More so than any other Modernist writer, William Butler Yeats’ life and work reveal themselves to be intricately connected and draw on each other in multifarious ways. What makes Yeats’ poetry achieve so much power is the conscious employment of his antinomial vision which runs through his life and his work. Therefore any analysis of these strands in his work would have to operate with the assumption that for Yeats there was no clear distinction between life and work and the many antinomies which run through them.
Simply put, antinomial vision, implies a certain ability to hold opposing opinions together and we shall see in close analysis how central this vision is to his poetry. For Yeats, antinomy was the capacity to care for and withdraw simultaneously from something. Perhaps the very idea of opposing views for Yeatswould have come from his own experience itself. Yeats was famously involved in the Irish Cultural Revival and several aspects of the Irish struggle for autonomy thus firmly placing his personal, political and artistic concerns in the public arena. Generally sympathetic to the aristocratic values and art aesthetics, he also embraced the experience and wisdom of the common Irish peasantry, forming perhaps the first of the many antinomies in his life. Similarly, just as he was an active participant in the civil society he was also deeply involved in mysticism and the search for truths beyond the particularities of the political.
This search to hold together contradictions and attempt to achieve unity will achieve a deeper meaning only when Yeats’ work is placed in its context. The early twentieth century in which Yeats was writing was a time of immense socio-political upheaval and witnessed the irrational destruction of the First World War which would create a sense of disillusionment with the progress of human civilization and the concomitant expression of loss and fragmentation in most Modernist art and writing. Also important is the intellectual developments which create a sense of rootlessness in the twentieth century, the prime example of which is the Darwinian undercutting of conventional Christian morality and ethos with nothing to take its place. Perhaps, Yeats’ forays into mysticism and the occult and his relentless attempt to syncretise oppositions rise out of a deep need to find meaning in life and art even as the world around it seems fragmented as never before. Yeats delves into Platonic thought, Kabala, Buddhism, Hinduism, Greco-Roman thought and so on to find a common thread of symbolism in his poetry which would create a holistic vision out of all the contradictions. Even in his personal life, there was an antinomy in the mentorship he received from both his father J.B. Yeats who taught him intensity and purpose in art and the need to be objective, with that of George Pollexfen who taught him mysticism and astronomy. He would learn to compromise these two diverse views showing a propensity to delve into contradictions which other poets would hesitate to.
Similarly, Yeats interactions with public life in Ireland show him deeply conflicted in his relationship with his country. On one hand he was an ardent supporter of the Irish movement and had a close relationship with Charles Parnell but as soon as the movement takes a violent direction Yeats retreats into a more metaphysical realm through his friendships and associations with Lady Gregory, Madame Blavatsky and so on. His rebuke of bourgeois Irish society and its uber-nationalistic and chauvinistic ideals were critiqued by Yeats relentlessly while around this time he was also involved in trying to preserve the myths and traditions of Gaelic culture and his desire to build a unique national tradition for Ireland. These antinomies would be reflected in his poems as we will see later.
Yeats’ antinomies can be understood better in the light of his theory of séances and gyres. He uses symbols from tradition of the spiritus mundi or the collective mind but gives it his own interpretations through visions and séances. A good example would be his conceptualization of the phases of the moon which according to him had 28 phases from the dark moon to the full moon. Similarly human personality is divided into 28 phases and every phase links back to another phase, thus showing the dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity where phase 1 is completely objective and phase 15 completely subjective. Each human being passes through these cycles from objectivity and subjectivity and vice versa. Therefore one can never assume a state where the opposite doesn’t exist; when one is subjective, objectivity will also be there. This would make everyone a bundle of opposites from which there is no escape.
Another theory which runs through much of Yeats’ poetry which is important for our understanding of his antinomial vision is the gyre theory. Gyres, for Yeats, were two cones which interpenetrated each other and mirror all life. The gyres represent various antinomies in life and are constituted of several actions and inactions. In fact the very structure of the gyres is such that the moment one reaches the point of greatest expansion one has to start retreating.
Another symbolic interpretation would be the juxtaposition of male and female. It can also be seen as the antinomy of spirit and matter, heaven and earth, fire and water, out of which life is born. The gyres simultaneously stand for permanence and change. A human beings life is spent between what they are and what they want to be and the gyres symbolize this conflict as well. Yeats also uses the symbol of the ladder and the winding stairs which contain another antinomy of rootedness and upward aspiration. The tower and the winding stairs make up the antinomy of isolation but firmness, unconquerable spirit of man and the work needed to achieve the top of the tower.
Perhaps no discussion of the Yeatsian antinomy will be complete without exploring his relationship with Maud Gonne. As Yeats memorably remarked, it was with their meeting that the “troubling” of his life began. Even after their relationship was effectively over after her marriage to John MacBride, Yeats’ obsession with Gonne would fuel much of his poetry. Simultaneously disdainful and entranced by the woman who had scorned him, Yeats’ poetry would be haunted by Maud Gonne’s presence but there will be significant differences between the early and late poems where he finally is able to look at the affair with a certain detachment. Nowhere is this more evident than in the poem, “No Second Troy”. Belonging to The Green Helmet and Other Poems published in 1910, “No Second Troy” resounds with conflicts and tensions concentrated in terse, sparse lines. His antinomial attitude towards Maud Gonne is seen throughout; he is deeply hurt but is willing to forgive her for her duty and love towards Ireland. Yeats after he was rejected by Gonne, he retreats to the aristocratic realm populated by people like Lady Gregory while Gonne becomes embroiled in the violent section of the revolutionary movement. This brings in Yeats a certain detachment and coolness and is willing to finally put the disappointment behind him and assume public responsibility. But Maud’s specter would be hard to conquer as he is still taken in by her so the poem is also marked by the assumption of the mask of the man of the world who will put up the facade that he will not be dragged down and destroyed. While he’s describing Maud’s terrible power there is also an antinomy at work as Yeats was aware that a woman capable of such power was in fact caught in an abusive marriage which was coming to its end.
The title itself refers to this conflict. In evoking Helen of Troy, he connects Maud to a history of women who have caused great trouble in the world but there is poignancy in Yeats assertion that her mind was “nobleness made simple as a fire” suggesting that Maud’s destructive beauty and power was an inherent character which she cannot relinquish. This contradictory position shows the conflict between the disillusionment and the coolness in Yeats. The fire image also suggests the antinomial relationship between the great beauty capable of destruction of civilizations and the force which is capable of burning out the dross of civilization and this was brought together in the figure of Maud Gonne. “The tightened bow” suggests the threat of violence but it also invokes the image of Cupid’s bow, thus linking beauty, love and destruction in an antinomial relationship. While Yeats appreciates Gonne’s beauty, power and character he had moved away enough to refuse to let her destroy him, thus completing the series of antinomies. The poem’s tension is also because of Yeats trying to balance love and anger and fighting between the fated premonition of the destruction of Troy and standing up for the individual. Ultimately “No Second Troy” reveals one of the most basic of all antinomies in Yeats, the one of love and hate coming together through the figure of Maud Gonne.
The antinomies are taken to frightening extremes in one of Yeats’ most powerful poems, “The Second Coming”. As discussed before the World War and the ensuing political turbulence creates the atmosphere for this poem of frightening images, where the world awaits the apocalypse on the Judgement Day. The basic antinomy is between Yeats’ use of mythological images with contemporary political references. There is a constant juxtaposition of the personal with the public thus erasing their rigid binary. Referring to various archetypal patterns of history Yeats compounds the fear of death with the prophecies of violence. For Yeats, the end of the universe meant the reversal of the gyres and the beast-like figure referred to in the poem will be born instead of Christ, the Saviour and from here on, the poem works by putting forward a series of contradictory pairs. The reference to the two birds right at the beginning links it to the interpenetrating gyres. According to Yeats the gyre which represented the birth of Christ and meekness and innocence in human life is now on its way out, only to be dominated by the violence, evil and thirst for power in the modern age. The old world order symbolising peace and stability indicated by the birst of Christ will be replaced by the terrible new order where “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”. Bethlehem which symbolized humaneness of the Christian era is over and it’s the terrible beast which is hurtling to be born in Bethlehem.
The new world for Yeats will not be born out of a virgin but instead from humanity’s evil deeds and spirit, which was responsible for crucifying the messenger of peace. Philosophically, the gyres represent integration versus disintegration which is reflected in order of the old age and the fragmentation of the modern age. The reference to tides in a Christian context would invoke images of the sea of life but here it becomes the “blood-dimmed tide”, in which innocence drowns. While blood would signify the birth of Christ here the blood becomes a sign of death. The lion represents the bestial antinomy to man generally but here Yeats brings the two together to show just how horrific the new age is. The Son of God would normally be associated with imagery of light and life but this bestial ‘son’ is haunted by birds of prey and followed by shadows. The maternal imagery of the rocking cradle is here compared to a nightmare, thus bringing together antinomies that one would normally not associate, thus underlining the horrendous new age borne out of the World War.
The poem ends on a dire note but Yeats commented that the power to classify can be the power to control and this brings a slight hint of hope into the picture. By powerfully putting his antinomial vision to use Yeats clearly lays the blame for the pathetic state of the twentieth century individual on humans but also somewhere signifies that they themselves have the power to bring about a change in this scheme by constantly referring to a better past juxtaposed with the terrible present.
By 1927, Yeats moves away from the utterly dystopian vision of “The Second Coming” to more metaphysical and complex questions where he explores the dichotomy between art and life. This is best represented in “Sailing to Byzantium”. Byzantium is Constantinople and for Yeats it was the center point of the gyres. In Yeats’ own words “…..early Byzantium may never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers…..spoke to the multitude and few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost all impersonal….absorbed in their subject matter and that vision of a whole people”. Byzantium was the meeting point of the East and the West and also for Yeats held special significance because of its ability to bring conflicting images together. It’s also important to note that even in his personal life Yeats was undergoing a time of conflict-caught between the antinomies of waning physical strength and extremely virile imagination. For Yeats, the symbol of Byzantium stood for unfettered imagination; it was a place of religious significance and yet a centre of great art. In this multiplicity of antinomies, Byzantium stands for perfect unity- flawless sensibility in art along with the mysteries of religion and mysticism. Yeats saw in it a symbol simultaneously looking to the future while rooted in the past.
The poem contains a deep tension between the antinomies of the mortality of the body and the timelessness of art. Right from the beginning Yeats contrasts the vivid images of salmons and birds full of life with human frailty at the passage of time. There is throughout the poem, echoes of the Golden Bird which symbolizes perfection beyond decay. Contrasted with ephemeral human life which withers away, art survives. Yeats’ wish is to leave the real world and become an immortal soul through the beauty of art. The constant denial of the body we see in the poem reflects Yeats’ wish to turn into the golden world of the bird. The image of sailing to leave behind all physical fetters has always represented the search for spirituality. Yeats wants to turn away from the impermanence and chaos of the world to look for answers in the “artifice of eternity”. This can be seen as an antinomy where there is a human desire to sail away from the life of the natural body and seek eternal life in an artificial object. Like the goldsmith’s work, art triumphs over the limitations of the body and attains a higher level for the spirit. In the last stanza Yeats clearly spells out the conflict where man is part of both flesh and soul and the impossibility of choosing one over the other. The bird is permanent but it sings of life: art is, therefore, simply not detachable from life. The poem here achieves almost a circular effect. The speaker of the poem after severing ties from life still sings of time in front of the audience. The antinomy, it seems, cannot be escaped.
The poem ultimately establishes an organic continuity between the world of flesh and spirit, youth and age, life and death, nature and art and ultimately emphasizes the interdependence between nature and art and one would be incomplete without the other. The golden bird acquires new meaning after the last stanza is considered as it becomes clear that no art can exist without imagination. The protagonist who sails away is both an artist and a man and the two cannot be separated since it is experience which feeds into art and vice versa. Ultimately, no man can reject life and find solace in art becomes art celebrates life itself demonstrating creative interdependence. Yeats himself felt that this poem was closest to the 15th phase of the moon when “unity of being is perfectly attained”. The poem is a reconciliation and synthesis of antinomies into the Complex Compound.
“Leda and the Swan”, another Tower poem effectively employs antinomies through which more complex issues of power are discussed. Leda’s rape by Zeus as a swan is discussed as an experience of terror and fear and loss of innocence but also the gaining of the power of insight. The tone of the poem is such that there’s a great flurry of action but it is also a moment of perfect stillness. In the midpoint a communion takes place where the “shudder in the loins” engenders the future. However after this point there is a complete reversal: Zeus has satiated himself but Leda is now in the throes of passion. Her ‘awakening’ is not just sexual but also a realization of her power over the future.
Yeats at the time of writing the poem was extremely frustrated and disillusioned and uses it to create an opposition of ideas. Leda and the swan image becomes an antinomy for power and knowledge. The issue of giving up power for gaining knowledge is raised but not completely answered. The language is of violence overcoming resistance and its almost as though the victim takes on the power of the oppressor. Blood, here becomes the blood of loss of virginity, the blood of birth of great figures like Christ and Helen and the ultimate bloodshed caused. The last line suggests that both Mary and Leda by taking in divinity they attain some amount of mastery. Leda and Mary symbolizes the union of the godhead and the woman and both produce monumental births. The final “shudder” is replete with contradictory meanings of fear of motherhood and creativity itself. Fear and power seems to difficult to separate in this disturbing poem.
Perhaps no other Yeats poem contains perfect images of the unity of contradictions than “Among School Children” where past and present, Yeats and Maud Gonne, age and youth, life and death, and art and reality, come together perfectly. Yeats is able to synthesize his sixty year old self with that of the child he was once, with Maud Gonne, with the children sitting in the classroom. The poem is structured through parallel trinities. Firstly, Yeats himself as an old man, Yeats as the lover, Yeats as the philosopher-poet. Secondly Yeats as a permanent example of human life as a baby, man and scarecrow. Thirdly, the three philosophers who attempted to understand the system of reality- Plato (forms), Aristotle (nature) and Pythagoras (art and music). Fourthly, the presences of passion, piety and affection of the lover, nun and mother respectively which remain changeless. Finally, trinity of nature itself represented through the image of the chestnut tree. All these trios, like the gyres, suggest relationships and interrelationships. It is a compound of all these parts and the poem and the poet cannot be separated. Yeats’ search for double vision finally finds full fruition in this poem.
Several antinomial images are central to understanding the poem’s conflicts. The egg and white imagery of the yolk signify unity but the egg also brings into mind Leda giving birth to the reason for destruction. Similarly when Yeats is in the classroom his mind provides him the reality of the school children in front of him but there is also the mental reality of Maud Gonne’s memories taking him back. There is also the use of the mask when Yeats projects an image where he “smile on all that smile” but his mind is in ferment. Yeats then invokes a mother’s love to connect it with Porphyry’s treatise “The Cave of the Nymphs” and the honey referred to tracks back to the honey in Porphyry where it represents sexual act and pleasure but at the same time destroys the link of the soul with past memories. If the mother, who for Yeats is the ideal symbol of affection, could see further into the future at sixty she might even have hesitated giving birth to a child. He then considers the role of philosophy in understanding reality through Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras but ultimately all their study becomes “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird”. Yeats posits the antinomy of reality versus image and says that you cannot escape reality by looking for something in the world but instead it is the reality of imagination which provides answers, thus moving closer to art. These images for Yeats are those of the passion of the lover, the piety of the nun and the affection of the mother. After failing to understand reality man has to move beyond it. It is imagination which creates presence in mind and body and therefore truth is to be found there.
In the final stanza Yeats ties up all the antimonies introduced earlier through two important images. Before that he compares the physical world of decay and the beautiful world of imagination. He stresses the importance of unity of body and soul and urges people to accept aging as part of the process. The unity of body and soul is what is the truth of art and nature. To symbolize this unity Yeats first uses the famous image of the chestnut tree, which is the symbol of unity of fragility and strength and it’s leaf, blossom and bole are all of equal importance. The reference to music once again emphasizes the unity of the soul and they cannot divide themselves. The entire set of antinomies is united in the beautiful image of the dancer and the dance. When the dancer finds themselves synthesized in the movement of dance, knowing that dancer is temporary but the dancer is permanent. Finally Yeats arrives on his understanding of compound equality through this image of perfect balance. The double vision is what is needed to enjoy life and art in the world.
As we have seen, Yeats’ life and work are intricately connected through the strands of his antinomial vision. The idea that the poet and the poem should be separate was an anathema to Yeats who insisted that “a poet always writes of his personal life in his personal work, whatever it be- remorse, lost love or mere loneliness”. His ultimate goal was to create a vision and the need to bring about a “compound of images which creates a vision of reality”. Yeats, in both his life and poetry demonstrates the need for human unity and togetherness in the onslaught of the chaos.