Monday, November 24, 2014

W. B. Yeats tells Stephen Spender of the coming times

It seems slightly incredible that Stephen Spender should have decided to write an autobiography when he was just 40, but he had seen so much and met so many people that there was already plenty to fill it. Among his encounters he recalled a meeting with W. B. Yeats at Lady Ottoline Morrell's London house in 1934.
Yeats, at the age of seventy, had something of the appearance of an overgrown art student, with shaggy, hanging head and a dazed, grey, blind gaze. On the occasion of our first meeting he look at me fixedly and said: "What, young man, do you think of the Sayers?" This took me aback and I murmured that I had not read any. "The Sayers," he repeated, "the Sayers." Lady Ottoline then explained that he was speaking of a certain troupe of speakers who recited poetry in chorus. I knew even less of these than of detective fiction and had to admit so. Lady Ottoline, who had arranged for us to have tea with very few people present, saw that I was a failure. She left the room and telephoned Virginia Woolf to get into a taxi and come round from Tavistock Square at once. Virginia, highly amused, arrived a few minutes later. (World Within World, 179)
If you have to be rescued from WBY, being rescued by Virginia Woolf isn't too bad. (Knowing WBY's taste for detective fiction as distracting entertainment, my first thought was also that Yeats was referring rather archly to Dorothy L. Sayers novels or to her translation of Dante, and I have been unable to discover anything else about these choric reciters.)


Yeats apparently went on to explain to Woolf "that her novel, The Waves, expressed in fiction the idea of pulsations of energy throughout the universe which was common to the modern theories of physicists and to recent discoveries in psychic research." Though Spender himself was out of sympathy with Yeats, particularly his philosophical and esoteric interests, he was interested enough to try to record what Yeats had said. Later on:
he spoke about the political views in the writing of my friends and myself, contrasting it with his own interest in spiritualism. "We are entering," he said, "the political era, dominated by considerations of political necessity which belong to your people. That will be bad enough, but there will be worse to come. For after that there will be an age dominated by psychologists, which will be based on the complete understanding by everyone of all his own motives at every stage of his life. After that, there will be the worst age of all: the age of our people, the spiritualists. That will be a time when the separation of the living from the dead, and the dead from the living, will be completely broken down, and the world of the living will be in full communication with that of the dead.
          Yeats expressed these ideas in a half-prophetic, half-humorous vein, and I may have distorted them in recording them. But certainly he spoke of the three ages to come, of the political, the psychological, and the spiritual: and he affirmed that the last would be "the worst". It is difficult to understand how to take such a prophecy. What is clear though, is that he saw spiritualism as a revolutionary social force as important in its power to influence the world, as politics, psychology, or science. (World Within World, 180–81)
There probably is some distortion or at least confusion over spirituality and spiritualism, but it is clear that Yeats was telling Spender about the last gyres of the current age. In general he breaks a millennium down into twelve gyres, corresponding to the cardinal phases and eight triads of phases. He had speculated about those of the near future at the end of "Dove or Swan" in the 1925 version of A Vision, a section that was cut from the later version. The "political era" that he spoke of to Spender is the culmination of the eleventh gyre, the "moral" triad of phases (23, 24, 25), which he saw already starting in 1925, when he discovered "the first phase—Phase 23—of the last quarter in the certain friends of mine, and in writers, poets and sculptors admired by these friends" (AVA 210). The zeitgeist he discerned in the work and attitudes of Pound, Eliot, Joyce and Pirandello involved engagement with the present moment of actuality and being "absorbed in some technical research to the entire exclusion of the personal dream" (AVA 211), as primary fact comes to dominate the inner truth. It does not exclude imagination but  eliminates the element of inventive fantasy. He then foresaw Phase 24 as offering "peace—perhaps by some generally accepted political or religious action, perhaps by some more profound generalisation" (AVA 212), while Phase 25 might "give new motives for obedience" or "an enthusiastic acceptance of the general will conceived of as a present energy" (AVA 213), which seems to be what he perceived in the politically engaged attitude of Spender and his contemporaries.

The ages of psychology and spirit seem to fall under the twelfth gyre, the "spiritual" triad of phases (26, 27, 28). Except that Phase 26 is spiritual in a strange way, so that psychological might be an appropriate term for the phase described as the Hunchback. One of the dominant characteristics in the description of the phase is the analysis of action and motive, and the way that these are isolated from their contexts:
His own past actions also he must judge as isolated and each in relation to its source; and this source, experienced not as love but as knowledge, will be present in his mind as a terrible unflinching judgment. Hitherto he could say to primary man, “Am I as good as So-and-so?” and when still antithetical he could say, “After all I have not failed in my good intentions taken as a whole”; he could pardon himself; but how pardon where every action is judged alone and no good action can turn judgment from the evil action by its side? He stands in the presence of a terrible blinding light, and would, were that possible, be born as worm or mole. (AVA 112; AVB 179)
This phase of psychology is however related to the psycho-spiritual, as A Vision B clarifies in a paragraph added to the treatment of Phase 26: "From Phase 22 to Phase 25, man is in contact with what is called the physical primary, or physical objective; from Phase 26 and Phase 4, the primary is spiritual. . . . Spiritual, in this connection, may be understood as a reality known by analogy alone. How can we know what depends only on the self? In the first and in the last crescents lunar nature is but a thin veil; the eye is fixed upon the sun and dazzles" (AVB 179). This may be what lies behind the idea that the spiritual gyre will be the worst: lunar nature, the basis of civil life, is overwhelmed by the solar, spiritual side, which is in some ways inimical to life. The Faculties are what produces history, and in human lives these are the phases where "the Faculties 'wear thin' " and "the Principles . . . shine through" (AVB 89).

In Spender's account, Yeats seems to have imagined that the worldly counterpart would be a thinning of the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of those outside incarnate life (whom we commonly call "the dead"). Although this seepage between worlds sounds like the scenario of a new Hollywood film or the latest TV pilot, it is difficult to see why Yeats of all people would be so negative about communication with the dead, having pursued such communication in séances, automatic writing, and "sleeps". It is also hard to discern in what senses it would be the worst, except that it must soon pass into the final phase of the wheel, that of the Fool, where control is gone.
Then with the last gyre must come a desire to be ruled or rather, seeing that desire is all but dead, an adoration of force spiritual or physical, and society as mechanical force be complete at last.
Constrained, arraigned, baffled, bent and unbent
    By those wire-jointed jaws and limbs of wood
Themselves obedient,
    Knowing not evil or good.  (AVA 213)
This vision of the twelfth gyre was written ten years before the meeting with Spender and Yeats had put a lot of thought into the coming years, drafting a number of versions before deciding that he could not see clearly enough. The prophecy of mechanical society, with the lines from "The Double Vision of Michael Robartes" describing Phase 1, seems to foresee a totalitarian world. This in turn seems to be at odds with the age of either spiritualism or spirituality he spoke of in 1934, but may not be so opposed as it seems at first. Halfway between the two, in 1929, Yeats had written:
Europe is changing its philosophy. Some four years ago the Russian Government silenced the mechanists because social dialectic is made impossible if matters is trundled about by some limited force. Certain typical books—Ulysses, Mrs. Virginia Woolf's Waves, Mr. Ezra Pound's Draft of XXX Cantos—suggest a philosophy like that of the Samkara school of ancient India, mental and physical objects alike material, a deluge of experience breaking over us and within us, melting limits whether of line or tint, man no hard bright mirror dawdling by the dry sticks of a hedge, but a swimmer, or rather the waves themselves. In this new literature announced with much else by Balzac in Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu, as in that which it superseded, man in himself is nothing.
          ("Introduction to Fighting the Waves": Wheels and Butterflies 73; Explorations 373; Variorum Plays 568–69)

Perhaps the equality of mental and physical objects in experience, and humanity as both "the waves themselves" and "nothing" in itself, points to a loss of identity and individuality that truly would be the worst imaginable world for the antithetical lyric poet who values the sincerity of his personal truth and experience above the truth of fact and shared experience.

This might even offer a clue to the otherwise baffling and gnomic comments that Spender recorded:
Of all that Yeats said, I remembered most his words about Shakespeare. "In the end," he said, "Shakespeare's mind is terrible." When I asked him to expand this, he said, "The final reality of existence in Shakespeare's poetry is of a terrible kind." (World Within World, 181)


2 comments:

NM said...

Just come across Spender quoting himself, sort of, in his review of James Merrill's Mirabell: Books of Number.

"Heaven Can’t Wait"
Stephen Spender
New York Review of Books, December 21, 1978.

W. B. Yeats during the mid-Thirties remarked that the spiritual forces dominating humanity could be divided into three ages: first, the religious-ritualistic age of Greek antiquity; second, the modern political age through which we are now passing. He said the third and last age would be that of communication with the past in which the world would be directed by the dead. “And that,” he added gloatingly, “will be the worst age of all.”

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