On Yeats’ "The Choice:" Is there a purely intellectual life?

The Choice
W.B. Yeats

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.

Commentary:

“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.

7 Thoughts.

  1. Why is the “heavenly mansion” raging in the dark? Is it because we cannot attain it if we choose the second?

    You’re right, there is no choice. But I think it is less the tension than it is a losing proposition either way.

    But I defer to you on this for you are far smarter and better than I!

  2. hahahahaahahaha. You’re right, it’s grammatically ambiguous. Poor heavenly mansion.

    I would like to know, actually, if it’s impossible to avoid that sort of ambiguity with participles. Participles in Greek actually thrive on more ambiguity; they seem to have had a role in grammar we try to circumscribe. We want everything to work like appositives, or adjectives. “Here’s the subject, here’s the predicate.” Clauses and the like make that a way more complicated relation than we care to admit.

    Yeah, you’re right, it’s a bitter poem. I’m trying to infuse “day’s vanity” with some life, but that just contrasts all the more with the loneliness at night, and being broke.

  3. Grammer is the bain of my existence! I try my best to as unambiguous as I can, but you are right the participles get it confused. But perhaps that is why they work so wonderfully in poetry. You said it yourself, “a good poem raises more questions that are never truly settled.” Maybe not exactly like that.

    I think that your older posts are great, I know I try to use them when I can. You just need to post an index of your work periodicaly, or even comment on your own posts.

    Today I will post an intro on a new project of mine, commenting on Anselm. I will be starting the Proslogian (I think I misspelled that).

    Order Vs Disorder

  4. I love this poem. IMHO Yeats has wonderfully described THE classic choice — the concrete, fundamental, and important human choice that each fortunate enough to possess some degree of freedom continually must make. This is the battle between the pursuit of inner/spiritual/principled values (e.g. liberty, justice, love, et. al. aka “perfection of the life” generally leading to an “empty purse” and good night’s sleep) versus the pursuit of outer/material/pragmatic values (e.g. money, power, fame, et. al. aka “perfection of the work” generally leading to a “day’s vanity” and a “night’s remorse”). Many believe both can be had; I tend to agree with the old wise ones … recall that both Buddha and Jesus were given a choice between great great spiritual/inner wealth and material/worldly wealth — not both, for no man can serve two masters.

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  6. Pingback: InJersey | Blog | Poetry Journal: An Introduction to William Butler Yeats

  7. St. Thomas Aquinas is himself a total refutation of this poem. As are many other Saints, including St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Alphonsus Liguori.

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