Monday, July 28, 2014

Tim Ellison's Analysis of "The Fascination of What’s Difficult" by William Butler Yeats

Tim Ellison is my guest blogger for today and he does a fine job analyzing "The Fascination of What's Difficult" by William Butler Yeats.  

Normally I read only contemporary poetry on Tim Reads Poetry, but today I’m going to take advantage of the freedom writing for TheRetailMFAer gives me and take on one of my old favorites, W.B. Yeats’ “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”. In Helen Vendler’s great book about Yeats, Our Secret Discipline, she basically describes this poem as a frustrated sonnet. I think you’ll see what she means. Here’s “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”:

The fascination of what's difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent   
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There's something ails our colt   
That must, as if it had not holy blood   
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,   
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays   
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day's war with every knave and dolt,   
Theatre business, management of men.   
I swear before the dawn comes round again   
I'll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

So the poem is about Yeats’ frustration being a professional creative person. He laments that his creative spirit – “our colt” – has to attend to the unromantic pressures of running the Abbey Theatre. It dries him out, leaves him feeling like he’s getting nowhere. He’s determined, by the end, to put a stop to it. A clear enough message. An inspiring message.

But the poem exemplifies this theme in its form, too. This is where you see that Yeats is one of the last great masters of musical form.

Look at the rhyme scheme. Every third line has the same rhyme: difficult – colt – jolt – dolt – bolt. Between each of these is a rhyming couplet. So lines 1-4 give you A-B-B-A, a fine way to begin a sonnet. But lines 4-7 give you A-C-C-A. So we’ve got a slightly compressed sonnet. We’re thinking, “Alright, W.B., give us something new.”But of course he doesn’t. Lines 7-10 give you A-D-D-A. “Wow, that A rhyme is just getting worked to death. It’s holding up two quatrains at the same time, caught between two sets of obligations.”But there’s no rest for Yeats, the poet-statesman, so there’s no rest for his A rhyme either. Lines 10-13 end the poem with A-E-E-A – a cleverly self-referential arrangement of the two vowels in his surname.

Typically a sonnet ends with a rhyming couplet that very musically makes us feel like the poem is finished, but even though Yeats swears he’ll put an end to this awful cycle of difficulty that’s tearing his creativity apart, we can’t really believe him. That A rhyme that ends the poem is just as helpless to bring any kind of resolution as the others. The form is exhausted, powerless to do anything musical, powerless to finish what it started.

A bit depressing? I know, but I love this poem. It’s one of the few poems I’ve bothered to memorize. Funny how that works. An honest lament can be more refreshing than a half-hearted paean.

I write about contemporary poetry on Tim Reads Poetry every day and am on Twitter at @timothyjellison. Thanks so much to TheRetailMFAer for the opportunity to write on his blog!

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