The Folly of Being Fourteen Lines

William Butler Yeats & the Wild Irish Sonnet

Mike Alexander

Up to his fourth book, In the Seven Woods (1904), Yeats gravitated between lengthy narrative ballads & scant lyrics, sometimes only six or seven lines in total. His clear preference for the quatrain as his structural unit of choice made the sonnet an unlikely target; once he'd passed twelve lines, he was sure to go for sixteen. Besides, in youth, he had modeled his shape on the loose metrics of folk song, not the scholarly pentameter. He relied heavily on ear, not iambic. But having cultivated the acquaintance of poets like Ernest Dowson & Lionel Johnson of the Rhymers' Club in the last years of the nineteenth century, & with a new century forcing reassessment on everyone, Yeats began to broaden his field.

The title poem is a fourteener, not rhymed, but following the five-beat pattern. "I have heard the pigeons of the seven woods..." either scans as anapest-iamb-iamb-iamb-iamb or as trochee-trochee-trochee-anapest-iamb, if it scans at all. Only the final line, "a cloudy quiver over Pairc-na-lee," runs in traditional iambic pentameter. Nature presents itself, as in the Lake Isle of Innisfree, a source of spiritual fuel, more mystical than Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey. "Quiet / wanders laughing & eating her wild heart / among pigeons & bees, while that Great Archer / . . . but awaits his hour to shoot." Somehow this thought comforts the poet. He's taken some elements of the sonnet, & made something his own, halfway between the Lake Isle & the Second Coming, traditional enough to show his craft, but archly individual. It was August 1902 when he penned this fourteener, & perhaps he was hedging his bets as to which way the century would go.

Two other fourteeners, "The Folly of Being Comforted" & "Never Give All the Heart," appear in the same book, both rhyming in couplets (aabbccddeeffgg). The first follows a regular iambic throb, the extra unaccented syllables being well within the convention of ellision (the way two unaccented syllables can sometimes be drawled together.) The second keeps to tetrameter. Both are imitation Ronsard (1524-85), as were many of his more popular poems to this point - "When You Are Old," "He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead," etc. Yeats could not be taking Ronsard, one of the most prolific sonneteers of the Renaissance, as worthy of imitation, without cultivating a desire to master the sonnet himself. He too has an impossible love, the tempestuous Maud Gonne. He too couches his complaints in rhetorical devices. The Beloved's name goes unspecified. In fact, all the characters go nameless. "One who is ever kind said yesterday / 'Your well-beloved's hair has threads of grey / & little shadows come about her eyes." But his heart protests. He will refuse any comfort, so long as the woman of his dreams refuses him. Yeats exposes his familiarity with the traditional role of unrequited love in the sonnet. As someone said, the poet seems to say "pity my misfortune, but admire my skill." We are meant to be aware of the artifice & the very nature anguish underneath, all at once. As Yeats ends the second poem, "He that made this knows all the cost / for he gave all his heart & lost."

His next sonnet finally takes a more familiar form. "At the Abbey Theatre," from his next book, The Green Helmet & Other Poems (1910), follows a standard Shakespearean rhyme scheme, & despite a Gaelic name in its first line, keeps to perfectly regimental IP. He even admits in a subtitle that he is imitating another of Ronsard's sonnets, "Tyard, on me blasmoit, à mon commencement." Here, however, the sonnet is used to satirize the difficulty Yeats & his fellow writers have had in defending themselves from the demands of their audience. "When we are light & airy hundreds say / that if we hold that flight they'll leave the place, / while those same hundred mock another day / because we have made our art of common things." The strict meter & reliance on a poetic model have forced Yeats into stilted phrasing & difficult constructions. Even past masters of poetic form can succumb to the charge which falls on many New Formalists today, that the poem loses itself in formal concerns. "You've dandled them, & fed them from the book / & know them to the bone; impart to us - / we'll keep the secret - a new trick to please..." It doesn't really sound like Yeats. He has yet to make the sonnet form his own.

He doesn't make his next attempt until the last poem of the subsequent collection, Responsibilities (1914). At this juncture, Yeats vows to speak in his own voice, to address political & personal disappointments, to abandon the high mythologizing that was by now expected of him. This was a period of intense change for him. He was having an affair, his first sexual experience, with a married woman. His attempt to organize a Celtic Renaissance had ended in resignation & recriminations. His branch of the Order of the Golden Dawn had disbanded. It was time to redirect his poetry, & in his book's penultimate poem, "A Coat," he renounced his old "embroidery" in favor of "walking naked." Nevertheless, the poem that follows this declaration is more bookish than any that went before. "While I, from that reed-throated whisperer, / who comes at need, although not now as once / a clear articulation in the air / but inwardly, surmise companions / beyond the fling of the dull ass's hoof..." This tangle of modifiers stuck as barnacles to the belly of a dependent clause boils down to this -- he puts his faith in an imagined readership worthy of his writing, despite the notoriety that up to now has dragged his name through the streets. It ends in a particularly crude image: "all my precious things / are as a post the passing dogs defile." This vehemence is the only nakedness in evidence. The sonnet is one continuous sentence, a craftsman's ideal since Milton. The rhymes ride aslant, as if knocked out of kilter by his (Miltonic) rage. No more a lover's sonneteer, Yeats is taking a new master. He significantly lifts several images & rhymes from an epilogue to a play by Ben Johnson. But the reader has to wrestle a Gordian knot of diction & reference to get at the point. One has to cut it to pieces, as clever & melodious as it is; all that's left is a minor poem of pique.

Yeats backs off in The Wild Swans at Coole (1919). The two fourteeners there, "The Dawn" & "Presences," are free-hand lyrics with lines of uneven length, successful in creating an atmosphere of their own, but far from sonnet-directed. His rhymes come out of sequence. The tone is one of mystical reverie. "I would be - for no knowledge is worth a straw - / ignorant & wanton as the dawn." Three women, fates or graces, appear to him in a vision, having read "all I have rhymed of that monstrous thing / returned & yet unrequited love." They saw nothing at all, however, about his writing. They stand in silence before him, as if their silence spoke volumes more than all his poetry. A crafted sonnet, in this state of mind, would contradict Yeats' quest to become the Fool, to eradicate his ego from the presentation of his visions. He would prefer to be plain spoken, even artless, if he could do justice to his mystical purposes. In this book & the next, Yeats succeeds in dreaming out loud, & his greatest poems, such as "The Second Coming" result. He is speaking with spirits at this point, not counting syllables.

It takes another change in Yeats' work to bring him back to the sonnet. The Tower (1928) shows the mystic coming back to look at the world around him. He takes stock of what he's seen, stirs the pot of imagery, & devotes his attentions once again to the rag & bone-shop of rhyme & meter. Here along with "Sailing to Byzantium" & "Among School Children," he drops us his "Leda & the Swan." Physical in its depiction of the action, his octave begins decisively. "A sudden blow." A swan we know to be but a guise of Zeus descends on us as "the great wings," & we catch glimpses of his dark web & his beak. We are "the staggering girl," all breast & nape. This is rape with little of euphemism to gloss it over. Two rhetorical questions pursue this opening, adding "feathered glory" & "that white rush" to the god's portrait, & only "vague fingers" & "loosening thighs" to balance out the human side of the equation. For a moment, Yeats sounds like a Greek chorus, a helpless bystander at the climactic union of visible & invisible, the material & the divine. Imagine what this image meant to Yeats, a practitioner of ceremonial magic whose life-long goal was initiation, the Knowledge & Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel.

The sestet, a broken mirror of the octave, gives us the denouement that follows the rape of Leda - the birth of Helen & Clytemnestra, the Trojan war, the assassination of Agamemnon, the Orestia... a chain of sacrifices disguised as marriage, or are they marriages disguised as sacrifice? Yeats hits us again with a last question. "Being so caught up / so mastered by the brute blood of the air / did she put on his knowledge with his power / before the indifferent beak could let her drop?" He asks with more than kindly interest if this lightning-strike epiphany results in knowledge & power. To an initiate, the answer is not rhetorical. The references not a mere display of his reading. Yes, another poet might have gone with greater detail into the aftermath, fleshing the story out to help those readers unfamiliar with the background mythos. On the other hand, Yeats has used several of these images elsewhere. Taken in context with the Wild Swans at Coole, the "Ledean image" in "Among School-Children," or even the earlier "No Second Helen," the events ought to survive this compression. Besides, it gives his poem an oracular flavor. The rhymes are simple, accessible, & yet new. The diction fits intrinsically with the action. The poem coheres as a sonnet should, a macrocosm in a microcosm. On this poem, the rest of Yeats' poetry turns as the constellated stars turn about Polaris.

"Crazy Jane Reproved" from his next book, The Winding Stair & Other Poems (1933), clocks in at fourteen lines, as if by accident. Another case of Zeus' wooing gets a nod, but only as a bit of mockery ("Great Europa played the fool / that changed a lover for a bull / fol de rol, fol de rol.") The nonsense refrain breaks the poem in half (six & one, six & one), & the lines are stubby. No sonnet here. Another lyric, "Parting," part seven of "A Woman Young & Old," plays out a Romeo & Juliet daybreak scene in fourteen lines of five to six syllables each. At this point, Yeats is working quickly, playfully, with elements repeated from the other sections of a sequence, not an individual sonnet. If it was intended as a sonnet, at all, it's a throwaway. Likewise, "Sweet Dancer"& "A Crazed Girl" from New Poems (1938) fail to tie in with the poet's larger intentions, although the last does echo "beautiful lofty things," the title of the poem that appears before it in the book's order.

Yeats' last serious attempt at the sonnet seems to be "Meru." from Parnell's Funeral & Other Poems (1935). Again, it appears as the last poem in the book, summing up what has preceded it. Civilization is an illusion. The thinking man rejects its allures, knowing that with the dawn "his glory & his monuments are gone." It's Ozymandias again, or at any rate, Yeats' own "Lapis Lazuli." The rhymes repeat rhymes he's used before, (dawn, gone, peace, cease,) & in some places, the rhymes don't work at all, (century, reality.) Some verbs seem misapplied. "Civilization is hooped together." Hooped? "Ravening, raging, & uprooting" seems over-the-top. Winter's buffeting of the naked holy men atop the holy mountain strains to make a scene he's used before seem dire & extreme. It falls short. Worst of all, the poet asks us to take this renunciation of worldly achievement on the weight of stock imagery. Yeats touched all the bases as far as rhyme & meter, but he hadn't pushed himself to pull any new rabbits out of the old hat. He made no more forays into sonnet territory, even though his other late poems remain sharp & often challenging even today. The fourteener never was his preference, not for serious work. At least he gave us one, as cold & passionate as the swan.

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