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The Juxtaposition of Yeats’ Mask and the Self

by Lindy Spore

            One of the purposes of actors is to perform an act and become someone or something with whom the audience can relate to or connect with. It is not so much the hiding of their true selves, but rather the purpose is to allow a different persona, personality and character to become a reality to view. It is an authentic performance—true with emotions and with no intent in hiding—of the individual’s real self presented on stage. However, in order to properly understand the presence and the usage of the Mask and the Self, contextual insight is necessary to explain the purpose of both, and how they are related to one another. The purpose of both is valuable, and the structure of one without the other would eliminate a complete scope of William Butler Yeats’ purpose for both, for both the Mask and the Self form a dichotomy. As the Mask represents the indulgence of a character’s robust emotions in order to evoke emotion through repression of other another self, the Self represents not only an individual’s trek throughout life, but the continual process throughout life which the Self endures, and which induces growth and reflection on the past. The Self is affected by the Mask and its identity, for as it sustains a diverse character’s persona, the evolution of a diverse identity is instigated. Ultimately, the identity of the Self in contrast to the purpose of the Mask allots a performance of self-reverie and expression on the stage of both eternity and reality. Interestingly, although Yeats was intrigued with the occult and symbolism within literature, the “idea of symbolism as a dramatic device to replace more conventional character development did not occur to him before his introduction to Japanese Noh” (Vol. X, 119). The “dramatic device” is seen in various allusions not only in Yeats’ plays, but as well as his poetry, influenced by the Noh Drama and by the Rhymers. The following will discuss the connection between the Mask and the Self, how each are inter-related, what each mean in a selection of Yeats’ poems, and the importance of the Mask as it affects the Self.

            In spite of the Western societal tradition assuming a mask to mean disguising true emotions, we study Yeats’ Mask as something very different. On the contrary, David Young explains in relation to the poem Among School Children. Young provides an example of masking the true self; while putting on a different mask provides an illusion for the audience as well as for Yeats. He states, “…The smiling public man can maintain his façade, masking his wild heart and in the process reflecting the poet who stands outside the poem” (Young, 90). This is gathered from the lines: “And thereupon my heart is driven wild: / She stands before me as a living child.” Although the event of being face to face with youth and innocence—that which he knows no longer obtains—is difficult at the time, he abstains from any oppressive nature, shunning depression with a mask as he smiles. It is the mask of delusion, the mask that is worn for deception. This, however, is not the function of Yeats’ Mask. Indeed, it may be true this mask, evidenced in Among School Children, is one that personifies deception, and this is a diverse impression; yet, it is not the Mask which we are magnifying further at hand. A. Norman Jeffares writes, quoting Yeats: “His theory of the Mask is based upon antithesis in character, upon the differences between a natural and a chosen personality, upon contrariety” (Jeffares, 42). Yeats’ theory is that true identity is aroused in the character and in the audience through poetic drama, which Yeats says, is through “’the deliberate creation of a great mask,’ not on the passive nature of contemporary culture or on self-realization” (Jeffares, 42).

            The Noh Drama played an influential role in the shaping of Yeats’ style of writing. Usually, dramas utilize scenic locality and setting. However, Yeats believed the following statement held much weight in the power of theatre and the arts:

A scene should never be complete in itself, ‘should never mean anything to the imagination until the actor is in front of it.’ The audience’s attention, therefore, is directed toward the actor, and the actor is free to follow his own instincts; he loses all consciousness of individual character and becomes a medium, a clear transparent vessel through which the emotion that is embodied in words or in moments of passion can pass. (O’Driscoll and Reynolds, 12, 13)

            From the Noh Drama, Yeats grasped the profound inspiration an actor has over his audience, in that it is not so much what the character says, but the images produced through imagery and his gestures. He saw reigning supremacy in the special use of “images which are embedded in the poetry of the play, most often in the chorus, rather than the setting” (Vol. X, 117). The implementation of the character and the language is also incorporated in Yeats’ style of writing to relay a provocative message, again considering the repression of his characters’ feelings that true emotion is evoked. In this submersion of emotions, the audience is most arrested and capable of connecting with the emotions of the characters.

            Regarding the Self and the progression of the course of the ever-evolving Self, Yeats found particular interest in the Rhymers. With similar influence that the Noh Drama had on Yeats, the Rhymers imparted a new view on writing. A group of high-strung, eccentric actors, the Rhymers’ focal point was their belief in self-expression with a lyrical influence. They resisted the “strident, marching rhythms of the Victorians, which…[they]…believed, straitjacketed emotion and shattered the delicate impulses of the artist” (O’Driscoll and Reynolds, 9). It was the sanctity of their true expressions that was freed when there was no hesitation of emitting the internal and the external Self. Life includes experimentation, and experimentation generally entails fear and the discoveries of one’s self, which Yeats calls “the doubt of discovery” (O’Driscoll and Reynolds, 9). The Rhymers fashioned “out of the struggles in their own soul an art that was…[not]…self-indulgent, but a compulsive cry….[They] presented…a mask of serene accomplishment that gave no betrayal…of the emotions tormenting their troubled hearts” (O’Driscoll and Reynolds, 10). Emotion was within and they brought it to life for the vision of other to partake. It was their evidence of life, the process of change, their life-journal which was provided for the indulgence of an audience. “Art [became] for them [an expression] of a man as he passes through nature to eternity” (O’Driscoll and Reynolds, 5). As they stepped from the present time of conformity and the temporal, the Rhymers entered into a world of impression that was not limited to simplicity, but was beneficial to them grasping their pains, and influencing their audience as well.

            While the Rhymers relayed boisterous images before their audiences, opposition continues to maintain the essence of the Mask, providing an alteration of the Self. There is an influence of the incarnation of the Self and the Mask—pregnant yet not boasting with emotions—and it is the amalgamation of both that arrests beauty. Performance in order to magnify both does not cover truth, and is not an imitation. The talent is betrothed to the character to be his indulgence, his prerogative, for this is the power behind the Mask, essentially bestowing unto the character and the audience the choice of who they wish to be. Yeats says, “There is a relation between discipline and the theatrical sense. If we cannot imagine ourselves as different from what we are and try to assume that second self we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves, though we may accept one from others” (Yeats, 354). In addition,

…Art [is] to reign supreme in a reconciliation of poetry, gesture, and scene. This reconciliation [is] to be historic because, as Yeats [says], ‘the two great energies of the world that in Shakespeare’s day penetrated each other’ [have] fallen apart. …The modern theatre [has] to prepare for the eventual fusion of “those energies that would free the arts from imitation” and “ally acting to decoration and to the dance. (Vol. VII, 42)

            “There are two Masks: ‘There is a form of Mask…that comes from life and is fated, [and] there is a form that is chosen’” (Kuch, 47). Years of studying folklore and the occult encouraged Yeats’ position that the Self is evoked from another counterpart, which is the Mask. Upon discovering the individual’s theatrical and dramatic Mask which instantaneously brings “’occasion for a sudden unleashing of energy,’ there must be ‘a crisis that joins that buried self for certain moments to [the] trivial daily mind’” [stated by Yeats] (Kuch, 47). In this, freedom is obtained. Having been once confined, the writer or the actor who has grasped the meaning and the power of his Mask may now consider and become who he wishes to be. In response to this, Yeats says,

…as I look backward upon my own writing, I take pleasure alone in those verses where it seems to me I have found something hard and cold, some articulation of the Image which is the opposite of all that I am in my daily life, and all that my country is; yet man or nation can no more make this Mask or Image than the seed can be made by the soil into which it is cast. (Yeats, 305)

            It is something that must come naturally as the Self is presented to the audience; it is the essence of drama and theatre arts. It is “where the test of an idea is not its significance outside poem or play, but its relevance to the speaker’s dramatic situation” (Ellmann, 84). The audience views the dramatization as a pose of that which is opposite, while the performer, or the poser, performs the opposite of what he/she has been accustomed to and what they have been taught throughout their lifetime. As Kuch writes, quoting Yeats, “The Mask is a preternatural self, its ‘lineaments permit the expression of all [that] man most lacks, and…dread[s]…’ (Kuch, 47). In other words, it is the opposite which draws forth the most powerful emotion(s), the character who is more unlikely to be revealed. Further stated, “it is the juxtaposition and paradoxical nature of these images that give them their dramatic power” (Vol. X, 118). Yeats formulates a sound comment in The Trembling of the Veil: “…what I have called ‘the Mask’ is an emotional antithesis to all that comes out of their internal nature” (Yeats, 297). This antithesis is what illustrates the Self within and externalizes it, perpetuating emotion.

            Looking further into the separation of the Self and the Mask of the person, we search the meaning of the self divided. One of Yeats’ initial theories was the “bi-furcated self—a theory that…is divided, and that a type of unity could be achieved by pitting one self against the other or by employing one self to interrogate the other” (Kuch, 43). A Dialogue of Self and Soul and Among School Children are examples of two opposing characters conversing, putting into play one of Yeats’ theories which was the division of the Self and a person. For example, Webster states, A Dialogue of Self and Soul entails “the result of this blessed moment of inspiration…[which] reflects a strong self, and signifies Yeats’ triumph over the threats he so…depicts” (Webster, 213). This can be noted in the final line of the Among School Children: “How can we know the dancer from the dance” (Yeats, 105)? They are separable because a dancer does not always dance, and a dance is a dance without the presence of a dancer. However, the importance of how they are connected is in the association we make between the Mask and the Self’s process of chance, for,

…the transformation whereby beauty is turned from its own despair into a ‘body swayed to music’; and ‘blear-eyed wisdom’ becomes ‘a brightening glance;’ and labour, blossoming, and dancing are all caught up in glorification of process is responsible for the exhilaration with which the poem closes. (Young, 95)

            This is the battle needing completion, not only with who we are, the process our selves must take for change to occur, but also to be the “dancer” the performer who provides a view of what could be there, of the passion within. It is “a vision of wholeness in which art and the artist, changelessness and change, natural and supernatural, time and eternity reveal an interdependency, a common source, that is both paradoxical and convincing” (Young, 95). Furthermore, in relation to the divided self, we detect the choice of rebirth and birth. In the poem, a strong sense of self stands in opposition to threats of dissolution posed both by death and by aspects of life. “The Soul of the poem…[objective man]…represents Yeats’ fears, probably intensified by his illness, or loss of identity and passivity” (Webster, 207). We see the Soul addressing the Self: “Fix every wandering thought upon / That quarter where all thought is done: / Who can distinguish darkness from the soul” (Yeats, 110)? Yeats incorporated intense imagery with metaphors in his poetry and plays, which relay strong messages that support the usage of the Mask with relation to the Self, and Ellmann imparts, “[try] to live up to some image of desirable life” (Ellmann, 95). For example, The Stare’s Nest by My Window is rich with emotion “masked” by a metaphorical outlet. Yeats implements a figure such as a bird’s nest that has been abandoned where honeybees build their home. The symbolism of the abandoned nest is intent on signifying Yeats’ head and mind as he reflects on the past and the lost youth. His intellect staged as the nest, “houses the staring gaze of the observant and visionary poet, but that last place of retreat also seems in danger of becoming ‘some marvelous empty sea-shell’ instead of a source of creativity…” (Young, 38).

            Brenda S. Webster states, “Yeats’ middle years…[were]…characterized by an absorption in mask and persona,” (Webster, 3) and we are able to detect this evidence in his writings. The juxtaposition of the Self and the Mask is prototypical to the discovery and the delivery of wholeness. The integration of the personality, persona, and the Mask was “the energy that emanates not merely from the brain, imagination, or sensations, but from the whole man” (O’Driscoll and Reynolds, 5). His work elevates the energies of the body and the mind, leading to a freedom from fear of expression. Likewise, the art of theatre is integrated with real life which sways the audience or reader to seek his own inner selves. O’Driscoll and Reynolds confirm, “Artists, indeed all human beings, are drawn, either unconsciously or consciously, to the external scene that corresponds to their inner emotions” (O’Driscoll and Reynolds, 9). A compelling factor for powerful expression is being faced with opposition, which instigates change and growth. In the struggle which induces change—whether intrinsic or extrinsic—there is the necessity for an active battle to find resolution. Yet, despite the “conflict ‘between the self and the persona imposed images of the self,’ Yeats [does] not believe that a person need passively accept being ‘knit with his doom’ [stated by Yeats] (Kuch, 47). He believes that with each emotion for challenge, there is a more potent element supplanted in the characters/individuals which induce success. Yeats seeks for the self-expression which comes from the battle of the character’s internal and external selves, and the pressures which shapes the individual. There is a choice, however, to accept the battle, for as Yeats says, “A person could oppose the tyranny of his fated self or Mask by consciously assuming a Mask or Masks that were the opposite of all that he was” (Kuch, 47). In doing so, identity is arrested by both the character and by the audience as well, and a relationship between the Self and the Mask is formed through expression from the struggle—although subdued. There is value to “die every day [it] lives, be reborn…[to fight for]…that self opposite of all that he has named ‘himself’” (Kuch, 47). Webster states, “Mask-wearing is expressed by active striving, and through his heroes and beasts Yeats …increased his capacity to replay emotional traumas with himself in control, to turn passive suffering into active mastery” (Webster, 3). With little perfunctory intent, the actor claims the living entity of his stage presence. It is his/her adopted Mask.

            The correlation between the influence of Noh Drama on Yeats’ life, and the impressions left on his own writings is certainly remarkable, and one could perhaps say his works were likely therapeutic with the use of imagery. Webster states, “In old age…Yeats’ earlier fears…and loss of integrity were reawakened by declining potency and approaching death” (Webster, 3). Where once he was able to deliver a message he believed in, it now was no longer sufficient in alleviating his fears. Thus, Yeats re-routed his views techniques. Stated by Webster:

In these late poems he uses them in a more inclusive way to hold intact his body image. With the help of these objects he can entertain fantasies of fusion and loss of self and come to terms with concomitant feelings of anger and hostility. Throughout these poems, Yeats attempts to make death less fearful by regarding it and the afterlife it leads to as an extension of artistic creation. In the artifice of eternity, the dead self is recreated in a more beautiful and permanent form, as Yeats’s golden bird. (Webster, 3)

            Sailing to Byzantium and Byzantium are two poems that aptly illustrate Yeats’ intent to disguise emotions and also exemplify a hidden self during the procession of change. Of a man, Yeats, who seeks for a perfect state beyond what is ephemeral, Sailing to Byzantium draws upon Yeats’ exterior profession and his interior emotions. He seeks wisdom and those who have mastery. David Young states, “…In Sailing to Byzantium…[the speaker]…was out in search of ‘sages’ who could be ‘singing masters’…” (Young, 28). Sailing is the battle and the struggle which the character of the poem sets out upon; it is what takes him to the level of new life and a new persona. Yeats states, in correlation to this,

These changes of state, or this gradually enlarging consciousness, is the self-realization of modern culture. I think the motives of tragedy are connected more with these changes of state than with action…. [It is this] tragic ecstasy [of] some realization or fulfillment of the soul in itself…[that is] like an overflowing well? Is not that what we mean by beauty? (Yeats, 356)

            In this statement, there is reassurance for change and evolution, which is what Young says of Byzantium, that he seeks to create his soul. He further says that it is at the “singing school” where education occurs, “and the whole process of reconciliation shifts from the drama of escape through a faraway holy city to a gradual merging with local nature. (Young, 28)

            O’Driscoll and Reynolds sum up the purpose and the usage of Yeats’ Mask and Self when they state,

Even though the curtain is about to fall on a play, as a curtain inevitably falls on life; even though some of the actors must die on the stage, they do not break up their lines and weep, but accept the roles in which they have been cast, and in that acceptance retain their dignity as actors and human beings. (O’Driscoll and Reynolds, 15)

Life and emotions are restrained before the audience, contained and pressurized. The Self experiences progression with this restraint, not only by the performer, but as well as the audience, for the pressure maintained by the actor, and that of the writer produces evolution of their selves. In struggle is germination of the self and the trek to discover the Self of each individual, for

Labour is blossoming or dancing where

The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,

Nor beauty born out of its own despair,

Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of a midnight oil.

(Yeats, 103)

            Yeats writes, “’You can be popular by writing on any popular theme…but the pure artist has to wait, because he has nothing to offer people but [a] portion of his own soul’” (O’Driscoll and Reynolds, 39). Essentially, a poem may be infused with emotions and beliefs; however, as Ellmann writes, should not appear to be written to express such emotions and beliefs. He continues saying, “[poems] must be fused…where their function as beliefs is lost and unimportant” (Ellmann, 82). In the presence of emotion and sentiment, there is logic and rationale, and with the combination of the two, the Mask exudes a generating power of the Self.



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