Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Day's Vanity

Yeats wrote:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work.

An odd way of putting it. The intellect is forced to choose, but not the man? Maybe he means, not that we must actually choose -- how could we? -- but that we must make up a story about what we are doing with our lives.

Yeats was obsessed with creating perfect work, and I think this line tells us why. To create perfect work is to have an excuse for a botched life.

And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

I guess if you take the second, you get to indulge in fantasies about what would have happened if you'd chosen the first :-) We rage in the dark in any case. But

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.

What old perplexity? The only perplexity we've been told about is the perplexity of the choice between the life and the work. A perplexity, apparently, that's formed the currency of the work that supposedly denied it. But exhausted, at the end.

At the end we come the same place, then -- the place of recognizing the vanity of all our works -- to which presumably we would have gone had we chosen perfection of the life. But we are spent, exhausted by the habit of work -- by the mark it has left on us.

As so often, with Yeats, the swagger. I come to the end the poem with no doubt that he considers the second a nobler choice, the ubermensch's choice, the Great Artist's choice, and we're supposed to admire him for it, and pity the suffering it has entailed. Art may be vanity, but it's a higher calling than lounging about in heavenly mansions.

I loved Yeats when I was young. I still do -- what a fabulous line, The day's vanity, the night's remorse! -- but I no longer think of him as a guide. There is no such choice. There is no perfect work, and there is no perfect life, and even if there were, one couldn't compensate for the other.

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