Yeats: A Collection of Critical Essays

Yeats: A Collection of Critical Essays

Yeats: A Collection of Critical Essays

Yeats: A Collection of Critical Essays

Excerpt

I like to visualize the proverbial man on a desert island who, having chosen Yeats over, say, Shakespeare, watches float up to his sandy shore the as-yet-uncollected Complete Works, twenty or so fat volumes nudging each other on--and behind them, borne perhaps on the backs of dolphins, first, the dozens of books that have already been written about Yeats, and then a long bobbing procession of dissertations, articles, and reviews, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of them, the sum total of Yeats scholarship.

Where, in this welter, will the islander begin?

If he is wise, he will start with Yeats; if he is very wise, he will start with Yeats's poetry. For Yeats, as Hugh Kenner points out, organizes his Collected Poems with meticulous care. Lyric, in context, illuminates neighboring lyric; section comments on neighboring section. If my islander never gets past that initial volume, he should have a reasonably satisfying literary experience.

Even if he is a literary critic, however, he may want help on particularly difficult passages. Yeats was well aware of the critic's problem, and he did his best to make things easy for his commentator. As the reader of the Variorum Edition of Yeats's poems quickly notices, Yeats regularly equipped his books of poetry with prefaces and notes, revising these props whenever he rewrote or regrouped a section of poems. But the more Yeats wrote, the more help his critics seemed to need; and Yeats cheerfully set about supplying them with all sorts of material, everything from autobiography to aesthetic theory. In 1917, for instance, Yeats explained to his father his reasons for writing "a little philosophical book": "I shall publish it in a new book of verse, side by side, I think. Reviewers find it easier to write if they have ideas to write about--ideas or a narrative like that in my Reveries." And when Katherine Tynan recklessly published a group of his letters, Yeats's complaint was not that the publication was unauthorized but rather that he had not had a chance, "in defiance of all right conduct," to "improve" them!

What Yeats was trying to do, of course, was to make available to his public everything that good criticism ultimately uncovers. He was also . . .

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