect" in this instance I mean the rhyme of "bell" and"bell," and I'd remind you of Yeats's bold use of perfect rhyme in two consecutive stanzas of "Byzantium," a poem thematically linked to "All Souls' Night," though written ten years later, in 1930:
Before me floats an image, man or shade, Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork, More miracle than bird or handiwork
I'll come back to the question of perfect rhyme in just a moment. For now, let me direct you to a near-perfect rhyme, the rhyme between Yeats and Keats. I'm reminded immediately of the occasion when Yeats read at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, and the university president, who'd insisted on making the introduction and had obviously boned up big-time, introduced Yeats as the author of "Ode to Psyche," "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on Melancholy." This is not only an honest mistake, of the sort that anyone who stands up to speak is likely to make, but it's not entirely without basis. For this very line, on which we've lingered quite a while, includes at least two words that Yeats has borrowed from Keats. The words are "brimmed" and "bubble" and they come directly from "Ode to a Nightingale":
O for a beaker full of the warm South Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim.
"Ode to a Nightingale" also includes the line "The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine," and I've no doubtthough some will say I shouldthat the musk ghosts the muscatel just as, towards the end of the Keats poem, we have
Forlorn! The very word is like a bell
Which brings us back to "the great Christ Church Bell." Now, if I were still involved in my Clarendon Lectures on Irish literature I'd be inclined to say something about this scene conforming to the convention ofa feth fiada, where the sound of a bell is often a signal of a moment of interface between this world and some other, but I'm not, so I won't. I will, however, quote a few sentences from Yeats's brief treatise, collected in The Celtic Twilight, "Concerning the Nearness Together of Heaven, Earth, and Purgatory":
In Ireland this world and the world we go to after are not far apart ... A lady I knew once saw a village child running about in a long trailing petticoat upon her, and asked why she did not have it cut short. "It was my grandmother's," said the child; "would you have her going about up yonder with her petticoat up to her knees, and she dead but four days?"
Then I'll go back to James MacKillop, who writes:
Standing between the two halves of the Celtic year, Samhain seemed suspended in time, when the borders between the natural and the supernatural dissolve and the spirits from the Otherworld might move freely into the realm of mortals.
It's the possibility of this free movement of a spirit into the mortal realm that the speaker anticipates in these last lines of the first stanza of "All Souls' Night":
A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost's right, His element is so fine Being sharpened by his death, To drink from the wine-breath While our gross palates drink from the whole wine.
By the time we get to the end of this predominately spondaic line there's a realisation that we've arrived at a stopping-place, what with the length of line 10 now back in sync with 1, 2, 4 and 5, not to speak of its being complete emphasised by the word "whole." That awareness would have been underlined for readers of both The New Republic and The London Mercury by the fact that each of the ten stanzas appeared under a Roman numeral.
There's a realisation, too, that this being line 10, the stanza is somewhat outside Yeats's normative ottava rima, the form of most of his big poems of the previous ten years. That "All Souls' Night" should make its way into the world in ten-line units reintroduces the idea of Yeats being visited by Keats, since a ten-line unit (though not with the same rhyme-scheme) is employed in both "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on Melancholy," each of which has very specific connections with this first stanza of "All Souls' Night." In "Ode on Melancholy" we find the occurrence, again within one line, of two key words, "palate" and "fine":
Aye, in the very temple of Delight Veiled Melancholy has her sov'reign shrine, Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine.
In "Ode to a Nightingale," meanwhile, we have:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.
Now, I want to make the first of several suggestions which may strike some of you, including the three most perspicacious among you, as being quite outlandish. This has to do with a term for what would be offensive to a "palate fine," a synonym for the "drains" in what has been "emptied ... to the drains," a term which, in his simultaneous recognition of, and resistance to, its appropriateness, would have presented Yeats with a problem. The term is "lees," which Webster's defines as "dregs, grounds, residue," and it's an indicator of what lies under the surface of these lines which centre on his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees. It's the unnamed Georgie Hyde-Lees, after all, who is the presiding spirit not only of the poem but of A Vision, the prose work to which it is "an epilogue," a reference which I glossed over as I embarked on this close reading of the first stanza of "All Souls' Night," beginning as I did at the end of the poem.
I WANT TO CHANGE PACE for a moment to try to understand one aspect of Yeats's dating and placing of the poemprobably the most obvious aspect of itwhich is, of course, more about the dating and placing of Yeats. And the dates are somewhat more significant than the mischievous W. H. Auden suggested in "Academic Graffiti":
To get the last poems of Yeats You need not mug up on dates; All the reader requires Is some knowledge of gyres And the sort of people he hates.
We should remember that in November 1920, Yeats was fifty-five years of age. Only three years earlier, in 1917, he had married Georgie Hyde-Lees, twenty-five years his junior, in a Register Office in Paddington. Yeats was even then perceived as a major poet. A report of his wedding in the Freeman's Journal in Dublin had described him as "perhaps the greatest figure in Anglo-Irish literature, and ... by general consent of his literary critics first among the poets of the time." Georgie Hyde-Lees had now borne Yeats a daughter, Anne, in 1919, while his son, Michael, would be born in the village of Thame, just outside Oxford, the following year, in 1921. Georgie Hyde-Lees had also been a party to an extraordinary outpouring of images and symbols through her "automatic writing." Richard Ellmann's account of, and accounting for, her contributionin The Identity of Yeatsremains the most succinct:
A few days after their marriage, Mrs. Yeats tried to distract her preoccupied husband by "faking" automatic writing, and then discovered, to her astonishment, that she could write it without meaning to. The writing continued sporadically over several years, but had to be sorted, organized, and completely revised before it could be published. A reader of A Vision may have difficulty in accepting this account, even though masses of automatic writing exist to authenticate it, because the ideas in the book are not novel in Yeats's work ... That Georgie Hyde-Lees Yeats's automatic writing should have assumed so Yeatsian a form is not surprising. She had belonged to the same or similar occult organizations as her husbandand had read many of the same books. She knew his work thoroughly, especially the most recent, such as Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1917), a long essay which discusses the mask, the anti-self, and their supernatural counterpart, the daimon. And she spoke on these matters every day with a talkative husband.
That "talkative husband," whom she dubbed "William Tell," was the main source for the revelation that Georgie had been a medium for the "unknown writer," a revelation made by Yeats in his introduction to A Vision:
I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. "No," was the answer, "we have come to give you metaphors for poetry."
Yeats goes on to describe the chief among those metaphors, the aforementioned "cone or gyre":
On December 6th  a cone or gyre had been drawn and related to the soul's judgement after death; and then just as I was about to discover that incarnations and judgements alike implied cones or gyres, one within the other, turning in opposite directions, two such cones were drawn and related neither to judgement nor to incarnations but to European history.
This idea of the "gyre" or "cone" may be traced partly to Swedenborg, who mentions "double cones" in his Principia rerum naturalium, partly to Hegel's ideas about "the continuous unification of opposites," but also, I want to suggest, partly to a source that was much nearer home for Yeats, Arthur O'Shaughnessy's (1844-81) very popular "The Poets," which begins:
We are the music makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams, Wandering by lone sea-breakers, And sitting by desolate streams ...
We, in the ages lying In the buried past of the earth, Built Nineveh with our sighing, And Babel itself with our mirth; And o'erthrew them with prophesying To the old of the new world's worth; For each age is a dream that is dying, Or one that is coming to birth.
These last two lines are a paraphrase of what will become Yeats's system. The very phrase "each age" is picked up by Yeats in one of the most famous passages from A Vision:
Each age unwinds the thread another age had wound, and it amuses me to remember that before Phidias, and his westward moving art, Persia fell, and that when full moon came round again, amid eastward moving thought, and brought Byzantine glory, Rome fell; and that at the outset of our westward moving Renaissance Byzantium fell; all things dying each other's life, living each other's death.
The image of the "gyre" followed hard on the heels of the idea of "the phases of the moon," Yeats's madcap system for categorising human nature. A visitor to the Yeats house at 4 Broad Street, now Wendy News, in October or November 1920 could have expected to find him- or herself coming under the fierce scrutiny not only of a green parrot (one of a host of caged birds in which Yeats delighted), but of Yeats himself, before being classified and assigned a position in the appropriate phase of the moon. "The power to classify," Ellmann writes in Yeats: The Man and the Masks,
is the power to control, and a new sense of strength comes into his writing. The ideal phase in A Vision, the phase "where Unity of Being is more possible than at any other phase," is shortly after the full moon, phase 17, and here Yeats classifies himself along with Dante, Shelley and Landor ... In the Yeats household at Oxford in 1920 and1921, as L.A.G. Strong has described it, the poet would often shoot some searching question at an unsuspecting guest whose answer would reveal where he could be typed in the lunar cycle. Mrs. Yeats and John Butler Yeats belonged to phase 18, where unity is beginning to break up, though a "wisdom of the emotions" is still possible. Lady Gregory was in phase 24, where codes of conduct must dominate; and George Russell, in spite of his vigorous objections, was put in phase 25, where the self accepts "some organized belief." Ezra Pound was originally in the highly subjective phase 12, but Yeats moved him among the humanitarians of the late objective phases after seeing him feed all the cats at Rapallo.
In Yeats's system, the particular "phase" into which an individual fell might be quite out of sync with the "gyre" of history, as Yeats found himself out of sync with the era which he believed was about to end seven years later, in 1927. As Frank Kermode puts it in his unfortunately entitled The Sense of an Ending:
One of the assumptions prevalent in sophisticated apocalyptism was what Yeats called "antithetical multiform influx"the forms assumed by the inrushing gyre as the old one reaches its term. The dialectic in Yeats's gyres is simple enough in essence; they are a figure for the co-existence of the past and future at the time of transition. The old narrows to its apex, the new broadens towards its base and the old and new interpenetrate.
I have to confess that it was only when I read this description by Kermode that I recognised in his description of the "gyres" the "two long glasses" on the table on this liminal night. Kermode continues:
Actually, on Yeats's view of the historical cycle, there were transient moments of perfection, or what he called Unity of Being; but there was no way of making these permanent, and his philosophy of history is throughout transitional. In this he is not, of course, original; but his emphasis on the traditional character of our own pre-apocalyptic moment, in contrast with those exquisite points oftime when life was like the water brimming beautifully but unstably over the rim of a fountain, seems, for all the privacy of the expression, characteristically modern.
Yeats will be revisited by this image of the vessel "brimmed" to overflowing in a related poem written in the apocalyptic year itself, between July and December 1927:
Such fullness in that quarter overflows And falls into the basin of the mind
The poem is "A Dialogue of Self and Soul" and it ends with the lines:
We are blest by everything, Everything we look upon is blest.
Let me try now to "ravel out," to use a term Yeats uses in line 51, the complex skein of imagery in "All Souls' Night," beginning with the word "blest" or "blessed." You'll notice it there on line 6 of the last stanza. The word is double-edged, not only in the context of "A Dialogue of Self and Soul," a poem centering on a Japanese sword, but in "All Souls' Night" itself. The etymological sense of "bless" is given by the OED as "mark so as to hallow with blood." Another meaning of the word "bless" is "to wound." Now, while that second meaning of the word is obsolete and comes, supposedly, from a different root, the two meanings are, according to the entry, "often associated, either humorously or in ignorance." I think Yeats associates them, neither humorously nor in ignorance, for the simple reason that the word "wound" appears as the very last word of the poem, though we correct our reading of it immediately to have it rhyme with "bound" and mean something else, the past participle of "wind." We've been wrong-footed on this same word earlier in the poem, in line 3 of the second stanza, where one is tempted to pronounce it as wnd rather than waund. That's partly because, now that the stanzaic pattern has been established, we expect a rhyme for "sound" at the end of the fourth line and are somewhat taken aback when we meet the word "wound" as the first word of the third line, and are inclined to pronounceit wnd. That's compounded by some of the vocabulary of the preceding two lines"cannon," "quarter"words that have violent associations. We revise our reading of "quarter" from the "hanging, drawing and quartering" association to the sense in which it's also used in "A Dialogue of Self and Soul":
Fix every wandering thought upon That quarter where all thought is done.
The fact that the word "wound" appears at both the beginning of line 13 and the end of line 14 is not without its significance and underlies the idea that there is no beginning and no end. In that sense, the line is mimetic of what it describes, and what must be "ravelled out" of the poem is the line itself. The first definition of "line" in the OED is "a rope, cord, string," relating to its root in the word linum, meaning "flax." (We have to wait for definition 23e of "line" to meet "the portion of a metrical composition which is usually written in one line.") Now, there are two words having to do with flax that are relevant here. One is "linen," the material of the "mummy-cloth" in which the mummy is bound, the material no doubt of the petticoat worn by the child and her grandmother in "Concerning the Nearness Together of Heaven, Earth and Purgatory." In his essay on "Swedenborg, Mediums, Desolate Places," written in 1914 and collected in Explorations I, Yeats comments:
If our terrestrial condition is, as it seems, the territory of choice and of cause, the one ground for all seed-sowing, it is plain why our imagination has command over the dead and why they must keep from sight and earshot. At the British Museum at the end of the Egyptian room and near the stairs are two statues, one an august decoration, one a most accurate-looking naturalistic portrait. The august decoration was for a public site, the other, like all the naturalistic art of the period, for burial beside a mummy. So buried it was believed, the Egyptologists tell us, to be a service to the dead ... A shepherd at Doneraile told me some years ago of an aunt of his who showed herself after death stark naked and bid her relatives to make clothes and give them to a beggar ... Presently she appeared again wearing the clothes and thanked them.
The central imagery of this passage overlaps with the central imagery of "A Coat," a poem published in this same year, 1914, but written in 1912, in which "my song" is identified specifically with "a coat," while there's an aesthetic tension between the formal "embroideries / out of old mythologies" and the naturalistic "walking naked." There is, in other words, a connection in Yeats's mind between the "line" of verse, "linen," and the line between "this world and the world we go to after" that becomes the true subject, insofar as one may determine such a thing, of the poem. For, by the end of the poem, the summoning up of the actress Florence Farr Emery and Yeats's fellow members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, MacGregor Mathers and William Horton, seem incidental to the poem's summoning up of itself, incidental to its own coming into being:
Such thought, that in it bound I need no other thing, Wound in mind's wandering As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.
This is "the marvellous thing" Yeats has to say, "a certain marvellous thing," as he has it in the second stanza. In the deliberate repetition of that "marvellous" I'm pointed towards a very specific MarvellAndrew of that ilkto whose "A Dialogue between the Soul and Body" Yeats is indebted for the title and structure of "A Dialogue of Self and Soul." (As is clear from the revised typescript of "All Souls' Night," held in the Bodleian, the word "marvellous" once appeared three times in the poem, until Yeats changed, in line 86, "I have a marvellous thing to tell" to "I have mummy truths to tell.") I think, moreover, that Yeats is influenced here by some of the core imagery of "A Dialogue between the Soul and Body"the indivisibility of body and soul that has the Body cry out:
Oh who shall me deliver whole, From bonds of this Tyrannic Soul?
Yeats again fixes on two words in the last stanza of "All Souls' Night""thought" and "wandering"and carries them over to those two lines from the first stanza of "A Dialogue of Self and Soul" which I quoted earlier:
Fix every wandering thought upon That quarter where all thought is done.
I'll fall in with my notoriously poor-spelling friend and spell that "done" with two n's, as in John of that ilk. For, to go back to the first line of the poem as readers of The London Mercury read it"'Tis All Souls' Night and the great Christ Church bell"Yeats echoes both the cadence and vocabulary of the first line of Donne's "A Nocturnall upon St. Lucy's Day":
'Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes
Part of Yeats's decision to revise the line might have been based on an urge to avoid not only such a direct quotation of Donne, particularly when the poem turns out to be in essence a metaphysical conceit, but also an echo of Keats, the ghost of the structure of the first line of "The Eve of St. Agnes": "St. Agnes' EveAh, bitter chill it was." When he repositions the phrase in what is now line 3 he manages to take the curse off the overt reference while retaining what one might call its covert operation.
In other respects, Yeats was keen to be in touch with Keats. A year earlier, lodged in the same house at 4 Broad Street, Yeats had inquired of his Communicators about the origin of the image of Keats's nightingale. The response was that it had come "from a previously existing transference." Yeats now became exercised by the idea that he might be able to partake of Keats's mental processes, particularly if they were accessible through the "general mind," or "Spiritus Mundi," as he terms it in "The Second Coming." In addition to the references to "Ode to a Nightingale" to which I've already referred, my attention is drawn to stanza 6:
Darkling I listen; and for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death, Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath ...
The word "breath" occurs twice in "All Souls' Night," in stanzas 1 and 3 (in both cases rhymed with "death"). In the case of stanza 3, the sentimentsof Keats's lines are carried over wholesale and are recognisable in Horton's death-wish. The idea of the phantom "breath" is one that Yeats would experience a year later, in 1921:
While we were staying at a village near Oxford we met two or three nights in succession what seemed a sudden warm breath coming up from the ground at the same corner of the road.
In stanza 1 of "All Souls' Night," meanwhile, two key words"midnight" and "soul"are borrowed from Keats's next lines in "Ode to a Nightingale":
Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain, While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad In such an ecstasy!
That "ecstasy," meanwhile, shows up in the penultimate stanza in "The fume of muscatel / Can give his sharpened palate ecstasy." (If I weren't running out of time, I'd want to make a case for seeing in that word "sharpened" [we've already come across it once in the first stanza"being sharpened by his death"] the shadowy figure of a certain William Sharp, better known by his pseudonym "Fiona Macleod," to whom Yeats had written in 1901 that "she" should strive in her writing for the clarity of "a tumbler of water rather than a cup of wine." If Yeats's description of him in a letter to his widow after his death in 1905, which I quote from R. F. Foster's W. B. Yeats: A Life"he was very near always to the world where he now is & often seemed to me to deliver its messages"is anything to go on, Sharp/Macleod might easily have appeared somewhat more formally in "All Souls' Night.")
I want now to try to link the ghost of this "immortal Bird," the nightingale, to another, the linnet. For in addition to the connection between the poetic "line" and "linen," there's a connection in Yeats's mind between the "line," both in the sense of the "poetic line" and the "line of descent," and the "linnet," the bird that is indivisible from the flax-seeds upon which it feeds, and from which its name derives through French. Insofaras the linnet might be said to have a symbolic function in Yeats, it stands, I think, partly for peace and contentment. We remember that evening on "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" would be "full of the linnet's wings." I mentioned earlier Yeats's predilection for keeping cage-birds, and we know, indeed, from his "Hodos Chameliontos," written in 1922, that he associates keeping birds with the security of family life ("Now that I am a settled man and have many birdsthe canaries have just hatched out five nestlingsI have before me the problem that Locke waved aside"), while in an extraordinary description of his son, Michael, in a 1921 letter to John Quinn, he writes that he is "better looking than a newborn canary." In section VII of his introduction to A Vision, meanwhile, he reports:
A little after my son's birth I came home to confront my wife with the statement "Michael is ill." A smell of burnt feathers had announced what she and the doctor had hidden.
Now, no canary appears in "All Souls' Night," except perhaps in the guise of the meaning of that word as "a light sweet wine from the Canary Isles," a wine not unlike "muscatel," which Yeats has borrowed yet again from Keats. This comes from "Lines on the Mermaid Tavern," a poem which shares its central theme with "All Souls' Night":
Souls of Poets dead and gone, What Elysium have ye known, Happy field or mossy cavern, Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern? Have ye tippled drink more fine Than mine host's Canary wine?
Yeats's intertwining of assorted cage-birds with a sense of his own lineage is already evident from "A Prayer for My Daughter," written between February and June of 1919, where the relationships of poetic "line," "lineage" and "linnet" are fused:
If there's no hatred in a mind Assault and battery of the wind Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.
Earlier in the poem, Yeats has associated the linnet with the intellectual life"May she become a flourishing hidden tree / That all her thoughts may like the linnet be"and I think this strand connects with "All Souls' Night" in at least one significant way, having to do, once again, with the indivisibility of "linnet" and "leaf." It's hard, in this context, not to read "leaf" as a leaf of paper, particularly when it's associated with the word "tear," but it connects also with the idea of "winding"Yeats pronounces "wind" (wnd) as wndand it reappears in the last lines of "All Souls' Night":
Such thought, that in it bound I need no other thing, Wound in mind's wandering As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.
There's not only a faint echo of William Blake's "winding-sheet" from Auguries of Innocence but a distinct reference to Yeats's own "Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places" (1914), in which, referring directly to Blake's description of "a robin redbreast in a cage," he describes him as being "put into a rage by all painting where detail is generalised away," before asserting:
Born when Swedenborg was a new excitement, growing up with a Swedenborgian brother ... and having, it may be, for nearest friend the Swedenborgian Flaxman with whom he would presently quarrel, he answered the just-translated Heaven and Hell with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Swedenborg was but "the linen clothes folded up" or the angel sitting by the tomb, after Christ, the human imagination, had arisen.
This passage is remarkable for several reasons, not least for the coincidence of the "flax" in the reference to John Flaxman (1755-1826), the neoclassical sculptor and draftsman, and the "linen" in the allusion to Blake's categorisation of Swedenborg's writings in Heaven and Hell as "the linen clothes folded up." In "All Souls' Night," Yeats is striving for an image of wholeness"the whole wine"that's based on this phrase from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, just as the image of the vessel "brimmed"goes back, with the sideways glance to Keats, to another image in Blake's text:
The cistern contains: the fountain overflows One thought. fills immensity.
That comes from the section entitled "Proverbs of Hell" and it's telling, I suggest, that Yeats uses neither the words "Heaven" nor "Hell" in "All Souls' Night," opting instead for the circumlocution "To where the damned have howled away their hearts, / And where the blessed dance."
I have a final suggestion about another word Yeats doesn't use here, that has to do with his motivation for dating and placing "All Souls' Night," which will, I'm certain, strike some as being totally off-the-wall, but which falls into a way of reading which I find useful, certainly in this poem. It has to do with being alert to another resisted usagea word, like "lees," which simply does not find its way onto the page but which is central to a poem that is prefaced by the opening of a bottle of wine. The word I'm thinking of is "cork," and it's a word that would have been much in Yeats's mind at the beginning of November 1920, given that the mayor of the city of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, had died in Brixton Prison only a few days earlier, on October 24, 1920, after being on hunger-strike for seventy-four days. The death of MacSwiney occurred in the context of the Anglo-Irish War, a war which prompted Yeats to publish "Easter 1916," a poem he had kept under wraps for four years. On November 1st, the day before "All Souls' Night" was probably begun, the eighteen-year-old Kevin Barry, an IRA volunteer also from County Cork, was hanged in Dublin, shortly thereafter to enter the folk memory through the ballad named after him. The dating and placing of "All Souls' Night" is a very deliberate contextualising of its occasion, a context and an occasion from which, however much we might like to believe otherwise, it's hard to entirely disentangle the poem, however freestanding a structure it may appear. That MacSwiney, or Barry, might be spectre at the feast is an idea that Yeats is quite determined not to allow, and which he manages almost successfully. The political context, the context in which MacSwiney or Barry might be a walking wound, would have been all too well understood by many of the first readers in The London Mercury, if not The New Republic. But it had to be signposted, or neonised, in subsequent publications, including the appearance of "All Souls' Night" in its critical position as the last poem in Yeats's 1928 volume, The Tower, where "Oxford, Autumn 1920" signalled not only the end of the poem but the end of a book and indicated Yeats's relationship, geographical and historical, to the material of the moment. My sense is that it's part of our responsibility as readers to try, insofar as it's possible, to psych ourselves into that moment, as well as into the mind through which it made its way into this world, not only in terms of placing a text in its social context, but in terms of its relation to other texts.
As I've tried to suggest, the text or texts to which "All Souls' Night" might stand as an epilogue is not so much A Vision but a selection of poems by Keats, a writer whom Yeats categorised in a 1913 letter to his father as the "type of vision," and from whom he conglomewrites key words and images. These poems include not only those to which I've already referred but "The Fall of Hyperion," from which Yeats borrows the ideas of drinking from "a cool vessel of transparent juice / Sipped by the wandering bee, the which I took" (42-43) and "the tall shade, in drooping linens veiled." At the heart of "Lamia," a poem in which Keats rhymes "bees" and "lees" (Book I, lines 141-42), is a similar notion of the shift from "when the wine has done its rosy deed / And every soul from human trammels freed" (II, 219-20) through "as it erewhile made / The tender-personed Lamia melt into a shade" (II, 237-38) to the last word of the last line, "And, in its marriage robe, the heavy body wound," echoed by Yeats in the last word of his last line, "As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound."
That still leaves us with "Oxford, Autumn 1920." The "Autumn" is such an astonishingly direct reference to "To Autumn" that one's inclined to ignore it until it can no longer be ignored. Again, Yeats has ventriloquized Keats in his vocabulary"o'er-brimmed," yet again, and "conspiring with him how to load and bless / with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run"those vines as likely as not to bear muscatel grapes, which were common in England on account of their ability to withstand the cold and wet of the climate. Elsewhere we have a version of the "lees" cryptocurrent in "the last oozings" of the "cider-press," while "drowsed with the fume of poppies" appears in "the fume of muscatel" itself. We might remindourselves that the subject matter of "To Autumn" is cyclical movement and the fact that autumn, a season associated with oncoming death, has a "music" every bit as stirring as that of spring. The cyclical movement of things is much in Yeats's mind here and it accounts largely for the reference back to the conventional dating of "To Autumn," written in 1819 but published in 1820, in his "Autumn, 1920," the centennial aspect underscored by the fact that the poem is precisely one hundred lines long.
Copyright © 2006 by Paul Muldoon
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