Some Penguin Classics would infuriate their authors, and that’s almost always a good thing – certainly so in the case of an absolutely lovely and subtly subversive new volume called When You Are Old: Early Poems, Plays, and Fairy Tales by W. B. Yeats, edited by a Yeats scholar who actually has Yeatsian name: Rob Doggett.
Doggett here very rightly reminds is that “we live in the shadow of Yeats the literary critic, who, in his Autobiographies (1916-1935) and extensive critical writings, did more than perhaps any other modern author to define how future readers should approach his works.” No perhaps about it: the older, snowy-faced, slope-eyed Yeats hated his much younger self, the handsome, lively firebrand who so quickly and deeply impressed a Victorian and Edwardian audience that read far more poetry than the modern era and read it more earnestly and better than all but a handful of readers can do today. It’s Doggett’s aim – here splendidly achieved – to give us “a very different Yeats” from that stooped taoiseach of later years:
Not here the bitter elitist railing against the middle classes during the 1910s or the self-assured high modernist of his late phase, but the young aesthete who dressed as a dandy, founded literary societies in Dublin and London, collected Irish folklore, penned dramatic works about ancient Ireland and the fairies, dabbled in magic, and wrote beautiful poems for Maud Gonne – the Yeats that people first came to know, that some loved, and that nearly all admired.
Seamus Heaney once wrote that it was the endeavor of that older Yeats “not only to create an Irish literature independent of the imperial, empirical sway of Britain; it was also an attempt to launch upon the world a vision of reality that possessed no surer basis than the ground of his own imagining.” And you only have to consider such lunacy for a second to know Heaney’s right. In fact, you can take his comments about ‘a vision of reality that possessed no surer basis than the ground of his own imagining’ and translate it into the common phrasing Heaney was too courteous to use: the older Yeats was a loon.
And that older, hangdog-seer Yeats systematically did something older, hangdog-seer authors are so frequently allowed to do without public censure: he revised his earlier published work. The subject of such literary blasphemy is one of the only points on the spectrum of eternity where I find myself agreeing with Stanley Fish: once a text is published, there it is. It doesn’t matter whether you’re its author or not – you can deride it, you can comment on it, you can clarify it, but once it’s been exposed to the reading public, it belongs to the reading public, and you, the author, are just another critic. Authors who go back to their earlier works and change them, offering “authorized versions” and the like, are not only cowards but also vandals. And although Rob Doggett is every bit as courteous as Seamus Heaney and twice as scholarly (he of course points out how much great poetry the older Yeats wrote), the volume he’s crafted here for Penguin Classics stands as a quiet rebuke of such tactics. Here he includes the 1895 version of Poems, the 1899 version of The Wind Among the Reeds, and, delightfully, the 1902 version of The Celtic Twilight. Here we get Yeats in the glorious morning of his talent, when his ear was by and large sharper, and when his voice was unmuffled by mysticism. It’s an amazing breath of fresh air – indispensable reading for any fan of this poet.
It also demonstrates – though I’m sure such was not kindly Doggett’s intent – that writers who go back and try to change their earlier works always worsen them. Take an example that Doggett himself provides, Yeats’ revised version of a stanza from the 1925 edition of “The Sorrow of Love”:
The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky,
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out man’s image and his cry
About this, Doggett says “The opening gerund is direct and powerful, the images are romantic but rendered with specificity, and the tone is confident, almost urbane …” All very nice and well-chosen euphemisms, but the version of the poem he prints in this volume is from 1895 and leaves very little doubt what the younger Yeats would have thought of “the tone is confident, almost urbane”:
The quarrel of the sparrows in the eaves,
The full round moon in the star-laden sky,
And the loud song of the ever-singing leaves
Had hid away earth’s old and weary cry.
What can even we “poor plodders in prose” (as one of Yeats’ contemporaries so winningly put it) discern from looking at the two versions side-by-side? Why, that the later ‘revised’ version is much worse, of course. A singular sparrow all alone cannot ‘brawl'; the fact that a sky is full of stars doesn’t make it ‘milky’ unless you’ve thought about it much, much too much (and ‘milky’ conflicts with ‘brilliant’ in any case – the moon’s light is white; how can it be ‘brilliant’ against a ‘milky’ background?); the ‘harmony’ of leaves is called ‘famous’ even though no previous poet had commented on it, let alone made it famous – and why is it called that? Because the older Yeats knew that he himself had made it famous – not through an observation of the natural world, but through the success Poems had selling in Dublin bookshops; and the reader is left wondering how a harmony of leaves can blot out an image – when’s the last time you saw a sound blot out an image? I’ll give you a hint: it’s something that happens to old people all the time. The earlier, original version of the stanza is by contrast lovely in all its parts, and the parts make sense because they came hot from the poet’s first imagining. Sparrows quarrel, ‘star-laden’ and ‘hid away’ are pure and evocative (an unthinking song ‘hid away’ a weak old song), the whole thing is, as Doggett points out, languidly sensuous in a way the later “this is what I really meant” elephantine pondering most certainly isn’t.
When You Are Old is a precious gift to readers: it gives them a William Butler Yeats that the older poet would have preferred the forget, or never meet in the first place. This volume would have exasperated that older poet, the pompous bastard, and that’s recommendation enough. As that younger Yeats so clearly put it, “a wolf is better than a carrion crow.”
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