Yeats, old age and death : the dynamic of the mask

Pruitt, Virginia Diana, Department of English, University of Virginia
Langbaum, Robert, Department of English, University of Virginia
Day, Douglas, Department of English, University of Virginia

Remarkable creative vitality characterized Yeats' old age; “remarkable” for certainly a high degree of emotional intensity is not usual for aging lyric poets. One remembers, for example, the decline with age in the lyric intensity of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Arnold. Yeats is exceptional, then, not only in the fact that he continued to write lyric verse until his death, but that he wrote magnificent lyric verse, far better than the poetry of his youth, and as passionate and moving as the poetry of his middle age.

In Chapter One, I have sought to explain the survival of Yeats' artistic productivity into old age. An amalgam of constitutional traits, physical infirmities and psychological characteristics made him prematurely aware of the erosive processes of aging. In response to this awareness, he developed an elaborate, sophisticated psychological device, the dynamic of the mask. Within this dynamic resides the most persuasive explanation for the survival of Yeats' creative vitality into old age. Through it he was able to tap and utilize powerful instincts in the creation of his art long after those instincts in most men have gone dormant.

The concept of the mask postulated two approaches to experience, one essentially outer-directed and intellectually passive, the other essentially inner-directed and intellectually active. Depending upon which orientation prevails, the individual's response to the problems of old age will be either negative or constructive. However, these divergent orientations are not autonomous, unrelated processes. The inner-directed, imaginative orientation arises from despair generated by ru1 objective, unimaginative vision.

Yeats delineated the spectrum of dismaying consequences which attend an unimaginative vision in old age. By the very process of the negative portrayal, he conditioned his reader to a keener appreciation of the rewards of an imaginative approach and defined the extraordinary qualities of character which are essential to achieving it. Chapter Two is devoted to an examination of examples of these two orientations to experience as manifested in Yeats' plays, poems and short stories.

At the age of sixty-nine, Yeats had a Steinach operation, a surgical procedure (vasectomy) purported to have rejuvenating effects on those who underwent it. I have undertaken in Chapter Three to fill a hiatus in understanding of Yeats' state of health during the last five years of his life by assessing the likely therapeutic consequences of such a surgical procedure in the light of current medical knowledge. Such analysis leads in due sequence to assessment of the comparative role of physical and psychological factors in Yeats' response to the operation, and to appraisal of the outcome of such analysis on that most fundamental of his beliefs, the concept of the mask.

Chapter Four is a discussion of Yeats' application of the dynamic of the mask to the problem of death. If Yeats viewed old age as an enemy, death was an even greater enemy; for if old age imposes partial physical dissolution, death is the ultimate and complete expression of that dissolution. But a man who had spent a lifetime evolving a psychological device to win victories out of the desolation of old age victories made possible because of the strength of his will and his imagination—was not a man to accept oblivion as the fate of that will and imagination—-not when he was convinced that through the dynamic of the mask, he was a more complete personality than ever before. Yeats turned death, even as he had turned old age, into an occasion for the exercise of imaginative activity.

But the vision, which is both the reward and the verification of the imaginative approach to old age, must necessarily be replaced in the imaginative response to death by that most ephemeral of human creations, hope. The aged man of imagination could manifest the reality of his culminating vision-the empirical proof of his inspiration— by creating art. Death allows no such validating aftermath, and hope must be the surrogate of vision. Hope stems from the fecundity of the human imagination and the vitality of the human spirit, qualities in themselves so miraculous, Yeats believed, as to justify the hope that death shall not be master, and that the imagination and the spirit shall ultimately prevail.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Yeats, W. B. -- (William Butler) -- 1865-1939 -- Criticism and interpretation
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