Metaphysics in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot
In approaching artistic creation of any kind, viewers, critics, and creators alike require some guiding principles to orient and direct their endeavors. Such principles explain what sorts of questions or lenses we should use to understand and appreciate works of art; these principles answer the fundamental ‘why’ of the works’ meanings, purposes, arrangements, etc. In the last century or so, the standard presentation of poetry among students and scholars has used political ideology as the predominant principle for talking about and interpreting the work of poets. This arrangement appears to work well, as it offers a meaningful way to understand widely disparate poets in relation to one another. The advantage of this approach is that the poets, as seemingly unconnected as, say, Allen Ginsberg and Czeslaw Milosz, can readily be placed somewhere along a Left-Right spectrum and classified accordingly.
Yet, as helpful as this politically oriented approach may be, it has serious shortcomings. In a presentation of 20th century British poetry, for instance, readers encounter W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot under the (politically) “Conservative” banner—a grouping that suggests a significant similarity between the two. The dramatically dissimilar forms and ‘messages’ of the two poets, however, betrays the inadequacy of their political categorization: ought the occult and the Christian, the traditional and experimental be presented uniformly from the get-go? Or does this alignment bring opaqueness rather than illumination to the artistic work (especially with figures like Yeats and Eliot)? Though I speak not as a poet (nor as any sort of artist), I contend that the political standpoint is far too narrow to reveal the full range of artistic possibility in the creative process and its realization.
Instead, I will argue that metaphysics ought to be the primary category by which we should conceptually distinguish and organize the poetic landscape. From a purely aesthetic-philosophical perspective, this categorical prioritization makes total sense, for it simply follows the order of reality’s fundamental principles (metaphysics precedes politics in its world-constituting order). However, this form of argumentation comes across as mere assertion—or worse, sophistry. So, I will use Yeats and Eliot to show how the interpretative prioritization of metaphysics is the best way to navigate 20th century British poetry, and ultimately all eras and forms of art.
As already mentioned, many commentators group Yeats and Eliot together as the “traditionalist” or “conservative” members of British Modernist poetry, following a superficial political alignment. Considered apart from the political concerns of the thirties, and rather in relation to the metaphysical concerns that precipitated in late modernity, Yeats and Eliot differ drastically: they provide post- and pre-modern visions for modernist poetry, respectively—each having understood and freed himself from the crisis of philosophical modernity in his own way. Broadly speaking, it appears that Yeats’s later poetry embodies something like Nietzschean response to modernity, whereas Eliot’s “The Waste Land” hearkens back to the premodern philosophical vision of Thomas Aquinas. Thus, the poets take up mutually incompatible and opposing philosophical projects, which translate, in their works, into different understandings of poetry itself and the poet’s function. In the end, I will argue that Eliot exemplifies the best direction not only for British modernist poetry, but for all poetry, for his metaphysics dignifies poetic works themselves. To establish this, I will 1.) summarize the concerns and general direction of British modernist poetry, 2.) articulate the contemporary metaphysical positions of Nietzscheanism and neo-Thomism, 3.) explain Yeats’s and Eliot’s reception and use of these metaphysics, and 4.) argue about the ‘end results’ of this last point in relation to the concerns and direction of modernism.
(Early) British Modernist Poetry
Modernist poets have two guiding concerns: the social disintegration present in western modernity and the nature of the poetic medium itself. Beginning with the latter point, Rowan Williams explains the modernist style “as essentially that approach to art that concentrates on the fabric, inner and outer, of the work made rather than any supposed external reference, representational or theoretical” (8-9). That is to say, the question of form and language, the coming-to-attention of poetry as such (much like Picasso and Cezanne’s assertion of the medium of painting), dominates poetry. Poets question traditional (“closed”) forms, the function or effect of poetry, and its relation to contemporary psychology and philosophy. In sum: nothing is assumed or taken for granted as ‘traditionally given.’ Whatever Williams means, this concern does not preclude or ignore the external world. Rather, as Howarth explains, “Many [modernists] felt there was something badly unbalanced about ‘normal’ life itself, if by normal we mean industrialized, Western modernity […] Despite the ‘modern’ in ‘modernism,’ a good number of its artists felt contemporary civilization was a recipe for personal and social disintegration, which is why new art had to upset the status quo” (10). The question of the purpose of poetry as such is not simply academic or theoretical, but is grounded in understanding how poetry can and ought to relate to contemporary culture. Given the disintegration, modernists believe that “[a]rt is about achieving a perfect balance of forces (mind/body, active/passive, change/permanence, form/content, emotion/reason), in distinction to a world which is all out of balance… Art’s job [then] is ultimately to bring the world into balance too” (13). The resultant, ‘typical’ modernist poetic is often abrupt, seemingly random or ‘formless,’ and unmasterable, which presents an “experience [of] immersion, where there is no longer a clear distance between what you are seeing and the position you are invited to see from” (5). Thus the concerns of poetry’s form or style turn on this concern to correct (or reflect) society and people.
Philosophical Responses to Modernity
Around this time, two radically disparate thinkers — the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900) and the Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain (d. 1973) — metaphysically challenge the Enlightenment’s conception of rationality which precipitated the social disintegration our modernist poets combat. Nietzsche lambasts the idea of an eternal or universal Reason (as championed by modern philosophers such as Descartes and Kant) as denying reality (Twilight of the Idols, 316). According to Nietzsche, Enlightenment metaphysicians and epistemologists dishonestly posit this Reason as existing beyond our transience and decay in order to secure fixity in philosophy, but they deny what is truly fundamental in the process. In contrast to ‘otherworldliness,’ Nietzsche extolls ‘this-worldly’ values like flux, the overcoming of struggles, and the embrace of the will. He posits that the “will-to-power” is the fully-immanent force driving reality. Reality is thus purely ‘this-worldly’—in a sense, ‘one’—and ultimately violent.
Jacques Maritain also challenges the problematic dualisms of modernity, but his approach criticizes the subject-object split latent in enlightenment philosophy (Wilson, 53). Maritain combats the post-Kantian epistemologies that reduce “thought and knowledge [to] rarified subjective abstractions” (53). Dualistic tendencies in philosophy (i.e. conceiving ideas/minds as being totally different from known objects) disallow real knowledge of things (Kant), or lead directly to materialism (whereby knowledge is epiphenomenal) or idealism (whereby the idyllic diminishes materiality). Instead, Maritain follows Thomistic metaphysics, viewing all existent substances (whether rational or corporeal) as forms—hylomorphic structures—coming-to-act. Given that minds and things are equally real and ontologically connected (or connectable), neo-Thomism provides “a continuity between the knower and known, subject, idea, and object” (53). Thus, the turns to will and being mark the metaphysical solutions to modernity.
Yeats and Nietzsche, Eliot and Maritain
To present Eliot’s metaphysical vision as the better solution for modernist poetry, I will explain how and why Yeats and Eliot embraced their respective metaphysicians. This will allow me to contrast their resulting poetics. I have no pretenses to totalize or confine Yeats’s and Eliot’s poetry. The following interpretations handle their poetry insofar as the works touch metaphysics, that is, result from or depend upon it.
William Butler Yeats handles the two modernist concerns of social disintegration and of poetics throughout his career. His early symbolist form of writing, for instance, attempts to connect the minds of the Irish people to transcendent ideas and feelings with the intention of attaining cultural unity (Howarth, 95). However, when he encounters Nietzsche’s philosophy, he embraces the flux and transience of the world, “delight[ing] in the ‘living stream’ of existence” (Dwan, 116). In turn, he rejects the notion that “fixed and immutable principles” exist in reality (ibid). The new influence from Nietzsche doesn’t preclude Yeats’ search for cultural unity, however. Rather than seeking societal unification through transcendent connection to symbols, poetry instead enables the individual to harmonize conflicting forces, to bind opposites together—for embracing contradiction affirms life! (Keane, 21) As Macrae notes, he abandons the idea of the symbolically accessible Anima Mundi, but he maintains the idea of pursuing unity through creating internal anti-selves with which to war. (143) Yeats’s poem, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” exemplifies this: Yeats locates warring factions in himself, pitting “Self” and “Soul” against each other to argue about “the crime of death and birth” (l. 24)—i.e. about constant change. As “Soul” is expunged from the final section, the poet literally sings of violence through violence. Yeats thereby accepts Nietzsche’s summation that “one lives in a passing order, amid the inventions of a fading vitality”. (Yeats, as quoted by Dwan, 115) Violence is inherent, and each person finds it within herself.
Yeats in no way bemoans his lot, however. Though “Lapis Lazuli” stoically recounts that “all things fall and are built again” (l. 35), Yeats’s immediate rejoinder triumphantly assures that “those that build them again are gay” (l. 36). Yeats understands that the world still affords us a will by which we can find means to transcend our fatal situation—though we never forget to “[l]et all things pass away” (“Vacillation,” l. 61). Poetry provides sweet revenge against transience and decay, actualizing our creativity to joyfully combat ‘what is’ (Keane, 187): “Begin the preparation for your death [through creative works…] Proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb” (“Vacillation,” ll. 28, 34). Art allows one to “defeat mutability” (Macrae, 160), for by it, one can “continually transform” herself (136) and learn to freely laugh in not negating one’s accepted fate of death and violence. (Keane, 181-3)
Moreover, Yeats does not abandon the poet’s social function in channeling Nietzsche. Quite the contrary. Besides enabling the poet’s self-transcendence, the poet acts as a prophet (Dwan, 123), declaring the transient nature of things (as in “Lapis Lazuli”) and helping others to awaken to the reality of violence and fate (Keane, 156-95). In this sense, readers perceive Yeats’s poetry as Yeats perceives the transcendent “superhuman” artwork (“Byzantium,” l. 15): poetry stands as a testament to the will. Distinct from poetry willed into transcendence, however, we’ll see that Eliot’s poetry instead relates to being.
Eliot already participates in the philosophical discussions of the subject-object split in his thesis (Howarth, 64; Wilson, 50; Brooker and Bentley, 35, 55), moving towards the position that “the Ich and its objects […] form metaphysically one whole” (Eliot’s thesis, quoted in Howarth, 64). Moreover, he understands that this epistemological-ontological issue links directly to the problems of a fractured society (Shusterman, 38-42) and of people who are internally disunified in “intellect, emotion, and spirituality” (Cooper, 33). Because of Romanticism, people no longer listen to the tradition which shaped them, but embrace (‘egological’) individualism (Howarth, 66; Cooper, 32). This mirrors and follows from the same impulses behind the epistemic subject-object division: people no longer follow their connection to the tradition and language which precedes and shapes them, but isolate and fragment themselves, which begets cultural disintegration. As Shusterman confirms, for Eliot “[t]he problem of the unification of the world and the problem of the [internal] unification of the individual are, in the end one and the same problem; and the solution of one is the solution of the other” (46-7).
Before accepting the ontological realism presented by Maritain, Eliot advocates the idea of “classicism” as a solution to the societal and the individual’s problems. Classicism intends to find “an all-embracing cultural unity which, like the tradition or the fragment, has nothing outside itself to affect it, and in which everything is linked to everything else” (Howarth, 73), or put differently, provides the “sense of living among simultaneous times” (9). With poetry, the poet could present a “tradition that [would] unify individual minds” (74) through various ritualistic or mythic images that bring spiritual, emotional, and intellectual union to a whole community (75-6). In On the Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, Eliot explains the rationale:
It is a function of poetry both to fix and make more conscious and precise emotions and feelings in which most people participate in their own experience, and to draw within the orbit of feeling and sense what had existed only in thought. It creates a unity of feeling out of various parts: a unity of action, which is epic or dramatic; a union (the simplest form) of sound and sense, the pure lyric; and in various forms, the union of [things] hitherto unconnected in experience (50-1).
“The Waste Land”, though often interpreted as merely ‘reflecting’ the disorder of society, actually represents Eliot’s attempt to perform this classicist task. Cooper points to Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) to explain that the poem unveils the reader’s “vital connection to the past” (73, 36). The reader encounters the past in nearly every line, whether in Chaucer’s tales (l. 1), the battle of Mylae (l. 70), the myth of Philomel (l. 99), the Buddha (Part III.), Carthage’s destruction (l. 307), or the Upanishads (l. 434). “The Waste Land”’s form, then, is the connection of multiple images and allusions, whereby each chain of images not only “begins to dissolve into another,” but also “hook[s]… beyond the poem” (Howarth, 69, 70). The poem’s conclusion expresses this clearly:
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina Quando fiam ceu chelidon – O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Eliot’s form permits him to connect a morbid children’s song about destruction (l. 427) to Dante speaking about purification through fire (l. 428) to Philomela’s tragedy (l. 429) etc. Eliot does not incoherently throw these allusions together, but both shows their fundamental connection (they articulate horror and disintegration) and provides ‘new’ meaning by them—and both endeavors connect the reader’s (modern) state to the fragments. The point of this classicist poem, then, is to absorb readers—and society itself—into the poem, into the relation of images.
Poetry, then, ought to be “impersonal” in its style. Its purpose is not to express the personalities of its maker to the public. Rather, keeping with the classicist vision, the poem’s form is “fragmentary” in texture (Cooper, 86)—like the section above. The artist relinquishes mastery and surrenders to that tradition which is greater than her (Howarth, 66). Through this, the poet gives order and meaning to the images she has arranged. “The Waste Land”, written before Eliot ‘conversion’ to a Thomist-like realist ontology, therefore already represents the poetic ideas that Jacques Maritain deduced from Thomas. In The Frontiers of Poetry, Maritain (working off of St. Thomas) prescribes a poetic that takes into account both the essential and the existent—the mental and the particulars (122-3). He also argues that, because “we have nothing which we haven’t already received” (126)—clearly a classicist idea—the artist’s creations are ultimately disinterested. From these ideas of the intellectual found in particu lars and of the disinterest of the assimilator, the poetic will ultimately have “ideal independence” from its “material obligations to existence” (125) and “proceed to live above time, and with a life that is universal” (127). Eliot’s ideas of a classicist poetry that could present the past to the present and unify readers with a work (no doubt through ideas) are well on the way to Maritain’s “ontological realist” position.
The difficulty in interpreting “The Waste Land”, however, is that Eliot has (probably) not embraced Maritain’s ontological realism by the point he writes it—though he certainly has read the neo-Thomist (Wilson, in passim). Cooper argues that at this point in Eliot’s thinking, the ‘deeper unity’ of the work—that which connects the images to each other, and minds to them—is “the real beyond the real” (77); Brooker and Bentley agree, linking such a union with Eliot’s previous commitments to Bradley’s notion of “transcendent experience” that occur before the subject-object split (55).5 Davidson, on the other hand, suggests that the work exhibits a “careful refusal of connections between images, scenes, and voices” (122). Maritain provides the best interpretation, however, seeing Eliot’s work as “the highest realization in poetry of [the Thomist philosophy] he had prescribed in theory” (56). Cooper aides my point, interpreting “Ash-Wednesday” as the work which explicitly “completes” what “The Waste Land” seeks to find: Incarnational poetry where the spirit and flesh (the idyllic/essential and the material) meet (84). “The Waste Land” seeks this more perfect, Divine expression of intellectual and particular union because an ontological realism already enables Eliot to ‘hang’ all of his “fragments” (l. 431) together in the poem.
Unlike Yeats, Eliot does not coerce images into association, or will them into a non-Real arrangement. The ideas themselves must internally relate to each other, for Eliot’s aim to “absorb” all things into his ‘waste land’ would be impossible if the poem is a mere mental epiphenomenon (in which case, it wouldn’t be real), or a purely idyllic creation (in which case, existent beings couldn’t relate to it). Put differently, the conditions of the possibilities of “The Waste Land”’s form and its ‘poetic’ require ontological realism. If all of the particular fragments run endlessly into each other (while still being recognizable or integritous on their own), if they open themselves to an actual relation with the outer-textual world, and if Eliot desires it to have an “autotelic” existence (Howarth, 73), then the poem necessitates two things: first, the ideas ‘inhabiting’ or ‘structuring’ each particular must—in some real sense—constitute some intellectual form of existence which enables participation with other ideas and ‘external’ mind; second, the poem must have some reality in itself so that it may operate without reductions to willed intentions and (authorial) historical circumstances.7 In short, the fragments in the poem are ‘the real,’ and their intellectual nature (in a hylomorphist sense) connect themselves and minds. Williams summarizes what I take the ‘metaphysical-poetics’ of “The Waste Land” to be: in opening up the dimension in which things are “more than they are,” “the poetic […] represents the communion between the inner life of objects […] and the human self; it is a level of intellection at which the conventional bounds between world and subject are breached” (23).
Now I may restate my guiding questions: do these poets’ metaphysics consistently and coherently sanction poetry’s existence, and (regardless of any inconsistencies) do their resultant poetics provide the sorts of solutions appropriate for (early) British modernism’s concerns? I find the idea of personality to offer the best entry point into the questions.
Yeats’s metaphysics blesses the world of experienced existence, eschewing dishonest, life-denying notions of a static, idyllic world beyond this one. This view eliminates one cause of opposition, Reason, to grant our world wholeness. However, violence and opposition constitute Yeats’s ‘only-immanent’ world. There is only flux, transience, and chaos, and ‘rationality’ merely gives fictive order to things. The fundamental human drive is therefore not reason, but the will (and the closely related creative drive). However ‘affirmed’ the particulars of the world are, poetry’s purpose is being a means for the artist’s creativity. Insofar as Nietzschean metaphysics enables, Yeats cannot disclose or participate with any ‘ideas’ in the-things-themselves. Nietzsche does not inhibit poetry. In fact, poetic works may be necessary for one’s ‘transcendence’ over transience and her capacity to find joy in the face of fate. What this means, however, is that the true presence within Yeats’s works is himself. As opposed to the enfleshed thought of Eliot’s incarnation, Yeats can only enflesh his own will. As the will-to-power’s creative act, poetry can only be the personal. Granted, Yeats assumes the role of the prophet, calling people to reject enlightenment notions of Reason or to embrace the violence of things. But poetry in itself is purely instrumental to this idol-checking task—and seen in itself (as Yeats looks to the “superman”), it only testifies to the creativity of the one who laughs and transcends in creating. As Howarth explains, the question of poetic form for Yeats is a matter of communication: he selects traditional forms because they speak more effectively to the people who share in their tradition (92). As magnificent as Yeats’s works are, Nietzsche grants no concern to their dignity. This thinnest of metaphysics works against Yeats: he intrudes too much on his poems.
Eliot, on the other hand, always seeks impersonality, submitting himself to the work—and reality—before him. As “The Waste Land” demonstrates, though the ability to craft such a multi-voiced, all-encompassing poem is truly remarkable on the poet’s part, what enables the poem’s existence are the ideas and fragments themselves. The aim is not his personality or will, but the good of the work itself. From this idea, Williams levels the most pointed critique against Yeats’s position, for he reasons that “art is as fundamentally opposed to the will-to-power as it is to the cult of [Romantic] personality” (16). The impulse for the modernist questions concerning poetry as such brings to light the key point here: humans create poetry because that sort of material is in itself good. Unlike Yeats’s cosmos of warring wills, the realist ontology demands that enfleshed ideas (words, poetry) receive our due attention. Certainly, Eliot’s Christianity will name only one final end—God Himself, and therefore not poetry—; but the Ground of the Being of beings is the only One capable of gifting that dignity of poetry which the questions of form seek.
Demanding that Yeats fulfills the task of attaining societal and individual unity with a metaphysics of violence may seem unfair on my part: by definition his metaphysics cannot provide it. However, the modernist movement cares about bringing unity to fruition, so this may disqualify his later works from being modernism’s ‘solution.’ If Yeats’s poetry can direct social unity, though, such unity would not be actual, but a coerced result of an effective will. On this front, propagandistic poetry proves my case: poetry dominated by willed political visions are normally poetically contrived. Eliot’s ontologically dignified poems, on the other hand, actually can connect knowing agents to real ideas (and hence, to each other). ‘Autotelic’ poetry uncovers the “gratuitousness” of all things (Williams 13): Dante and Philomela relate to us and our situation, giving more than they are ‘in themselves.’ Thus, Eliot’s metaphysics not only sanctions poetry, but provides the better direction for modernism itself.
As this analysis reveals, modernist poets explicitly questioned the identity of art and the purpose of the artist; their historical situation provided a stage for two of the most philosophically tenable and contradictory artistic visions to square-off; and (most importantly) these questions and solutions are most properly metaphysical—they remain unrecognizable if politics is our fundamental lens. Though I ultimately argue for the “ontological realist” picture of Eliot, I do not intend to reveal ‘the most important question in art’ only to foreclose any debate with my pre-given answer. Quite the opposite! I hope that my textual analysis and philosophical argumentation demonstrate what is at stake in poetry’s metaphysical backdrop, thereby calling all audiences, critics, and creators to consider these concerns for themselves. Poetry is far more expansive than the Left-Right categorization.
Tags: aesthetics, Aquinas, art, culture, Descartes, Jacques Maritain, kant, metaphysics, modernism, Nietzsche, philosophy, poetics, poetry, politics, reason, Rowan Williams, T.S. Eliot, violence, W.B. Yeats