restricted access Yeats's The Hour Glass
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YEATS'S THE HOUR GLASS IN THE OPENING YEARS OF THIS CENTURY, Yeats was consolidating the work of his first period of playwriting activity. On Baile's Strand (1903), The King's Threshold (1904) and Deirdre (1907) were the first works of his dramatic maturity. These plays share a unity of conception and tone which contrasts with the diversity and uncertainty of the other plays of this first major periDd. In the search for a dramatic conception and technique, he tried out many and various modes, ranging from the symbolist dreaminess of The Shadowy Waters to the broad peasant humour of The Pot of Broth. The Hour Glass was a by-product of this search, and it has received scant attention because of its very obviDus defects. The central Haw in its dramatic scheme is a failure to make its spiritual world, which is set up fDr our admiration against a material world, convincing Dr even tangible. The agDn fails to engage our attention. And yet the play has more to' offer than is commonly supposed, and its revised versions are particularly valuable for the evidence which they afford of Yeats's developing dramaturgy during the Abbey period. The source-story was Lady Wilde's The Priest's Soul, which Yeats reprinted in his Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry in 1888.1 The play follows the main Dutline of the story, but changes the designation of the two principal characters. Yeats substituted for Lady Wilde's Priest the Wise Man; but this change is only significant in that it frees the fable from any specifically Christian ambience. The other change, that of the child to the FDol, may have been suggested by the story, where the Priest says: What a fool I was not to think of it before. 'A fool, indeed,' said the angel. 'What good was all your learning, when it could not tell you that you had a soul?'2 The angel's question is the kernel of the simple paradDx on which the play is constructed. That it was one of Yeats's favDurite ideas is evidenced by the frequency of its occurrence elsewhere: MDnk Gibbon quotes him as saying of someone, H • • • he is a logician, and a lDgician is a fDDI when life, which is a thing of emotiDn, is 1 Pp. 215-220. The story was reprinted from Lady Wilde's Ancient Legends of Ireland (London, 1887). 2 Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (London, 1888), p. 216. 356 1968 YEATS'S The Hour Glass 357 in question."3 A poem published as far back as 1888 expresses the idea. "The Maker of the stars and worlds" tells the simple townspeople that their prayers are the props of the universe: A grey professor passing cried, 'How few the mind's intemperance rule! What shallow thoughts about deep things! The world grows old and plays the fool.'4 The Fool, then, stands for emotion against logic, faith against cynical knowledge; and the play's action, based on these oppositions, is the enactment of a simple irony. The character called "the Wise Man" (who is best thought of as a peer of Huxley and Tyndall and a representative of that myth of progress which Yeats so much detested ) is shown up by events to be a fool; and the character referred to by all as "the Fool" (who is an expression of what Richard Ellman calls Yeats's "pastoral affinities"5) is shown by the same events to have wisdom. Chief amongst these events is the appearance of an actual deus ex machinaJ and this constitutes the fulcrum upon which the play's irony seesaws. This conception seems limited and not very susceptible of development . But a comparison of the revised texts reveals how much dramatic intensity Yeats was able to create within these narrow limits. A first draft of the play under the title The Fool and the Wise Man was almost finished in June 1902.6 A poetic version was being planned as early as June 1903.7 But in September of that year, the play received its first publication in prose, in the North American Review and...