The Problem of The Statues

DOI:  10.55804/jtsuSPEKALI-17-15


Written in April 1938, several months before the poet’s death, The Statues is deemed one of the most complex of W. B. Yeats’s poems. Certainly, a Yeats scholar is no stranger to difficulty and ambiguity, however, the interpretation of The Statues is further complicated by two reasons. The first one is related to the content of the poem, which became the subject of much ethical and moral debate. A number of prominent critics, including Harold Bloom (1978), viewed the final stanza as the manifestation of Fascist ideology (Bloom also had other arguments against the poem, which will be discussed later). George Orwell[1]  generally considered Yeats a poet of Fascist ideas, declaring his poetry unsuitable for the public. These assessments were grounded on Yeats’s actual fascination with the Irish Fascists[2], whom he viewed as the opposing power to social democracy and Marxism. Although this article is not an attempt to justify Yeats’s beliefs or protect his ghost from Fascist labels, it is necessary to note that Yeats’s support for Fascism was relatively mild and short-lived, largely derived from those ideas that fashioned the worldview of the first half of the 20th century as demonstrated in the research papers and works by Thomas Whitaker (Whitaker 1964, 2012), Elizabeth Cullingford (Cullingford 1981), George Watson (Watson 1976), and Murray (Murray 2001). The second problem is even more complex than the first one, as it concerns Pythagoras and mathematics: W. B. Yeats often made contradictory statements about mathematics and its characteristic accuracy in the works of the same period (North 1983). It would not be fair to ascribe such ambivalence to mere confusion because, as Thomas Whitaker wisely notes, Yeats can be confusing but seldom confused (Whitaker 2012). Discussions of mathematics and geometry make up an important part of Yeats’s prose and, most notably, form the foundations of A Vision (1937). The poet’s ambivalent attitude stems from the fact that Yeats was influenced by many varying beliefs: he inherited the negative attitude to mathematics and exact sciences from Swift and Blake. On the other hand, he had to acknowledge the importance of geometry, when he began to study Plato and pre-Socratic philosophers. Further, Walter Pater’s writings of Renaissance and classical art fascinated him. In Renaissance (Pater 1980), Pater overviews the Canon of Polykleitos, and the ‘noble simplicity’ and ‘quiet grandeur’ of the classical sculpture to borrow Winkelman’s words. The influence of Pythagoras on Polykleitos and Phidias is widely known. Classical Greek sculpture is based on mathematical harmony and symmetry. Therefore, Pythagoras - due to his immense influence on art and later philosophers like Empedocles, Plato, and Plotinus – is indivisible part of Yeats’s last poems (Engelberg 1961)[3]. M. North explains that “Yeats sees number in two quite different ways, as certainty and as unreality” [North 1983: 396].[4] Classical art used numbers to order the chaos of imagination and lend shape to abstract ideas. At the same time, exact as they may seem, numbers are arbitrary carriers of concepts. Thus, according to North, it is not arbitrary order but the mundane systematization that the poet detests. This is an important observation as, upon closer look, W. B. Yeats does not seem quite as attached to his own mythology as critics often tend to think: he is more reluctant to part with the forms and shapes than with the ideas and views that inhabit them, as no form is attached to a single concept, and no concept can be fully expressed within a single shape. Therefore, Yeats’s lyrical person is usually ‘more shade than a man,’ more oracle than a preacher, a declarer of the ambiguous and non-uniform truth. Accordingly, more often than not, one and the same form can be a carrier of contrasting ideas, and this is what makes up Yeats’s poetic method: casting different ideas in one and the same mould. Conceivably,  this might be the case with The Statues.

Yeats’s favourite ottava rima seems a natural choice for this sombre, dark poem that tells of an epic or pseudo-epic story. Helen Vendler (Vendler 2007) notes that the traditional abababcc is not always homogenous and explicit, especially in the third stanza, while the first and the fourth stanzas are ‘up-ended’. To add to Vendler’s observations, the first and the last as well as the third and the second stanzas have similar final couplets ( I – place / face, II – Phidias / looking-glass, III – bless / emptiness, IV – trace / face), and all of them end in [s], which highlights uniformity;[5] however, at the same time, the deliberate connections between the first and the fourth as well as the second and the third stanzas manifest a thematic and emotional distinction – the first and the fourth stanzas are intended as the introduction of an idea and the concluding assumption, as the ‘head’ and ‘the feet’ of Yeats’s statue, while the second and the third ones (which also are counterarguments) are extensions, ‘the body’ of thought. I would suggest, albeit with great caution, that the poem reproduces one of the key features of the classical sculpture – contrapposto, or, more particularly, the S-curve.

The first stanza introduces Pythagoras:

“Pythagoras planned it. Why did the people stare?

His numbers, though they moved or seemed to move

In marble or in bronze, lacked character.

But boys and girls, pale from the imagined love

Of solitary beds, knew what they were,

That passion could bring character enough,

And pressed at midnight in some public place

Live lips upon a plummet-measured face.” [Yeats 1983: 336]

The classical sculpture is the embodiment of the perfection that remains unattainable for mortals (Pater, 2010). The Greek statue depicts gods and heroes, and their blank, absent gaze expresses their ‘repose’ and ‘quiet grandeur.’ A. N. Jeffares cites a passage from On the Boiler: “There are moments when I am certain that art must once again accept those Greek proportions which carry into plastic art the Pythagorean numbers, those faces which are divine because all there is empty and measured” [Jeffares 1968: 490]. The perfect bodies of the statues as well as their empty gaze – their indifference, which Yeats always associated with the superhuman and the divine, arouses passion and sexual fantasy in girls and boys who stare. Yeats here offers an interesting contrast between the gazer and the one that lacks gaze, because the emptiness of the eye, like the ideal blindness in the previous poems (e. g. The Tower), equals heart’s fullness.[6] M. North notes ”it is exactly this lack of character that makes them divine, not because they show man’s most perfect physical form, but because they turn away from all representation of the physical into the emptiness of pure thought“ [North 1983: 398]. This strange equation as well as the entire philosophy of A Vision (1937) derives from the unity of the opposing phenomena, and, more particularly, from the idea that any number inherently suggests the presence of its corresponding negative or, as Schopenhauer cites Spinoza, the day at once reveals both itself and the night (Schopenhauer 1969). The second part of this stanza, in which the gazer at midnight steals up and kisses the statue[7] by demonstrating passion and life, manifests his / her own mortality and imperfection. This scene is a sad and acute caricature of man’s mortality. The first stanza of The Statues reduces aesthetic pleasure to pornography,[8] mocks the opening lines of Sailing to Byzantium and, at the same time, evokes the first stanza of Byzantium, in which the gong of Hagia Sophia ‘disdains’ and neglects the drunken soldiers and prostitutes _‘the fury and the mire of human veins.’

As mentioned earlier, the first stanza is a reflection, while the second one begins with a sudden exclamation, which negates the first one. ‘Greater than Pythagoras’, in this case, is the sculptor himself, who transformed those numbers into a shape. It is these sculptures, plastic art _ not the ships _ that defeated the vague Asian immensities – the many-headed foam of Salamis and, also, the Asian art of representation, the many-headed Buddha. According to some sources, which Yeats knew, Pythagoras was Apollo the God himself, as he was rumoured to have had a golden thigh. This epithet (‘golden-thighed Pythagoras) is frequently applied by Yeats and, as a matter of fact, as noted by almost all researchers of this poem (Engelberg 1961 et al), Pythagoras’s plan in the opening line acquires the purpose of the divine will. This ‘many-headed foam’, of course, evokes Hydra and the Second Labour of Hercules, while also alluding to the victory of Apollo, the God of order, over the monstrous python, a traditional creature of chaos (the birthing earth usually represents the natural, uncontrolled chaos is such myths). It is important to explain that Yeats identified Asian art with what Nietzsche called Dionysian. Accordingly, if we move beyond biographical details or discussions of Fascism, the Salamis of the second stanza will reveal the representational differences of the European and the Asian art, contradiction between the Dionysian and Apollonian and not the superiority of the European race as Bloom thought (Bloom 1978). Bloom’s argument is further eroded by Wilson’s suggestion (Wilson 1951) that the many-headed foam is the many-sided mirror – a grotesque version of naturalist art, of Stendhal’s ‘mirror dawdling down the lane’, which parodies the Greek ‘simple nobility’ and the recurrent symmetry. To add to the complexity of this image, in Neoplatonic and Platonic mythology, sea and water symbolise primary and chaotic substance, which imagines the Pythagorean artist as the spirit of God that moves over the waters and seeks to transform the substance into a myriad of shapes.[9]

This paper already had an attempt to discuss the ambivalence characteristic of Yeats: sometimes he viewed Asian culture as an ideal of proximity to nature, while holding Phidias guilty for naturalism. In this poem, chaotic means unmanageable, which order, exact lines, and numbers have subdued. Overall, the statue here embodies order and falls among the archetypes of walled gardens, towers, castles, and many similar artificial shapes (Frye 2000) that mirror the savage nature around themselves.

“Europe put off that foam when Phidias

Gave women dreams and dreams their looking-glass.” [Yeats 1983: 337]

The looking glass of a dream is its shape, its visible embodiment. Yeats viewed artistic images as embodied forms of a dream, vision, imagination. A work of art is an ideal, whose perfection conditions fullness and subsequent emptiness, or more precisely, absence of interest, indifference to mortals, as God’s epic laughter in Paradise Lost. The ‘quiet grandeur’ of the Classical sculpture holds greater divinity than the idea of the God itself, leading us to the ancient paradox that it is not reality that fashions art, but art itself creates reality.

“One image crossed the many-headed, sat

Under the tropic shade, grew round and slow,

No Hamlet thin from eating flies, a fat

Dreamer of the Middle Ages. Empty eyeballs knew

That knowledge increases unreality, that

Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show.

When gong and conch declare the hour to bless

Grimalkin crawls to Buddha's emptiness.” [Yeats 1983: 337]

‘The one image’ having crossed the many-headed foam seems to be Apollo, who has grown fat under the tropic shades, distanced himself from the Pythagorean symmetry and transformed into the Buddha. In his commentary to the poem, A. N. Jeffares quotes W. B. Yeats’s letter (28 June 1938) to Edith Shackleton Heald (Jeffares 1968), in which Yeats notes the influence of Greek sculpture on the image of the Buddha. Yeats had read the English translation of Alfred Foucher’s works (The Beginnings of Buddhist Art, 1917), which explores the influence of Greek sculpture on Buddhist art. The empty gaze of the Greek statue is paralleled by the Buddha’s closed eyes, an Asian equivalent of indifference and a deliberate change to demonstrate that the East neglects the Western focus on the meaningless external world, which is a mere appearance (Raine 1990). Thus, as Yeats phrases, knowledge increases unreality and whatever we see is mirror on mirror showed: all art and truth, therefore, are only reflections of a reflection.[10] Therefore, in the third stanza of The Statues, Buddha diverges from the Pythagorean ideal, as does the generic Western man _ Hamlet _ another miserable caricature thin from eating flies. Raine (1990) draws a remarkable parallel with Shakespeare’s play and traces the source of the epithet (Hamlet’s ambiguous reply to Claudius in Scene 2 of Act III),[11] explaining the comparison Yeats himself made between Siddhartha and Hamlet as Eastern and Western princes: “This 'fullness', discovered by Prince Siddhartha but unknown to Prince Hamlet, is also 'Buddha's emptiness', which makes Western knowledge unreal. The Renaissance prince knew more and yet all his secular speculation is, in Eastern terms, unreality — maya; the increase of spiritual knowledge gained by the emptying of the 'eyeballs' which perceive objective reality makes that reality itself 'unreality', undoes the objective picture of the world which is the peculiar glory of Western civilization. What is knowledge to each is ignorance to the other“ [Raine 1990: 322].

It is also notable here that the image of Hamlet is generalized, and the parallel with Shakespeare’s character is only partial. Yeats knew that Hamlet, although strangely agile, is fat (Yeats 2015).[12] Despite varying interpretations, however, Hamlet is never fat on stage. The theatrical tradition established the image of the ‘inky-cloaked’ prince, a thin and tortured soul, an intellectual with Yorick’s skull in his hand. Hamlet in this poem is a caricature of Western philosophy, a comic image of the Christian thinker. Both the Buddha and Hamlet here are represented as deviations from the perfect Apollonian form. Such amorphism, of course, indicates desacralisation, if accepting the initial principle that the Pythagorean form is the ideal. It is also noteworthy that the poem’s criticism focuses on A Vision (1937) and Yeats’s personal ideas. However, these do not always form the foundation. The lyrical person of The Statues is an oracle, an indifferent avatar of the supernatural truth, which is itself a reflection of something beyond the visible. As noted by both Bradford  (Bradford 1965) and Finneran (Finneran 1983), the poems written after Under Ben Bulben, Yeats’s self-epitaph, are, in fact, a mystical call coming from beyond the grave: as Yeats himself says, ‘wisdom is the property of the dead, something incompatible with life’ (Blood and Moon). Therefore, the lyrical person of the Statues also gazes upon the cyclical movement of history, alteration of ages with a blank eye, ‘as they die each other’s life and live each other death’ (Yeats, 2015).

Another interesting detail in the third stanza is the mention of Grimalkin or Graymalkin – the famous cat of the weird sisters from Macbeth. Grimalkin, on the one hand, is another version of Hamlet swallowing flies and, on the other hand, a caricature of the Sphinx, the embodiment of the highest intellect. The cat is a frequent guest of Yeats’s poems: Raine (1990) notes that the reference to Macbeth is misleading and Grimalkin is a simple equivalent of Minnaloushe. Graymalkin, however, is too famous a cat to be alluded to without reason. Wilson (1960), on the other hand, believes that Grimalkin, as the witch’s cat, is Goddess Astrea’s opposite and the symbol of full objectivity that bows to the Buddha. To add to these versions, it is interesting that the commentary to Macbeth[13]  defines Graymalkin / Grimalkin as follows: Malkin is the diminutive form of Maud, Matilda, and, at the same time, denoted a prostitute in Shakespeare’s time. Any scholar of Yeats is familiar with the name ‘Maud’, and the contrasting parallels of Homer’s Helen and Raftery’s Mary that Yeats constructed out of his life-long love for Maud Gonne. More particularly, I am referring to another poem in the collection _ Bronze Head, in which Maud Gonne’s bust is represented as blank-eyed and vivid, albeit somewhat caricatural an image of the Pythagorean symmetry. Accordingly, it is quite possible that Graymalkin, the witches’ cat and the inhabitant of the ‘witching hour of the night’[14] represents a degraded, shrunken caricature of the ideal that crawls to the feet of Buddha’s self-fulfillment and emptiness.

Therefore, while the second stanza described the triumph of the West, the third one prophesies the rise of the natural, of the chaotic, and this is where the indifferent oracle grows silent, followed by yet another human reflection or conclusion:

“When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side.

What stalked through the post Office? What intellect,

What calculation, number, measurement, replied?

We Irish, born into that ancient sect

But thrown upon this filthy modern tide

And by its formless spawning fury wrecked,

Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace

The lineaments of a plummet-measured face.” [Yeats 1983: 337]

The main difficulty of the poem lies in its last stanza, because it is what fueled the heated debate among the critics for years. At this point, it will be reasonable to return to the thought of Harold Bloom (Bloom 1978), which is not critical but rather harshly ironical. Bloom’s arguments are certainly stronger than Orwell’s and they seem, at a glance, grounded, because the nationalist focus does not very much suit the grand idea of the poem. Bloom blamed Yeats’s critics in guarding the poet, generally believing that Yeats’s poetry was overappreciated. Bloom goes further by saying that if we replace the phrase – “we, Irish“ – with “we, Germans”, Yeats’s Fascist mindset becomes clearer. It should be reiterated here that there is no use in negating Yeats’s Fascist beliefs and guarding him against all this. When it comes to the German and the Irish, however, a problem arises: Yeats is talking about the Easter Rising – about Pearse and other leaders of the national movement - about people who fought for the independence of Ireland at the cost of their lives. Despite the fact that Yeats did not much like Pearse, the events of 1916, albeit rather violent, still awakened the spirit of Cuchulain, the son of Lugh[15] and became a precondition to the restoration of the Irish language, national identity, and, ultimately, the Irish independence. However, this rebellion is still related to the violence in the poem, since it brought cruelty and racialism, which makes the lyrical person ponder: What was it that Pearse summoned along with the spirit of Cuchulain? What crept into Dublin’s Post Office? Where was Cuchulain’s statue erected to commemorate the Easter Rebellion in 1937? As Raine notes, “A 'Presence' of the superhuman is here invoked with an effect of chilling terror. Like 'the brute blood of the air' that engenders the Trojan War in the loins of Leda this impulse comes from beyond number and measurement; these 'reply' to the supernatural impulsion like Coleridge's 'organic harps' but do not initiate“ [Raine 1990: 322].

It is also notable that Helen Vendler emphasizes, though does not elaborate on the fact that Pythagoras and Pearse are the key characters of the poem’s first and the final stanzas (Vendler 2007). However, presumably, the combination of Pythagoras and Pearse is only arbitrary, as the poem clearly indicates, though never mentions one important P: Pericles. The mention of Phidias is a self-evident reference to Pericles and his age. Yeats associates Pearse with Phidias and Pythagorean art to allude to Pericles. Though Pearse is not as significant as Pericles, the rebellion initiated by him ultimately led to an epic event, the independence of Ireland, and this is too important an event in the history of Europe to be reduced to narrow nationalism. Thus, considering these arguments, it is impossible to replace the Irish with the Germans, and identify the tragic joy of fight for freedom with the atrocities committed by Hitler. Therefore, one may conclude that the ‘ancient sect’ does not indicate any racial superiority. It refers to the ancient and tortured nation of the Celts, who, like many other nations, were flooded by the ‘dirty tide’ of the modern world. Yeats compares this metaphorical flood, the filthiness of the human and the earthly, which was so abundantly present in the first half of the twentieth century, with the kind of chaotic darkness that inspires strife for ordered shapes and derives fullness from heart’s emptiness.


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