W B Yeats
Tragic Joy: Yeats's Attitude Towards Art in Last Poems

by Ian Mackean

Irrational streams of blood are staining earth;
Empedocles has thrown all things about;
Hector is dead and there's a light in Troy;
We that look on but laugh in tragic joy.
['The Gyres']


Yeats's collection Last Poems (1936-1939) opens with one of his best-known poems 'The Gyres', which sets out the main theme of the collection: that our civilization is coming to an end, but it does not matter - in fact we should 'Rejoice!' Instead of despairing he finds an attitude of 'tragic joy' with which to view the decay of both the historical epoch and his own body. This essentially antithetical line of thought is expressed repeatedly throughout Last Poems, taking on many different forms and being applied to many different aspects of life. For example the decay is seen in Irish politics, the monarchy, and modern art, while the joy is seen in nature, art, dance, sensual pleasure, madness, and intoxication. The range of aspects of life Yeats deals with is matched by his range of tones, from the colloquial of 'The Old Stone Cross, to 'the prophetic of 'Under Ben Bulben'.

The states of mind Yeats adopts in place of despair are usually associated with art in one form or another, and in Last Poems we see him examining his attitude towards art, both his own art and the major world traditions of art. 'Lapis Lazuli' begins as a defence of art against the attacks of 'hysterical women'; people who respond to life in an immediate, emotional way, their minds limited to the here and now. Set against their hysterics is the noble attitude of the tragic actor:

The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;

These actors represent the attitude of mind Yeats has found, as does the nobility of tone in such phrases as 'The great stage curtain', in contrast to the slangy colloquialism of 'Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in'.

In the midst of this poem, separate from the rest in a short stanza on its own, we have a description of the actual work of art, the carving itself which stands unmoved by the rise and fall of civilizations around it. The calmness and objectivity of this stanza, as well as its separate place in the structure of the poem, reflect the nature of the object. The carving also has a symbol of its significance for Yeats built into it.

Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;

The image reminds us of the poem 'Long-Legged Fly' in which 'great' people are shown to have a mental faculty which Yeats calls 'silence'; an ability of the artist to look into the silent source of all things. Yeats shows how the surface of the work of art stimulates his imagination in random ways:

Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where still it snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house.

These personal meanings exist only in the mind of the viewer, and Yeats's inclusion of them here strengthens, by contrast, the tone of objectivity given to the final section of the poem in which he outlines the deeper meaning of the carving.

The Chinamen climbing the mountain reflect Yeats's own climb through old age towards death, and just as Yeats has achieved a stable and final attitude of 'tragic joy', the Chinamen on the mountain stare at the 'tragic scene' while:

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes are gay.

Yeats sees the carving as a timeless object reflecting a timeless outlook; the creation of an artist embodying and communicating the state of mind of the artist, and simultaneously a medium for Yeats's own personal vision. As in the 'Byzantium' poems, Yeats identifies himself with both the artist and the artefact.

Yeats continually looks back to the origins of civilizations, the starting points of the gyres of history. In 'Lapis Lazuli' he refers to Callimachus, inventor of the Corinthian column from the germinal point of western culture, and representing the east the Chinese statue.

In 'The Statues' these two world traditions are taken up again and contrasts are made between the characterisations of each. Rational thought as we know it began with The Greeks, and in the first stanzas of 'The Statues' Yeats takes us back to the origins of Greek art.

In the first stanza he postulates that it was the abstract mathematical laws behind art which were the key to its beauty. The 'character', or individual personality which abstract mathematics lacks was supplied by the passions of observer. In the second stanza he shifts the importance of the statues from the mathematical basis to the actual work of carving and creation performed by the sculptor. Both were necessary; abstract and technical skills combining to assert themselves and ensure the triumph of Greek culture over the 'vague enormities' of the east.

In the third stanza an antithesis is set up between the two cultures, and Yeats would seem to prefer the east. The image of Buddha combines with a pre-Renaissance image in the image 'round and slow' with 'Empty eyeballs'. Here the intellectual thought of The Greeks is belittled.

. . . Empty eyeballs knew
That knowledge increases unreality, that
Mirror on mirror mirrored is all they show. [The Statues]

The true wisdom of spiritual knowledge, needed when 'gong and conch declare the hour to bless', is found in 'Buddha emptiness'. Again this is reminiscent of that 'silence' found in great minds in 'Long-Legged Fly'.

Yeats's concept of 'tragic joy' seems to be more in tune with eastern transcendental religion than anything from western culture, yet in the final stanza it is evident that he thinks a rediscovery of Greek methods is necessary for the reconstruction of Irish art. Thus Yeats's thought embodies both western rational and eastern mystical elements.

Yeats's dislike of modern art is evident throughout Last Poems. In 'Under Ben Bulben' he says of painting:

Nor let the modish painter shirk
What his great forefathers did,

And of poetry:

Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,

Yeats believes that a new era will emerge from the modern corrupt state. In 'The Gyres' his attitude was one of objective acceptance, but in other poems his personal feelings show through clearly enough. In 'The Circus Animals' Desertion' modern culture is a 'mound of refuse'.

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till

This decay is not only in the rest of the world, bit is affecting him too.

I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

Again, and as usual in Yeats, a double attitude is maintained, for if the heart is a 'foul rag-and-bone shop' it is still, as he says in 'The Spur', the source of motivation for his art.

You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attention upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young;
What else have I to spur me into song?

These sensual feelings are the bass counterpart of tragic joy, and are expressed less 'horribly' in the art of dance which is referred to throughout Last Poems.

Dance is the most primitive and perhaps the oldest art form known to man. In 'Imitated from the Japanese' Yeats sounds a note of regret that he has never 'danced for joy', and in the next poem, 'Sweet Dance', he admires a girl who can escape the gloom of life through dance, which, after all, is a natural, rhythmic, cyclic action. The gyre itself is perhaps a kind of dance, and in 'A Drunken Man's Praise of Sobriety' it seems that dancing is the best way to wear out drunkenness and return to sobriety, just as the gyre will spin itself out and give rise to a new beginning.

Last Poems ends with 'Under Ben Bulben', a prophetic poem written with a conscious air of finality. The poem makes a sweep from the abstract to the concrete; from the wisdom of sages, through art, to the earth, and finally into the grave. Here again we see Yeats contemplating art, particularly in relation to tradition. 'Measurement', the abstract knowledge of The Greeks, 'began our might', and for Yeats 'our might' lasted through the Renaissance and through the seventeenth century with 'Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude,' but has now run itself out.

. . . but after that
confusion fell upon our thought.

The reason why modern art is in a state of confusion is that the artists 'unremembering hearts and heads' have lost touch with tradition. They are like the falcon in 'The Second Coming'.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

It is not only the intellectual artistic tradition which Yeats values; he finds another valuable tradition in the myths of the Irish peasantry. He reflects this interest in poems such as 'The Three Bushes', which with its simple diction, narrative structure, and repeated refrain has the tone of a folk ballad. This aspect of Irish culture, born of the peasants and their toil in the fields, is as important to preserve, in Yeats's view, as the Classical principles of art. Addressing himself, in 'Under Ben Bulben', to Irish poets of the present and future, he exhorts them to:

Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after,
Porter drinkers' randy laughter;

The final verse takes us to the land, the actual earth of Ireland itself. Ben Bulben stands, like 'Old Rocky Face' from 'The Gyres', a symbol of our unchanging silent origins, of nature, proud and noble, which like its offspring art outlives the human tragedy. It is to his Irish roots that Yeats ultimately wants to return. He chooses his grave near a church were one of his forefathers was rector, and chooses for his grave-stone not marble, associated with the Greek culture he admires intellectually, but 'limestone quarried near the spot', to which his strongest roots are attached.


Yeats, W. B. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Macmillan. 1958.

See also: An Introduction to W B Yeats and The Celtic Revival

© Ian Mackean


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