Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
Chekhov, Plays
Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End
Yeats, Plays



Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn

At the very beginning of Western literature stands an epic and a romance of travel that have never been bettered. Greece is only a tiny lighted area in a vast darkness peopled with monsters, monstrous humans, and malignant personified forces of nature. Odysseus travels through their hostile world carrying with him on his little boat, and finally only with his own sea-tossed body, the Greek community of reason, order, and ingenuity — Odysseus of many devices — the symbolic embodiment of thousands of merchant-adventurers who wandered from the Atlantic coasts of Morocco and Spain to the shores of the Caucasus and returned to the marketplaces of their bright little city-states where crowds gathered who spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.

Odysseus, merchant-adventurer, moving like a tiny dot of light over the dark map of the Mediterranean, the representative of a civilization, reason and order, confronting the irrationality and disorder of the natural world — hostile, valueless, chthonic, and strangely decadent. Circe, Calypso, Polyphemus — we are always conscious of the fact that these creatures, as personifications of an older world, know secretly, instinctively, that their day is done. They are the old order, ultimately powerless against the craftiness of this agile representative of a new world, who eventually conquers even Poseidon and the chaotic, many-voiced sea.

Twenty-five hundred years later an American was to write a kind of anti-Odyssey, the story of two comrades drifting on a flood without motor or sail, past civilization — a civilization hostile, haunted, valueless, and early-decadent. Except for a sweep that uses the current to avoid snags and whirlpools, they are at the mercy of flowing water — like the water that flows through the Tao Te Ching. Odysseus fights Poseidon with oar and sail. Jim and Huckleberry Finn co-operate with the Mississippi or yield to it passively. The enemy lurks ashore, in the towns of the frontier, in a way of life not very unlike that of the city-states of Homeric Greece.

Mark Twain’s judgment of that life is very different from Homer’s, and not unlike that of Saint Paul in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles — if Saint Paul had been an atheist.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not modeled on the Odyssey the way Joyce’s Ulysses is, but it would have been quite impossible for Mark Twain not to have Homer constantly in mind, as he must also have had Robinson Crusoe, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the travels of Peter and Paul and of dozens of others, not least Marco Polo. He carefully contradicts them all.

Huck and Jim are obviously Crusoe and Friday reborn; but it is Jim who is sane, knowledgeable, always resourceful, and guided by a simply defined, incorruptible morality — not a “system,” but a natural aptitude and a lifelong habitude. Crusoe’s island is a miniature of civilization, populated by one Whig early-industrial “projector” and his embodiment of “labor power,” quite untroubled by conflict or competition. Crusoe and Friday are civilization.

The raft is a passive vehicle of natural forces carrying the integrity of unalienated comradeship. Each member is himself, the embodiment of the integrity of selfhood; and the raft carries them through a universe of moral chaos — if not safe and sound, at least undestroyed. Beyond the all-dissolving flood on which they float, man is invariably wolf to man.

Each episode of The Odyssey is a triumph of reason; each episode of the odyssey of Huck and Jim is another perspective into chaos: “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Honor is a pretext for mass murder in the feud between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons. History is a cruel hoax — all Dukes and Dauphins are like the frauds who invade the raft. The King and Duke capture the raft, but they never, in any way, ever penetrate its little community of two. When they are gone, in spite of the damage they have done, it is as though they had never been. Past Kings and Dukes and murdering gentlemen of honor sweeps the mob swirling like maggots in the belly of a dead dog.

Twain yields one point to his enemy Sir Walter Scott. Above the chaos, like peaks above the icefields of Greenland, rise a few pure and noble women — logical flaws in Mark Twain’s sociology of relentless alienation, his weakness in actual life, and the doom of his full achievement as an artist. Stendhal had no such illusions. They are the good fairies and princesses in Mark Twain’s fairy tale, the relief in an otherwise unrelieved nightmare of violence and fraud and hypocrisy.

All passes — the characters of the epic fade like figures of nightmare. The great River, the stream of Tao, is reality; the rest is dream. “He had a dream and it shot him,” says Huck. “Singular dream,” says the voice of civilization.

In the end, the dream prevails. Huck and Jim become dislocated from their community of mutual aid and stumble unaware into the world of Tom Sawyer — the world of the business ethic tricked out in the romantic gawds of public relations fantasy. It is remarkable how much Mark Twain’s analysis of the predatory society resembles Thorstein Veblen’s. Tom is free enterprise as defined by Veblen, disguised as a little boy, and a horrible thing he is.

Unperceptive critics have objected to the ending of the novel — but it is the capture of Huck and Jim by the world from which they fled that turns the novel into black comedy, into the Theater of Cruelty. The Social Lie wins again against the brotherhood of man. The King and Duke, the bloody feud of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons are gone like evil dreams. But Tom Sawyer and Aunt Sally are not dreams; they are “reality,” and they will abide. They may be more unreal than the naked, obscenely painted Dauphin, but they will never go away. “A book for children” indeed — like Gulliver’s Travels! But maybe it is; perhaps every American child should read it and ponder its lesson. To judge by the papers, many of them have.

Mark Twain had a hard time giving up his own illusions. Pure womanhood, young and old — mom and sis and daughters — rising above the foulness of “the system” was one. Pure women pivot and close the plot of Huckleberry Finn. The frontier was another. Huck’s last words are, “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest.” These myths distorted his life and his personality. The River was another. He returned in middle life to the River to find it emptied of meaning. On the frontier he found the same fraud he had left — even a fraudulent Mark Twain: one Bret Harte. Brotherhood was another. His brother Orion was a lifelong nuisance and a great expense. Pure and noble women did their best to bring him down and almost succeeded.

Huckleberry Finn sets the tone and pattern for hundreds of American novels after it. No other civilization in history has been so totally rejected by its literary artists. Mark Twain is far more at odds with the values of his society than Stendhal, Baudelaire, or Flaubert, and yet he is far more a part of it. In many ways he was the typical educated — self-educated, usually — American male of his day. He was also enormously successful, one of the most popular American writers who has ever lived. Significantly, his hack work was less popular than Huckleberry, and even his blackest, bitterest books sold very well — and still do. Perhaps the typical American male is secretly far less the optimist than he would have the world believe; but the lies he rejects and the myths he believes are still those whose contradictions tortured Mark Twain.

We tend to assume that a work which involves the deepest symbolic levels of the human mind must be learned, intellectual, obscure — but quite the opposite should be true. The voyage of Huck and Jim is a simple tale of the adventures of simple people. It has been compared to the underworld journey of Osiris — but Osiris was Everyman. Likewise we forget, misled by contemporary practice, that black comedy is broad comedy, and it has usually been as hilariously funny as the fraudulent universe that Tom Sawyer constructs around Huck and Jim in their final captivity. The basic comedy — as has so often been true — lies in the contrast between an individual with no individuality, no personal center, and two people who cling to their integrity in spite of all.

There is something quite commonplace-American in all this. Twain’s novel occupies the same symbolic universe as Whitman’s “Passage to India.” Huck’s reveries in the illimitable night on the boundless flux are those of the boy in “Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking.” The son of a lawyer and judge; migratory worker and adventurer in early youth; unsuccessful businessman in middle age; his life ruled by pure women; raconteur; political cynic; in love with his work; man of the world — there have been millions of Americans like Mark Twain, and their dreams too have echoed Lao Tse, or Osiris, or Don Quixote, unaware. That is his power. Power — Waley translated Tao Te Ching as The Way and Its Power, and it could well be the title of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

[See also Rexroth’s essays Mark Twain and on The Decline of American Humor.]



Chekhov, Plays

It comes as a bit of a shock to sit yourself down and deliberately think, “In the first half of the twentieth century, the position once occupied in ancient Greece by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides was held, in the estimation of those who sought serious satisfaction in the modern theater, by Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov.” What had happened in two thousand years? Had it happened to the audiences, or to the playwrights, or to the self-evolving art of drama? Or was the change more profound than this, more profound even than a change in the meaning of civilization — was it a change in the very nature of man? We still say we enjoy Antigone; but if we go directly from a performance of that play to Chekhov’s Three Sisters, it is difficult not to believe that the men of Classic times were different from us, a different kind of men.

In certain plays, both Ibsen and Strindberg set out deliberately to compete with the great past, with Shakespeare or Schiller or Sophocles or Aeschylus. The results are hardly competition. Peer Gynt or Damascus bears little resemblance to the past, though certain Strindberg plays do contain distorted reflections of Euripides. But Chekhov — what would the Greeks have made of The Sea Gull? They would have classed it with Menander, with the New Comedy of domestic conflict and absurd situation. So did Chekhov. We seldom pay attention to half-titles in “Collected Plays,” but there it says, right on the page — “The Sea Gull, A Comedy in Four Acts.” Ivanov is called “a drama”; Uncle Vanya, “scenes of country life”; Three Sisters, a “drama”; The Cherry Orchard, certainly the saddest of all, “A comedy.”

So simply Chekhov states his aesthetic, and with it a philosophy of life. If we take these heartbreaking plays as tragedies in the sense in which Oedipus the King is a tragedy, we are self-convicted of sentimentality. No one has ever had a more delicate sentiment, a more careful sensibility, when it comes to portraying, and so judging, the lives of more-than-ordinary men and women — but no one was ever less a sentimentalist — than Chekhov. This is why he outraged a swashbuckling sentimentalist like D.H. Lawrence, who hated him and who couldn’t understand why he didn’t come down hard on the right side and plump for the Good Guys and The Life Force.

Chekhov always insisted that the five plays of his maturity that his audiences insisted were tragedies were simply developments, precisely in maturity, of the hilarious short farces of his youth. But if Uncle Vanya’s impotent pistol shots and Irma’s “Moscow, Moscow, we’ll never see Moscow now!” are not tragic, then Chekhov is mocking us, and his characters — and, not least, his actors — too. No. Chekhov is the master of an art of such highly refined modesty that he can present his people in their simplicity on a stage and let life itself do the mocking.

He wanted a new theater, a theater that would tell it the way it really was. There has been plenty of realist and naturalist theater in Russia in his day and since, but there is only one Chekhov. The naturalist theater uses a whole armamentarium of devices to create an illusion of “real life” and then drive home its points, all derived from the storehouse of literary and dramatic morality.

There have been many more lifelike plays than Chekhov’s. His is not a circumstantial naturalism of decor and talk and event — it is a moral naturalism. These lost people, off in the vast provinces of Russia, frustrated, aimless, hopeless, or full of utopian unrealizable hopes, all alike coming to trivial ends, actually make up a highly stylized theater of their own, as formal or classic as the Commedia dell’ Arte or Plautus and Terence.

What is realistic, or naturalistic? What is “life as it really is”? This is the silent moral commentary that underlines every speech, like an unheard organ pedal. Is it a judgment? In the sense in which “Judge not lest ye be judged” is a judgment.

There is something intrinsically ridiculous about all the people in all the plays. Chekhov’s is truly a theater of the absurd. Yet we never think of them as very funny — and we don’t think of them as very sad, either. The play as a whole may sadden us, as life saddens us with all the massive pathos of mortality, but Chekhov’s people we simply accept.

We do not judge Uncle Vanya to be a fool or Irma to be a silly girl or Trigorin to be an ass and a cad, although they certainly say foolish and silly and asinine things. And when that recurrent character who always says, “Some day life will be splendid, and people in those far-off days will look back on us and pity us in our filth and misery and thank us for having endured our agonies for them, so that they might be” speaks his recurrent part, we neither laugh nor sigh nor believe, but at the most think, “Perhaps. Not likely. It won’t matter.”

Chekhov would have been horrified if anyone had cold-bloodedly accused him of teaching a moral — but so he does. We accept these tragic comedies, these sorrowful farces of Chekhov’s the way we would accept life itself if we were gifted with sudden wisdom. Chekhov places us in a situation, confronting the behavior of a number of human beings in what seems to them, at least, an important crisis. We are so placed, so situated and informed, that we can afford to be wise. We can regard the affairs of men as they should be regarded, in the aspect of timelessness. But this is what Sophocles does.

Once we accept both the idiom of Chekhov and the idiom of Sophocles we can compare them, and we can see very clearly the great precision and economy with which Chekhov works. His plays are preeminently, in modern times, playwright’s plays, a joy for a fellow craftsman to see or read. How right everything is! How little time or speech is wasted! How much every line is saturated with action! Sophocles, Molière, Racine — very few other playwrights have been as accurate and as economical.

It is this genius for stating only the simplest truth as simply as can be that makes Chekhov inexhaustible — like life. We can see him for the hundredth time when we are sick of everything else in the theater, just as we can read his stories when everything else, even detectives and science fiction, bores us. We are not bored because we do not feel we are being manipulated. We are, of course, but manipulated to respond, “That’s the way it is.” Since the professional manipulators of the mind never have this response in view, we are quite unconscious of Chekhov’s craftiness — that he is always interfering on the side of suspended judgment.

Quite unlike those of Ibsen and Strindberg, who were tireless preachers and manipulators, Chekhov’s people are not alienated. They have trouble, as men have always had, communicating, but the cast of each play forms a community nonetheless. They would all like to live in a society of mutual aid if only they could define the means and ends of aid itself. One feels that Ibsen and Strindberg didn’t like any of their casts very much and made them up of people who wouldn’t listen to Ibsen and Strindberg. Chekhov doesn’t want to be listened to. He isn’t there. He is out of sight, in the last row of the balcony, listening. “I imagine people so they can tell me things about themselves.” This is an unusual, but certainly an unusually effective, credo for a playwright.

It is easy to accept Orestes or Hamlet as an archetype. Hundreds of books are written analyzing the new pantheon of heroes who make up the inner dramas of our unconscious. They are very spectacular personages, these. It is hard at first to believe a playwright who comes to us and says, “The schoolteacher and the two stenographers next door to where you live in Fort Dodge — these are the real archetypes.” But until we have learned this — and most of us will never learn it, however many Chekhov plays we see; not really, not deep in the bowels of compassion, but only as we learn things in books — we will never learn to approach life with the beginnings of wisdom: with that wisdom so characteristic of Sophocles.



Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End

The great bulk of the world’s prose fiction, contemporary and past, does not wear well. Almost all of it is soon forgotten and of those books which survive the wear of time, only a few withstand the effects of time on the reader himself. Out of all the novels ever written there is only about a ten-foot shelf of books which can be read again and again in later life with thorough approval and with that necessary identification that Coleridge long ago called suspension of disbelief. It is not ideas or ideologies or dogmas that become unacceptable. Any cultivated person should be able to accept temporarily the cosmology and religion of Dante or Homer. The emotional attitudes and the responses to people and to the crises of life in most fiction come to seem childish as we ourselves experience the real thing. Books written far away and long ago in quite different cultures with different goods and goals in life, about people utterly unlike ourselves, may yet remain utterly convincing — The Tale of Genji, The Satyricon, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Burnt Njal, remain true to our understanding of the ways of man to man the more experienced we grow. Of only a few novels in the twentieth century is this true. Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End is one of those books.

This is not a rash statement. Most important contemporary critics who have read it agree that it is the most mystifyingly under-appreciated novel of modern times. Issued as four novels of a tetralogy from 1924 to 1928, it enjoyed a moderate success with the public and even was issued by one of the two largest book clubs. Since then, in recent editions in America, its success has been tepid. Its virtues, which are those of a relentless maturity, may have limited its audience. Certainly the modernism of its style is no longer a factor. Its style is conventional indeed in comparison with many recent successful novels, and the less sophisticated public of years ago found it acceptable enough.

Many critics down the years have pointed out that almost all anti-war novels and movies are in fact pro-war. Blood and mud and terror and rape and an all-pervading anxiety are precisely what is attractive about war — in the safety of fiction — to those who, in our overprotected lives, are suffering from tedium vitae and human self-alienation. In Parade’s End Ford makes war nasty, even to the most perverse and idle. There is not a great deal of mud, blood, tears, and death, but what there is is awful, and not just awful but hideously silly. No book has ever revealed more starkly the senselessness of the disasters of war, nor shown up, with sharper x-ray vision, under the torn flesh of war, the hidden, all-corrupting sickness of the vindictive world of peace-behind-the-lines. It is not the corporate evil, the profits of munitions makers, the struggles of statesmen, the ambitions of imperialists that Ford reveals at the root of war, but the petty, human, interpersonal evil of modern life, what once was called wickedness. Grasping leads to hallucination and hallucination leads to death, hate kills and compassion redeems — this is the thesis of so many great novels. In a sense Parade’s End is The Tale of Genji transposed to a totally different system of coordinates, but the human equation comes out the same in the end, the pattern of the curve of life against the curve of death.

As the books appeared, they were known as “the Tietjens series” after Ford’s hero, and imperceptive critics made such of Tietjens’ remark that he was “the last Tory.” This label has injured both the understanding and the sale of the novel. Tietjens is a troubled, compassionate, gently sardonic man, and that phrase is the most wry of all his comments on his personality. If he is a Tory, it is not in the sense of Winston Churchill or Harold Macmillan, but of Jeremy Taylor or William Law. He is humanist man, confronted after two thousand five hundred years with the beginning of the end of humanist civilization in the first major explosion, the First World War, of mass civilization, inchoate and irresponsible, ridden with the frustration and vindictiveness that come with depersonalization and the loss of all real life goals. He is a Tory in the sense that he is a Christian gentleman, a Thomas More in a world where almost everyone is a Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn. He seems perhaps unduly put upon and crucified, Christlike because those around him are continuously crying out, “Barabbas! Barabbas!” in a terrifying din. But he isn’t crucified at last, he survives, and his compassion heals as many as it can touch.

Hate kills. In the midst of war the living deaths of the novel emanate from the hatred of Tietjens’ wife, adulterous, guilt-crazed, unrelievedly hostile. She is the daughter of Ibsen’s Nora or Hedda, who has got her way, which turned out to be no way at all. She is not as thrilling as Strindberg’s deranged women, but she is more convincing because she is infinitely pitiable. We accept her with Tietjens’ compassion. In a sense she is the heroine of the book, as the wretched Lear is the hero of his play.

Graham Greene once said of Parade’s End that it was the only adult novel dealing with the sexual life that has been written in English. This is a startling superlative, but it may well be true. Certainly the book has a scope and depth, a power and complexity quite unlike anything in modern fiction, and still more unusual, it is about mature people in grown-up situations, written by a thoroughly adult man.

Like his contemporaries, D.H. Lawrence and H.G. Wells, Ford’s best novels are all concerned with the struggle to achieve, and ultimately the tragic failure of what before them had been called, the sacrament of marriage. Before Parade’s End Ford’s The Good Soldier was probably the best of all the novels on this subject which so tortured the Edwardians, in literature and in life. Besides being a much larger-minded work, Parade’s End is certainly the best “antiwar” novel provoked by the First World War in any language. The reason is that the two tragedies are presented as one double aspect, microcosm and macrocosm, of a world ill. Ford builds his cast of English people at war like Dante built his tiers of eschatology, and reveals the war as a gigantic, proliferating hell of the love lost — known to itself as Western European Culture.

Ford liked to point out that Dostoievsky was guilty of the worst possible taste in making his characters discuss the profundity of the very novel in which they were taking part. Ford’s Ivan Karamazov and Alyosha would have talked only about the quality of the cherry jam and thereby have revealed gulfs known only to the discreet. The complex web of shifting time, the multiple aspects of each person, the interweaving and transmutation of motives, all these appear in the novels Ford wrote with Joseph Conrad, but here, where he is on his own, Ford’s talent for once seems to have been fully liberated, to go to its utmost limits.

The result is a little as though Burnt Njal had been rewritten by the author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. There is the same deadly impetus, the inertia of doom, riding on hate, that drives through the greatest of the sagas. There is the same tireless weaving and reweaving of the tiniest threads of the consequences of grasping and malevolence, the chittering of the looms of corruption, that sickens the heart in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The reader of either novel, or the saga, emerges wrung dry. The difference in Ford’s book is compassion. The poetry is in the pity, as Wilfred Owen said of the same war.

[Another Rexroth essay on Ford Madox Ford]



William Butler Yeats, Plays

Yeats is certainly the greatest poet of our time. I think I can say this without any qualification. There is no French poet who can compare with him, and there’s no poet in any other language who comes anywhere near him.

Yeats began writing late romantic, art nouveau verse. He made a great deal of his association with the Rhymers’ Club, with Dowson and Lionel Johnson. Actually, he didn’t write very much like them. He wrote more like Maeterlinck, who is the art nouveau writer par excellence and who was a part of that whole movement of artistic nationalism typified by the Provençal poet, Mistral.

Yeats’s whole mind was saturated with vapors and languors, an indefinite, sentimentally mystical coloring which is seen in Maeterlinck at its most extreme and which survived in a trivial popular form in Lord Dunsany, whose plays sound like parodies of the early Yeats. This was true of Yeats’s poetry. It was even truer of his plays.

In the arts the only painters who survive from that period to represent the same tendencies are Puvis de Chavannes and Maurice Denis, and even, in a peculiar rough-hewn way, Gauguin. In music, Debussy, Ravel, Delius are part of the world. And this is an unsatisfactory world. Yeats never fitted these garments very well. He always seemed to be bursting out of them, and he very early started to make an artistic credo and a philosophy for himself. His philosophy is found in A Vision, a book essential to the understanding of Yeats. His poetry and his plays are filled with symbols and exemplifications of his philosophical and mystical beliefs.

The early plays in this Celtic twilight idiom, like The Countess Cathleen, The Shadowy Waters, The King’s Threshold, Pot of Broth, The Land of Heart’s Desire, Cathleen ni Houlihan, I played in my salad days in the little theater. And the thing that they were that Maeterlinck was not is theatrical. They come across the footlights with surprising impact, and they are beautifully manageable within their own decor. The burlap sets and blue canvas smocks and gold painted leather Celtic jerkins of the early Yeats, seen behind a scrim under pale lights, green on one side and lavender on the other, are really very effective. It’s not anywhere near as silly as it sounds. These are very moving plays theatrically — very difficult to ruin.

Yeats’s plays are seldom given anymore. In the old days they were given by very bad little theater groups, yet they stood up and walked across the footlights and grappled with the audience in a way that only the work of the greatest playwrights does. Their first appearance of slightness and sentimentality is misleading. Once you accept the idiom, some of the lines are very beautiful. The Shadowy Waters, for instance, which is in a long romantic line, has a dusky, twilight, and jeweled bronze quality. It’s really a misty echo of the Irish Bronze Age that comes across.

Then Yeats became familiar with Japanese drama through the translations of Ernest Fenollosa, and Pound went to work at Yeats’s home putting Fenollosa’s translations of the Noh plays into shape. These plays had a determinative influence on Yeats. As was also the case with the English poet Sturge Moore, he was simply overwhelmed by the simplicity and by the new dramatic insights afforded by Noh. Now, Noh drama does not rise to a climax like Hamlet or East Lynne. It creates an atmosphere, but it creates an atmosphere in very sharp, definite terms — imagistic terms as they called them in those days — not in the shadowy way that The Shadowy Waters does, for instance. Noh creates a dramatic atmosphere of unresolved tension, or unresolved longings, or irresolution in the dramatic sense — and then this dramatic situation is resolved by a kind of aesthetic realization which evolves from the dramatic situation as its own archetype. This resolution takes the form of a dance, which can best be compared to a crystal of sugar dropping into a supersaturated solution. All the sugar that is held in solution will crystallize around the introduced crystal and form rock sugar until the solution is no longer saturated.

What eventuates is not a sense of resolved climax, but a sense of realized significance. This is a different thing — not the Aristotelian pattern of tragic drama as we have known it in the West. Yeats was simply enraptured by this discovery and used it from then on. Sturge Moore wrote a number of Noh plays at the same time. His was a more pedestrian mind — a very high-toned pedestrian mind. In many ways he was an extremely skilled poet. You could certainly call Moore’s plays mellifluous, but it’s interesting to compare them with Yeats. There is a universal reduction of scale. You are in a smaller and lesser world. Yeats’s dance dramas, on the other hand, compare very favorably with the greatest Japanese Noh. There is a genuine realization of heroic archetype. You feel the same way at the parting of Lancelot and Guinevere or at the episodes of The Iliad or the episodes of Lady Murasaki’s Genji and the Chinese The Dream of the Red Chamber, the episodes of Don Quixote or the Ramayana and Mahabharata. You are dealing with human experience reduced to pure archetypes, the sort of thing that people called deities and demigods and heroes. Yeats really does achieve this purity and nobility.

This is what makes major writing major — the ability to project human experience against a heroic background, to pour human thought and motivation and life into figures which exemplify the universal tragic situation of all men everywhere. Myths. Comparative mythology is comparable — Greek, Welsh, Polynesian, Irish, Japanese — because all men are, beyond all moral relativism, comparable. All works of great art have this in common — the ability to realize human experience in its most archetypical and ideal forms.

Yeats’s language changed at this time too. The change took place in his plays before it did in his poems. He came to realize that the greatest poetic speech was an enormously purified common speech — that the lingo of art nouveau, the twilight imagery and pseudo-medieval diction ultimately derived from William Morris and his followers, could not achieve heroic ends. Nothing sounds less like the parting of Lancelot and Guinevere in the Morte d’Arthur than the language of William Morris very carefully modeled on the Morte d’Arthur. John Middleton Synge, another of the major leaders of the Irish revival, studied carefully the speech of the peasants of the Aran Islands and the west of Ireland generally, and by using this speech pretty much as they did, by using the vocabulary, the idiom’s syntax, and even saying the things they did, he was able to sound very much like Malory or even Homer, and (he translated Villon) like Villon.

Under the influence of Synge and Lady Gregory, who was also interested in the use of folk speech to recover for poetry its original exaltation, Yeats developed a whole new language for himself. He went far beyond them in doing this. Yeats is an incomparably greater writer than Lady Gregory, although there is certainly nothing wrong with Lady Gregory. She is good at her own level and a considerably greater writer in some ways than Synge, because she is so much less sentimental.

The thing that vitiates a good deal of Synge is a kind of leprechaun sentimentality. In spite of his excellent theories and his careful use of pure language and reduction of plot to situations of great dramatic simplicity, Synge is, nevertheless, a little too sentimental. Incidentally, Tennessee Williams has made a reputation for himself in recent years by doing nothing more than reworking the plots of The Playboy of the Western World, The Tinker’s Wedding, and so forth. Synge used a basic plot situation which is to my mind a little dishonest, because it deals with modern revolt. That is, it’s a sort of Ibsen in the far west of Ireland, and as we all know today, the problems of Nora and Hedda were limited in time and place.

The best plays, the greatest achievement of Yeats, are the dance dramas dealing with the life of the Irish Heroic Age hero, Cuchulain. Best of these, perhaps, are At the Hawk’s Well and, one of the last things Yeats wrote, The Death of Cuchulain. It is difficult to say — The Only Jealousy of Emer is probably their equal. All achieve a purity and intensity quite unlike anything in the modern theater. We should remember that in the days in which they were being written, the advanced theater meant to most people the vulgar racket of German expressionism. There are no errors, lapses, or gaucheries in these plays of Yeats. Formally, they are so extremely purified that any fault, if it existed, would protrude like a mustache, not on the face of the Mona Lisa, but on the face of Mademoiselle Pogany. As far as the West is concerned, Yeats had, like a spider, to draw his material out of himself, and yet he worked with the instinctive assurance of a man with a thousand years of tradition behind him. It all looks so easy, like the swordplay of the Japanese swordsmen taught by the effortless discipline of Zen. Yeats perfects and sharpens his dramatic instrument and drives it home with absolute impact, like the swordsman whose weapon finds curves and crevices in space along which it slips, guiding the hand of the wielder, and beheading the opponent, who goes on dueling for some seconds until a sudden rough movement on his part tumbles his head from his body.

Besides this, the choruses of these plays are amongst the very greatest poems that Yeats ever wrote. Although they are integral to the plays, they also stand perfectly by themselves. I believe they are superior to the more fashionable poems of Yeats’s later work. They have the unbothered simplicity of folk speech in its highest utterance — as one might imagine, not one of the characters in Synge’s plays, but a real girl of the Aran Islands speaking of her lover dead at sea. They achieve all the things Yeats sought for in poetry, and they avoid his characteristic distractions. They really have mythic power, simplicity, directness, mana, Otto’s “sense of the holy.” In the age of Seami or Aeschylus, this would make Yeats a very considerable figure. In an age given over to people like Christopher Fry, Maxwell Anderson, T. S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, and Eugene O’Neill, he is absolutely unique. To say that he is the greatest English dramatist of our time is simply to say that he is the best of a bad lot. He is a good dramatist for any language and for any time.

[This text is from one of Rexroth’s weekly book review programs on Pacifica Radio Station KPFA (1953). It was transcribed and included in Rexroth’s first essay collection, Bird in the Bush (New Directions, 1959), and later included in More Classics Revisited (New Directions, 1989).]


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

Other “Classics Revisited” essays