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yeats - all things can tempt me

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Yeats: All Things Can Tempt Me

ALL things can tempt me from this craft of verse:
One time it was a woman's face, or worse --
The seeming needs of my fool-driven land;
Now nothing but comes readier to the hand
Than this accustomed toil. When I was young,
I had not given a penny for a song
Did not the poet Sing it with such airs
That one believed he had a sword upstairs;
Yet would be now, could I but have my wish,
Colder and dumber and deafer than a fish.


Yeats has often been described as the last Romantic. All Things Can Tempt Me, if the span 1910-1930 which Faulkner defines as the modernist period is accepted, can be seen as half within Yeat’s ‘Celtic twilight’ period and half breaking away from the late Victorian decadence and art for art’s sake towards classical modernism. 

The poem’s rhyme scheme in Popean hyper-correct heroic couplets is part of its ironic depiction of poetry as craft/toil. This imitation of form is however complicated by the disruption of its structure: a list of all things which can tempt is interrupted by the return to ‘now’ and a shift mid-line to ‘when I was young’ which returns to the speaker’s present wish to be ‘deafer than a fish’. The punctuation, dashes and colons and mid-line caesuras increase the disjunctive, confused structure of the mind’s dialogue, however the form is as a whole is coherent in contrast to Yeats later poems which include imagist elements. 

In terms of structure, Modernist poetry often follows Pound’s declaration that the first heave of modernism was breaking the pentameter as a symbol of the control on poetry which he would mock in Salutation the Second: 

Go, little naked and impudent songs..
Say that you do not work
And that you will live forever
Yeats similarly derided the Victorian sense of ‘brick and mortar’ within the covers of a book, and his parodic use of a structured form can be seen as part of this criticism. 

Armstrong has argued that modernism, defining itself as a radical break with the past, shows an element of continuity - because a break must break with something. This can be seen as relevant to this poem as Yeats is both breaking from the past and influenced by it. Williams sees Modernism as a sequence of innovations and experimentations more defined by what they are breaking from than what they are breaking towards, and this sense of an urge to ‘get out from under something’ in Kermode’s words is a pervasive element in much of early modernism. The satiric voice in this poem emerges most strongly with the line ‘did not the poet sing it with such airs’… 

The speaker remembers temptation as a woman’s face, in the conventionally driven first two lines, however this is opposed by the fact that this is dismissed for a greater temptation ‘seeming needs’ of a ‘fool driven land’. These themes of love for country/woman are often the source of poetry. The speaker abandons these for the accustomed toil of a poetry which is emptied of content and filled with self-reflexive negotiations of memory of the nostalgically and satirically recalled past, enclosed within the now of narration. This self-reflexive trend can be seen as a feature of both modernism and the post-modern. 

However as Brooker puts it ‘there is more than one modernism’, and while high modernism saw itself as breaking with the past, the Georgian poets had more conservative techniques, and in part seem more related to Yeats earlier Celtic phase. 

The ironic conformism in the poem is compounded by a typically modernist wish for a ‘golden silence’ in the last line. While on the one hand this can be seen in the context of troubling change, to ‘sing amidst our uncertainty’ it also indicates the wish to escape from personality which Eliot articulated in Tradition and the Individual Talent. 

While Eliot’s symbolist poetry, such as Rhapsody on a Windy Night, seems to reflect Remy de Gournmount’s view of the writer’s purpose as being to unveil the world behold in a personal mirror, the surrealist elements of this work remains in later work like the Wasteland but is toned down and the impersonality and shifting narrating voice can be seen as a way to escape the poets singing with ‘such airs.’ 

‘I had not given a penny for a song’ moves from poetry as restrictive toil to poetry as ballad – there might be a reference to epics, especially to Homer whom Defoe called a ballad-singer, in the simultaneous nostalgia and satire of these lines. 

While this poem’s conextuality is situated within early modernism it also contains some elements which appear in post-modern poetry. As Brooker has argued the two modes are not mutually exclusive but rather cancel and subvert each other. Lyotard sees Postmodernity as the element which in the modern seeks to represent the unpresentable. In this poem the sense of failing to reach an object is resolved by the wish for silence, which can be compared to T.S Eliot’s seeing poetry as possibly a way to heal the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ in art. 

The ironic conformism of such a stance brings to mind D.H Lawrence rejection of a ‘stable ego’ but also perhaps Barrow’s ‘minipoet’ and the 50’s movement, and is reminiscent of poems such as Larkin’s so to hear it said for example, with it’s reference to poetic gestures and heroes ‘stubbly with goodness’ , 

The Victorian sense of redundancy in a post-Kantian world is combined here with the feeling of inadequacy of poetic songs or airs, the wish to be a fish – the last word is particularly effective following the stress on ‘colder and dumber and deafer’ which implies death, while fish has connotations (as in Wasteland) of rebirth and generation as well as speechlessness, of a mouth moving but saying nothing. This might recall Pound’s poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberly and the lines ‘the age demanded an image/of its accelerated grimace’. Here the speaker cannot reach this image or the self assertion necessary to voice it. This relates to the Lyotard’s postmodern stress on the unpresentable , which can be read in a positive light as Hutcheon says ‘not the escape from representation but a commentary on it’. 

Early modernism’s debate on representation can be seen not only in poetry and art but also in the novels of James and Conrad for example, whose novels show as Bradbury has argued ‘not so much a substantiation of reality as a questioning of it’. 

However, the negative tone of the poem might imply an opposite reading. Jameson’s analysis of the postmodern condition discusses the idea that the erasing of human subjectivity and individuality as viable has lead to a ‘failure of the new’ as artists can no longer create but must speak through forms already present, as Barth’s literature of exhaustion and Eco’s argument on the need for revisiting the past indicate. 

This postmodern inclination for pastiche – out of a sense of surplus and saturation in Kapur’s words, might also be traced in the sense of exhaustion which marked the need for breaking from the past in the early modern period, the rejection of what Pound called the ‘crepuscular spirit’ as ‘Caliban casts out Ariel’. 


written: 2007
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