During a recent fright when we were escaping our apartment down a ladder, I took two books with me, thinking that perhaps I would need something strong. Happily Yeats's SELECTED POEMS AND FOUR PLAYS was at hand, together with, well, something private. This book, edited by the late M.L. Rosenthal, is an expanded edition of a previous book by Rosenthal that had the same title except it was called, SELECTED POEMS AND TWO PLAYS. This present edition doubles the number of plays it prints in one stroke, adding the very late THE DEATH OF CUCHULAIN as well as the strange, feverish THE WORDS UPON THE WINDOW-PANE. Previously we had only the two plays PURGATORY and CALGARY. Did I say CALGARY? I meant, CALVARY, and neither of them are worth the paper they're printed on. In college my professor used to tell us that Yeats, together with his patron Lady Gregory, invented the Abbey Theater and kept it going by writing plays annually and encouraging their society friends not only to attend but to pledge money in exchange for participation in a community-based theater. However, according to Rosenthal, some of Yeats' plays were distinctly unpopular even with this sudsidized theater and neither the actors nor the audience loved them to death.
As a boy, my dad used to quote Yeats on every occasion and he (Yeats) was a patron saint to many Irishfolk. Today not so much, but as I made my way down the ladder I was glad I had the Yeats book tucked into my pants. He is the epitome of the artist who keeps changing through circumstance, open to new influence, even partial to drugs, for many credit his late flowering to the monkey glands he took in Switzerland to rejuvenate his sex life, the precursor to today's Viagra. In his youth he became a member of a secret band called the Order of the Golden Dawn, and spiritualist interests fueled his poetry and politics both. On his honeymoon he discovered that his wife, Georgie, had mediumistic leanings, and they spent many night holding seances and conversing with the spirits of the dead, all of whom, or so Yeats claimed, had arrived to dispense new metaphors for his poetry. He later wrote up these events in his book A VISION.
Rosenthal was a superb editor who went back and checked all of the original manuscripts and who could distinguish Yeats' handwriting in all its different avatars, and this helped him date the poems to within an inch of their lives. His task was made no easier by Yeats' habit of revision and by his need to provide an income for his sisters, who wound up producing elaborate private, limited printings of much of his work to sell to collectors only at absurdly inflated prices. These books are beautiful but useless, like so many of the romantic Irish flourishes the poet's late work commemorates only to condemn. It is a poetry of questions, which always appeals to young people, those who know the answers. "What's water but the generated soul?" (That one always threw me.) "How can we tell the dancer from the dance?" "Is every modern nation like the tower,/ Half dead at the top?" (Makes you think about our nation, caught up in a senseless war against Iraq.) "Those masterful images because complete/ Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?" "What voice more sweet than hers/ When, young and beautiful,/ She rode to harriers?" Riding to harriers doesn't sound so fabulous now, but we've all got something we look back on and say, everything's been changed, changed utterly.