William Butler Yeats and William Blake
Length: 2712 words (7.7 double-spaced pages)
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A study of William Butler Yeats is not complete without a study of William Blake, just as a study of Blake is greatly aided by a study of Yeats. The two poets are inexorably tied together. Yeats, aided by his study of Blake, was able to find a clearer poetic voice. Yeats had a respect for and an understanding of Blake's work that was in Yeats' time without parallel. Yeats first read Blake at the age of 15 or 16 when his father gave him Blake to read. Yeats writes in his essay "William Blake and the Imagination" that "...when one reads Blake, it is as though the spray of an inexhaustible fountain of beauty was blown into our faces (Yeats, Essays xxx)." Yeats believed Blake to be a genius and he never wavered in his opinion. It is his respect for Blake that caused him to study and emulate Blake. He tried to tie Blake closer to himself by stressing Blake's rumored Irish ancestry. He strove to understand Blake more clearly than anyone had before him, and he succeeded. As with other pursuits Yeats held nothing back. He immersed himself fully in Blake's writings. As with many of his mental pursuits he deepened his understanding of the subject by writing about it.
In 1887 he wrote his essay "William Blake and the Imagination." This essay articulated his thoughts on the genius of the poet William Blake. He still however had not conceived his full vision of Blake's works. In 1889 he approached Edwin Ellis, a friend of his father's, for assistance in understanding Blake. Ellis wrote of this meeting "Very little could be given him to satisfy so large a demand, but with his eye for symbolic systems, he needed no more to enable him to perceive that here was a myth as well worth studying as any that has been offered to the world (Ellis, Vol I ix)." Thus began Yeats' and Ellis' collaboration on William Blake. This collaboration came to fruition, after four years of work, with the 1893 publication of their The Works of William Blake Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical.
It has been acknowledged by many scholars that Yeats' study of Blake greatly influenced his poetic expression. This gives rise to the widely held assertion that Yeats is indebted to Blake. While I concur with this assertion, I feel that the perhaps greater debt is Blake's.
It is clear that these poets were of assistance to one another, and therefore are mutually indebted. First I will address how Yeats assisted Blake. While it is obvious that Yeats did not influence Blake's writing, since Blake was long since deceased when Yeats began his work, it is just as clear that Yeats greatly influenced how Blake was to be perceived in the 20th century. Yeats' influence is most clearly visible in three areas - accessibility to the works, interpretation of the works, and respect for Blake, the poet.
In regards to accessibility, Yeats' work with Ellis was integral. Previous to The Works of William Blake the public had access to only the works included in Gilchrist's Life of William Blake, published in 1863. Blake did not publish his works, but rather created what we in the 20th century would deem limited editions. This limitation was due in a large part to Blake's method of illustration. His illustrations were elaborate etchings that were acid washed and hand painted. This method, both costly and time consuming, allowed for only a limited number of issues. Gilchrist's biography included many works that were being published for the first time, but the Ellis-Yeats edition was the first publication of Blake's complete works. It is highly likely that had Ellis and Yeats not undertaken their project Blake would have slipped into obscurity. In order for a poet's work to live on after his death, the work must be read.
While people must be able to obtain the poems before they can read them, it is just as important to the life of the poems that the reader be able to derive meaning from the works. Ellis was helpful in pointing Yeats in the right direction, but it was Yeats who saw the system Blake created. Previous to the Ellis-Yeats edition little to nothing had been done to aid the reader in the task of understanding Blake. The most thorough book on Blake prior to that of Ellis and Yeats was Gilchrist's. Gilchrist's treatment of Blake was superficial at best. He made only limited efforts at explaining the works of Blake. Rather, he spent his time praising the man and detailing his life. Of the interpretive efforts made Gilchrist, Yeats had this to say "...the absurd idea of Gilchrist that the key to the wild and strange rhapsodies Blake would utter can be supplied by love, but not by intellect, has done great harm in discouraging a serious treatment of his mystic system (Raine, Debt 3)."
Ellis and Yeats devote the bulk of the first volume of the three volume edition to delineating Blake's system. The second volume offers detailed interpretation of Blake text and the third volume is the complete works (including illustrations) of Blake. Volume One "The System" provides the reader with an understanding of the overall system of Blake. This by no means labels volume one as introductory. For it presupposes the reader's familiarity with the works of Blake. While it is not an introduction, it is definitely the first step in reaching a full understanding Blake in all of his complex splendor. Volume two would prove to be more confusing than illuminating without a firm grasp of the materials conveyed in volume one. For the purposes of this paper I will confine discussion to volume one and those aspects of Blake most clearly adopted by Yeats.
The foundation of Blake's symbolic system is the Four Zoas. The Four Zoas are the four divisions of humanity. It was Blake's belief that the fall of man was not caused by a sin against God, but rather the result of the four divisions of man becoming cognizant of one another. The Four Zoas/Divisions are: Urizen/Reason, Luvah/Emotion, Tharmas/Senses, and Urthona/Energy. These correlations are by no means the limit of the Zoas symbolic meaning. Rather they represent the enormous scope of that meaning. It was Blake's belief, Yeats tells the reader, that the fourfold division is applicable to many things. Yeats writes "They [Four Zoas] have innumerable sub-divisions, for the fourfold analysis of things and thoughts need never come to an end (Ellis, Vol I 255)."
In regards to the Four Zoas as the divisions of humanity Blake describes only one as living and that one is Urthona. It was Blake's theory that Urizen (Reason) either kills or imprisons both Tharmas (Senses) and Luvah (Emotion). In doing so Urizen is left in a death-like sleep. Urthona alone is still a life force although constantly under the attack of Urizen. In simpler English the situation is as follows. Man fell (or lost unity with God) when his four aspects became aware of each other. Reason immediately thought himself superior to the other three. His assumption of superiority impelled him to attempt to exert control over the others. What followed was the subjugation of both Emotion and Sense. This subjugation can be seen in man's refusal to accept what he senses without first processing what he sees, touches, hears, smells, or tastes. This results in Reason acting as a filter for the senses. Reason interprets what is perceived by the senses thereby removing man from all that he senses and instead grounding him in what he thinks he senses. Logic and facts reign supreme. Emotion was subjugated in that Reason found Emotion to be a weakness that needed to be eliminated. This alienation of feeling further divides man from his unified self. The end result, man does not trust his senses nor listen to his emotions but chooses instead to rely solely on facts as defined by scientific logic. Energy alone was able to defy the control of Reason. Blake felt Energy (also interpreted as Imagination) to be man's portal to immortality. Of course Reason, following his conviction of superiority, must continually attempt to control Energy. This is most evident in man's downplaying of the imagination as an integral part of life. Society, under the sway of Reason, denigrates imagination to the status of flight of fancy. Blake did not see Energy as confined by physicality. On the contrary he felt it provided the much sought for release from the physical or mortal realm.
Another key element in Blake's system is the role of contraries. Blake, and Yeats, felt that contraries supply the life force of the universe. There can be no life without the dynamic tension of contraries. If a contrary dominates its opposing contrary chaos will ensue. Contraries are innumerable, examples are Reason-Emotion, Imagination-Sense, Good-Evil, Love-Hate. In every case if one side overwhelms the other the requisite tension is lost and in the words of Yeats "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold (Yeats, Poems 187)."
Another aspect of Blake adopted by Yeats is that his work is a cohesive whole. In order to have a full, in-depth understanding of any given poem, that poem must be read as a single part of the larger whole (collected works). Blake's poems are not intended to stand independent of one another, but rather must be joined so as to provide a complete picture of Blake's vision. Yeats writes "Even 'The Little Black Boy' cannot be understood, unless it be taken as part of the general mystical manifesto that runs through all the work (Ellis, Vol II 9)." And of "The Chimney Sweeper" Yeats writes "The chimney-sweeper is not merely a sooty child - though he is this also. Blake is not merely indignant at the treatment the child gets - though he is this also. The chimney-sweeper is Oothoon in disguise, shut up in Bromion's caves (Ellis, Vol II 13)." These poems must be read as parts of "The Songs of Innocence" and "The Songs of Experience". In a still larger sense they need to be read as parts of Blake's collected works. These examples of the cohesiveness of Blake's work are in no way exceptions. All of Blake's work must be read as an interrelated whole.
The final of the three services rendered Blake by Yeats is the conveyed respect for the poet Blake. Previous to the Ellis-Yeats edition there was much debate regarding Blake's mental state. Biographers, among them Gilchrist, dealt with the question of madness poorly, thereby leaving the issue open to debate. Since previous writers had been unable to explain Blake's system his works could still be seen as the ramblings of a madman. Yeats' delineation of the system largely quelled the insanity debate. It was obvious to Yeats that only a genius could conceive and implement such a system. When confronted with the system, as explained by Yeats, the reader must concede that the rumors of insanity are without merit.
Presently I would like to shift the focus away from Blake's debt to Yeats and turn instead to Yeat's debt to Blake. Yeats was influenced by Blake's work in myriad ways. For present purposes I will limit the focus to the three elements previously discussed. These three items, clearly adopted by Yeats, are the fourfold nature of things, the requisite tension of the contraries, and the unified nature of his works.
The clearest example of Yeats utilizing the fourfold concept is his play On Baile's Strand. The four key characters in the play have a strong correlation to the Four Zoas. The characters correlate to the Zoas as follows. Conchubar, the High King, represent Reason (Urizen). Cuchulain is representative of Energy (Urthona). The Blind Man, a counterpart to Conchubar, represents Material Senses (Tharmas). Lastly, the Fool is representing Emotion (Luvah). As in the Four Zoas, when one element overwhelms the others chaos follows. Conchubar (Reason) is driven to control and subjugate Cuchulain (Energy). Conchubar acknowledges his need of Cuchulain when he says to him "You are but half a king, and I but half; I need your might of hand and burning heart, And you my wisdom (Yeats, Plays 29)." However even as he acknowledges his need he lies. He terms them halves, but halves equal to one another. In demanding the oath he denigrates Cuchulain to less than half. This denigration causes chaos for the kingdom. It results in Cuchulain killing his only son (unbeknownst to him) and going mad. The tension is lost and Cuchulain is left in a state of madness and stagnation. He is last shown fighting the sea. He is fighting a battle that cannot be won and even worse one that disallows progress. No matter how many waves Cuchulain chops there will be another to follow. Even more tragically his actions have no effect on the sea so that his actions becomes worthless.
While On Baile's Strand is indicative of Yeat's adoption, or rather adaptation, of the fourfold concept, it also of necessity illustrates his acceptance of Blake's notion of the contraries. Since the Four Zoas are contraries Yeats could not write a play utilizing the fourfold concept while excluding the concept of contraries. Another example of his use of contraries, without the fourfold concept, is the Rose poems. John Unterecker, in his book A Reader's Guide to William Butler Yeats, writes "... omnipotence, in Yeats as in Blake, is always two-faced: the god of peace struggles always with the god of wrath; Heaven always opposes Hell; time crashes always against the rough barriers of eternity; soul battles body (Unterecker 79)." While "The Rose of Peace" depicts a universe of reconciled contraries it is fantasy. "A peace of Heaven with Hell" is dependent on the "If" that opens the poem. Yeats conveys the true state of contraries in his poem "The Rose of Battle." This poem clearly depicts a state of conflict and is without the initial fantasy marker "If" of its companion poem.
Yeats' final (for present purposes) adaptation of Blake regards the cohesiveness of his works. As with Blake, Yeats' poems are not meant to stand alone. His poems are in unified collections and these collections are in turn tied one to the other. While the Rose poems provide a solid example of Yeats' belief in contraries, they are also indicative of his works interdependence. The two poems are clearly meant to be read in conjunction. Each one gathers deeper meaning by its association with the other. Another example of this interrelation of poems can be seen in "The Song of the Happy Shepherd" and "The Sad Shepherd." The Happy Shepherd (a poet) in the first poem finds the ability to voice his thoughts with the aid of a seashell. The Sad Shepherd of the second poem also seeks the aid of a seashell, but since he is not a poet he is incapable of articulating his thoughts. This illustrates the value Yeats gives to the imagination. For the imagination is a quality that is only fully developed in poets. These two poems are meant to be read together and in a larger sense to read be as a part of Crossways.
I have focused on specific adaptations of Blake ideas by Yeats, but there is another link between the two poets. This link is their shared assertion that Energy/ Imagination is to be praised while Reason is scorned. This belief is the guiding principal of their work. Perhaps this could loosely be said to be the guiding principal for all romantic poets. For it is the role of the poet to keep Urthona alive so as to open the door to immortality. Immortality being the unification of the divisions of humanity. I believe if ever there is an age that is ruled exclusively by Energy, the poets of that age will be forced to voice some support of Reason. For it is not the wish of poets that Imagination usurp Reason, but rather that humanity finds a balance of the Zoas that will enable the reunification of the divisions. Of course this unification will only take place if the divisions are not only in balance, but they must also lose awareness of one another.