A Paltry Thing

This week I read the W.B. Yeats selections in William Harmon’s The Classic Hundred Poems. The four Yeats poems (included, as are all of the poems in the book, because they are the most anthologized) are: “The Second Coming”, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, “Leda and the Swan”, and “Sailing to Byzantium”. I know each of these well enough that lines and images echo in my head at the slightest rhyme from daily life. Reading them again (now older I guess, or less willing to grant genius when I do not myself see it), I can’t help but ask: why did I ever think I liked the poetry of W.B. Yeats? Sure, they’re well-crafted, and some moments are achingly well-timed (“An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick”), but Yeats takes himself far too seriously–a lonely adherent of his own bizarre prophesies: mean spirited, hokey, violent, and escapist. Even pompous, fanatical Ezra Pound possesses more humility.

Re-given the choice, I too will chose Thomas Hardy before Yeats. Re-given the choice, I’ll even choose Edwin Arlington Robinson over Yeats … on the merits of “Miniver Cheevy” alone. After all, I believe it is the voice of Robinson (his lightly veiled self-deprecation) in “Miniver Cheevy” which gives Pound the engine to first mockingly parody Yeats’s too cute “Lake Isle” and later to savage himself and everyone else in this gone-in-the-teeth civilization. I’ll have the irony of Hardy and the sarcasm of “Miniver Cheevy”, long before the re-mythologized cultic rape and gore from Yeats. Better to have a cat steal your fleshy heart than to be memorialized by a mechanical, tittering bird in an unrealized, dandified empire of artifice.

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