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At the Hawk’s Well: Yeats’s Unresolved Conflict Between Language and Silence Edna G. Sharoni “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?”l From earliest times, wielders of words have been painfully conscious of the inadequacy of their medium. Man’s innermost thoughts and most subtle emotions elude the grasp of even the craftiest master of language, so that workers in one literary form have always sought the richer resources of another in hopes of finding a tool to convey the fullness of their meaning. Poets and prose-writers alike have repeatedly turned to the drama as the magic means of transcending the limitations of language. Thus, when Yeats discovered Ezra Pound’s rendering of the Japanese Noh drama in 1916, he seized upon it as the perfect solution to his own search for a dramatic form. Aristocratic, symbolic, blending verse, music, dance, mask, and folk ritual into a perfect harmony of being, these plays seemed to the Irish playwright the ideal means for conveying an intensity of emotion that would enable him to transcend, if only for a fleeting moment, the bounds of time and space, to pass “into a deep of the mind that had hitherto been too subtle for our habitation.”2 A long struggle towards a fitting medium of poetic drama had preceded Yeats’s discovery. As a writer whose forte was in­ tense lyric poetry but who nonetheless felt a deep commitment to resuscitating the ancient Irish heritage and bringing it before the public on the stage, he had rejected out of hand the current trend towards realism as practiced by Ibsen and Galsworthy, and was tirelessly experimenting with new forms. Not the least among his influences were the French symbolists such as Mal150 Edna G. Sharoni 151 larme in poetry and Maeterlinck in drama, whom he singled out in an early essay for their understanding of “that symbolism of bodily beauty which . . . [was] once so great a part of an older tradition than Christianity.”3 And even if his highly individual personal aesthetic was not wholly congruent with the Japanese, the latter acted as a catalyst for his own attempts to represent spiritual beauty in physical form. His young American secre­ tary, Ezra Pound, served both as transmitter of a view of the Noh and as poetic mentor in excising the outmoded abstrac­ tions from his verse—a carry-over from his pre-Raphaelite days —in an unremitting effort to help Yeats pare away the nonessential , to reach maximum poetic density and compression. A close reading of A t the Hawk’s Well, the earliest of Yeats’s Noh plays (1916), and an attempt to pinpoint and under­ stand elements adapted there from such classical Japanese dramas as Nishikigi and Hagomoro may provide insights into Yeats’s poetic more meaningful than the values inherent in this early Cuchulain play itself. I The recurring Yeatsian themes of beauty, nobility and pas­ sion, combined with a devastating obsession with earthly transience, the poignant sense of loss and ephemerality in­ separable from our mortal lot, are all abundantly present in At the Hawk’s Well. But to regard the “meaning” of the text alone, while ignoring the other highly-wrought elements of the play, chiefly the dance, would be to lose the poet’s vision of the work’s artistic essence: the combined force of manifold aesthetic ex­ pression, designed to appeal to all of the senses, on many con­ current planes of feeling and consciousness. For, like Blake, Yeats distrusted pure thought, believing that we are viscerally persuaded only by a totality of apprehension. Sensuous imagery, a slow-moving rhythm, and a group of nature metaphors en­ dowed with a special symbolic significance serve as the unify­ ing and shaping forces of the play, where simplicity of plot and subtlety of feeling take the place of the violent conflict character­ istic of most Western drama. Yeats was particularly impressed with the aristocratic distancing made possible by the unique climactic dance where, “instead of the disordered passion of na­ ture” of the Greeks, there is a restrained “pause at moments of muscular tension,” enabling the poet...


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pp. 150-173
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