Unity of Being, Reason and Sensibility: William Butler Yeats' Aesthetic Vision
The poetry of William Butler Yeats is underscored by a fundamental commitment to philosophical exploration. Yeats maintained that the art of poetry existed only in the movement through and beyond thought. Through the course of his life, Yeats' aesthetic vision was in flux; it moved and evolved as well. His poetry reflects this evolution. The need to achieve totality, a wholeness, through art would become his most basic aesthetic philosophy. His poetry dwells on separation only to eventually present a sense of unity. It is in this manner that Yeats is able to do what few philosophers and poets have ever done: reconcile reason and sensibility. This paradox present in his aesthetic ideal protects his poetry from stagnation and keeps his art alive. Yeats had the courage "to explore the fundamental entanglement of life and art" (Garab 56).
One of Yeats' first aesthetic statements was in "To The Rose Upon the Rood of Time", written in 1889. Eternal beauty, the red rose, thrives on sacrifice. It is hung upon the cross of time, possibly a symbol of self-sacrifice. In the first stanza,
Yeats seems to want a fusion with this archetypal beauty. "Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways:" (Yeats 71). The second stanza, however, qualifies this desire. The poet wants to be able to appreciate common aspects of life. Distance is needed for him to preserve this appreciation. One can find beauty in the commonplace, but the rose is ultimately a "higher" form of beauty, a model for aesthetics that "the weak worm hiding down in its small cave" cannot achieve (Yeats 72).
Yeats' desire for the timeless beauty embodied in the rose increased as he expanded his artistic potential. "Sailing to Byzantium" captures the poet yearning for this aesthetic ideal. He is disgusted with his world. It is a mortal world whose inhabitants do not respect the timeless beauty of art and literature. And so, Yeats turns his attention across the years and across the ocean to the ancient city of Byzantium.
"Yeats' poetic speakers, unable or unwilling to come to terms with life within or around them flee or are summoned to...the golden boughs of Byzantium" (Garab 4).
Byzantium replaces the rose as the aesthetic ideal. In Byzantium, Reason reigns supreme. Minds revel in their freedom unbound by time. The poet's soul yearns for the ultimate reward of Reason: release from the body, a sort of Platonic ecstasy. Yeats' poetry expresses this ambition. Every poem tries to fulfill his ambition and make the journey to Byzantium. Abstractions and concepts express the true form of aesthetics. Such aesthetic values exist above the flux of time. Like his art, Yeats' wants to exist as a collection of thought in a realm of unchanging intellectual abstraction, "to sing/ To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come" (Yeats 87).
"All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth comes only from the senses" -Friedrich Nietzsche (88). Perhaps Yeats was influenced by this quote. "Sailing to Byzantium" did not articulate his aesthetic desires to his satisfaction. Like Nietzsche, the absence of the real, the sensible, plagued Yeats. As a critical response to his first vision of Byzantium the paradise, Yeats wrote "Byzantium" five years later.
In many ways, "Byzantium" functions like the second stanza of "To the Rose Upon the Rood of Time". "Byzantium" questions or qualifies a desire presented in the earlier poem. It echoes the sense of loss of the commonplace. Yeats does find value in raw sensibility, the almost animalistic response to sensations in the here and now. It cannot be separated from human existence. Reason without sensibility, essence without existence: these ideas forced William Butler Yeats to look upon Byzantium with horror. Byzantium is the realm of Reason where only thought is allowed. Thinking is death-like; it dulls or destroys the senses. Thinking separates one from the physical sensible world of the moment. The citizens of Byzantium are like zombies. "I call it death-in-life and life-in-death" (Yeats 91). The poet realizes that he has sacrificed passion for an aesthetic ideal.
Aesthetics, however, is an act of passion to Yeats, an act of utter connectedness with the world. "Sailing to Byzantium" has only removed him from the world. He wants to burn and be burned by his own flame, his passion for an aesthetic ideal. In Byzantium he will only be dulled into lasting ambivalence, for the flames produce no heat. "An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve" (Yeats 91). Nature itself is in revolt against and disgusted by Byzantium. "That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea" (Yeats 91). Out of the poet's longing to return to his homeland, he discovers that Reason and sensibility must be tempered together to form an authentic aesthetic vision.
"As a result of the shift from the "higher" faculties to
the "lower", true vision now seemed possible in ecstatic transcendence through, rather than apart from, the physical world"(Zwerdling 90).
Simplicity seems to be the key to Yeats' aesthetics. He is concerned with "Unity of Being, and with the achieving of Unity of Being through art" (Bradford 130). Such unity is not necessarily constrained by time. Byzantium is a place above time. A certain wholeness is achieved when distinctions of past, present, and future cannot be drawn. Yeats, however, opts for Unity of Being within the limitations of time, the present.
He realizes that temporal unity can only be achieved at the expense of the sensations of the moment. This supposed unity is only achieved through separation on the most basic level. By attempting to firmly affix himself and his art in the present, Yeats paradoxically gains a sense of the eternal. "Sense and spirit have become one inextricable beam; Unity of Being is an ideal valid both in Time and Eternity" (Bradford 130).
Though Yeats may have had a specific unifying goal in mind, his poetry continued to reflect the constant conflict and tension between Reason and sensibility. In "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop" the ideological battle takes shape in a conversation/debate about body and soul. The Bishop sees the kingdom of Heaven and the Earthly realm each as sovereign states. At no point do they connect. To the Bishop body and soul are separate, distinct. Crazy Jane, the prostitute, embraces the union of body and soul. It is a paradox that these two qualities should be united in a human form, but she embraces this paradox and revels in it. She chides the Bishop with wordplay in her reply. "Love has pitched his mansion in/ The place of excrement;/ For nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent" (Yeats 92).
Jonathan Swift, the eighteenth century author, aptly addresses this philosophical dilemma of shit in his works. This preoccupation with shit became known as Swift's excremental vision of life. He was fascinated by the fact that the same organs that are used to express love and intimacy are used to eliminate waste products. Swift constantly explored the concept of the vulgar and the sublime coexisting in the same place (Brown 31). Crazy Jane shares Swift's fascination with shit. She acknowledges shit as an integral and even erotic part of her person. Yeats seems to submit the idea that one must willingly embrace even the most basic and vulgar of sensations in order to arrive at a unified vision of aesthetics.
"Among School Children" is perhaps one of Yeats' first attempts at a serious examination of a more unified aesthetics. He is brought to this discussion indirectly. He begins the poem locked in introspection, surrounded by children. What do these children need to know? What knowledge can we give them that will make their lives worthwhile and the pain of bringing them into this world bearable? The fifth stanza seems to contain these central questions, questions that plague the poet. "A compensation for the pang of his birth,/ Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?" (Yeats 88). Yeats is reminded of his love, Maude Gonne, and the principles she espoused. What was she taught? What did she learn? Motivated by her memory, he examines images, symbols, and ideas which form the basis of human culture. He remembers the ancient philosophers and their aesthetic concepts of the world. He has gained from them, but they are inadequate. Maude’s life seems empty in some way, because her knowledge remains beyond his grasp.
Yeats slowly comes to the conclusion that absolute images breed expectations which cannot be met. "Nuns and mothers worship images...And yet they [images] too break hearts" (Yeats 88). The Church and the child's future serve as absolutes around which the lives of nuns and mothers revolve. Yeats realizes the futility in inscribing everything within such a frame of reference when he writes, "O self-born mockers of man's enterprise" (89). Yeats' contemplation culminates in the last stanza where he applies these ideas to aesthetic creativity. There is no need for body and soul to be diametrically opposed. "The body is not bruised to pleasure soul" (Yeats 89). Yeats wants children to avoid the pain of clinging to absolutes like body or soul.
Yeats presents a vision of beauty based on totality. No part of the human experience can be privileged over another. Aesthetics do not depend upon separation or distance. Rather, it is the whole that is truly beautiful. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. An aesthetic ideal for art and for everyday life rises out of totality: the ability to see things in relation to one another, not as separate or self-sufficient.
"O Chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,/ Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole?/ O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?" (Yeats 89).
Yeats believes we cannot. "Man's spiritual quest and the 'desire of natural things' are seen "to be simultaneous and inseparable" (Zwerdling 84). From this inability to separate, Yeats believes that an aesthetic ideal is born.
Although he had uncovered what he thought to be an aesthetic ideal, the bulk of his poetry stood in direct conflict with it. Yeats did not realize this until he had grown old. The poem "Circus Animals' Desertion" was very much a self-rebuke for not following his aesthetic vision. His poetry dealt with myth, mysticism, and metaphor. Yeats looked to the past and to other worlds for poetic inspiration. He was mesmerized by the power of the human imagination. Through his poetry, he could escape the world of the present. Disillusioned with his own art, Yeats chastises his vanity and idealistic posturing. He likens his poetry to trained circus animals performing for the crowds. He felt his poetry was an exercise in escapism, enamored by abstractions, by a dream of what art should be. "It was the dream itself enchanted me:/ Character isolated by a deed/ To engross the present and dominate memory" (Yeats 95).
William Butler Yeats wanted to revitalize the real within his poetry with poems like "Circus Animals' Desertion". He wanted poetry to reflect the beauty of the whole. Through earlier poems like "Byzantium" and "Among School Children" he had identified his aesthetic dilemma. But now that his "circus animals" have deserted him, he must begin again.
"Yeats found his own image of the artist who purges away
the inessential to get down to the bedrock of passion" (Ellman 168).
Like Nietzsche, Yeats felt he must immerse himself in raw sensibility, but then build upon it with Reason. "I must lie down where all ladders start,/ In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart" (Yeats 95). Yeats realized that aesthetic creation is an ongoing process. It does not end when the pencil leaves the page or the last period is placed. Aesthetic creativity becomes an approach to or an outlook on life. This new perspective moulds and shapes the art that one creates. Yeats believed art "celebrates the rich confusion of life" (Garab 22).
Perhaps Yeats' self-deprecation was too severe. The poem "Dialogue of Self and Soul", written shortly after "Sailing to Byzantium", seems to contrast his desire for passive retreat from the world with passionate involvement. It was written in 1928 while Yeats was battling Malta fever.
"In the crisis of his illness Yeats discovered what alone could sustain him - not escape from the body, but return to the body, to personality as a whole" (Houghton 331).
The soul is inextricably bound to the self and the experience of the here and now. In the poem, life is characterized by action and movement, not transcendence. Life is not divisible into smaller separate parts. Even this early in his artistic career, Yeats seems to embrace the paradoxical union of sensible self and rational soul.
"My Self. I am content to follow to its source, Every intent in action or in thought; Measure the lot, forgive myself the lot! When such as I cast out remorse So great a sweetness flows into the Breast We must laugh and we must sing, We are blest by everything, Everything we look upon is blest" (Yeats 272).
The challenge for Yeats is to accept this profound paradox. In doing so, he aspires to achieve his aesthetic ideal.
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---. Modern Poems. Richard Ellman and Robert O'Clair Ed. New