Yeats and the Problem of Intentionality


Alan Gullette


University of Tennessee-Knoxville

Spring 1979

English 3070: Modern British Poetry

Prof. Dr. Leggett


Throughout his life, William Butler Yeats was involved in a search for "unity of being," or what George Harper calls "the quest for Eden."[1] One problem that faces any such philosophical or religious inquiry is that of intentionality, as Helen Regueiro has argued with respect to the Romantic poets.[2]

Yeats's "quest for Eden" was a return to a state of natural innocence in which the mind is not estranged from nature but has a place in the unity of being (Harper, 291). In the first stage of his literary life, Yeats wrote poetry of "longing and complaint," of "flight into fairyland from the real world" a movement within, toward the imaginative, which was nevertheless an unconscious search for totality (Harper, 295). After he had become aware of this tendency as being a withdrawal, he resolved to write poetry of "insight and knowledge" drawn from real experience and concerning reality rather than imitative of pastorals created in an aestheticist spirit of "art for art's sake." In the early work, too, he came under the influence of symbolism, which for him was "an effort to restore the unity of mid and nature" by "establishing a correspondence between nature and mental states" and thus holding together the cosmos as well as the poem, according to Richard Ellmann.[3] But, as Ellmann further states, symbolism did not provide for Yeats a means of reconciling or balancing the dialectical forces of mind and nature; rather, it "furnished an elaborate robe to cover a wretched young man.[4]

To use Regueiro's terms, Yeats first sought to overcome or resolve the mind/nature dialectic i.e., to achieve unity by withdrawing from "the historical process" or temporal nature into an "intentional" world created by the poetic imagination. But his motive for this, she indicates, was a "desire for order" that was "constantly undercut by the meaninglessness of events" (Regueiro, 40). The self is "assailed and finally destroyed" in time, and Yeats's movement into the mind was thus both an escape and a search for "what does not vanish" even if he had to crate it himself (Regueiro, 39, 100).

If intentional creation is taken to the extreme, it comes solipsism, an extreme idealism in which one is alone real and all else is a creation of one's imagination; and the danger of this is that imagination might preclude what the non-idealist or materialist would call perception, so that one becomes, in effect, a totally withdrawn psychotic in the eyes of others (if there are others). However, Regueiro posits, the other extreme that of total affirmation of the world of experience, and denial of imagination (and conception, she evidently wants to say) is also dangerous, in that one risks "drowning in the plentitude of things" (Regueiro, 25). The objection that must be raised at this point is that Regueiro sees these two extreme positions as the only possible attempts at resolving the dialectic a dialectic that might not even exist. Assuming it does exist (she finds her evidence in modern poetry, including Yeats and in modern thought since, I suppose, Descartes), as a dialectic, then it would have the property of gradual self-resolution, as distinct from a dualism, which is normally never resolved. This, in fact, is what Regueiro comes close to saving when she says that the affirmation of the temporal, therefore of the dialectic, is "paradoxically" a kind of resolution-through-balance that allows experience of "being" (Regueiro, 98). But here it is not clear whether the "experience of being" is an experience of unity or of "dialectic" isolation: whether the being experienced is a being-one-with-nature or a being-in-and-out-of-nature (which shifts the dialectic or dualism to within the human being, between mind and body); and it is likewise unclear whether an affirmation of the temporal is necessarily an affirmation of the dialectic.

This leads us to a host of further objections to Regueiro. Central to her arguments are some basic assumptions (some of which are stated explicitly in her preface and introduction, others remaining implicit yet apparent at points throughout her discussion) about the nature of consciousness, imagination perception, nature, reality, etc., and their interrelations assumptions that are never qualified. Specifically, she starts with the idea that man is (now) estranged from nature or reality (which is debatable) by virtue of the fact that he has self-consciousness: "self-consciousness is the fall from being is isolation and estrangement" (Regueiro, 9). This is, again, debatable as a philosophical proposition, though the debate would probably have little to do with Yeats. Regueiro's position on imagination is that it arises with the loss of unity of self (and I suppose she identifies the self with the mind and both with consciousness) and world (nature) (Regueiro, 4), hat it (thus) has an intimate link with self-consciousness (Regueiro, 10), and that its function is to regain unity "to enter, through consciousness, a world from which all consciousness is excluded" (Regueiro, 26). But this is to say that the regaining of unity is an obliteration of self and "all" consciousness (not just of self-consciousness) 0- which is obviously not a resolution of the dialectic at all but merely a destruction of one of its halves. Surely, if self-consciousness separates self from world, and if self-consciousness ceases, then self is reunited with world. But does consciousness of any sort remain? And is it not then conscious of itself not as separate but as a part of the world? Is it aware of the unity? (And the obvious question: Is there unity if there is no awareness of unity?) For Regueiro, self-consciousness means consciousness that the self is separate from the world, which forces her to deny that there can ever be an achievement of unity of the self and the world from which self is separate.

A final philosophical objection is to the existence of the dialectic (or dualism) that for Regueiro is primary. Is the separation of self and world a "real" one? i.e., is it objectively true of that (separate) part of the world which is the self; or is it a merely intentional separation, one which is only thought to exist? This may seem to be a trite semantic argument, but it is actually a crucial question: is it of the very nature of the self to be separate, or is the self-as-separate an illusion? If the former is the case, then separation is necessary and immitigable; if the latter is the case, then experiencing the (already actual) unity of being is a mere matter of realizing that separation is an illusion (provided this dispels the illusion). But I must return to Yeats.

In "Sailing to Byzantium," the distinction is drawn between the temporal world of nature and an intentional world of ideals and artistic achievements. The aging protagonist, embittered by the loss of youth, learns to celebrate the "monuments of unaging intellect," of soul's "magnificence" which is to say that he dwells upon artistic creations, in which a sense of timelessness is achieved. He imagines leaving the world of the body and going to Byzantium to assume the lasting form of an artificial bird, to sing forever in the Emperor's court. There is a sense that Yeats's protagonist is aware of the vanity of this dream, aware that Byzantium is a mere "artifice of eternity," which we may take as evidence that Yeats himself had lost faith in the (higher reality of the intentional world. Regueiro, however, manages to come up with some truly odd conclusions based on this poems. The protagonist, she says, by "reducing intricacy to simplicity," falls into "the silence of simple things" and so loses his creativity (Regueiro, 40). For her, the bird, being mechanical, does "not sing at all" since it sings "of what is past, or passing, or to come" a conclusion which I find to be bewildering (Regueiro, 31). As the poet (who never really leaves the temporal, but is "sail-ing") witness "the death of the protagonist's creativity,' he is distinct from that protagonist and thus "is denied access" to the intentional eternal (Regueiro, 123). Here are two themes that recur in Regueiro: the denied entry into the world of the imagination, and the silencing of the poetic voice in the attempt to enter into the unity of being. In "Sailing to Byzantium," the poet never "really" enters Byzantium, it is true (neither does the protagonist, for that matter); but there is no "real" access to an imaginary world, only an imaginary access via the persona or protagonist. But isn't this just the way in which a poet can resolve the dialectic while affirming both of it's halves? That is, the "real" poet, as a temporal being, remains; yet he at times enters the imaginary and produces poetry, then returns. Where is the dialectic? Of course, the poet has not escaped death and the ravages of time, but who ever promised him that unity of being (whatever that is, other than just being himself with imaginative mind and temporal body in the world) was eternity of being? (Cf. "I never promised you a rose garden" an Eden in which flowers Eternal Beauty!) Again, it seems that for Regueiro there must be an absolute choice between the real and the imaginary.

Contrary to Regueiro, Ellmann finds the golden bird in "Sailing to Byzantium" to represent the reconciliation of opposites (the temporal and the eternal) and so symbolize: "1) the poet itself, the created artifact; 2) the protagonist, who fades into it; 3) the poet, who becomes what he creates."[5] Therefore the dialectic is resolved or transcended; yet there is neither a silencing of the poetic imagination nor a distinction between poet and protagonist.

As to the silencing of the poetic imagination: Regueiro seems to equate the loss of self-consciousness and the regaining of unity with the destruction of imagination and thus of poetry. For her, in fact, poetry is primary. This she states clearly in her preface: the danger of solipsism, the ultimate estrangement from the natural, is not the danger of physical death but of "poetic death" the silencing of poetry (Regueiro, 10). She is dealing with "the poet's attempt to balance imagination and reality" and still remain a poet, and sees that he is forced to affirm the temporal "as the only realm where the imagination may continue to exist" (Regueiro, 10). The total immersion in the temporal, too, is out, since it would deny imagination and thus poetry. "What is at stake," she says, "is not the poet's transformation of the world," which he can do "all too easily," but "the existence of poetry itself" (Regueiro, 114).

Related to the idea of intentionally creating a world which "contains nature" (sic: it can only contain a replica of nature, at best, unless the idealist is correct in finding nature to exist only in the mind in the first place) in order to regain unity with nature, is the idea that the totality or wholeness of one' s being lies outside of time. That is, if one could step outside of time, one's being would be unified. Regueiro holds this: "to discover itself, to create itself out of itself, [the self] must pass fully 'out of nature,'" for "to be 'natural' [i.e., temporal] is to be 'dying,' a state in which the self 'knows not what it is'" (Regueiro, 126). However, if the self is temporal (and Regueiro's view of the intentional problem is that the aim of poetry is to redeem "the poetic self from its imprisonment in temporality," as if it does not naturally belong in the temporal), then it can never pass out of time and yet can know itself as it is: temporal, transient though this knowing is not "whole" but limited by the temporality of its perspective. "The whole" may thus exist in memory or imagination, but it is only an image of the actual salvaged from time, not the actual itself coexisting as a whole.

The Eden that Yeats sought to regain is a state of "radical innocence" in which there is, nevertheless, also knowledge of good and evil (Harper, 311). This is really to say that "primal simplicity" or "prelapsarian innocence" is not truly regained, and the new innocence is thus distinguished as "radical." Having lost his faith in the totally ideal world, Yeats affirms that Eden is "half of the body" (and half of mind or spirit) (Harper, 263). In other words, he affirms temporality and experience; in fact, innocence if "only" achieved by wisdom through experience and by stern discipline (Harper, 317, 321). In this return, poetry and art play an important role both by opening a "window into Eden" (Blake) through which things are seen anew, and by disciplining the artist (Harper, 314). In fact, Harper notes, Yeats thought that it is art and not nature that enables "lost man to find the way back" (Harper, 321). This must mean that nature is viewed, as it is traditionally viewed in religion, as real but somehow of secondary reality or else containing a dangerous lure that might distract one from the ultimate quest fro unity with a higher reality. An "aesthetic detachment" from daily affairs is necessary to prevent bitterness and to make possible "spiritual joy" (Harper, 319). This corroborates Regueiro's idea that affirming the natural to the denial of art and imagination is not a solution to the problem (if there is one). She makes the interesting statement, relevant at this point, that "the ability to perceive reality 'immaculately' is directly related to the poet's ability to write poetry" (Regueiro, 28). Though the truth of this is not clear in its own context, it does relate to Yeats's view of the role of art in the Edenic resolution. It is here that Regueiro thinks that Yeats "paradoxically" transcended the dialectic through affirming both of its halves, thought the very ability to affirm both halves is to deny the extreme choice that she has insisted upon. Yeats's rather central idea of the basic antithetical tension present in all existence is relevant here. A choice of one pole or the other would be a negation, whereas Yeats viewed the pair as contrary and positive, not negative.[6] Though experience is affirmed as being real, and the idea of an achievable wholeness outside of time is denied as anything more than an idea, the problem of intentionality is still not solved. For philosophers, the problem has only just begun, since we are perhaps unable to discern between the real (sensory, phenomenal) experience and the vividly imaginary one if there is a difference i.e., if there is a transcendent reality or objectively real condition for subjective experience.

In closing, let me summarize Yeats's ontology, based on what we have seen here. Nature, though real in some sense, does not by itself fulfill the quest for Eden. The imagination, working in a disciplined fashion with the stuff of experience, forms works of art that contain "the essences of things, and not things" and which intend "a landscape that is symbolic of some spiritual condition and awakens a hunger" in the reader (Harper, 307). So the mind, through experience and creative activity, captures a higher reality than is present in nature by itself. It is the experience of nature and the experience of art (intentional creation) that "lead us back upon our journey." (Harper, 307) Like Blake, Yeats sought God not in the physical or in reason or morality but in aesthetic emotion that is removed from the impulse of bodily longing," and he found that the only worthy symbol of God is "the inner world, the true humanity, whose most intimate expression was art and poetry" (Harper, 315-16). The only "singing school" is the study of lasting works of art, which are themselves the soul's celebrations of "every tatter in its mortal dress." This emotive song, the expression of spiritual joy (what Regueiro calls "tragic joy")(see Regueiro, 98), is the song of one who experience temporal reality and who is yet a poet one whose imagination has found its place in the unity of things just by singing the song of life, where the singer is the song just as the dancer is the dance.



[1] George Harper, Yeats's Quest for Eden (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1966), 40p numbered 291-331. References in this essay are indicated in parenthesis by "Harper" followed by page number.

[2] Helen Regueiro, The Limits of Imagination: Wordsworth, Yeats, and Stevens (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976). References in this essay are indicated in parenthesis by "Regueiro" followed by page number.

[3] Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats (New York: MacMillan Co., 1954), 24-5.

[4] Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks (New York: MacMillan Co., 1948), 163.

[5] Ibid., 254.

[6] William Butler Yeats, A Vision (New York: MacMillan Co., 1961), 72.





These works were of some additional help:


Henn, T. R. The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats. London: Metheun & Co., 1950, 1965.

Jeffares, A. Norman. W. B. Yeats. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.

Unterecker, John. A Reader's Guide to W. B. Yeats. New York: Octagon Books, 1959, 1977.





Appendix: William Butler Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium"


That is no country for old men. The young

In one another's arms, birds in the trees

- Those dying generations - at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.


O sages standing in God's holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.





Professor's Comments:

First-rate. A perceptive and articulate analysis of some of the problems involved in the intentionality-reality complex. I agree with your conclusions, and I think it's remarkable that you were able to speak so clearly on such complex semantic problems. You make you way through the maze with great dexterity. Grade: A. [Dr. Bob Leggett]





Web Links


William Butler Yeats, Biography and Works

The Literature Network


George M. Harper: Scholar and Collector

The William Butler Yeats Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Helen Regueiro Elam, English Department of SUNY Albany


Bob J. Leggett, Distinguished Professor of Humanities

University of Tennessee Dept. of English




Alan Gullette > Essays