Tuesday, May 29, 2007

old folks, home

Evan, hopefully you’re not worrying Paris with the later Yeats; but if the vacation has found café-front time for further reading, you’ve no doubt found that the “king of the cats”* follows that obsession with age for his entire long lifetime. The verses he deliberately set at the end of his collected poems, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” and “Politics,” are both self-elegizing and a cyclical cosmic way of calling “do-over.” Take a look also at the many later poems that reflect on the accomplishments of Yeats and the Republic’s youth, in particular “Under Ben Bulben,” with its enjoinder,

Irish poets learn your trade

Sing whatever is well made,

Scorn the sort now growing up

All out of shape from toe to top,

Their unremembering hearts and heads

Base-born products of base beds.

Which, for poets writing in Yeats’s wake (esp. Irish poets), can either sound like a job description by the boss or like an old man shaking his fist at the kids playing on the damn lawn. And “Politics” never quite settles for me into being entirely saccharine or entirely poignant:

And maybe what they say is true

Of war and war’s alarms,

But O that I were young again

And held her in my arms.

(I’d be interested to hear if/how you think the place of sentimentality shifts throughout his career.)

I’m fascinated by this question of age too, especially insofar as late nights spent reading for generals will slowly blind me and the approaching exam will pull out my increasingly wispy hair, such that y’all can expect the full emergence of “Old Greg,” slouching toward McCosh Hall, sometime around the first week of September. But while I’m still chipper and spry, I’ll say this:

Your wonderful phrase “voluntary senility,” though especially apt given Yeats’s occasional tone of patrician weariness and creaking joints, sounds to me too much like he’s giving in to age, rather than forcefully claiming it in the face of broader cultural infantilization. It may be of use here to think of the imperative Irish literary nationalists faced around the turn of the century to forge an indigenous and rooted tradition – that is, to imagine the nation and its folk as both new-born and old with Gaelic tradition. Within that cultural fund are important precursors to the modernist age fetish, such as the allegorical Kathleen ni Houlihan (as in Yeats and Lady Gregory’s 1902 play) who appears as an old woman begging sacrifice of young Irish men, and who turns young and beautiful when they vow their love and lives.

The bardic voice might be the Romantic counterpoint to the “youth-cult” you mention, since Blake is a particular grandpappy to keep in mind for Yeats. For Yeats, there’s a willingness and a desire to make of himself a relic while, as you say, asking his rhythm to test ideas and words til they become old in the way polished stones in creeks are old. (I’ll have more to say on this topic of rhythm, but will wait until I’ve re-read the poems again. The use of repetition to tune words comes into Geoffrey Hill’s definition of a poem’s “perfect pitch” and his ideas about poetry’s civic responsibility to/in language). That is all to say that there is a future tense to Yeats’s past tense -- which gets to the famous, occasionally derided repetition in the determined first line of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.” Or the apocalyptic perfect rhyme at the center of “The Second Coming”: “Surely some revelation is at hand/ Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”

But if Eliot follows these geriatric gestures, do you think he does so in the same way? Has he internalized it in some way, 'psychologized' it (to be waaay too quick with that word)? And, since Adrienne mentioned The Public Burning, do y’all think old greybeard Uncle Sam is in any way comparable to Kathleen in the nation-as-beckoning-old-person figuration? Both somewhat menacing figures in their respective calls to arms.

Anyway, this is a very quick reply, and one that is not yet informed by Official Generals Reading, since I’m still finishing up some writing. My plan is to start with Thomas Hardy and, on my Irish list, with Douglas Hyde (to get at some of these issues of cultural nationalism and aging, in his Love Songs of Connacht, 1893, and his pamphlet “The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland”).

*Evan already knows this: The night on which Yeats first heard of Swinburne’s death, he wrote in his journal, “Now I’m king of the cats.” Thanks to Jim Longenbach for that un.

****Perhaps not particularly surprising tidbit of the day: Ezra Pound was a bad dancer (according to H.D., in her memoir of Pound called “End to Torment”).****