This Is Yeats Speaking
by CHARLES OLSON
This is William Butler Yeats. I want to speak to my friends in America about a thing which troubles me even now, though I have recovered leisure, and know more than I did about structure, mathematical and otherwise.
It is my friend Ezra Pound — who has made so many beautiful things. You Americans, you have him now on trial. I remember I warned him once about politics, not as you think, that we poets should stay out of it, I said simply, do not be elected to the Senate of your country. I was thinking of my own experience. I merely observed, you and I are much out of place as would be the first composers of Seashanties in an age of Steam.
I am not very interested in your hysteria, or his. We of Ireland have lived with treason long. It is not as dramatic as Ezra thinks, he has always been in these things as in so much American, exterior, moral. When he shouted, and now I hear you shout, I stoop down and write with my finger on the ground.
I do not know that any of us of my generation, and few of yours—I too a revolutionist—understood the contraries which are now engaged. William Blake observed that oppositions do not make true contraries.
It was our glory, Pound's and mine, I except Eliot—tradition is too organized with him, his uncertainty before chaos leads him to confuse authority with orthodoxy—to reassert the claims of authority in a world of whiggery. It is true what Pound said, we men of the mind do stand with the lovers of order. We value it, with what labor we purchase it in our work. We opposed ourselves to a leveling, rancorous, rational time.What a man of Eliot's words would call our sin was the opposite of his. Willing as we were to oppose and go forward, we did not seek true contrary.
Because of your irascible mind, Pound, and because my bones always took to comfort like a retainer's, you were ever in haste, and I sometimes, to think these men who marched and preached a new order—we of our excitable profession are attracted to sick men and buccaneers—had taken that other chaos of men's lives up in their hands, had worked to master it as we do ours, and could shape what men now need, rest, an end to this sea of question.
I understand this, at the distance I have acquired, I have Troilus' advantage, from the seventh sphere to look back on Diomed and Cressid both.
It was Pound's error to think, because he was able to examine with courage and criticize eloquently the world we have inherited—Rapallo was a place to escape the knots of passion, it was the village in the Chinese poem to which the official retired, inhabited by old men devoted to the classics—Pound thought this power, necessary to us men who had to make the language new, also gave him the sight to know the cure. It is the frenzy that follows when the mask of man is askew. The being must brag of its triumph over its own incoherence.
I examine his work in this new light and when he lay with beauty in her corner or fed cats in the street, they have their oppressors, he was a true lover of order. I would undo no single word of all he has published, quarrel as I have with him, take as I did at times his work of twenty years, the Cantos, to be a botch of tone and colour, all Hodos Chameliontos.
He was false—out of phase—when he subordinated his critical intelligence to the objects of authority in others. If the Positive Man do that, all the cruelty and narrowness of his intellect are displayed in service of preposterous purpose after purpose till there is nothing left but the fixed idea and some hysterical hatred. It was natural he looked for an elite, and from brawlers and poets. It was his obsession to draw all things up into the pattern of art. He was ignorant of science and he will be surprised, as Goethe will not be, to find a physicist come on as Stage Manager of the tragedy.
It is a time, yours, when forces large as centuries battle and I suppose you must be more violent in your judgment than a man like me who had age tied to his tail like a can. But this I would say to you: you must take strength by embracing the criticism of your enemy. It is the beauty of demons they rush in to struggle with a cry of hate you must hear if you will answer them.
I have advanced far enough out of the prison of my generation to understand it is civil war in which you are locked.
What day you ask when date is dead
of May, when month is lost.
I can be precise though it is no answer:
this is the day of great year
the day of fear.
Man is moon.
You will know better than I how it is to be fought. I wrote to my wife one time from Rapallo when I had listened to Pound for an afternoon damn usury, expound credit and Major Douglas, talk the totalitarian way, it was as though I were in the presence of one of Wyndham Lewis' revolutionary simpletons.
I had never read Hegel, but my mind had been full of Blake from boyhood up, I saw the world as a conflict, and could distinguish between a contrary and a negation.
Yet it was not easy for me to listen when one of your young men who had come to Rapallo to see Pound came away and said to me: “He has mingled with ferret and chameleon, vulture and kite, every antiSemite after his kind. He has touched abomination and is unclean.” In my first hard springtime I had a friend I thought half a lunatic, half knave.
And I told him so, but friendship never ends;
And what if mind seem changed,
And it seemed changed with the mind,
When thought rise up unbid
On generous things that he did
And I grow half contented to be blind!
Now in your country I hear a department called Justice speak of scripts for wireless and Ezra, as I would expect, talk back sharp. (Words cause no man fear except in the making of them.) I pay little heed, though there is pity in me, for I know Pound, he is a gambler and can measure consequence.
The soul is stunned in me, O writers, readers, fighters, fearers, for another reason, that you have allowed this to happen without a trial of your own. It is the passivity of you young men before Pound's work as a whole, not scripts alone, you who have taken from him, Joyce, Eliot and myself the advances we made for you. There is a court you leave silent—history present, the issue the larger concerns of authority than a state, Heraclitus and Marx called, perhaps some consideration of descents and metamorphoses, form and the elimination of intellect.
We were the forerunners—Pound only the more extreme—but our time was out of phase and made us enders. Lawrence among us alone had the true mask, he lacked the critical intelligence, and was prospective. You are the antithetical men, and your time is forward, the conflict is more declared, it is for you to hold the mirror up to authority, behind our respect for which lay a disrespect for democracy as we were acquainted with it. A slogan will not suffice.
It is a simple thing I ask as I might question a beggar who stopped me for a coin. It is the use, the use you make of us.
Are you a court to accept and/or reject JEFFERSON AND/OR MUSSOLINI, indict GUIDE TO KULCHUR and write a better, brief me contrary ABCs, charge why 100 CANTOS betrays your country, that poem which concerns itself so much with the men who made your Revolution for you? I have said I often found there brightly painted kings, queens, knaves but have never discovered why all the suits could not be dealt out in some quite different order. What do you find, a traitor? Dean Swift says in a meditation on a woman who paints a dying face.
Matter as wise logicians say
Cannot without a form subsist;
And form, say I as well as they,
Must fail, if matter brings no grist.
What have you to help you hold in a single thought reality and justice?
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