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A Satyric Paradise: The Form of W. B. Yeats's “News for the Delphic Oracle”

Michael Cade-Stewart
Affiliation:
King's College London
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Summary

The last year of W. B. Yeats's life represents an astonishing literary finale: nineteen poems written or substantially revised, including celebrated poems like “Long- Legged Fly” and “The Circus Animal's Desertion.” This tremendous literary achievement, as James Pethica has observed, “provides a striking contrast to the ragged endings typical of most writers” (xxvi). One of Yeats's last creative acts on his deathbed was to draft a list of contents for what he must have suspected to be his final volume of poems (Pethica xxvi). Yeats arranged for the volume to open with his own epitaph in “Under Ben Bulben,” followed by six poems expressing bitter disappointment with contemporary Irish culture. These culminated in “The Statues,” a monumental poem in stately ottava rima. The poem that followed—“News for the Delphic Oracle”—was anything but stately in form or content. The significance of this placement, both for these two poems and for the volume as a whole, has so far gone unnoticed.

“The Statues” is at its heart a tragic poem. It charts the development of an aesthetic philosophy that enabled the ancient Greeks to triumph over Asia. This development was achieved through the power of statuary:

[…] for the men

That with a mallet or a chisel modelled these

Calculations that look but casual flesh, put down

All Asiatic vague immensities,

And not the banks of oars that swam upon

The many-headed foam at Salamis.

Europe put off that foam when Phidias

Gave women dreams and dreams their looking-glass. (VP 610)

For in crafting statuary of measured proportions, the sculptors were able to shape desire itself: they “[g]ave women dreams and dreams their looking-glass.” This had a eugenic effect upon the Greek race, generating heroes. As Yeats wrote in his provocative pamphlet On the Boiler (1939), the Greek sculptors thereby “gave to the sexual instinct of Europe its goal, its fixed type” (LE 249).

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Writing Modern Ireland , pp. 187 - 193
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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