William Butler Yeats, “The Choice”

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.

Comment:

Recently, I attempted a more comprehensive comment on Yeats. The first few paragraphs went pretty well. I observed that loving something or someone, even worshipfully, does not mean you become it or them. Yet Yeats’ poems are infused with a peculiar yearning. He’s in love with something (and, at times, someone). What transformation do his poems intend to create in the reader that could satisfy his specific needs? This may be obvious in love poetry like Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (maybe the best love poem ever written), but what’s happening when he deploys occult imagery or speaks about the end of an age?

At the moment, I’m content to see how Yeats develops a thesis of his own without running into too large a question. Not that my train of thought is wrong: it’s just that following it out might be a lifetime’s worth of work put the way it is above. I need to narrow my focus.

Yeats, to say the least, does not seem to think the same way as me. He begins The Choice with a thesis that only has a surface specificity: “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work.” If we care at all about our intellect, if we attempt to be knowers, then we can either perfect “the life” or “the work.” It sounds like he means that we can either perfect our lives, or create some work that has a chance of lasting, either being perfect itself or informing perfection.

If we pick the latter and attempt to be creators ourselves, we “must refuse / A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.” This probably alludes to Matthew 22:2-14. A king held a wedding feast for his son, telling his servants to gather guests. Some of the servants were killed out of spite, leading the king to declare war against the murderers and significantly change the guest list. People then came from all the highways, but one man came dressed in a most unbecoming manner. He was bound by the king and cast into the outer darkness, where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Does perfection of the work mean directly challenging God? Independent of considering theism or organized religion or theology, there’s a simpler proposition: it’s really hard to make something worthwhile that might last. A lot of creative people put significant resources into making something, getting virtually nothing during the process or at the end. In some cases, it does feel like life, or something larger, is toying with one. There is raging in the dark, there is refusal of set answers or accepted ways, independent of any specific blasphemy.

But we do have to take the blasphemy seriously, if only for the reason that Yeats devotes the rest of the poem to perfection of the work. When I first put notes together on this poem, 9 years ago, I held that perfection of the life and the work were the same thing, that any choice between them was ultimately illusory. People try to create in order to make life better. Even one who tries to perfect her life in accordance with a strict moral standard thinks herself part of a divine plan. Life is better for everyone because of the work her faith generates.

One might think that last example anything but intellectual. Yeats brings us back to it, though, by casting despair on our attempted accomplishment:

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.

He first makes work sound worthless, like as if it were possible to choose “perfection of the life” alone: “When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?” All we do is rage against the dark. Why didn’t we initially choose to make our lives better? Yeats answers that query with dead silence, and I take that silence to be evidence for my above remark. He only elaborates on intellectual labors as opposed to results, as “in luck or out the toil has left its mark.” If we think such labors actually make our lives better immediately, we probably have not truly used our intellect, instead unknowingly benefiting from conventionality.

The mark of serious toil is an “old perplexity,” an “empty purse.” By day we might have something resembling perfection of life, some “vanity,” some noble or intellectual standing. At night, nothing of the sort, as raging in the dark is perpetual. The intellect wants answers that it cannot have; revelation does offer comfort of a sort, as opposed to continually questioning. Still, one cannot really choose “perfection of the life” with the intellect, unless we consider one an intellectual who is satisfied with the explanations others give. Even someone who thought they were acting in accordance with a divine plan may not be satisfied with such explanations. They work, after all, to see grace demonstrated in some way in this life.