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The Irish Bard
For Yeats, a poem's form spoke as eloquently as its content.

Reviewed by Anthony Cuda
Sunday, April 20, 2008

OUR SECRET DISCIPLINE

Yeats and Lyric Form

By Helen Vendler

Belknap. 428 pp. $35

It would be difficult to overstate W.B. Yeats's exasperation when he was asked, during an interview in 1931, whether or not poets can actually be said to work. "My poetry costs me endless labor," he responded indignantly. "I sit down to it . . . like the galley-slave to his oars." Especially in his youth, Yeats prided himself on devoting long hours to his poetry, finishing as few as seven or eight lines of verse a week, during which time he would hum the rhythm of the lines constantly, whether alone in his sitting room or with friends at a restaurant. He was known to pause in the midst of a heated conversation, lift his right hand like a conductor and, to the befuddlement of his companions, begin reciting the lines in a low, drawn out chant.

Helen Vendler's new book on Yeats's lyric poetry seems to be the result of a similarly demanding and exhaustive labor. She was a young woman when she published her first study of Yeats, an examination of his philosophical plays that she began as a doctoral student at Harvard. She felt too young at the time, she readily admits, to tackle the poetry of a man whose writing career spanned more than half a century. Since then, her acclaimed reviews of contemporary poetry and her books on Keats, Stevens, Herbert, Shakespeare and others have secured her reputation as the foremost critic of poetry in our generation. Now after more than 40 years, she has raised her formidable right hand and returned to Yeats's seductive, chant-like rhythms to finish what she began.

Vendler's claim is fairly straightforward: We cannot really appreciate Yeats's poems by attending only to what they say. We must also understand the logic behind their style, the reasons that Yeats chose to write a sonnet instead of a ballad, or to make some poems nimble and rhythmic but others halting and dissonant. As Vendler rightly points out, few critics are willing to think about a poet's entire career in these terms, to follow what she calls "the creative impulse and its elaboration" from youthful experiments to mature achievements. And even fewer possess the historical awareness to write persuasively, as Vendler does, about the impressive amplitude and versatility of the lyric form in English.

The Yeatsian sonnet is an especially illuminating case. When we read a rhymed poem of 14 lines, Vendler suggests, we cannot help but form certain expectations associated with its classical practitioners in Renaissance Italy and England, Petrarch and Shakespeare. So every time Yeats chose the sonnet form, he knew that the imposing specter of the Bard was looming over his shoulder, sternly reminding him of what the form should and should not do. For a vehemently nationalist poet writing while Ireland was still under England's rule, this was a politically loaded challenge. Vendler devotes an entire chapter to exploring how Yeats adapted the sonnet, how he gradually learned to make the form his own by modifying it -- truncating lines, for instance, or varying rhyme patterns -- in ways that undercut its English conventions. The mature Yeatsian sonnet, she says, "rebels, in an almost 'Irish' way."

Yeats's choice of poetic form was never, Vendler shows, the product of mere accident. He consistently used one form when he wanted to teach us something, another when he wanted to prophesy and another still when he wanted to create a sense of urgency and forward momentum. So determined was Yeats to find the right formal "body" to capture a poem's spirit, Vendler tells us, "that he was willing to endure anxiety, headaches, indigestion, and insomnia to achieve it."

Unfortunately, a reader who opens Our Secret Discipline expecting another eminently accessible book like her recent Invisible Listeners or Poets Thinking, or who is unfamiliar with the array of classical terms for poetic meter, may well complain of several of these symptoms after finishing the first few chapters.

While many passages in the book achieve that rare synthesis of complexity and eloquence that makes Vendler's books on Keats and Shakespeare so admirably readable, a disappointing number of them do not. She is at her best when she affirms "Yeats's extraordinary capacity to confront a contemporary event, generalize it into abstraction, and deploy his reflections on it through a number of poems and symbolic forms"; the fluidity of her prose conveys both the intricacy and imaginative grace of the creative process. Her chapters on Yeats's "Byzantium" lyrics, his courtly ottava rima poems and his blank verse are all filled with sensitive, compelling insights that will be critical guideposts for years to come.

Other chapters, however, overwhelm us with technical evidence and near-statistical analysis. "I like evidence," Vendler admitted in a recent interview, "and I like exactness." Both of these are rare and welcome terms in a profession dominated by ambiguity and uncertainty. Yet in her admirable zeal to develop a complex mode of interpretation to match Yeats's complex stylistic choices, she forgets that even the most accomplished reader recoils from too much detail, too much evidence and too much technical language. For example, in one of the book's many appendices, we find a poem about one of Yeats's early mentors identified like this: " 'Mohini Chatterjee' [ abab x 2 ¾ ] + [ abab x 4 ¼ ] (m)." Vendler's key offers the following explanation: "[ abab x a number] = number of run-on quatrains before stanza break ( abab indicates the presence of quatrain-structure, not the actual rhymes)"; "(m) = masculine rhyme"; "When a fractional number follows abab (e.g., abab x 11¼), it denotes that there is a stanza break following the first line of the twelfth quatrain." Even the appendix -- the ideal, out-of-the way place for indigestible detail -- groans under the weight of her calculations.

Vendler too frequently allows her desire to classify and catalogue to blunt her otherwise keen sense of narrative and pacing. While her book on Keats examined each of the poet's great odes with patient and concentrated attention, Our Secret Discipline is divided according to the different verse forms that Yeats used repeatedly throughout his life, which means that Vendler is forced to skip and jump through his entire career in each chapter. And the jostled, disorienting effect of this decision on the book's pace is intensified by her recent penchant for almost obsessive parentheses and qualification, as if she really were attempting to mimic Yeats's own charming yet maddeningly distracting habit of interrupting conversation to intone his latest rhythmic discovery.

Vendler has always been the most approachable of critics. Like any good artist, she usually makes an extremely complex and difficult task look accessible and inviting. Perhaps she takes a valuable cue from one of her longtime favorite writers, the French poet and essayist Paul Valéry, who says that the ideal writer must be a "cool scientist" in the service of a subtle dreamer. But in Our Secret Discipline, the dreamer has grown exceedingly subtle and the scientist, intemperately cold.

It may be unfair to admit that I would greet an identical book from an unknown critic with applause and admiration. But from a veteran like Vendler, whose graceful, succinct prose has been a model of critical rigor and honesty for decades, I admit that I had wished for more. Or less. ·

Anthony Cuda is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

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