Nov 032003

Letters aren’t usually to my taste, but I except an odd little book I’ve just finished, W.B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore, Their Correspondence 1901-1937.

One of our correspondents needs no introduction. Yeats the Great The other, T. Sturge Moore (1870-1944), was the brother of the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore, whose Principia Ethica was still being assigned in freshman philosophy when I was in college. He made his living at the graphic arts, in which he showed considerable flair in an art nouveau vein; it is the sort of thing you will like if you like that sort of thing. Among other things he designed most of the covers for Yeats’ books. Moore the Obscure Moore was also an extremely distinguished poet and verse dramatist, and he wrote at least one poem and two verse plays (Medea and Daimonassa) that are far better than anything in Yeats.

Yeats plays the great man in his letters, as he does in his poetry, constantly prevailing on Moore for small and not-so-small favors. He borrows money — it is not always clear whether he pays it back — makes appointments and breaks them, pleading fatigue or “neuralgia,” and, once, egregiously, sends Moore to the copyright office on his behalf.

I am going to send you a bundle of plays to get copyrighted. Mrs. Emery, who would have done this for me, is away and for certain reasons these plays have to be done at once… You will be able to do the whole thing in an afternoon…. Will you send the plays to the Censor, or, if not, will you send me his address? It might be as well for you to send them. I will of course send you a cheque for the cost.

“I will of course send you a cheque for the cost”: God forbid I should ask you to do me a huge favor and pay you for it in advance. Personally I would have told Yeats to get stuffed. But Moore accedes gracefully, as if he too were convinced of Yeats’s superiority.

At the heart of the letters is an argument about “Ruskin’s cat” that runs for several years. Yeats believed in ghosts and spirits, like many of his mystical Irish friends, and tries to justify their existence to Moore philosophically:

John Ruskin, while talking with Frank Harris, ran suddenly to the other end of the room, picked up, or seemed to pick up, some object which he threw out of the window. He then explained that it was a tempting demon in the form of a cat. Now if the house cat had come in both cats would have looked alike to Ruskin. (I know this for I once saw a phantom picture and a real picture side by side.) Neither your brother [G.E.Moore, who defended in his Refutation of Idealism the common-sense view that the external world exists independent of our senses] nor [Bertrand] Russell gives any criterion by which Ruskin could have told one cat from the other. No doubt if pressed they would have said that if Ruskin’s cat was real Harris would have seen it. But that argument amounts to nothing. Dr. Smyllie, a well-known Dublin doctor, made his class see the Indian rope trick by hypnotic suggestion a few years ago. All saw it: whether the suggestion was mental or merely visual makes no difference. Perhaps Russell would say ‘a real object’ persists, a phantom does not. Shelley pointed out that the same dream recurs again and again… not only things but ‘dreams themselves are a dream.’

Moore replies sensibly enough:

Do you deny that there are such things as illusions? Do you think that there are black snakes wriggling on the counterpane of a man who has D.T.? If so, we are only quarrelling about a fact, not a word. If you suppose there is a separate reality for each one of us that is not what we usually mean by reality it is putting a new meaning to the word… Do you deny that our sense can be deranged and make mistakes, just as our reasoning faculty may, as in Othello’s case, make a mistake? If you bang your head against a door you see stars that are not there but swim around as though they were. The blow has deranged your sense of sight, just as a disease may, or a hypnotic trance, or even a conviction may.

This reduces Yeats to incoherence.

Damn Russell — he is as fine a mathematician as you like, but when he philosophises a politician walking on his hands… Your brother is not a politician but a philosopher. Berkeley and practically all philosophers since have contended that ‘sensations’ are part of the human mind and that ‘we know nothing but spirits and their relations.’ Your brother and his school contend that ‘sensations’ are ‘behind,’ not in, the mind. They, like Berkeley, are concerned with immediate knowledge: what you write about hallucinations has nothing to do with it.

Yeats’s summary of philosophic thought on the mind-body problem leaves something to be desired. He makes a hash of Moore’s brother, who said that sensations were “before” the mind, not “behind” it. And “immediate knowledge” begs the question of whether a hallucination is “knowledge” at all. Yeats goes on in further letters to adduce the range of early 20th century spiritual phenomena — photographs of thoughts, Richet, Madame Blavatsky and the like — eventually exasperating Moore:

It is all moonshine and nonsense… When you say that seeing two pictures on the wall when only one is there is as good proof of the existence of two pictures as if both were on the wall you contradict yourself, because you admit there is only one on the wall. You make a distinction between what you know to exist and an illusion of sense and deny it at the same time. That is to make two contradictory propositions both of which cannot be true. It is not a question as to what happens to be fashionable among intellectuals, but as to whether there is a case that can be stated without involving a contradiction. Fools follow fashions in thought as in other things and then they think because they are very many they must needs be right as well as strong.

This is as close as he comes to calling Yeats a fool. Of course Yeats is a fool. Mrs. Yeats is reported to have said that Yeats simply never understood people; certainly he did not understand Moore.

Now it is possible, I suppose, to be a fool and also a great poet, although I can think of no such case. To take most of Yeats’s poetry seriously it is not necessary to believe in ghosts. It is, however, necessary to prefer aristocratic to democratic government, assertions to reasons, instinct to intellect, astrology to astronomy, and the mystical properties of sex to just about anything else. Even more than Blake, his poetry is preposterous because his ideas are preposterous.

Yeats is generally considered one of the master stylists of the 20th century. Yvor Winters explains his reputation:

In the first place, there is real talent scattered throughout his work; in the second place, our time does not recognize any relationship between motive and emotion, but is looking merely for emotion; in the third place, Yeats’s power of self-assertion, his bardic tone, has overwhelmed his readers thus far. The bardic tone is common in romantic poetry; it sometimes occurs in talented (but confused) poets such as Blake and Yeats; more often it appears in poets of little or no talent, such as Shelley, Whitman, and Robinson Jeffers. For most readers the bardic tone is synonymous with greatness, for through this tone the poet asserts that he is great, in the absence of any (or sufficient) supporting intelligence. If the poet asserts his own greatness long enough and in the same tone of voice, the effect is hypnotic; we have seen the same thing on the political platform in the persons of such speakers as Mussolini, Father Coughlin, and Adolf Hitler.

Winters omits one point: Yeats looks like a Great Poet, with his piercing gaze, roman nose, and snowy hair. He was exceptionally jealous of his hair. He refers in the letters to the equally fine-maned Bertrand Russell as “bald-pated,” and in his poetry frequently employs bald men, as in The Scholars, as a symbol for intellect, which he despised. The reputations of Shelley and Whitman also profit from their looks. Moore, by contrast, looks like the harmless village eccentric. And Yeats is a great man, and no one has heard of Moore.

(Update: Colby Cosh troubles to read the Moore poem I cited. He dislikes “carven,” which is a perfectly respectable English word, although it smacks of the 1890’s, from which Moore, and Yeats for that matter, never freed himself entirely. He objects on metrical grounds to line 5, which I scan as follows:

Though un / intend / ed, ir / revoc / able!

The inversion in the fourth foot is unusual, but not problematic. Neither is the elided article in line 6; Moore is writing not about a particular incident but a type. What I think raises this poem to greatness is its perception of the nature of speech; “self-bemusing ease” is a master stroke. Bloggers have talked a lot lately about how easy it is to hit the “Send” button or the “Print” button. This poem is about how easy it is to hit the “Talk” button. I will be very happy if everyone reads it as attentively as Colby does.)

(Further: Alan Sullivan doesn’t like the poem either. Craig Henry comments. Alex(ei) comments. Mike Snider promises to tell me, sometime, why I’m wrong, so I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.)

  27 Responses to “Moore Better Blues”

  1. Aaron, that made me go dig around in my books for one of my Max Beerbohm’s. I thought I had a great caricature of Yeats and Sturge and a fairy but it was George Moore the author. (not G.E.) It works anyway. The title of the caricature is: "Mr. W. B. Yeats, presenting Mr. George Moore to the Queen of the Fairies" That’s a real good jolt for me to read your take and then look at his cartoon within five minutes.
    Also didn’t Ezra or Eliot write a poem that poked fun at Yeats doing spiritual stuff downstairs or something? If I remember right, it burned Yeats so bad, he wouldn’t talk to whoever for a long time.

  2. Er. So now we have to like/dislike poetry on the basis of a poet’s hairstyle? You know, I loved Yeats "The Second Coming" without knowing one single thing about 1) his interest in astronomy, or 2) what he looked like, much less the fact that he "looked like a great poet." I just like the way it sounds and the imagery it produces in my own mind when I read it. And I like very little poetry.

    I read somewhere that the worst thing one can do is seek to meet an author of something (book, poem, etc.) you loved because it will always be a letdown when you find out that they are human — they smell like soup, have deranged political views, refuse to drive on Thursdays, etc. So far this theory seems to be holding true.

  3. PS: and I don’t prefer aristocratic to democratic government either. I mean, what?

  4. AC: Poets do not receive a special exemption from foolishness because they write in verse. If a poem’s paraphrasable content is impossible to take seriously, as Yeats’s very often is, then so is the poem.

    Andrea: There is a stock market in poets, and it boosts one’s stock to look like a poet, just as it boosts a rock star’s stock to look like a rock star. That you and I regret that doesn’t make it less true.

    Many distinguished poets have been unpleasant, even nasty people; the Earl of Rochester comes to mind. But Yeats was a foolish person, his letters prove it, and so does his poetry.

    The Second Coming is a fine example of what I mean. Its first two lines must be referred to Yeats’s astrological beliefs to make any sense. The shape with a "gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun" is a common trope in Yeats; it reappears as the dancer who cannot be known from the dance in Among School Children. Frank Kermode calls it "the romantic image": it means nothing, or everything, or anything you want it to mean. "The ceremony of innocence is drowned" is another typical thought for Yeats and requires no gloss. By "mere anarchy" Yeats meant the rise of civilized, constitutional government in Ireland. Its opponents were "the best"; its supporters were the "the worst," who were full of passionate intensity. The Gyres is rather more explicit on these points. Many readers pass over these facts and revel in the magniloquent language and the rough beast slouching to be born. They are not reading Yeats but a poem of their own construction.

  5. "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;"

    This line from The Second Coming may be the worst and most quoted line in all poetry.

    What "things"? Are all these things circles? Can there be a more indefinite statement? And this in an art form that demands specifics?

    Which leads me to ask, "How can we know the poet from the poem?"

    In this case, it is hard to separate them.

    By the way, for a future blog you might want to compare and contrast G.E. Moore’s "naturalistic fallacy" with Rand’s ethics.

  6. To take most of Yeats’s poetry seriously it is not necessary to believe in ghosts. It is, however, necessary to prefer aristocratic to democratic government, assertions to reasons, instinct to intellect, astrology to astronomy, and the mystical properties of sex to just about anything else.

    In matters poetic, is there a problem with these preferences? You at least imply there is. I see none. None at all.


  7. AC: You say that mystical claptrap is perfectly consistent with "matters poetic." Are you saying that absurd content doesn’t matter, or are you endorsing Yeats’ content in substance?

    Aaron: Could the nonsense Yeats is famous for be rendered into a decent poem, or is only the truth capable of being made into good poetry?

  8. Jim: That’s a complicated question. A poem need not have a correct philosophy, just an adequate one. A lot of Christian poetry is still meaningful to the irreligious because it treats a comprehensible human experience, the doctrine aside. Christianity has had a long run in part because it offers answers to universal human problems; the Christian experience is to some degree a shared experience. Even Christian mystics like Traherne and George Herbert can write great poetry when they treat not the mystical experience itself, which by its nature cannot be understood, but their own reaction to it, which can. The trouble with Yeats is that he has a private and elaborate mythology, it is present in nearly all of his verse, and it is ridiculous. Yeats actually had considerable talent, and if he couldn’t fashion great verse out of his ideas then no one else is likely to.

  9. I must agree with AC and Andrea: what Yeats thought about Russell and astrology is irrelevant to his poetry or poetry in general.

    But if it were not, I’d still have no problem with the agenda you ascribe to the (perhaps overrated) bard. With your views on franchise, Aaron, you are not so far from preferring aristocratic to democratic government yourself. Acknowledging the existence of limits to reason is a precondition of poetry, as well as of religion and all things that make living worthwile; therefore, there is nothing wrong about giving preference to assertions over reasons, and instinct (I’d say faith) over intellect — in matters belonging to domains where reason is bound to fail. (I can’t say much about the mystical properties of sex, though.)

    As for paraphrasing, its output matters only as much as the poet intended it to matter. Generally speaking, poetry is not packaged philosophy, and a good poem is not a snugly, smugly rhymed philosophical treatise. The essence of poetry is, well, poetry; paraphrasing destroys the poetic element, so what is left is basically a cadaver. Implying someone was an ugly creature while alive because her corpse doesn’t look that well may not be the best course of judgment.

    I have my own issues with Yeats. Poets should write little and well. Yeats wrote too much; it’s hard to sift the good pieces from the flood of his early work; he got too ethnic at times; and so on. But a poet should be judged by his best poems, not by his worst.

    I first thought the stress in "irrevocable" could have been on the thrid syllable once; if not, that strange IRrevocaBELLE is quite an exotic creature. Was it acceptable to rhyme -ble and tell at that time?

  10. If a poem’s paraphrasable content is impossible to take seriously, as Yeats’s very often is, then so is the poem.

    Poems were not written, nor were they meant, to be paraphrased. They were written and meant to be read as poetry, and all that implies. Your above quoted point, Aaron, is no point at all.

    To take examples you just adduced, What, as poetic image, is amiss with "gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun"? Answer: Not a bloody thing. It’s actually quite lovely all by itself; even more lovely in poetic context. Or, "The ceremony of innocence is drowned"? Answer: Ditto.

    You’re imputing the failure of your method to a failure of Yeats’s poetry.

    Tilt! Processor fault! Impermissible operation!


  11. AC: You say that mystical claptrap is perfectly consistent with "matters poetic." Are you saying that absurd content doesn’t matter, or are you endorsing Yeats’ content in substance?

    I don’t recall my endorsing "claptrap" in anything, poetic or prosaic. I’m saying (to use your language) that, yes indeed, the mystical is not only consistent with matters poetic, but in the hands of a genuine poet it’s perhaps the richest source of poetic image (it ain’t chopped liver in the hands of a great writer of prose, either).

    That’s the extent of my endorsement of the mystical.


  12. I have to agree with Mr. Douglas. Here’s my own post on the subject.

  13. AC may twit me for literalism all he likes, but the fact remains that without denotation there is no connotation either. Pure sonority is a chimera. Mallarm, a far more intelligent man than Yeats, embarked on such a project, which failed. I am not insensible to the beauty of "gaze as pitiless and blank as the sun" in itself; Yeats is scattered with such incidental beauties. But I object to it in context. Similarly, if we read a line like "the ceremony of innocence is drowned" without stopping to consider what the ceremony of innocence actually is, then we are not reading Yeats. A poem’s paraphrasable content is not the poem; but it is an irreducible part of the poem. When Yeats writes in praise of madness, for instance, as he often does, are we supposed to shut our eyes to the fact that he is being an idiot?

    Yeats’s views on government (which resemble mine very little), astrology, sex, and the importance of a full head of hair would indeed be irrelevant if they did not intrude into the poetry at every turn. The second half of Leda and the Swan cannot be understood without reference to Yeats’s theories of sex. The two Byzantium poems elucidate his philosophy of history, which is a sort of half-witted Spenglerism. The pernes and gyres are omnipresent. Alexei says poets should be judged by their best poems, and I agree. But I am not choosing obscure Yeats to make my point; these are famous poems, commonly regarded as great. In this thread only Andrea Harris has been bold enough to cite a specific Yeats poem that she likes. If someone else wants to follow her lead I will be happy to discuss it.

  14. I make no claim to having any particularly keen critical faculties, but I can recite Yeats from cock crow to sundown, a relic of my mad infatuation with him thirty years ago. Winters’ comments are widely regarded, even by my friends the young Wintersians, as reflecting far more poorly on Winters the critic than on Yeats the poet. I agree with Alan that the Moore poem is amateurish at best. I’ve recently initiated a great round of Yeats-bashing at Able Muse’s Eratosphere, and my mature reservations about Yeats are not unlike Aaron’s. Frost and Hardy grow on me as I grow older, and Yeats does the reverse. But he is an unspeakably great poet who wrote dozens of poems that are widely treasured. And no less a critic than Eliot regarded him as the greatest of the moderns in any language, an appraisal that goes way too far, but comes closer the mark than Aaron’s dismissal of his achievement.

  15. Sorry about the "claptrap" line, and I think I agree that the quality of a poem, qua poem, if you will, does not depend upon its philosophical content. However, there are limits: ideas so illogical or incomprehensible as to make a hash out of any attempt to communicate them are bad prose, bad poetry, bad communication as such. I will leave it to others more qualified to assess Yeats on this score.

    However, "aristocratic" bias is not revealed in Aaron’s (or my) comments on the so-called "right" to vote. They would only be so if either of us had suggested limiting the vote to an aristocratic elite. Literacy tests and the like test a relevant qualification of the particular individual involved; they do not grant (or exclude) from voting a certain class by ancestry or wealth. No one supposes that disqualifying felons from the franchise (as most states do) is a sign of "aristocratic" elitism.

  16. Pure sonority would simply be music. So, yes, it is a chimera; but sense alone does not make a poem either, and the most high-minded utterance may fall far short of poetry if it fails to dance. Sound and sense must twine and play with one another before I’m impressed by a poem. Moore’s "Silence" clumps heavily from line to line; it is, in fact, quite a noisy poem to bear such a title.

  17. Well, Aaron, I think you’re right to note Fascist overtones in Yeats’s work. Like his fellow modernists Eliot and Pound, Yeats was deeply attracted to Fascism (and anti-Semitism) in the 1930s. There’s a late essay of his which is very pro-Fascist, but I can’t remember the title right now.

  18. I think that’s the only poem of his I like. But — so there is a "stock market" in what poets are supposed to look like. So what? There’s a stereotypical "look" for a lot of professions. I didn’t say that the "poet look" wasn’t true, I said that it didn’t matter to me.

    As for this — "They are not reading Yeats but a poem of their own construction" — because people who like a poem aren’t liking it for the Approved Reasons, well, too bad. Damn, I’m glad I hate poetry.

  19. Tim: Yeats’s political sympathies are well-known, but the most embarrassing political moment in the letters belongs to Moore, who in 1931 writes that the "enthusiasm of the Hitlerites is unbelievable and they celebrate their martyrs in war songs which they sing with delirious gusto… They are chiefly students and intellectuals. They believe in property but not rank or royalty and seem to be a refreshing crowd."
    A lot of otherwise intelligent people went in big for the whole "nation of poets" business.

    Andrea: I envy you; liking (some) poetry is my cross to bear. I read poems because they allow me to enter into the thoughts of a superior intelligence. This is not, I can assure you, an Approved Reason, but it is mine. Great poems are more rewarding the better they are understood. Most of Yeats is exactly the opposite. I doubt whether the famous lines in The Second Coming about the best and the worst are even true, as a general proposition, but in any case Yeats provides no hint of their nature: the poem is a cistern into which the reader is invited to empty his own ideas of best and worst, which have nothing to do with Yeats’s. It is the same with the shape with lion body (leaving aside the unfortunate adjective) and the rough beast slouching to be born. I read to understand, and Yeats too often writes not to be understood, or to be understood as vaguely as possible.

  20. Oops.

    I wrote: "…writing a philosophic theses…."

    Scratch that errant "a".


  21. I read to understand, and Yeats too often writes not to be understood, or to be understood as vaguely as possible.

    Yeats, I would venture, wanted his poems, with all their ambiguous and arcane imagery, to be understood poetically, as do all genuine poets their poems. When Yeats wrote his poems, he did not, for even an instant, imagine he was writing a philosophic theses on … whatever. If those ambiguous and arcane images cause one’s mind to resonate and spin with ideas no matter how elusive — resonate and spin much in the same way Jabberwocky caused Alice’s mind to do — then they’ve done their proper job, and the job they were intended to do.

    Just a thought.



  22. Philosophic prostheses, perhaps…

  23. I’ve heard that the "paraphrasable content" of Gather Ye Rosebuds is pretty pathetic, rather hallmarkish in contrast (say) to anything written by Shakespeare; and yet I’ve always felt it to be one of the loveliest of English lyrics. I have no problem with the triteness of the thought expressed. I recall a poetry teacher of mine, Paul Carroll, telling that a colleague had objected to the song line "I’m gonna live forever" from the movie Fame which was then popular. His point: as philosophy, sure the statement is wrong and ridiculous; but as an expression of feeling (given the characters and the situation within which they were making the expression) it was an accurate description. Similarly, I can recall reading several of Yeats’ poems, including the one of Leda and the swan, without a knowledge of what his underlying theories on sex (or whatever) were. In fact I’ve never read Yeats any further than what is in my edition of collected verse, and not been troubled by a lack of understanding of some particular motif. It had some particular meaning for Yeats that it may not for me, but so it is with mystical things. Sometimes a "proper" experience, as "falling in love," when rationalized in prose, seems quite ridiculous, at least to the objective onlookers, if not to the one that is suffering. When I read Yeats, I go to find his experience, not to learn his philosophy. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

  24. A poets primary purpose were always experience, not cognition. Otherwise, Emily Dickinsons I love to see it lap the miles might have more plainly stated what she saw, or another, what was hers by the right of white election. The experience is what counts, not some philosophy about the experience. Yeats is criticized for writing purposefully to be obscure. His exact contemporary, Kipling, is often criticized for the opposite, for being too lucidly understood. Is either man the greater? Each has left verse which, despite the intervention of much time, has lost not its flavor or its power; and each has left verse which has (but then who has not?). Kipling is the greater craftsman for his technique, Yeats forever clumsy. Kipling was no fool, and much abhorred for it; Yeats much the fool, and much admired. In the verse of either one can find the transcendental moment, beyond whatever failings erudite scholarship may locate in the rest.

  25. Well, Yeats was much abhorred too–especially by people who knew him personally.

    I don’t think you can really distinguish poetry from other modes of expression if you say only that its purpose is to capture or embody experience. If there is something magical about Yeats in comparison with Kipling, it is perhaps not that the former believed in magic, but that he loved words for their own sake.

  26. Loved words "for their own sake" as opposed to "for what they conveyed"? I can see that. Usually the poetry I enjoy the most makes me scratch my head and mutter, "makes ya think, don’t it?" without forming any really paraphrasable determinations. I’ve probably had that response more often with Yeats than with Kip.

  27. On ‘The Indian’: No doubt there is intense emotion here. What prompts such emotion, its source and its nature, is slightly vague; and one problem with Yeats’s early verse is this unvarying, colourless tone, expressing sorrow or joy with the same busy and pacy lyricism.

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