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Death as Lack and Repetition in Yeats’s Poetry


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From time to time Yeats’s concept of death baffles us, since he asserts in A Vision that in effect death is neither absence nor nothing but a recurrence of life in other body and other state. No doubt this elaborate myth of reincarnation is an important element of his system, but acceptance of it as his definitive view of death would lead us down several interpretive blind valley. If there is no annihilation of self, then how can we explain the effort of lyric after lyric to summon up heroic energy in the face of death? Moreover, death for him is something that elicits abundant imagination. By analyzing Yeats’s ‘death’ poems, I attempt at some answers to these questions. I begin with the discussion of the ‘reincarnation’ reflected in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.” In contrast to the Soul who asserts that one must concentrate on the “darkness” of death, imitating as nearly as possible that future state, the Self, provoked by death, reaffirms the present state. The Self reviews life to deny neither imagination nor the senses; rather it reasserts their ultimate worth. If “Dialogue of Self and Soul” is willing to embrace life again in the face of death, “Under Ben Bulben” internalizes authority to quell death. The speaker ruthlessly suppresses his own vulnerabilities with authoritative commands and the voice of his dead father. The discourse in the poem seems abstracted from the poet’s own life, as if spoken by his now disembodied but empowered voice, a voice from a timeless nowhere beyond the grave. “The Apparition,” another poem dealing with death, however, uncovers the terror that undercuts the assertion of ‘joy’ in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and “Under Ben Bulben.” No matter how each poem responds to death, however, it is clear that death cannot be approached directly. It is “Man and the Echo” that allows the good picture of the necessary indirectness of one’s meditation on death. The rabbit’s cry of pain interrupts the deathward meditation. This moment of rupture suggests that “Man” can only think death indirectly, through trope and turn. In “Death,” by turning to the logic of lack and repetition, I attempt to provide some possible answers to why Yeats moves to-and-fro between the repression of death and the avowal of its finality. In “Lapis Lazuli” The poet replaces the marks of time with the self-begetting images. Associated with the regenerative power of water and seasons, the immaterial possibilities supplant the marks on the stone’s surface symbolic of literal death. In its internal time the poet creates poetic possibilities that rise from the external time that decays. In short, death for Yeats ‘causes’ life, and opens up the place that is retroactively filled out by life. But above all death inspires, brings about, and dignifies his poetic imagination. Yeats depends on the muse of death for the aesthetics of his poetry. In his poetry he rehearses death every day.


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