Arts & Culture

Puzzling through Yeats with Helen Vendler

4 min read

Helen Vendler knows a thing or two about William Butler Yeats. She has authored three books on the Irish poet’s work, including her most recent volume, “Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form,” published in 2007.

Yet, like any reader, she still faces challenges when analyzing his poetry. Forms can be confusing, word choices ambiguous, imagery unusual. So how does Vendler, A. Kingsley Porter University Professor in the Department of English and American Literature and Language, work through a poem to find meaning? The public was privy to her analytical process in a master class sponsored by the Humanities Center last Wednesday (Oct. 29).

The focus of the class — the first in a new series sponsored by the Humanities Center — was Yeats’ poem “Vacillation.” Faculty, staff, graduate students, community members, and several undergraduates filled the Thompson Room at the Barker Center well before Vendler arrived.

Vendler was introduced by Homi Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities and director of the Humanities Center.

“Unlike our other programs, which take long historical views or trace large schematic parts,” he said, “this is an occasion to celebrate a meditative moment of genius … slowly unfolding in the precise and passionate readings of a gifted interpreter. We are truly fortunate to have Professor Helen Vendler with us to inaugurate our master class series.”

After reading through the poem, Vendler began her discussion by listing the “puzzles,” or interpretive challenges, the poem presented.

“I couldn’t understand many, many things, and in fact I have a list of them,” she said, before outlining the difficulties for the audience. Vendler cited the unusual sequence of form, the “anomalous beginning,” and the surprisingly jocular ending (most of the stanzas focus on serious subjects) as a few of the poem’s many puzzles.

“Another puzzle to me is that there is absolutely nothing in it about being Irish … nothing about Irish myths, topicality, people, vignettes, or historical occasions that feature so prominently in his other poems,” she said. “That is odd for a poet so wedded to his nation.”

For that reason, Vendler said, the poem is often left out of Yeats biographies. “What is a biographer to make of this poem if he wants to fold it into the biography of the poet?” she asked. “This is a poem where he takes off everything green.”

Vendler also noted that Yeats’ personal writings offer scant interpretive assistance.

“Yeats will say, ‘I have just written a little poem’ and it will turn out to be ‘Wild Swans at Coole,’” joked Vendler, referring to one of the poet’s best-known works.

Yeats did write several drafts of “Vacillation,” however, and Vendler turned to excerpts from those versions for guidance as she led the audience through a section-by-section analysis. She also drew on her knowledge of his other works, as well as his personal philosophies, to illuminate many of Yeats’ poetic choices.

The poem’s first section closes with the question “What is joy?” and Vendler used this inquiry to inform her analysis of subsequent sections.

Between extremities
Man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath,
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night;
The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?

As she worked through the lines, which touch on everything from Welsh mythological imagery to Greek drama to Chinese emperors, Vendler noted that Yeats demonstrated his own vacillating opinions on the nature of life.

“Sometimes he viewed life as a tragedy and sometimes as a comedy,” she said. “The poem equivocates.”

At the end of the discussion, Vendler presented her overarching analysis.

“I come down to asking of this poem whether it answers the question, ‘What is joy?’ We see all of the false answers in the course of the poem: getting a wife, getting gold, religion, salvation, and more,” she said.

“But the only thing that stands up, that answers the question, is in the third section,” Vendler continued, referring to a part where the poet refers to testing one’s works of “intellect or faith” before arriving “proud, open-eyed, and laughing” at the tomb.

“For the poet, creativity is the way to face death,” Vendler said. “If you can say, ‘I am proud, I am happy that I did all this. … these works have stood inspection and I am proud I made them,’ then you can come to your tomb in a way that makes life full of joy.”