The Power of Form: W B Yeats, “On a Political Prisoner”

I’ve just been looking again at Yeats’s “On a Political Prisoner”. What a beautiful and endlessly rereadable poem it is. Like so many older poems, it makes me wish I had enough formal skill myself to use set stanza structures properly.

Dogmatic opponents of traditional forms talk as if they were automatically cold, mechanical and external. Rubbish, as this poem among so many others amply demonstrates. Of course metrical and stanzaic forms can be applied in a cold, mechanical and external way, but then free verse can be limp and vacuous.

Yeats’s own famous statement about his style emphasises the link he saw between metre and emotion:

It was a long time before I had made a language to my liking; I began to make it when I discovered some twenty years ago that I must seek, not as Wordsworth thought words in common use, but a powerful and passionate syntax, and a complete coincidence between period and stanza. Because I need a passionate syntax for passionate subject-matter I compel myself to accept those traditional metres that have developed with the language.

“Made”, “make”, “seek”, “compel” – something that really stands out here is the strenuousness of the artistic process as Yeats presents it, how far it is from anything natural or organic.

Anyway, here’s the poem:


She that but little patience knew
From childhood on, had now so much
A grey gull lost its fear and flew
Down to her cell and there alit,
And there endured her fingers’ touch
And from her fingers ate its bit.

Did she in touching that lone wing
Recall the years before her mind
Became a bitter, an abstract thing,
Her thought some popular enmity:
Blind and leader of the blind
Drinking the foul ditch where they lie?

When long ago I saw her ride
Under Ben Bulben to the meet,
The beauty of her country-side
With all youth’s lonely wildness stirred,
She seemed to have grown clean and sweet
Like any rock-bred, sea-borne bird:

Sea-borne, or balanced on the air
When first it sprang out of the nest
Upon some lofty rock to stare
Upon the cloudy canopy,
While under its storm-beaten breast
Cried out the hollows of the sea.

Such passion, beauty and pathos! Perhaps I should just let it speak for itself but I want to explore ideas it suggests about the power a creative genius can find in traditional poetic disciplines, even if the way I word them sounds a bit dry.

I think as we read this poem Yeats allows us to feel how expression is being compelled into conformity with form. The rhymes stand out strongly and because the lines are quite short (iambic tetrameters) the rhymes come closer together than they would in iambic pentameters. This makes rhyming harder work for the poet. You could say that his need to express himself in a way that fits the metre and rhyme scheme he has chosen is the form’s resistance to his expression. But the expression doesn’t just inertly submit to the demands made on it. The poet’s ability to make every rhyming word not just apt but richly and memorably suggestive is more than just a victory over the tyranny of form. Yeats once wrote “When your technique is sloppy your matter grows second-hand; there is no difficulty to force you down under the surface. Difficulty is our plough.” I don’t know whether Yeats was ever tempted to write here “she who was impatient” or “she who had very little patience”, but I can imagine that the need to rhyme forced him into the choice of “knew”, and it clearly did push him into the inversion of object and verb that puts “knew” at the end of the line. Rhyme emphasizes “knew” and makes you think how much more richly expressive than the alternatives it is.

Again, it’s very striking how Yeats makes us pause at the line endings, even when the sense runs on over them. This means that although the sentences are quite long the poetic structure breaks them up into short units which are themselves often subdivided by caesurae or phrasal pauses. As a result we find ourselves simultaneously feeling the continuity of sense through the whole stanza and vividly feeling the separate force of each of the stanza’s and sentence’s subunits. The continuity of sense is both measured and powerfully cumulative but often the separate force of a subunit will strain against the overall direction of thought as much as (or even rather than) confirming it.

I’m not sure exactly what Yeats meant by a “passionate syntax” but it’s easy to see how syntax and poetic form combine in this poem to make the expression more forceful and more passionate by the way they heighten nearly all the metrical stresses. There’s a kind of leaping and plunging violence of contrast between nearly all the stressed syllables and nearly all the unstressed ones. Every statement is powerfully emphasised in this way, but words in the first stanza that seem to me to be particularly strongly picked out are the initial “She” – the intense concentration on this pronoun immediately suggests the strength of the speaker’s feeling about this woman and what has happened to her  – “down” and “endured”. The sheer unnaturalness of the stress on “down” in terms of ordinary speech patterns makes it evoke far more than just movement in space – how much the subject of the poem has been brought down by life and her imprisonment, or what a momentous thing it is for the gull to fly down to her, for example. And “endured” brings together the pathos of the woman’s suffering with an imaginative entering into the gull’s shyness and reluctance to be touched that is so intense it almost makes you shiver. And this feeling washes back over our idea of the woman and makes what she has been forced to endure so much more of a violation of what she was. Obviously this happens primarily because the gull becomes a symbol of the woman, or rather of the girl the woman once was, but I hope it isn’t pedantic to say that the backwash of ideas is strengthened by the close link between “patience” – another heavily stressed word – and “endured”. The first meaning given to “patience” in the OED is “the suffering or enduring (of pain, trouble or evil) with calmness or composure”. Just looking at the words that are emphasised by rhyme, you could spend whole paragraphs unpacking the suggestiveness of each of the rhyme words in this stanza – “knew”, “much”, “flew”, “alit”, “touch”, “bit” – or indeed in the poem as a whole.

Of course I won’t do that but it’s striking what fraught relationships some of these words enter into with other words and ideas in the stanza. Take “bit” and “but little” (with the intricate phonetic echoes between them). Think how tensely these words and the ideas around them relate to each other and also to the contrastive and ironic “so much”.  “Had now so much” is a phrase the poem stands on its head. Sounding like a statement of abundance , it’s really a statement of coercion and loss. But I don’t think it’s only that. There’s an intricate playing into and against each other of ideas of having, giving and losing going on here, and if the subject of the poem has lost much, even lost dreadfully, she has also gained. Her youthful wildness, instinctive grace and pride were beautiful but there’s a different, more spiritual beauty to the patience she has learned, to the gentleness of that hand reaching out to touch the gull. That beauty may be suffused by pathos but there is a different pathos to what she was as Yeats remembers her in stanza three, “with all youth’s lonely wildness stirred”, in a beauty that was poignantly ephemeral, fragile, and so innocently brave because ignorant of the power of the forces lined up against it. Now she knows more about them and that is its own enlargement of being. Swerves of thought and feeling are in fact everywhere in the poem complicating the march towards that resonant conclusion without ever weakening it. We see them in the stanza three, for example,  in the way the subject is first singled out as unique (“the beauty of her countryside”) only for this uniqueness to be swallowed up in two emphatically generalizing qualifiers – “with all youth’s lonely wildness stirred”, “like any rock-bred, sea-borne bird”. Perhaps there’s no actual contradiction here – different qualities and categories of being are involved – but the swerves suggest the richness and speed of Yeats’ mind and create an imaginative richness and depth in the poem.

What’s all this got to do with form and syntax? Two things, I think. One is that the powerful syntactical organisation and the integration of syntax with stanza make the poem stride on to its conclusion as if in disregard of the qualifications and contradictions thrown up in its progress. In other words, form and syntax are marshalled to make sure that the divisions and uncertainties of the poet’s feelings don’t make make his poem lose thrust. But the poem is so fine because these contradictions aren’t really hidden or ignored at all. The tight stanza form and the coincidence between period and stanza mean that as well as contributing to the poem’s overall march to a conclusion each stanza holds you in its own field of force, creating a mental space within which ripples and cross-ripples of feeling can roll and clash with each other.[1]

I’ve recently reread Pound’s Lustra, for the first time since my middle twenties. I think of it as a rather mixed volume but what really struck me was how poems like “The Garden” or “Liu Ch’e” or the “Fan-piece” that I’ve remembered very vividly from thirty five or so years ago and still find very beautiful also strike me as oddly incorporeal. I think this may partly be because Pound’s writing lacks the grittiness of phonetic texture and the contrasts between the rough and the smooth in the rhythms that you get in Yeats. However, I think it’s even more because it lacks that tension and contradictoriness of feeling I’ve been talking about, and also because it lacks tension between form and content in a way that is almost inevitable in free verse.

It may seem odd to think of tension between form and content as a good thing – we’re so used to praising the organic elements in works of art and to talking about organic form as if form and content should be indistinguishable. In some ways no doubt they should, but in others the thought is absurd. We admire sculptors who can make stone look like flesh not because we abstractly know that it really is stone but because we actually see its stoniness and its likeness to flesh at the same time – because we see and feel the tension between what it is and what it represents. We admire two dimensional paintings that create an illusion of three dimensional space because they aren’t three dimensional and so we see them simultaneously in terms of flatness and depth. We admire metaphors and similes because of the way they combine disparate ideas, or because a kind of cognitive force field is created by the way they make ideas simultaneously pull themselves together and hold themselves apart, or in the special case of self-reflexive similes because they force us to see something as not itself and in doing so break the glaze of familiarity round it. The idea of flesh or of three-dimensionality or the idea expressed in the metaphor becomes more vivid by being played against something else (or in the last case against itself).


[1] A little detail of the writing that helps this combining of opposing and complementary effects is the way the second and fourth stanzas start with a kind of little reprise of the stanza before them, as if gathering themselves for a forward spring. “Touching” in the first line of the second stanza reprises “her fingers’ touch”, with “wing” echoing “fingers” to reinforce the effect aurally. “Sea-borne” at the beginning of stanza four repeats the penultimate word of the previous stanza. Stanza three seems to achieve something similar by purely phonetic means in the way “ride” assonates with “lie”, “blind” and “mind” at the end of stanza two.

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