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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Dolphin-torn, gong-tormented

By popular demand, folks (remember, four million readers can’t be wrong!), I’ve decided to begin my hour-by-hour history of the Bérubés in North America.  You see, it all began in 1671 when Damien Bérubé, born in Rocquefort, France, came to settle in Rivere Ouelle, Québec, about 100 miles up the St. Lawrence River from Québec City.  “Il fait froid,” said Damien as he looked around for stuff to do.  Eight years later, he married Jeanne Savonnet, and eventually, thanks in part to the passage of the Corn Laws, their issue led to the Esquire Lounge Incident of 1994, which we’ll cover in a later installment.

Now to more important matters!  Lindsay Beyerstein, a.k.a. Majikthise, guest-blogger extraordinaire and good soul, is celebrating a birthday today.  Moreover, she is being visited by one Amanda Marcotte, who is visiting NYC for the first time on her way to the National NOW Conference in Albany.  As you may recall, long ago when Pandagon was the home of Ezra Klein and Jesse Taylor, Lindsay did a guest-blogging gig there (in March 2005), and Jesse introduced her like so:

Lindsay Beyerstein from Majikthise, who in addition to being seven kinds of smart, is also an eighth, previously considered theoretical kind of smart that was thought unsustainable outside of sealed laboratory conditions.

Another of the guest Pandagonians back then was one Amanda Marcotte, who wound up staying there full-time.  But apparently, these two titans have never met—until today.

And you know what we think of Ms. Marcotte here on Le Blog Bérubé.  We consider her pretty much infallible, at least by recent Papal standards, and not merely because she guest-blogged here in May or because of her French-Canadian surname, which plays a minor role when the Bérubé legend gets to the 1970s and I have to write about hard-skating Boston Bruins left wing Donny Marcotte.  So what this means is that if Lindsay and Amanda are in the same place, the people of New York are now experiencing a kind of bloggy Syzygy of Smart, and all the better for them.  Please welcome Amanda to New York, and wish Lindsay a happy birthday.


Now to the Yeats blogging.  The moment I awoke from my post-transatlantic flight nap on July 5, Janet gathered me up and took me and Jamie to the Yeats exhibit at the National Library of Ireland.  The first item in the exhibit is a small octagon-shaped, room-like installation (with benches) called “Verse and Vision,” in which six Yeats poems are projected onto walls and read aloud by six different Irish poets.  I came in for “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which was kind of unfortunate, since I’ve never particularly cared for that one, and it was read by Yeats himself in a strange, angry, gravelly voice that suggested someone was doing a “Pirates of Innisfree” parody. 

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Now, I have nothing against this Celtic Twilight sort of thing.  On the contrary, I love the final stanza of “The Stolen Child,” particularly “the kettle on the hob/ Sing peace into his breast,” and goodness gracious, that one’s even got faeries in it—as the poem’s speakers, no less! 

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn-eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
from a world more full of weeping than you can understand.

Even still, as I listened to Yeats read “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” I thought of Ford Madox Ford’s brutal non-twilighty rewrite of it.  If you’ll open your copy of Michael Levenson’s A Genealogy of Modernism to page 112 (I’ll wait), you’ll find a very crabby Ford saying, “I didn’t like his confounded point of view.  I hated, and do still hate, people who poke about among legends and insist on the charms of remote islands.” And the result is this:

At Innisfree there is a public-house;
They board you well for ten and six a week.
The mutton is not good, but you can eat
Their honey.  I am going there to take
A week or so of holiday to-morrow.

You just can’t get any more prosaic than that.

And yet, as the mysterious and elusive Janet Lyon remarked in the margins of page 112 twenty years ago when she and I were reading Levenson’s book for the first time, “for Chrissake—the poem was written 21 years earlier.” It’s a fair cop: by the time Ford got around to demystifying Innisfree, Yeats himself had gone through about two or three major shifts in confounded points of view.  After all—and let’s get this much straight before we go any further—when you talk about Yeats you’re talking about the greatest English-language poet of the twentieth century, and speakin’ literarily, Ford Madox Ford doesn’t have the chops to stand in the same bean-row with him.  Not least among Yeats’s marvels—that is, quite apart from his vast emotional range, his technical brilliance as a poet, and his stunning experiments in modern drama—is the fact that his fifty-year career is full of twists and turns and fresh starts and rethinkings like those of almost no other modern artist in any medium.  Picasso maybe, but then if you pair Picasso’s late work with Yeats’s you’ll get a sly old horndog doodling to himself over against an artist still plumbing the uncanny depths of his gift, returning again and again to the deep heart’s core, to the foul rag-and-bone shop from which he constructed all his many masks.

And then suddenly, under the cold and rook-delighting heaven, “Sailing to Byzantium” appeared on the walls.  The poem is practically shorthand for middle-late Late Yeats as “Innisfree” is for Early: as “Julia” is to “This Boy” in the Lennon corpus, say.  I gather that this here blogger might have something to day about the poem, since his blog takes its name from the second stanza.  In fact, reading over the second stanza is a little like reading Hamlet—both are so full of quotations!  Check it out:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

But this is just warmup, folks, for the devastating third stanza:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

You just can’t get any more incendiary-yearning than that.

In fact, when I heard that stanza, particularly its second four lines, I broke out in a cold sweat.  I could slip my way down the sinuous slant-rhymes of wall, soul, animal, but I got stuck on “fastened” and couldn’t get loose. Fastened to a dying animal.  Jesus H. Christ.  Next to this, T. S. Eliot’s evocations of old age (which, of course, he began writing at about the age of nine) look thin and watery.  And fastened: how much more evocative, and more powerful, than a cognate like “tethered to” or “burdened with”: it says “held fast,” sure, and it merely tells us what we already knew, namely, that this sublunary sphere and all its flailing fleshly creatures are impediments and worse.  But as Viktor Shklovsky would say, it renews perception, it makes the stone stony.  It’s almost impossible, I think—no matter how old or young you may think you are—to read that line without becoming sick with desire—and viscerally aware of the dying animal that houses the desiring.  Remember “The young/ In one another’s arms, birds in the trees” from the poem’s opening lines?  Yes, well, now you know why your poet referred to them not as emblems of burgeoning life but as “those dying generations.” For as Yeats sails east, sick with desire, he speaks of a most Buddhist wish to be free of all attachment, not least to the dying animal in which his soul is temporarily encased.  No, that’s not quite right: to which his soul is fastened. 

I lingered over “fastened” partly because I have some idea of how painstaking a poet Yeats was, how assiduously he worked and reworked every last line.  The famous passage from the middle-early early poem “Adam’s Curse” --

I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”

-- is basically a gloss on the man’s entire career of stitching and unstitching.  Later in the exhibit (though we’re not quite there yet) I came across a draft of “Byzantium” in which Yeats had actually scratched out “Those images that yet/ Fresh images beget” and, for “fresh,” had written “more.” OK, so that was a bad call, and of course Yeats knew it too, because he re-freshed that line before committing it to print.  But that’s what stitching and unstitching requires: lots of pains-taking unstitching along the way.

And no sooner had I stopped meditating on “fastened” than I began again on “artifice of eternity.” If “fastened to a dying animal” makes the stone stony, “artifice of eternity” loads every rift with ore, partly because of its evocation of the eternal in the artificial (Yeats will manage another series of brilliant riffs on this in “Lapis Lazuli”) and partly for its suggestion that eternity is itself an artifice, dreamed by souls sick with desire and fastened to dying animals.  And to be gathered into the artifice:  no other word will do.  These are not faeries stealing a child.  These are sages standing in a holy fire, and either they gather us or they don’t, but we pray, we pray that they will.

It really is a goddamn sublime stanza (as opposed to a beautiful stanza).  The only moment that doesn’t transport me is “perne in a gyre,” which sounds kind of cool on its own (someone like Hart Crane might have liked it too, what with his love of thick, textured words like “calyx”) but (a) is syntactically set off from the rest of the stanza as a kind of gloss on the sages in the holy fire and (b) like the opening line of “The Second Coming,” inevitably makes me think of A Vision, which I’ve read in its entirety, which in turn reminds me that when it comes to combining jawdropping artistic brilliance and jawdropping batshit nuttiness in the same persons, no literary period can hold a candle to modernism.  Really, postmodernism is only a pale fire by comparison.

After all that, though, the final stanza is actually something of an anticlimax.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

It’s almost like the exposition, the action plan after the harrowing cri de coeur: right, then, once out of nature I will go to Innisfree, where for ten and six I will be such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make. . . .

So after hearing “Sailing to Byzantium,” I got up and wandered around the rest of the exhibit in a more scholarly temper, checking out drafts and early letters and such things, stopping for a long time at the wonderful installation “Poetry in Process: Building the Tower,” which includes not only an illustrated map, so to speak, of the publication history of each of the poems in The Tower (1928) but also (get this!) a terrific line-by-line, stanza-by-stanza recounting of how Yeats wrote and rewrote “Sailing to Byzantium.” I was interrupted a few times by a couple of noisy student groups, dying animals all, being herded through the exhibit, but I managed to get enough of it to compose a moment’s thought.

My goodness, I said to myself.  I’m having a Sailing to Byzantium Day.

And then I came upon a textual note that reminded me of something I think I might once have known: in 1930, Yeats’s friend T. Sturge Moore (who designed the original cover for The Tower) wrote to him,

Your Sailing to Byzantium, magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or passing or to come to Lords and Ladies.

Whoa, I said, like unto Keanu Reeves in at least eight different movies.  Now I am having a Sailing to Byzantium Lets Me Down in the Fourth Stanza Day. And with that, I headed straight to “Byzantium,” the poem Yeats wrote in response to Moore’s criticism.  We are now fully in the realm of the uncanny, where even the poem that strives to find the terms for the uncanny has to unwrite itself as it goes.  “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”: each time, only the least tangible not-thing thing will suffice . . . but even that doesn’t quite suffice.  And “A mouth that has no moisture and no breath/ Breathless mouths may summon”?  Never mind who or what is doing the summoning here (the mouth or the mouths); this is terrifying stuff.  This is much, much stranger than any goldsmith’s bird or any golden bough.  This is, quite literally (and therefore paradoxically, as the poem well knows), unreal.  And as you make your way through the unreal, thread, if you can, the asyntactical structure of those last five lines.

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

I now feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.  That is all.

Posted by Michael on 07/19 at 12:36 PM
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