A Book of Answers XIX: Professional Standards In Criticism Yeats And Graves


Yeats is and will remain one of the great poets in English. Robert Graves is also a very considerable poet though he cannot hold a candle to Yeats. Nor does he attempt to. In 1954 and 1955 he delivered the Clark Lectures at Trinity College Cambridge on the subject of “professional standards in poetry”. The last of these, published under the title of “These Be Your Gods, O Israel!”, consisted of a lively, amusing, rather cranky, but often shrewd attack on five of his contemporaries who he asserted were the idols of the post-war generation. They were Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Ezra Pound, and Dylan Thomas. The attack on Yeats was distinguished from the others by a tone of personal spite and an unwillingness to allow the poet any good qualities or redeeming gifts at all. He is dismissed as a charlatan and a mystogogue, an incompetent even in the handling of rhymes and of English syntax. To prove his point the lecturer examined a specimen of Yeats’s verse, with a show of critical analysis and scholarly erudition in which Yeats was shown to have mismanaged the language so badly as to give the impression that he had been questioned by a bride about his pleasures in homosexual acts, and he was further accused of quoting Macrobius without having read him or at least having understood the text.

Unfortunately for Mr Graves, and no doubt to the delight of those of his audience who liked Yeats and did know the delightful poem in question, his criticism showed clearly that he had only read one stanza of it. Had he read the one before, it would have been clear that it was not the poet who was discoursing on his “utmost pleasure with a man” to the young bride—a situation so grotesque that it ought to have warned the critic that something must be wrong—but that the speaker was an older woman. Had Graves troubled to consult the title of the series of poems of which “Chosen” is number six, he would have realized that A Woman Young and Old at least suggested caution in his interpretation. But he rushed on his fate. There is no excuse for him. He was giving a prepared public performance before a university audience, and the final edition of Yeats’s Collected Poems embodying the poet’s final revision had come out two years before the Clark Lectures were given and was readily available. The misquotation, “astronomer” for “astrologer”, uncorrected in the printed text, suggests a careless preparation, which is borne out by the comic howler of his interpretation.

Yeats had been dead fifteen years or so at the time Graves made the attack. He had been buried at Roquebrune in France, but his remains were later taken to Ireland and buried under Ben Bulben in accordance with his own wish. I do not think he would have bothered to reply to Graves’s travesty of criticism, had he come to hear of it; and he would certainly not have replied in the terms of the answer I have put into his mouth. I have therefore made no attempt to imitate his manner in any way. I have used his shade as it were, to speak for him on my own account. This allowed me to answer the malicious and atrocious pun at the beginning of the extract from the lecture in its own debased coin.

Robert Graves On W.B. Yeats

… here is the new-model Yeats, em-Pounded as far as he was capable, writing a poem called Chosen:

I struggled with the horror of daybreak,
I chose it for my lot! If questioned on
My utmost pleasure with a man
By some new-married bride, I take
That stillness for a theme
Where his heart my heart did seem
And both adrift on the miraculous stream
Where—wrote a learned astrologer—
The Zodiac is changed into a sphere …

He has taken bold poetic licences: astronomer rhymes with sphere—though, by the rule on which he was brought up, even if one rhymes (say) verily with sigh, sigh must come in the first rhyming line and verily in the second. He also here rhymes on with man, which can be done decently in Scotland alone; the convention being (I think) that half-rhymes are justified by poetic necessity only where a prevailing mood of gloom, doubt, mental stress or confusion would be denied by too perfect an answering chime. And in his younger days, Yeats would not have dared publish three lines as imprecise as these:

…If questioned on
My utmost pleasure with a man
By some new-married bride …

where the awkward syntax suggests, at first, that he was questioned about his utmost pleasure with some man while someone else’s bride lay close by. Even after the reader has mentally corrected this confused image, he is still left with a question by the new-married bride which seems to presuppose sexual commerce between Yeats and a man, not her husband. The imprecision is developed by the astrologer’s remark that “The Zodiac is changed into a sphere”, to which Yeats supplies the following note. … [Graves then quotes the note and shows that Yeats has not quoted Macrobius correctly. The extract is from The Clark Lectures, included in The Crowning Privilege (Harmondsworth, Mddx.: Pelican Books, 1959), pp. 140–41.]

The Spectre Of W.B. Yeats To Robert Graves

My bones are stowed; my sleep is sound;
I know I lie in Irish ground;
What wretch, then, conjures me to come
Like Samuel’s spirit from the tomb
And wakes the dead and turns the sod
To learn he has been cursed by God?

You, Robert Graves, by Hare and Burke,
Why all this corpse and coffin work?
To be dug up in France and laid
Forever in Ben Bulben’s shade
Is all an Irish poet craves:
He has no need of other “graves”.

But speak, poor wizard, tell me true,
What was it could have prompted you
To stab dead poets in the back
With this mean-spirited attack?
Was it fierce envy, settled hate
Or a mere itch to demonstrate
To Cambridge dons and Cambridge dames
Your faculty for calling names?
What spurious goddess sent you down
From Sinai to play the clown
And make the undergraduates laugh
By proving me their Golden Calf
And smash the Tables of the Law
To raise a general guffaw?

And tell me, Robert, was it wise
To tilt at signs and mysteries,
My symbols, seances and spells
While warlock Graves, in cap and bells,
Trumped up from folklore’s bones and rags
White goddesses and triple hags?

Did you not recollect a knack
In pots to call the kettle black?
Nor, throwing stones at mine, reflect
Your glass-house likelier to be wrecked?
For mine was honest nonsense, yours:
Mad mumpsimus with Nancy’s drawers!

Next, who appointed you I ask,
To take your fellow bards to task,
Pontificate upon the times
And tell your peers to mend their rhymes,
Inventing rules, to prove us wrong
About the finer points of song?
Or was your study to annoy
And prove yourself a warty boy,
And, with the jawbone of an ass,
Like Samson, slay the poets en masse?

But these are trifles: I’ll be brief
And turn to your attack-in-chief,
That poem you laboured to discredit,
While showing that you had not read it—
Come, Mr Graves, now don’t be vexed,
But pay attention to the text.

Peruse your commentary! You note
In the first sentence, you misquote
(Unless incumbent of a chair
In Cambridge, one must have a care.)
You then, deliberately no doubt,
Turning my syntax inside out,
Insinuate me to have been—
—With a fine nose for the obscene
And cocksure critical aplomb—
A Sodomite and Peeping Tom.
Query: how could you think so? Answer:
You’d only read the second stanza
And, in your atrabilious rage
Neglected to turn back the page.
Had you done so, and read the title,
You might have learned—the point is vital
To one of your profound acumen—
The lines were spoken by a woman!

Fie, Robert, fie! Were these the ways
To add fresh laurels to your bays
And prove yourself a man of parts
Before a Faculty of Arts?

Robert, I have you on the hip!
Now, will you prate of scholarship
And raise false witness from the dead
To teach us what Macrobius said?

Take my advice: in future learn
To read a text you mean to spurn,
And look more closely at the letters
Before you criticize your betters!

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