Review: Edward Clarke, The Later Affluence of W.B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens

Karolina Vancurová

Charles University, Prague

Edward Clarke’s The Later Affluence of W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens offers a refreshing and risky reading of these poets’ last poems. Where contemporary criticism tends to classify and judge from an increasingly untrustworthy objective point of view, Clarke proposes to read ‘Cuchulain Comforted’, ‘Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself’, ‘The Black Tower’, and ‘Of Mere Being’ as if they were I Ch’ing coins thrown, and the Western tradition a reserve of ‘perennial wisdom’ they might once again bring into chiming consonance. Provocatively, he expounds the content of the poems for a female reader and anticipates, as his readership, a few ‘oath-bound’ men – the way Yeats describes his ideal future inheritors in his essays – as well as enemies who will read a poem in a ‘deliberately limited way, trying to bribe or threaten meaning out of it by imposing upon it preordained political or ideological theories.’[1] Taking the oath, then, Clarke liberates himself to read the small number of poems in a ‘pure explication du texte’, as Stevens would have advised, yet, taking the position of ephebe toward master, he follows the poets as guides. Challenging current modes of criticism, he addresses as literal the traditional belief, heralded by these last poems, that the soul is immortal.

In the first two chapters, Clarke embarks on an examination of irony within the two poets’ work in a broader view, considering and critiquing the types of context in which they have been approached by previous critics. Irony has for long been identified as the plague of our age (Clarke departs from Kierkegaard’s definition of it as ‘absolute infinite negativity’), from the Renaissance to the present. Clarke’s witty reading expounds Yeats’ and Stevens’ poetry, with their capability to mock all teachings and to mock themselves afterwards, as a source of possible regeneration for modern critical practice. With a delightful attention to detail, Clarke reveals how the complexity of irony in these poems forces us to reinstate the need of reading otherwise than with ‘single vision’, or with excessive reliance on human reason as represented by the determining Aristotelian criticism. Clarke mentions Harold Bloom as the path-breaking interpretive critic of influence but is quick to define his own reading as ‘intent to listen’ to the poets’ revelation for the future, a next step after Bloom’s reading of poetry as an expression of the poet’s oedipal conflict (which omits Frank Kermode’s creative precedent of the Image as poetry’s way of being). He claims that even the interpretive versions of criticism, such as intertextuality, are based on materialist premises. According to Clarke, these have been overcome by Yeats and Stevens ‘by the nature of their art’, the laborious doing away with that which cannot hold, and finding what will suffice. Drawing predominantly upon the example of the poet and critic Kathleen Raine; upon Heidegger’s insight extracted from the study of Trakl that poetry is ‘the site of the unspoken statement’; and upon Jung’s notion of synchronicity and St. Augustine’s notion of time, Clarke traces the larger spiritual resonances of the last poems within Western spiritual tradition.

Clarke also reinstates the necessity of symbolism – symbolism as Blake used it – as the means of reaching a deeper well of meaning, not at the expense of precision but with precision that can only be appreciated within the context of the whole of our tradition. Symbolically, Yeats’ tower embodies an irony more powerful than any of the current critical modes is capable of accounting for: while the tower stands upright to be struck by lightning, regenerating waters flow underneath. It stands for the paradox of life being worth living despite the knowledge of, and in face of, an approaching crisis, repeatedly. Whereas in Wordsworth the self, represented by the tower, grows into a ‘debilitating’ objectivity, in Yeats the self is struck and burned at its highest into a new beginning at its spiritual source, in a continual asymptotic movement born by the eternal conflict between, as Yeats saw it, Spirit and Nature, always one at the expense of the other. Through detailed analysis of particular examples, Clarke shows that Stevens’ poetry is capable of activating comparably self-shattering spiritual issues, its combined symbolism leading, eventually, to the spiritual guidance of Virgil and Christ. He comes to these results through the fourfold method of interpretation described by Aquinas and prophesied by Blake as ‘fourfold vision’. Thus, the anagogical sense of a poem is rooted in the poet’s vision, the concealed truth that Heidegger located as the ‘site of unspoken statement’, which precedes all meaning, even if it is understood last. Then criticism may pass through the typological stage (the type of traditional text, such as Augustine’s Confessions, the Psalms, or Apuleius’ Golden Ass, in Clarke’s interpretation) in order to gain vitality and depth from a conception of tradition which liberates from the personality of individual poets and previously established interpretations. Lastly, interpretation passes through the tropological (that is, denoting types of cry that herald ‘the end of the decaying kind’ and ‘the beginning of the unborn kind’) or moral stage, which allows us to apply ancient texts to the historical present, conveyed by the literal sense of a poem. Following this method, Clarke’s explanatory feat brings into play a fascinating selection of traditional sources that do not often figure anymore outside religious contexts, such as the Bible, St Aquinas, or St Augustine. Clarke argues that without anagogy preceding any sort of explication, critics and readers remains imprisoned on the literal, causal, level of interpretation.

Critics during the twentieth century have been reluctant to approach their object from the standpoint of any religious belief, and have focused predominantly on causal relationships within their analyses. Clarke has taken precautions against falling prey to the trap of explaining the last poems as evidence of belief in the poets. Such an approach would ruin his whole initial project – to present these poets as possible guides out of the labyrinth of present-day skepticism. Instead, he stresses their resistance to any ideology, and focuses on their ability to apprehend the future within the present or ‘the cold dawn rising at the end of the decaying kind’ – the potential of prophesy in their work. After we have seen, through previous criticism, and through the conscious imitations, allusions, and influence between poets, Clarke invites us to follow the transforming vision of these poets – its acausal synchronicity – in what they have gathered from western tradition and other sources to make ‘tradition vital once more’. Embracing Jung’s later concept of meaningful chance in his preface to the 1951 edition of the I Ch’ing, Clarke traces the possible literal connections of Stevens’ very last poem ‘Of Mere Being’. What he finds, strikingly, is not only the auricular and oracular connection of ‘palm’ to ‘Psalm’ contained within Augustine’s meditation on Psalm twenty-five, but also, within Augustine’s own sentences in direct proximity to ‘ad palmam supernae vocationis’, a chanceful reference to another line of the same psalm containing the word ‘mirabilia’, or wonders. This psalm seems to gather the plurality of voices ‘in senseless matter’, which Yeats achieved in his strangely inhuman penultimate poem, ‘Cuchulain Comforted’, to sing in a single voice the delight of God’s works.

The wonder in question springs from Stevens’ previous reference to Virgil, using the word ‘decor’ which Clarke finds in Stevens’ Latin dictionary with a passage about the Greek goddess of wonder, Iris. The single word incites Clarke to question the historicity of the game of sortes Vergilinae, first mentioned by Sidney in his Defence of Poesie in the context of English literature. To provide a link between the silence of the poem on pure being and augury, which Sidney explained as the purpose of the game of sortes (the casting of lots), Clarke moves to Thomas de Quincey’s meditations, where the earlier pagan game is complemented by the same idea of chanceful spiritual guidance through the sortes Sanctorum. And proceeding thus, with hidden intent, Clarke makes out multiple parallels between history and poetry, history and resurrection, the pilgrimage of the soul through life and the strangely detached vocabulary of this particular poem, and, finally, the mirabilia of Christ’s death and resurrection, as all belonging to the repertoire of meanings such a poem might activate if only the reader open herself, as Clarke writes, to the poem’s possibilities.

In the epilogue, Clarke explains the last poems as the ‘Songs of Sixpence’, poems on the verge of nonsense if read flatly, or on the verge of consciousness if read as embodiments of truth. Such songs, he says with Yeats, cannot be refuted. Worked into them is a relationship of self and time much more complex than that usually assigned to the Romantic tradition. Insisting that these poems ‘need space to unfold’, he draws upon Heidegger’s conception of time and essential being, presenting the poems as ‘a unique gathering of tradition at the end as it foresees our future in a hypostatic present.’[2]




[1] Edward Clarke, The Later Affluence of W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 231, n. 7.

[2] Clarke, p. 5.