High Talk by W B Yeats
Processions that lack high stilts have nothing that catches the eye.
What if my great-granddad had a pair that were twenty foot high,
And mine were but fifteen foot, no modern stalks upon higher,
Some rogue of the world stole them to patch up a fence or a fire.
Because piebald ponies, led bears, caged lions, make but poor shows,
Because children demand Daddy-long-legs upon his timber toes,
Because women in the upper storeys demand a face at the pane,
That patching old heels they may shriek, I take to chisel and plane.
Malachi Stilt-Jack am I, whatever I learned has run wild,
From collar to collar, from stilt to stilt, from father to child.
All metaphor, Malachi, stilts and all. A barnacle goose
Far up in the stretches of night; night splits and the dawn breaks loose;
I, through the terrible novelty of light, stalk on, stalk on;
Those great sea-horses bare their teeth and laugh at the dawn.
I only recently realised there were people who didn’t like Yeats. Hearing their objections did at least encourage me to look at his work more critically. The complaint is that he is grandiose, a posturer, a blusterer. I can recognise that about him; he plays the part of the Big Poet, and the attitude can grate. I also think that, at a time when we tend to value gritty authenticity in art, we’re suspicious of someone who is such a glamoriser.
With the McCartney sisters just back from the USA, it’s tempting to focus on the dangerous glamour of Yeats’s nationalism. But actually, he brings glamour to every subject he touches. Partially it’s the lusciousness of the language, but it’s the treatment as well. Take Among School Children. Imagine if Larkin had written a poem about visiting a schoolroom as an aging local worthy, and reflecting on lost youth and mortality; perhaps it would have been bleak, perhaps it would have been wryly humorous. But it certainly wouldn’t have managed to reference Plato, Leda, Quattrocento art, Alexander the Great and Pythagoras.
Anyway, I recognise the fairness of the accusation. I generally prefer the sparer late poems to the floweriness of things like The Lake Isle of Innisfree, and I’m sceptical in the face of some of the more outlandish poems, like Sailing to Byzantium. But I think you can be pretty ruthless in stripping out the overly twee and the overly showy, and still be left with more great poems than any other C20th poet.
One of them, I think, is this one. In some ways it is guilty of exactly the showy gesture-making that makes me wary elsewhere – he’s boasting about and justifying his showmanship with striking and dramatic images; images which, perhaps, don’t mean much. But I love it anyway, for the long lines, the spareness of the language, and the striking imagery. Perhaps it’s because the poem’s central metaphor is rooted in reality, rather than some mystical vision of Byzantium, or faerie Ireland. I like the Crazy Jane poems for the same reason – they feel rooted, physical and placed.