Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Michael Wood, _Yeats and Violence_

AN EXCELLENT BOOK--as every book I've read why Wood is; this is my fourth (I read the book on One Hundred Years of Solitude, the one on Nabokov, and a collection of review essays).  This looks like his first one on poetry, though, which was a welcome surprise, and a bigger and even more welcome surprise was that it was about Yeats.

For, truth to tell, I am a Yeatsian. The one and only book I have managed to write was on Yeats.  But in the years since its publication--a good many now--I have often felt that Yeats was on the wrong side of zeitgeist.  His politics were terrible, for one thing--elitist, anti-democratic, not precisely fascist but all too close. He could get some points for being part of a national liberation struggle, but his role in the nationalist movement was so conflicted that Seamus Deane, for instance, could  get a bit snarky about him. Gender politics?  Well, Yeats often wrote admiringly of women, but "Prayer for my Daughter" misses on every cylinder of contemporary sensibilities, and the depiction of rape in "Leda and the Swan" is not going to get a pass from any feminist this side of Camille Paglia.

His aesthetics, too, seem creakily antique. What MFA program would encourage any writing so highly wrought, so artificial, so willing to traffic in archaisms, or for that matter so vatic, so hermetic as most of Yeats's is? "You want some Modernism? Go read Tender Buttons."

So when Wood, one of the most erudite and lucid critics around, someone who when asked to give the Clarendon Lectures could conceivably have turned in a polished performance on anything from Tarkovsky to Proust to whatever else is unproblematically admired, for him to go with Yeats...it just seemed too good to be true.

Actually, the title made me think it was too good to be true, that the book would turn out to be some kind of takedown, à la any book on Eliot and anti-Semitism.

But, surprise, Wood gives Yeats his propers. The book is about "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen," much as Kermode's Romantic Image is about "Among School Children"--we take a lot of side trips taking in a great deal of territory (Benjamin, Agamben, the Black and Tans, the "instructors" and A Vision, later Irish poets Heaney, Muldoon, Boland, and [!] Paulin, even [!!] prosody), but "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" is the center of gravity, and Wood does it full justice. Not the best-known of Yeats's poems--it's not in the Norton anthology, for instance--but it riveted me when I first read it, many years ago, and its warnings against complacency about progress seem truer as I age.

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