The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.
“Perfection of the life, or of the work,” is the first and most difficult issue to address. “Perfection of work” is a simple enough idea – whatever we choose to be excellent in will take away from the rest of “life.”
But what is the rest of “life?”
Yeats tells us that picking “work” means the end of a “heavenly mansion,” as we will “rage in the dark.” By “perfection of the life” he probably means the acquisition of eternal life – to work to be excellent in something probably means making compromises at points that are less than moral. Human perfection is not divine perfection, perhaps not wholly a subset of the latter.
At the same time, “perfection of the life” could refer to living well in this life, enjoying heaven now. Without any attempt to live well here, we are just marked by “toil.” So Yeats is contrasting “work” with both virtue and vanity when he refers to a “heavenly mansion.”
The final two lines move away from this sharp dualism (“that old perplexity”). The very raising of this “choice,” which seems to be less a choice but more a tension defining human life, makes us poorer and lonelier (“night’s remorse”) while giving us, weirdly enough, a pride (“day’s vanity”). One might try to say that “empty purse” is contrasted with “day’s vanity” and “night’s remorse,” that “life” involves spending money whereas work gives pride during the day and nothing else later. I’m not a fan of that reading because “perplexity” seems to be the “toil.” There is nothing but work, especially when considering the question of perfecting life or work. The perfection of life, in a deep sense, is what the perfection of work is aiming at, no matter how hard it tries to break away.
There is no choice in this poem. This doesn’t mean, for most practical purposes, that trying to be excellent at “work” won’t pull you away from “life,” as it certainly will. But the irony is that the attempt to move away from a mansion – a house that can hold many at once – isn’t really an attempt to escape the many, but rather to own the house.