Anti-Modernists Resort to Razzing

by Richard Brookhiser

Stuffed with yesterday’s Christmas goose, I return to Yeats and his mistaken admirers in the spirit of the season.

Yeats wrote prefaces, and poems. Those who are most interested in Yeats the antholigst will read his prefaces. Those who are most interested in Yeats the poet will read his poems, and try to understand what they tell us.

What are the signs of squalid modernism (as bad as Lenin’s Russia, remember) that Yeats is free of?

Obscurity of reference. Everyone who balked at Joyce will flee Yeats in droves as soon as they hit pernes, gyres, Byzantium, or all those obscure Irishmen. “Maude Gonne at Howth station, Pallas Athene in that straight back and arrogant head…” Who’s she? They never mention her on Fox!

Roughness of diction. Yeats had two styles–an early Celtic twilight style. And his mature style, that deliberately keeps the bark on. “The raving slut that keeps the till….Or like King Billy pitch in bomb balls till the town lie beaten flat…” He also has a tropism toward consonance–rhyming “thought” and “about,” or rhymes with vowels that are even more remote. A romantic poet like Keats or Shelley or Victor Hugo would laugh these “rhymes” to scorn. They are, of course, wonderful musical effects–Yeat’s ear is one of the finest of the 20th century–but this is rough music.

Abandonment of traditional forms. Did Yeats ever write a sonnet? I can’t recall one offhand. Did he write long poems, after he was a young man? He wrote verse plays, but so did Eliot (they played on Broadway).

Yeats has the field markings of a modernist because, whatever he thought he was doing, he was one. He is never as extreme as Eliot or Pound at their most extreme, but then he is not an American. Like a good legal immigrant, John has taken great steps in assimilation. He likes NASCAR. He still doesn’t like pedal to the metal, sprayed with endorsements modernist poets though. The influence of our mighty continent is great–it may come in time.

Happy New Year.