Aristotle often speaks of serious people, and I confess myself at a loss to understand whom he means exactly. This much is clear: he does mean those truly political or religious, people great and small. Serious could mean Gandhi, working to make sure no violence erupted as an empire withdrew. Or it could be people around us right now helping the homeless, or trying to get a bond measure passed to build a proper sewage system for a growing town.
Who is not serious can also be clear. Demonizing others, making excuses, not caring to hear another’s reasoning, failing to learn methods and details, placing image over substance consistently — these mark hack work, demagoguery, those who want power merely to affirm themselves.
Nowadays, there is an enormous amount of money and power to be had by mocking the self-seriousness of others. You can take people who are more or less in the serious category, turn their mistakes and confidence into an indictment of their failures and arrogance, making them look worse than those who don’t even try. People who should know better will take the bait, consistently.
I’ve baited myself in like manner. Years ago, while reading this poem, I reacted badly to its juxtaposition of the high with the personal. I’ll say and maybe dream I have drawn content — I focused on “content” meaning the things any petty bourgeois wants, the things I want. Stability, love, a yard, things I need, some entertainment. Yeats indirectly indicates that these entail contentedness for him too. However, he purposely speaks in grand tones:
The Living Beauty William Butler Yeats I’ll say and maybe dream I have drawn content — Seeing that time has frozen up the blood, The wick of youth being burned and the oil spent — From beauty that is cast out of a mould In bronze, or that in dazzling marble appears, Appears, but when we have gone is gone again, Being more indifferent to our solitude Than ‘twere an apparition. O heart, we are old, The living beauty is for younger men, We cannot pay its tribute of wild tears.
He says, maybe dreams, that he has drawn content. Under pleasant speech lies trembling ambition. Seeing that time has frozen up the blood, / The wick of youth being burned and the oil spent — he does not speak of himself as any ordinary human. No less than time has made his blood slow, and he has burned his own wick, his own oil, with a passion of presumably intense heat and light. The poetic image of using up your own life in a blaze of glorious talent is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.
Yeats makes himself a lamp more than “such fire,” but his chosen image cannot be accidental. This is not the speech of everyman. Who says he draws content From beauty that is cast out of a mould / In bronze, or that in dazzling marble appears? As a poet, he has studied the making and reception of idols. Bronze and marble beauties come from bronze, from chisels, and are treated as divine, if not considered gods themselves. The poet makes idols from mere words, as not a few have dictated no less than scripture for entire peoples. How, then, is he content? Did he create an image that allowed him access to the divine? Did he fall in love with his own faulty vision?
The funny thing about asking such incredible questions is that they do not just apply to the poet. The more conventional we are, the more we have at stake with idols. We recognize the virtues of the past or of those truly human or beyond human, and we attempt to realize them. We do this every day — every day people brave burning buildings, sacrifice their lives for others, or do utterly inhuman, cruel things that they think constitute the worst sort of hatred, the worst sort of contempt. A terrible excess of love or hate is only a step away from our doing the dishes or mowing the lawn. We maintain households, quieter lives, because we think we know what those lives fully entail.
This is the living beauty — life itself in the shadow of various beatific visions. It is and is not divine. Like the divine, it has a certain slipperiness. The beauty we attempt to define ourselves with Appears, but when we have gone is gone again, / Being more indifferent to our solitude / Than ‘twere an apparition. The poet, in the end, is human just like everyone else. Even if he is the one who calls forth the vision, he cannot rest content within it. It does not matter if he made it up whole cloth. Beauty has a life of its own, as it appears to those of us living as long as we attend to it. The second we do not pursue it, it is lost entirely; to have beauty is to have nothing. The idols project beauty, demand we imagine them, and the more we fall into that poetic vision the more remote we become from human life. If this sounds like the plight of an artist who overthinks, it isn’t. Think about, on a smaller scale, how those who want a perfect household or perfect family or perfect communities reduce those who love them to their desires. How nations, on a larger scale, turn genocidal, wanting mythic purity. Beauty demands and flees as it is realized. Those great baroque churches, even simple meeting-houses in the States, stand empty. The good and just realization of beauty stands just as subject to nothingness.
I did not realize before how profound Yeats’ self-seriousness was. To wonder about whether you can live up to your own words or vision, to wonder if you can draw solace from your own mind — this is not solipsism, an overly skeptical waste. This marks an entirely different level of serious person, the one willing to brave questions about herself and not accept shallow answers. If it was not a possibility Aristotle could speak more explicitly in his day, it is almost completely lost in ours. Our idols are on cable and will not shut up, lest we ever have a thought different from theirs.
In the face of the problem, Yeats resigns. O heart, we are old, / The living beauty is for younger men, / We cannot pay its tribute of wild tears. You will note that this is a profound and resolved resignation; it is not a tragic sigh with which he ends. To fully pursue living beauty is a folly, as it was a folly to chase after some ideal all-too-human lover. He must draw some content from his own visions, the idols he’s realized, and he does that now with this poem. Recognition of the problem lets him put aside for a moment the poetry that would found a nation, give it myths and morals, describe the cycles of history. He can get something from the idols, from the artifice itself, that isn’t more clever, but most certainly wiser.