05 March 2010

Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors

Amos has presented an amazing poem by Yeats in an article on his blog Philosophy KTL (I wonder what the KTL stands for?) He raises some questions about the poem that I will now seek to answer. First, the poem:

Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

We are in the presence of something magnificent and dark. There is unquestionably an echo of the scaffold with "undertook" and "hang" and "blade." Amos sees in this poem "the cold, unpitying savor of tragic joy." Yeats is never one to ignore the tragic dimension that is (almost) inextricably bound up in human life, but I wonder whether there may not be another dimension to this poem that runs deeper than tragedy. The phrase "bring to pass" has scriptural echoes; aside from its literal usage in the gospels the "pass" brings to mind both Passover and the Passion. With a diamond-like degree of compression Yeats is evoking the profound mystery of death and rebirth that lies at the heart of all human activity. Any "action / is a step to the block;" a reality reflected in the dual meaning of the word "undertake." Despite the distinct possibility (and for most instructors high probability) of their eventual effacement, teaching, like all genuinely humane activity, maintains an inner necessity that is not rendered less compelling or less noble by the possibility of passing into nothingness.

"All things hang like a drop of dew." It is connected to the main sentence by a semicolon. Semicolons are generally used to connect what grammarians call independent clauses. The clauses connected, however, should be related (otherwise a full period or even line break would be appropriate). Therefore we must question the manner in which the hanging upon the blade of grass and the bringing to pass are related. Because of the passion reference I would be inclined to say that Yeats is specifically invoking the image of the dying god hanging upon his tree (albeit in a diminished form: his "tree" is but a "blade of grass"); but here, "all things" are consigned to this fate. The manner of this hanging is like "a drop of dew:" radically contingent and yet utterly necessary. For no doubt the presence of any dewdrop on any blade of grass is a matter of what we call chance; yet that there will be some dewdrops on some blades of grass in an absolute necessity. The unknown instructors have precisely this manner of existence. Their personality is obliterated but what is most proper to their being as instructors is preserved in their instruction, as it must be for their to be any instructors now.

And so, in answer to the question that Amos poses - "can we be grateful for nothing?" - I would answer "yes," so long as we have the humility to recognize that what lies in oblivion is what we owe everything to. Despite the extremes to which Yeats took his quest for otherworldly knowledge, I would like to think he maintained even in his darkest moments a deep piety towards that greatest of the Athenian deities: the unknown god.


Amos Johannes Hunt said...

I hear the "echo of the scaffold" to which you drew attention, but I do not find the phrase "brought to pass" as suggestive as you do, and certainly do not recognize any "passion reference." Besides, as you yourself point out, it is "all things" which are said to hang, and this would seem to put the Creation in the soteriological position of the second person of the Trinity. In any case, I do not believe that an underlying evocation of Christian salvation history can accomplish the redemption of Yeats's poetics.

Could you clarify your sense of the relationship between the two statements? There seems to me to be a want of economy and an inhospitable ellipsis between the completion of the undertaking and the use of a universal statement to describe the contingency of that undertaking. If the instruction is an example of all things hanging, anything else might have served just as well, and to apply the statement to the unknown instructors is robbed of any weight by the universal quantification. My sense is that "All things hang" in some way specifies the undertaking. This kind of specification would normally require a colon. The semi-colon promises less in the way of an explanation; the image which follows explains by the pressure of what it does not say clearly. (It is like a refrain which went unheard in its first utterance.)

Sebastian said...

I did not mean to suggest that specifically Christian salvation history was being evoked, though upon review I see how I could have been read that way. Rather, I was suggesting the invocation of "the dying god hanging upon his tree."

May I ask what you mean when you speak of redeeming Yeats' poetics? It would seem that to be redeemed is first to be redeemed from something, and I am not sure what you think has enslaved his poetry.

Sebastian said...

Also, I did not mean to ignore the second (and masterful) paragraph of your question, but I'm intellectually drained at the moment.

Steve said...

It's nonsense anyway. Only non-poets write this guff. Yeats did that stuff quickly and intuitively. Yes, in some ways those associations are present, but not to the level they assume in your critique. Jump off a bridge and see how much time you have to think about the water rising to meet you. That's what poetry is. It rushes and engulfs. One does the prior work of language, but after that it is something else, like Zen or sex. Only the critics are filled with this dilemma of passionate intensity and conviction.

Adam Bycina said...

That may have been the most intelligent explanation of what poetry actually is that I have ever heard. Have you written anything? And may I borrow this definition?