Friday, May 12, 2006

Absolutely Everything You Never Needed To Know About Modernism Part Two

W. B. Yeats
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death:
Horseman, pass by!

Yeat's poetry was an allegory of a metaphor of a symbol representing something that represented something else. I have no idea what he really wrote about, but I love the way he wrote about it:

I went out to the hazel-wood
Because a fire was in my head

Now, when you first read this, you think: a fire? In his head? Is this what happens when you put too many jalapeno peppers in with your baked beans? Ouch!
It's a bizarre metaphor, whatever it means, but the poem that follows has such a light turn of phrase, that you almost don't care.

Amongst other things, Yeats was an initiate into a occult society known then as 'The Golden Dawn', and known nowadays as 'weirdos'. They believed in reincarnation and possession and tarot cards and speaking in tongues and just about everything other thing possible to believe in. He got involved in some pretty strange activities; once he hypnotised his wife and got her to take 'dictation' from the spirits. He was so interested in the results that he made her write a whole book this way.

I'm not even sure if he was a modernist, since he prefeferred writing about the past to writing about the present. Though I guess his poem Easter, 1916 qualifies him as a modernist:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Just imagine him calling his wife a 'terrible beauty'. "Terrible beauty? Really, William! I don't know about you! Were you hit on the head by a tundish as a wee sprat? Terrible beauty! Hmmmph!"

Still, he was a great poet precisely because of his ability to write lines that were simultaneously incomprehensible and able to catch your breath:

Nor law nor duty made me fight;
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds;
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds.
I balanced all, brought all to mind:
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Whatever the fuck it means, it's beautiful.

Yeats also has had the distinction of meeting James Joyce. Joyce said, "You are too old for me to have any effect on you." Yeats later said of Joyce something like the following:

"That is the most arrogant and most talented young man I have ever met."

James Joyce
Thou art, I vow, the remarkablest progenitor bar none in this chaffering allincluding most farraginous chronicle.

Joyce wrote a lot of words and not so many sentences. His earlier books (Dubliners, Exiles, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) have both in a more or less pleasant arrangement. In his later books (Ulysses and Finnegans Wake) the word-to-sentence-ratio dips wildly in favour of the words. Certainly there are enough sentences in the first chapter of Ulysses to make it readable. In the third chapter, Joyce starts writing in his stream-of-consciousness style - meaning that he puts down any random thought that comes into his head down, in a disordered manner, on the page; and passes it off as the random thoughts that come into his characters heads. Full stops and colons start scattering in wild profusion about the page, but they don't seem to divide any noticeable sentences. They're just there to provide a little variety. It gets to the point where you start wondering who thinks what, when, and how; and you realise you've started getting the characters all mixed up.

Then, just to mess you up a bit more, Joyce throws in a ridiculous amount of classical references which nobody - certainly not he himself - could understand.
By the last chapter, Joyce even does away with punctuation, and you get the thoughts of a character jumbled together in one great thing. I think about twenty pages into this he throws a full-stop down, I don't know.

Most of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are unreadable. I think I spent more tim reading the footnotes to Ulysses than the book itself; as a matter of fact, I'm sure of it. Because of the amount of references and allusions Joyce threw into these two books, the amount of footnotes that could be written are more or less infinite. (It's the theory of writing by reference - just like writing by weords, except it doesn't involve having to be as creative.)

Still, both books have their uses. Ulysses you can carry around and impress bookish, glass-wearing women with by saying you've read it. Finnegans Wake you can use as a pass into the highest echelons of academia; most academics haven't read it, and so they will always be impressed if you say you have.

(Next: W. H. Auden!)


At 5:53 AM, Blogger Martha said...

I haven't read any Joyce at all, I'm afraid. I'm just that unsophisticated. But I love Yeats; I think his poems do make a sort of sense, though not in a particularly literal way. They sit with you and have an effect on you, so you come away with a sense of them. I think that sense is their meaning-- it's subjective, and ambiguous and leaves you to your own devices, but isn't art supposed to be like that? And as you say, it's so damned beautiful it doesn't matter anyway.

At 8:30 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Yeats is my favourite poet, although I couldn't say why. I don't read a lot of poetry, but he just kind of clicks for me. If you haven't read it, I recommend Richard Ellman's Yeats: The Man and the Masks. It does a great job untangling the various strands of Yeats' thought, including all the weird spiritual stuff. By the way, further to your Prime Minister post the other day, did you know that Alfred Deakin was a noted spiritualist? There's a book on it at my local library which I plan to read when I get time.

At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting observations on Joyce. I'm three-quarters through my first of his, Portrait.. and wasn't thrilled until the twenty-page sermon broke it up. But the reading of this is easy and poetic; obviously giving little hint to what lay ahead in his work.

susan @ spinning

At 1:42 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Oh, man, that twenty page sermon! Was Joyce tormented as a child or something? That sermon is just gold - sadomasochism for the soul!

At 1:48 PM, Blogger TimT said...

You're on to something there, Martha, there is something incredibly sensuous to Yeats' poems. I think he became a little sterner and more intellectual when he got older, and his poems became more philosophic and spiritual, but the sensuous element was still there.

I'll look those books up, Tim, sounds fascinating. Alfred Deakin, a spiritualist - I never would have guessed ...

At 7:40 PM, Blogger Tim said...

The Deakin book is called The Mystic Life of Alfred Deakin, and it's by Al Gabay.

At 11:58 PM, Blogger TimT said...


Yeats is my favourite poet, too - him and Spencer. I thought I had mentioned that in this piece, but obviously, I forgot!

At 12:30 AM, Blogger Ben.H said...

I've read (end enjoyed) Ulysses twice, without ever looking at a footnote. This isn't meant as a boast but to point out that one way to get through the book is to realise:
1. This book contains everything, therefore
2. there is plenty in it you will get, and
3. nobody will ever get all of it, so don't worry about it.

Also, never forget that Stephen Dedalus is meant to be a wanker. This helps you through the first three chapters.


At 10:23 AM, Blogger TimT said...

You're right about the 'everything being in there' bit. But I wonder if it wouldn't be just as easy to read a whole library of books filled with random letters, like 'The Library of Babel'.

I will read it again someday without the footnotes, which should help. And Leopold Bloom is a much better character than Stephen Daedalus.

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Tim said...

I've been doing a bit of research on the Australian writer Rosa Praed, and guess what, she was a spiritualist too! Was there anybody in the English-speaking world c. 1850-1920 who wasn't a spiritualist?

At 1:29 PM, Blogger TimT said...

Also, P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books (which are fantastic, much better than the movie!) She was a member of The Golden Dawn too.

I sometimes wonder if she slips in spiritualist messages into her children's fiction, but I haven't been able to spot any. Although there is one chapter that I have my suspicions about ...

At 8:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Words, words, words.

60 odd years since his death, and otherwise intelligent readers are still foundering upon Joyce; keep trying, he's worth it.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home