Yeats, “The Cold Heaven”

The Cold Heaven (from – h/t Ario)
William Butler Yeats

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?


“Suddenly I saw:” the speaker undergoes a revelation, seeing the sky as cold, filled with birds. It seems there “ice burned and was but the more ice;” is “ice” passion made concrete, that causes more passion to come to be? The fluidity of the relation of being and becoming here is two conflicting elements. That seeming relation pushes imagination and heart, both subrational, into wildness. A cause that is an appearance destroys the casual. Nothing – not one thing – is less than a memory stirring the strongest passions. Our speaker cannot blame reason for this, but cannot blame “sense” either. We can take “sense” to mean the world actually experienced through the senses, something usually prior to imagination. The highest and the lowest have been cut from the speaker, but this is no true middle ground he inhabits. He cries, trembles, finds himself rocked. The worst of him is filled with passionate intensity, the best completely lacking.

“Riddled with light” has been built up to: “sense,” “vanished,” “burned,” “saw” to move backwards. The question of “what image exactly did the speaker see?” has been implicit, as the sky, to steal an idea from Ario, is really just a screen upon which we project. This revelation seemed a bit too natural to begin with. The “ghost” quickens – emerges faster, comes to life more quickly from the speaker – when the speaker thinks “confusion of the death-bed over.” Is he actually thinking about death, or about the regrets he had in life being the same as death? I think only the latter brings the final “injustice” into any clarity. The sky has not treated the speaker justly or unjustly. But he has expelled his reason in this “revelation,” and left his body to sit in a corner and cry.

The incredible thing, for those of us who wonder how philosophy could be the practice of dying and being dead, is how far this seeming “self-reflection” is from philosophy. There is no wisdom here, except for the speaker’s lament. I suspect where we went wrong was seeing ice as burning; in order to use the sky as a template, one has to imagine a part of the sky as oneself. That ties who one is all too explicitly to the nature and order of things. To what degree self-knowledge is even possible, though, is a serious question. Self-knowledge corresponds with soul, knowledge with mind: is self-knowledge knowledge properly speaking? I’d be lying if I said I was exempt from regrets or worries: the concern of this poem, despite a seeming distance from serious knowers, is fundamental to all of us. The poem certainly makes the after-life sound like a judgment on this world, exclusively.

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