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“Monuments of Unageing Intellect: Death as Rebirth in the later work of Yeats”

“Monuments of Unageing Intellect: Death as Rebirth in the later work of Yeats”

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Rebecca French. Originally submitted for The Writings of W.B. Yeats at University College Cork, with lecturer Prof. Alex Davis in the category of English Language & Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Rebecca French. Originally submitted for The Writings of W.B. Yeats at University College Cork, with lecturer Prof. Alex Davis in the category of English Language & Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
EN
3006
The
 
Writings
 
of 
 
W
.
B
.
Yeats
Professor
 
Alex
 
Davis
Essay
 
II
6
th
 
January
2011
Question
5:
Write
 
an
 
essay
 
on
 
Yeats
poetry
 
in
 
relation
 
to
 
one
 
of 
 
the
 
following
:-(4)
death
 
and
 
the
 
afterlife
/
posterity
.
“ 
 Monuments
 
of 
 
Unageing
 
 Intellect 
:
 Death
 
as
 
 Rebirth
 
in
 
the
 
later
 
work 
 
of 
 
Yeats
” 
Rebecca
 
French
106357300
1830
words
 
This essay will argue that notions of death and posterity in the late poetry of W.B. Yeats areintrinsically linked with concepts of rebirth, renewal and sexuality, as a result of the poet
ʼ
s personalphilosophy including the influence of the Romantic poets. I will contend that death, for Yeats, represents notan ending but a renaissance of youth and virility in spiritual terms, as evidenced by the later behaviour of thepoet in the nineteen thirties in the wake of the death of Augusta, Lady Gregory and the his own
ʻ
revitalising
ʼ
 Steinach operation, which is marked by a correlative tangible shift in the theme of his work.
#
According to Foster, “[Yeats] linked these themes with his old preoccupation of Ascendancy decline inIreland and his new obsession with the coarsening physical beauty and moral energy through miscegenationin an exhausted civilisation. Yeats is himself exhausted; “That is no country for old men”, he laments in“Sailing to Byzantium”. There is a need for rejuvenation in the life of the aging poet, undoubtedly catalysedby the death of Lady Gregory two years
ʼ
previous after which Lock claims “he wrote no poetry for virtually ayear.”
1
According to Lock, Yeats “had no wish to live a long time unless he could continually recreatehimself.”
2
I will contend that Yeats achieves this in his work through his millenarian beliefs and through aninterest in Oriental philosophic notions of rebirth; extremely popular amongst the Occidental cultural elite atthe time. Its notions of cleansing rituals appealed to many and featured notably in T.S. Eliot
ʼ
s “TheWasteland”. Throughout his essay,
ʻ
Yeats
ʼ
s
ʻ
Under Ben Bulben
ʼ
”, Stallworthy emphasises the influence ofEastern religion, notably Buddhism on Yeats
ʼ
philosophy. As both Foster
3
and Stallworthy note, Yeats linksthe classical tradition with the modern and the Irish through religious figures such as Apollo, Buddha andChrist as well as warriors like Cúchulainn and Alexander of Macedonia, emphasising the Yeatsian view of arepetitive history, one which marks out its own posterity outside of man
ʼ
s control.
4
Yeats mentions theseEastern influences famously in his
ʻ
Byzantine
ʼ
poems but also in “Blood and the Moon”, referencing ancientAlexandria and Babylon. The sexual freedom of the stereotypically nineteenth-century view of the sensualEast also undoubtedly appealed to the poet and is evidenced in the multi-layered, visceral, sexual andmenstrual title of “Blood and Moon” itself.
1
Lock, Stephen. “
ʻ
O that I were young again
ʼ
: Yeats and the Steinach operation.”
British Medical Journal Online. British Medical Journal,
 287(6409) (1983): 1965.
2
 
Ibid.
3
 
Ibid 
: 616.
4
Jon Stallworthy
“ 
W.B. Yeats
ʼ
s Under Ben Bulben.
” 
 
The Review of English Studies 
, 17.65 (1966): 32.
 
#
Yeats becomes obsessed with sex in his later years following his Steinach operation and what herefers to as his “second childhood” with its inevitable following second puberty.
5
Indeed, the themes of hislater work feature what Yeats himself calls “lust and rage”
6
, “typical of my old age, outrageous and violent.”
7
 In referencing McHugh
ʼ
s Ah Sweet Dancer, Lock quotes Yeats as saying “though it [the Steinach operation]revived my creative power it revived also sexual desire; and that in all likelihood will last me until I die.”
8
Aswith most of Yeats and his work, there is a tension present of his own desire for sex and the jealousy ofthose who can so easily succeed in such matters. “That is no country for old men,” he decries, in search ofan ethereal posterity.
#
Death, being far from an end in the mind of the millenarian Yeats, becomes a kind of ritual purification.Yeats can remove his “flesh [which] is heavy it weighs upon my heart but I shall soon cast it off”, ashighlighted by Stallworthy.
9
Here, the author draws attention to a particularly significant poem in highlightingthis theme of death and posterity. “Manand the Echo” from
Last Poems and Two Plays 
is racked withquestions, suggestive of self-doubt, which the poet makes known as his intent initially in the lines “All that Ihave said and done, / Now that I am old and ill, / Turns into a question…”.
10
The poem goes on to extoll thebeliefthat these worries are visceral, terrestrial “And all seems evil until I / Sleepless would lie down anddie.”
The
ʻ
man
ʼ
figure
ʼ
s second monological stanza explores this interest in these asomatous at the cost ofYeats
ʼ
devaluing physical life as inferior to the former; “While man can stillhis body keep / Wine or love drughim to sleep, / Waking he thanks the Lord that he / Has body and its stupidity, / But body gone he sleeps nomore / And till his intellect grows sure.”
12
Eventually, in the last stanza, the speaker
ʼ
s supernal meditationsare disturbed by the death of a terrestrial animal bringing the theme full-circle and back down to earth.
#
This push and pull between the spiritual and the terrestrial is married in the work of Yeats with themesof youth and sexuality in opposition to ageing and the anxieties thereof. The poet clearly highlights thesetensions in his earlier
ʻ
Byzantine
ʼ
poems. Herein, Yeats develops his motif of the spiritual bird. Indeed,
5
 
Foster, R.F.
W.B. Yeats - A Life, II: The Arch Poet, 1915-1939 
. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (2003): 611.
6
Lock, Stephen. “
ʻ
O that I were young again
ʼ
: Yeats and the Steinach operation.”
British Medical Journal Online. British Medical Journal,
 287(6409) (1983): 1964.
7
Foster, R.F.
W.B. Yeats - A Life, II: The Arch Poet, 1915-1939 
. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (2003): 612.
8
Lock, Stephen. “
ʻ
O that I were young again
ʼ
: Yeats and the Steinach operation.”
British Medical Journal Online. British Medical Journal,
 287(6409) (1983): 1967.
9
Jon Stallworthy
“ 
W.B. Yeats
ʼ
s Under Ben Bulben.
” 
 
The Review of Engl is h Studies 
, 17.65 (1966): 33.
10
Larrissy, Edward (ed.).
W.B. Yeats: The Major Works 
. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1997): 179.
11
Ibid.
12
Ibid.

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