Entering Yeats scholarship causes you to feel like you’ve simultaneously gained and lost something. What you’ve gained is some enlightened understanding of great art and all the various elements that go into creating it. You also walk away empassioned through Yeats’ passion, and enriched through Yeats’ personal and career-long journey toward enrichment. Since so much is written on him, and he is rightfully considered one of the best poets to have graced the written word, you can intimately follow Yeats’ work, personal life and career and burden yourselves with some of the most difficult and challenging thoughts humans have trapped within the confines of art. And therein lies where you’ve lost something. Reading Yeats is losing your innocence. You can’t read through the poet blissfully thinking that you bring enough intellect to the table to explicate every meaning and understand every metaphysical nugget. Once you think you grasp one element of Yeats, the poet complicates your understanding and makes you not only question the paradox in front of you, but forces you to question the understandings you collected in previous Yeats readings.
What you have in front of you is our best attempt to engage Yeats and provide you some small insight into understanding the poet as you explore his work. Phantasmagoria encapsulates our semester-long journey and is no way an exhaustive study of Yeats, but we do hope to provide a small sample of scholarship, and we do so by focusing on three important categories: I) Yeats’ Career and Work In Irish Nationalism, II) Mask, Artifice and Desire, and III) Yeats’ Consideration of Gender.
I. Yeats’ Career and Work in Irish Nationalism
Matthew Bell explores how Yeats uses Irish folklore and myth to provide inspiration, claiming that during Yeats' early career there was an increasing literary interest in Irish legend and folklore. But not only would Yeats use myth as a way to fuel his work, the poet used his plays and poems to “embrace his native legends while promoting his own sense of nationalism.” To show this, Bell provides close readings of two poems, “The Song of Wandering Aengus” and “To Ireland in the Coming Times.” The former shows Yeats “profound sense of nationalism,” while the latter “emphasizes Irish imagery” that “are used here to disparage the rigid and structured English world view.” Then Bell wraps up his discussion with a detailed of account of Yeats’ use of Irish myth figures Conchobar and Cuchulain to show tensions between aged wisdom and youthful strength.
Maren Sands ventures outside of Yeats’ poetry to focus on another aspect of his career: play writes. Focusing on his interest on creating a Western version of Noh Drama, which many characterize as Japanese Opera, Sands says it was the “energy, atmosphere and style” of the Noh that fascinated Yeats and fueled his work in “ At the Hawks Well” and “ The Death of Cuchulain.” The former “explicitly use(ing) elements such as dance, masks and the supernatural,” which are staples of the Noh drama, and the latter being a dance play that focuses on “the degeneration of a mystical hero.” Sands ends her discussion by noting that many complain about Yeats’ use of Noh saying it wasn’t complete because he didn’t replicate it perfectly. However, Sands says, “Yeats was an artist, not a copier.”
Viviane Vasconcelos shows how Yeats’ work in Abby Theatre “ helped banish the overbearing idea that the English culture was superior to the Irish.” To do this, Yeats focused on ancient Celtic myths and legends to inspire his fellow Irish and help build a strong and uniquely Irish tradition. Focusing on Cuchulain, Vasconcelos argues Yeats “used the legend of Cuchulain as theme to communicate moments of intense feeling where the hero’s plight resonates with the struggles the Irish faced in their day-to-day lives.” And this, while not meaning to be political, helped boost Irish pride and nationalism.
II. Mask, Artiface and Desire
Ryan Campbell tackles Yeats’ use of mood, a concept where emotions dwell in the presence of ideas, and shows how Yeats uses that concept by placing them in a hierarchy that ranges from “a complete lack of ideas” to “to an abundance of completely appropriated ideas.” The goal for an artist (or work of art) is to always find a balance within that spectrum to avoid settling into a belief, which is dangerous for an artist because it interferes with his/her ability to explore various “moods.” To provide a framework for his discussion, Campbell uses artifice to show shifts in “mood,” and does so by exploring “The Mask”, “The Dolls”, “Sailing to Byzantium”, and “Lapis Lazuli.”
Sarah Fallik continues Phantasmagoria’s interest in artifice by showing the dynamic and interdependent relationship between nature and artifice. Setting up her discussion, Fallik shows Yeats’ use of nature to capture to decaying, temporary state of the natural realm, and then she discusses Unity of Being and the concept of Mask, noting that Unity of Being is only possible in the unification of the incarnate and discarnate, and the Mask is the process of one (the incarnate) seeking an object of desire (the discarnate). Unity of Being is also the process by which one can escape the natural realm and transcend into the eternal realm, but both depend on each other for its existence. Fallik then uses this concept of artifice to explore the Byzantium poems and Yeats’ use of a Rose as a symbol for Unity of Being.
Jonathan Splittgerber, like Fallik, explores Yeats use of artifice and mask. Setting up his claim, Splittgerber says “ mask transcends self and artifice transcends eternity,” thus the two “interplay.” Central to the discussion is a focus on how Yeats uses Mask as a construct to how humans find truths, and then through that mask humans use artifice to capture those truths and transcend into eternity. Then Splittgerber explores the Byzantium poems to show the various ways in which mask and artifice interplay, saying, in part, “ Byzantium is dependent on all that is mortal and ephemeral because without these, there would be no need for Byzantium to exist.”
Javier Sepulveda takes on one of Yeats’ primary poetic concepts: desire. Ever the paradox, Yeats shows that while desire is a destructive force, human potential will never be reached without it. Simply, it is desire that fuels the human toward its soul. As an artist, Yeats didn’t focus so much on solving this paradox; rather, Yeats shows how desire impacts certain situations, and Sepulveda reveals both “the positive and negative aspects of desire” in “The Rose for the World”, “Adam’s Curse,” “No Second Troy”, “All Things can Tempt me”, and “Meditations in Time of Civil War.”
Lindy Spore investigates Yeats’ use of Mask and how it relates to the Self. The Mask, which is the use of a character’s emotions to evoke emotion through repression of other another self, impacts the The Self by sustaining a diverse character’s persona. Though, the Self “allots a performance of self-reverie and expression on the stage of both eternity and reality.” Using the “mask” features of Noh Drama as part of her discussion, Spore explains how the various masks are used in “Among School Children” and “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” to show how the poems are infused with emotions and beliefs without appearing to express them.
And wrapping up this section, I, Vincent Adams, look at “Among School Children” and “Meditations in Time of Civil War” to show Yeats’ use of artifice in hopes of building an even greater appreciation for the eternal accomplishment the poet makes in “Sailing to Byzantium.”
III. Yeats’ Consideration of Gender
Shelly Poehler begins Phantasmagoria’s gender consideration by claiming Yeats, “ was a strong advocate for women, struggling to define what form that should take.” Poehler begins by setting up a social context for the time in which Yeats wrote, claiming “Yeats is a progressive male, living in a sexist and oppressive time,” and that “through his words” he had helped “free them from the bonds of oppression.” Also important in Poehler’s discussion is Yeats’ relationship with Maud Gonne and Madame Blavatsky because they helped Yeats understand woman and “articulate their needs” in his writing. Rooting her discussion in the poetry, Poehler argues that “ No Second Troy,” is a “poem about woman’s increasing social power,” “ Michael Robartes” shows a clever woman outwitting what one could classify as a stereotypical male patriarch, and the “Dancer and Crazy Jane” gives a “voice to the taboo field of female sexuality.”
Rudy Bryan ends this brief section, and the journal, by claiming Yeats’ character and poem cycle “Crazy Jane” is unique because it incorporates “woman-ness” by using a mask. He then shows a progression of the Jane poems from how Crazy Jane was created, to how Crazy Jane becomes a sexualized object, and then how Jane began thwarting her objectified state “by portraying herself as a tool against the ideology religion.” Bryan also points out that the Jane poems accomplish this not by showing a conclusive right or wrong answer; rather, “within a series of struggles between woman and man, man (including woman) and God.”
Yeats said in one of his more well-known poems, “The Second Coming,” that “everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” We hope that even though we’ve helped drown out your personal ceremony, that our scholarship has been of some use to you and that you’ll profit from getting lost in the undertow that is William Butler Yeats.
Welcome and Enjoy!