The Yeatsian Presence in A.J.M. Smiths Like an Old, Proud: King in a Parable
by I.S. MacLaren
From its initial reviews over a decade ago to the most recent study by Sandra Djwa, A.J.M. Smiths Poems New and Collected has been both celebrated and criticized for its awesome (or troublesome) range of poetic variations. Not surprisingly, since this volume alone constitutes the poets oeuvre, speculation has arisen as to whether only one hundred odd poems can support such a range and whether they can therefore establish Smith as a skilled craftsman. Certainly the one hundred pieces show Smith to be a chameleon he can viciously dismiss the vacuity of popular poetry, he can articulate his committment to sing the lonely music or to encounter voluptuous death, and yet he can delight his reader with such flippant remarks as:
The question raised by the bewildering variety of Poems New and Collected is whether to assess the poems individually in their own terms or to attempt to discover whatever unity lies at the core of the collection. Neither of these approaches has proved wholly fruitful: the former has spawned only general comments, such as Munro Beatties observation that Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable resembles the poetry of the later Yeats;1 the latter, as in Sandra Djwas analysis of Smiths corpus in terms of its metaphysical themes,2 unavoidably loses eight of the other themes in the collection, thereby tending to rob it of its multifarious vitality. It would thus appear desirable to approach each poem in its own terms and then, having estimated in unique value, to ascertain where it fits into the tenor of the collection. With this in mind, the following paragraphs offer an examination of the Yeatsian presence in Smiths work through a close reading of the poem most often placed in the later Yeats category, Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable.
The early poems, and here it is essential to look beyond what Smith chose to collect, to Leda and the embarrassingly reverential For Ever and Ever, Amen, demonstrate what the poet has recently called too much of an obviously Yeatsian quality.3 As poems they do no more than express in lyrical form what Smith the graduate student wrote of Yeats in his Masters thesis. While he was preparing his thesis during the winter of 1925-26, W.B. Yeats was publishing A Vision (1925) and writing the poems of The Tower which appeared in 1928. To the twenty-three year old Smith, Yeats represented a master whose command of the language of poetry merged with his understanding and reaction against the beauties of the Pre-Raphaelites and the evils of realism and Victorian art and literature in general.4 Smith was delighted when his Two Sides of a Drum shared the pages of The Dial with Yeats poems in 1926. It is possible to hear a vaguely autobiographical tone in his portrait of Yeats as extremely sensitive to nature . . . fortunately the desolate beauty and grey splendour of the country in which he spent the most impressionable years of his youth, for Smith himself celebrated the desolate splendour of the Canadian north in The Lonely Land which was published in The McGill Fortnightly Review during that thesis winter of 1925-26.5 The Lonely Land is not commonly approached from a Yeatsian perspective; yet the gap between Yeats grey Galway coast and the wild swans at Coole to the grey grief, grey rock, grey cloud-piled sky and the wild ducks cry of the original version of The Lonely Land is not a wide one. To an aspiring young poet who felt, to use Peter Stevens phrase, bound by the diluted Romanticism of the older Canadian poets,6 and threatened by Romanticisms power to disintegrate the poetic fibre, the study of Yeats represented a turning outward to a poet who had survived his own romantic tendencies, had, almost dutifully, dealt with the native (Celtic) twilight and had emerged from it into what he called in The Fisherman, the cold and passionate (and in Smiths terms more identifiably cosmopolitan) dawn of his later work.
Smiths thesis on The Poetry of William Butler Yeats indicates a close reading of the Anglo-Irish poets Essays and Autobiographies. It systematically judges Yeats early phases as Yeats himself had done and various echoes of the masters own comments inevitably abound. Consider Yeats retrospective assessment of The Wanderings of Oisin beside Smiths description of Yeats poetic development after that work. Here is Yeats view:
Smith voices a strikingly similar
view of Oisin in the thesis:
Each passage charts in the development of Yeats poetry the aesthetic of Intellectual Beauty as Yeats used the term. Each passage expresses the need to pare the work of art (poem or statue) of all but its quintessence while Yeats seeks the cold light and tumbling clouds, Smith calls for a naked, grey and vital poetry.
Whether the scene conjured up by Smith in the above passage owes its inspiration, as well as its imagery, more to Yeats descriptions of the Galway coast than to his own The Lonely Land is difficult to determine and is of secondary concern to a more striking, and for the present discussion, more important feature of the passage: the analogy made in it between poet / king and poetry / queen. The importance of the analogy resides in the facts that it immediately recalls the characters and the act of divestment or abdication in Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable. The fact that the thesis simile draws the Yeats / king and the poetry / queen parallels, the bitter king in anger to be gone phrase invites a biographical reading of the poem in terms of Yeats unhappy abdication of his public roles at the Abbey Theatre and else where. Divesting himself of the props of the stage role (the hollow sceptre and gilt crown), he broke bound of the counties Green and retreated to the north, to the rocky Galway coast. There, with his bride, Georgie Hyde-Lees, he purchased Thoor Ballylee in 1917 and proceeded to make the old stone castle habitable: he made a meadow in the northern stone. From there, until his death in 1939, Yeats sang the difficult, lonely music of his later poetry. This last phrase captures the Yeatsian spirit (as registered in his comment on Oisin) and cadence (the cold and passionate dawn). Interestingly, it did not appear in either the 1926 (The McGill Fortnightly Review) or 1928 (The Canadian Mercury) versions of the poem; it was first incorporated into the poem when it appeared in New Provinces (1936), well after Yeats publication of The Tower and The Winding Stair.
The invocation of the Father in the poems last stanza, though reverential in tone, need not be confined to a strictly religious reading; indeed, other than the obvious connotations of the parable form, the religious reading does not especially suit the matter of this poem. Smith is invoking the Father Yeats as his master craftsman and perhaps even as his muse. The poet pledges himself:
The separation of the personal adjective Your from its noun, heart leaves the reader the length of the line to imagine that the difficult, lonely music belongs to the Father who is still being addressed. The grammatical connection with heart at the lines end does not wholly negate the previously made association; in fact, the spiritual bond formed in the poem would suggest that the distance between the Father Yeats and Smiths heart is not great. Further, the spiritual tie instigated and confirmed by the generical nature of Parable permits the last line to signify that the poet, Smith, will sing his hearts song in the manner of the old, proud king, Yeats. In the light of this reading, Smiths decision to introduce his last three volumes with Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable becomes significant: standing like an invocation at the head of Collected Poems (1962), Poems New and Collected (1967) and The Classic Shade (1978), it recognizes the inspiration and announces the aspiration of his poetical identity.
There is, however, a less specifically Yeatsian reading of the poem, stemming still from the simile in the thesis on Yeats. The bitter king, bitter because deluded by the trappings of poetical convention being imposed upon him (i.e. Smiths delineation of the demands made on the Canadian poet to talk romantically of snowshoes etc.), must divest himself of the gilt crown, the hollow sceptre, the doting but ultimately tyrannical queen (oppressively emotional poetry). Rather than stalk about in anothers apparel, the poet must start afresh, must renounce the comforts of the fat royal life, the easily made poetry embroidered by luxuriant but vacuous emotions. His act of breaking bound is an act of defiance, an abdication of his public role in order to answer the heart that carolled like a swan. This stripping away of foreign adornments is how Smith characterized the development of Yeats poetry in the thesis passage. It is integrated into the poem as an expression of the poets hope to die out of the public mask and into the naked, proud and lonely (thesis) self. The dialogue will no longer be conducted between king and court, but between self and soul, bridegroom and bride, intellect and emotion.
In his 1939 memorial essay, Smith identifies two prominent themes in Yeats later poetry which are not mentioned for obvious reasons in his thesis; the problem of the place and usefulness of the poet in the modern world . . . a significant problem which Yeats made dramatic because he was aware of a conflict in his own mind"; and his natural inability to deceive himself for long at least so far as art was concerned.9 The revision of Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable to include the image of the self isolated with the self and making difficult, lonely music out of that confrontation, demonstrates Smiths acceptance of the Yeatsian aesthetic in poetry: his pride acts both as his greatest comfort and his harshest critic and his poetry of Intellectual Beauty is born out of the struggle with that ambivalence.
It should perhaps be stressed that both the thesis passage and the poems title are verbal acts of similitude rather than of identification. Thus, the poem does not demand that the old proud king be identified as Yeats; in fact, it thrives on a simultaneous relationship of the king figure with several characters (the clear advantage of simile over metaphor being its capacity to relate several things at once). The king is 1) Yeats, a poet who man aged to sing the difficult, lonely music of the heart, 2) a quasi-mythical being who renounces the urban court for the pastoral life, and 3) an ideal to which the poet aspires. In this third capacity, the king figure is like Yeats fisherman in prey Connemara cloth . . . Who does not exist, / A man who is but a dream for whom Yeats determines to write one / Poem maybe as cold / And passionate as the dawn. In a moment of scorn at the thought of playing the public role and writing for my own race / And the reality, the bitter poet travels imaginatively to a place / Where stone is dark under froth. Similarly, Smith, refusing to play the role of a native poet painting nature scenes in whatever words rhyme, vows to a man who exists only in a parable: I will sing to the barren rock / Your difficult, lonely music.
Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable is undoubtedly one of Smitha most important poems: its placement at the head of his collections advises us that the poet still accepts its credo and its poetical theory. It is even possible to discern a relationship between Smiths understanding of the development of Yeats poetry from pure emotion to Intellectual Beauty and his famous critical classification of Canadian poets into native and cosmopolitan traditions. Of the native tradition, for example, he argues that the concentration upon personal emotion and upon nature, while it made for an easier success, meant a serious narrowing of range and some times a thinning of substance.10 Like Yeats, he criticizes such poetry for its lack of complete relevancy, and he traces its demise in the light of this shortcoming: the tradition of romantic nature poetry became brittle and glazed, and its imagery, which in the older poets had been genuinely local, tended to harden into convention. What was needed, Smith saw, was for poets to adopt a cosmopolitan, intelligent regard of the world around them: this would produce the poetry of ideas, of social criticism, of wit and satire11 whose unassuming and undeceived outlook would pare the fat royal life and emotionally romantic poetry of their overloaded diction.
What clearly sets Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable apart from other too obviously Yeatsian early poems is that it transcends its sources to become a sincere, almost private, statement and a successful, self-contained poem. It is not a pastiche or a mere exercise in anothers style. It echoes and shares Yeats ideas but never does it need to rely on an identification with them: the poem has, does and will thrive without it. But, as Walter Jackson Bate remarked in his study of Keats early poetry, We must evaluate influences to the degree that they release energies and allow one to go ahead on ones own feet.12 As much as any image or theme, it was Yeats committed spirit that affected Smith and, as Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable demonstrates, assured him that the struggle to express Intellectual Beauty was a noble one. Such inspiration obviously could have been culled from the work of various poets but here again, the enthusiastic tenor of the Masters thesis suggests Yeats above all others as the initial muse. Consequently, one cannot help wondering how the Yeatsian and metaphysical strains have blended. However far Smiths concern with that great metaphysical question of the relation between the spirit and the senses may be traced back to the metaphysical poets themselves, as Sandra Djwa suggests,13 a similar path down to Yeats through Blake is also readily discernible. The immediacy of this metaphysical concern in Yeats A Dialogue of Self and Soul, Byzantium, Among School Children, and the Crazy Jane poems, perhaps suggested to him a portrait of Yeats as a modern metaphysical whose poetic dialectic achieved the beauty / of strength / broken by strength / and still strong.
Clearly, we are only beginning to understand and document the complexity of the question of inheritance and adaptation in Smiths poetry. It is the salient feature of Smith studies as George Woodcock has advised us:
The poetry begins to gain resonance when Smiths understanding of his predecessors and contemporaries is clarified; one suspects that the more we uncover of this nature the less Smiths chameleon nature will strike us as troublesome.