18 January, 2010Issue 11.1LiteraturePoetryVisual Arts

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A Terrible Beauty

Alex Niven

foerCalvin Bedient
The Yeats Brothers and Modernism’s Love of Motion
University of Notre Dame Press, 2009
424 Pages
£43.50
ISBN 978-0231148160

As Calvin Bedient makes plain in the introduction to The Yeats Brothers and Modernism’s Love of Motion, Jack Butler Yeats has been “absurdly eclipsed” by his more famous brother, William Butler. On the other hand, “the Irish will tell you that he is their greatest painter, as his brother is their greatest poet, and pretty much leave it at that”. A starting point for Bedient’s combined study of the Yeats siblings is the notion that both views, both “regional sentiment” and wider global indifference, have hampered the reception of Jack Yeats’s work. A joint reappraisal of the two brothers’ artistic outputs along more detailed, objective lines promises to rebalance the scales while highlighting a defining feature in the work of both Jack and William (one that moreover epitomizes international modernism as a whole in Bedient’s outline): the emphasis on “process, mutability, activity, motion, evolution”, key facets of the “‘ism’ of all that is traveling”.

In concentrating attention on this thesis, Bedient dispenses with the historical dimensions of the brothers’ relationship, so those hoping for a dual biography along the lines of Jan Hulker’s Vincent and Theo Van Gogh or Adam Sisman’s more recent The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge will have to look elsewhere. The contextual backdrop—recourse to correspondences, suggestions of shared cultural and artistic reference points, moments of interpersonal influence, and so forth—does not interest Bedient. Instead, most of The Yeats Brothers consists of a series of extended formal readings of J.B.’s paintings and W.B.’s poems, all of which are intended to underline what Bedient terms the brothers’ obsession with “sweet kinesis”. This shared formal tendency is apparently (and arbitrarily, so far as is demonstrated in this unwaveringly aesthetic, un-historicizing portrait) the sole connecting bridge between the two oeuvres.

As a basic interpretive paradigm for both Jack and William, specifically in the work of their later “modernist” periods, Bedient’s argument is a plausible and even sound one. J.B. Yeats’s vigorous, ebullient paintings—rough aggregates of van Gogh, Cezanne, and Jackson Pollock—are at the more radical end of the post-impressionist spectrum; with their violent brushstrokes and atomistic variegation, his post-1925 works suggest a more fluid, animated pointillism. Similarly, of course, W.B. Yeats’s verse is intensely preoccupied with spectacular evocations of physical movement; from Fergus’s “brazen cars”, through the quasi-futurism of “An Irish Airman Forsees His Death”, to famous instances of Yeatsian dynamic gesticulation like the opening of “Leda and the Swan” (“A sudden blow: the great wings beating still”) and the first lines of “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…ch of hands watching Fred and Ginger dance against a b

Bedient is right on the mark when, around two-thirds into The Yeats Brothers, he summarizes exactly what is so distinctive about such taut, vertiginous writing:

What is exemplary in Yeats is the dramatic economy, the directness and immediacy, of his evocations of action and change … Though commonly thought of as the most staid of the Modernists, the one who was most fixated on formality, the logical one to get into a verbal scuffle with Marinetti, the Futurist, when the latter read from his work in a salon, Yeats nonetheless felt and thought in terms of great power-shifts and vectors. Hart Crane is most like him in this regard, though hardly a match. There is nothing comparable in Eliot, Stevens, Pound or Rilke … Yeats is a poet of urgent utterance, of getting passion out – precisely cut and brilliantly flaunted. Motion, the moment, the absurd position of sitting on the tiny seat of the vast unicycle of an epoch and affecting to be masterful in relation to its dynamics and direction, made him a performer of momentary or impending imbalance.

This is a bold, eloquent précis of the elder Yeats’s poetic. “Precisely cut and brilliantly flaunted” is well judged, with its compacted emphasis on sculpted form and galvanizing instinct, and the comparison drawn between Yeats and his modernist coevals is helpful. Pound, in particular, jumps out as a countervailing figure in the list, one for whom the pursuit of a monumental stillness was a lifelong pursuit (for all his peripatetic-adventurer motifs and radical talk of pentameter-breaking). Elsewhere in the study, glances at Nietzsche and Bergson provide a useful philosophical underpinning for the discussion.

Unfortunately, I quote the above passage at length because this rather oddly located peroration is about as pithy as The Yeats Brothers gets. Those who may have detected a hint of purple in Bedient’s prose toward the end of the extract may be disappointed to learn that this flamboyant, exaggerated method of engaging with form—a sort of bizarre Pynchonian belle-lettrism—is by far the most representative critical tone in the study as a whole. When the subject is W.B. Yeats, Bedient half gets away with it, because there is at least a semblance of substance lurking below the layers of verbosity. His readings of the Crazy Jane poems in the chapter on “Performance” are astute and subtle in their examination of Yeatsian personae, and the highlighting of Yeats’s utopian regard for the lost permanence of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy (in the chapter titled “Immanence”) introduces a much-needed element of antithesis into an otherwise extravagantly univocal and repetitive elongation of the central premise: that a dedication to riffs on motion was the guiding principle for both brothers.

Sadly, however, Bedient’s analyses are regularly undermined by a prolix vagueness that is, by turns, eccentrically bewildering and downright opaque. It is the work of Jack Yeats (perhaps because it does not offer logocentric textual grounding) that inspires the most fanciful flights:

Here, characteristically, the brushwork flies to be ahead of and beside itself, to escape copying and to get to what is unimitatively original and formless, in excess of a passive precise location. It broaches, rather than dwells in, the very ‘now’ of the now. At the same time, of course, the paint would be nothing more than paint, indeed nothing less than paint – that beloved, obsessive, sticky, smelly, real substance.

In similar fashion Jack Yeats’s art is described as “a spectacle both of nothing becoming something and of something becoming nothing, so that everything is almost something and almost nothing”, while elsewhere Bedient deploys the confusing analogy “a dandelion’s cemetery-nursery of parachutes”. Perhaps most bafflingly of all, at one point we are told that Jack was “a democrat, but not a slut, of color”. William, too, does not escape the effects of Bedient’s verbiage, through close readings that tend toward the clumsy side of idiosyncratic (“The only other colon in the poem has the mere yeoman’s duty of introducing Lady Gregory’s dialogues”) and the needlessly pornographic (“What was summoned in the shape of Cuchulain gives [Yeats] a hard-on precisely because it is an obscure and menacing power”). Occasionally Bedient is just plain wrong on the most elementary of technical levels, as when he claims that, phonetically, “salmon” is to “falls” what “mackerel” is to “crowd”.

Stylistic queries aside, at bottom The Yeats Brothers is hampered by its hugely broad, ultimately self-defeating premise. The equation of the brothers’ modernism with motion is accurate, but hardly, as is perhaps intended, revisionary or groundbreaking. Bedient’s study is an awkward amalgam of, on the one hand, late 20th-century critical theory in its more abstruse manifestations (Deleuze, Lacan, Lyotard—all apparently “anticipated” by Jack Yeats), and on the other, those quirky formalist readings: all in all a slightly limited frame of reference. With no historical backdrop, Bedient is reduced to offering a facile pseudo-political dichotomy as a foil for his rarefied, hypertrophied aestheticism: “liberal” flux battles “conservative” stasis, with the intimation that both the Yeatses and modernism as a whole are being polemically “rescued” by way of association with the former.

The more Bedient warms to his view of the works themselves as “weapons in a war against the quasi-official reign of forms in the received world”, and the more he portrays the brothers as resisting objectivity and the fixity of definition, the more his discussion deteriorates into amorphous insensibility. If Jack Yeats’s paintings suggest that “the control of infinity … is only a rhythm of inflexions and heightenings among multiples and storms of entanglement”, and if W.B. Yeats’s poetry is a “soft-cloth-flexible run of verbless syntactical fragments joined only by semicolons”, if for both “matter runs amok” as “it always has”, then after a while, as The Yeats Brothers seems to demonstrate, any sort of constructive, authoritative critical response to the works and their creators becomes nigh-on impossible.

Alex Niven is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. He is writing a thesis on Basil Bunting, modernist poetry, and music.