(Extended) Notes on Yeats’ “Long-Legged Fly”

hughie-o-donoghue-long-legged-fly-low-res

Hughie O’Donaghue, Long-Legged Fly, in response to Yeats’ “Long-Legged Fly.”

Each stanza of Yeats’ “Long-Legged Fly” opens with the same word, “that,” carrying all the force of “in order that.” Immediately, just in this one word, we feel that something tremendously important is at stake, even before Yeats conjures the images of what’s at stake for us (partly through the incantation-like repetition of “that”): a sinking of civilization, the burning towers of Troy, the onslaught of sexual awareness in young girls. It’s easy to read the poem as an analysis of the cycles of civilization, the role of the individual in history, and of the creative moment. In the first stanza, a general saves civilization in a great battle, in the second civilization is destroyed by a woman and the love men bear for her face, and in the third it’s rebuilt through art and sexuality. Each stage is depicted through a single great figure, around which history narrows to a point, before it opens up again, having for a moment been one with their action. History, in this vision, is defined by these great figures—generals, lovers, and artists—who tower above the rest of us in their importance. And yet, in the long view of history, these people (all of whom seem to fall under the umbrella of “creative” in Yeats’ mind) are as but flies in contact with the ever-flowing stream that is simultaneously the stream of history and a timeless source of creative power. For each of these people—in the moments they are depicted—to access this creative power and accomplish what they must, silence and solitude are necessary. The fly becomes a metaphor for the artist: connected and yet separate, suspended on the surface by long spindly legs, but not actually in the stream. The creative moment, in this vision, is one profoundly important, upon which the very fate of the world may rest, but it is also one cut off from the world by its reliance upon solitude and silence.

I didn’t reach this paradoxical understanding of Yeats’ vision of the artist in the poem until I’d written more than 3,000 words trying to understand what on earth I thought was going on in the poem. Try as I might, I couldn’t make my initial (and very straight forward) reading of the poem seem satisfactory; whatever angle I approached it from, I felt sure I was missing something. I had initially been attracted to the poem by the image and rhythm of the refrain; the simple reading that this was a poem about the cycles of civilization and the importance of the individual creative mind and the generative (or destructive) power of the creative moment seemed attractive enough. But writing it, I ran into the problems from whatever angle I tried. Did Yeats really think that history narrows to a point around individuals, upon whom everything depends? That these figures are so important that the rest of us—the mere mortals who will be forgotten by history—can only participate in the shaping of history by making sure we are not in the way of it? That there are moments during which the bray of a donkey or the voice of an unwanted child could change the course of history? Did Yeats really believe that the purpose of Michael Angelo’s art was to inspire the sexual awakening of young girls? The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the poem trivialized the artistic moment, Michael Angelo, and art in general. With each reading, the voices of the poem became more snobbish, “our master” sounded more subservient, and the insistence on silence more ridiculous.

Feeling at a loss, I abandoned the poem and went to look for another to write about. In rereading “Under Ben Bulben” (which comes only seven poems earlier), I realized that Yeats treats almost the exact same subject as “Long-Legged Fly’s”’ third stanza, in the fourth section of that poem, but he does so in a completely different tone, trading the high religiosity of “Long-Legged Fly” for a lower diction and romping meter. Instead of speaking of “girls at puberty” finding “the first Adam in their thought” thanks to Michael Angelo, in “Under Ben Bulben” it is the ridiculous figure of the “globe-trotting Madam” who is disturbed by “but half-awakened Adam” until her “bowels are in heat.” The idea is the same, even to the painting and figure Yeats takes for an example: that art exists to stimulate sexual feeling. Art and its generation function as both metaphor for sexual generation and stimulant for it. In art is the “proof” that there’s a purpose: the “profane perfection of mankind.” However in “Under Ben Bulben,” the idea cannot be taken seriously. Here Yeats uses none of his pseudo-religious diction; sexuality does not dance around the edges of the language. The word “bowels” purposely places the body front and center and not at all with any reverence. Describing the lady’s bowels as being “in heat,” not only removes her from the equation as it focuses in on her body, but removes her humanity in using the language usually applied to an animal—a dog or a horse is said to be in heat, not a “Madam.” To reduce Michael Angelo’s Adam to a vehicle for the globe-trotting Madam’s heat trivializes both the Adam and Michael Angelo and ignores the many feelings towards art Yeats expresses elsewhere.¹

The scene of the third stanza of “Long-Legged Fly,” then, becomes something of a parody of the first two. Caesar, whatever battle he is planning, has the fate of a civilization riding on his shoulders. The same, though she does not, perhaps, know it,² goes for Helen as her feet move through her “tinker shuffle.” What does Michael Angelo have riding on his painting? Not the preservation or destruction of a civilization, but the easing of thousands of girls at puberty into sex. That this purpose fits into the cycle as the rebirth of civilization too continues the parody. Whereas the first two instances of the cycle are remarkably concrete, this is but a feeble hope for the future, placed in the hands of so many teenage girls as it is (one might remember that the girl performing the “tinker shuffle” of the second stanza is just such a one of these). Michael Angelo’s hope for his art lies not in itself but in its effect on girls and women. Art is not the agent for the rebirth of civilization, but trivialized stimulant at best.

That the immortality of Michael Angelo’s art does not lie in itself, but in the girls it effects, highlights yet another contradiction in the poem. In the poem, that Michael Angelo’s immortality is somehow beyond that of Caesar and Helen, is emphasized in that he is given definitive space-time coordinates, while, though reasonably identifiable, the figures of the first two stanzas and their situations remain vague. We know exactly who Yeats means in the third stanza, we know where, and we know approximately when. By contrast, we don’t necessarily know which Caesar he speaks of in the first stanza (nor does it end up mattering much), and neither are we certain that the second stanza depicts Helen: the girl could be almost anyone, anywhere, anywhen. But the artist—unlike the creator and creative destructor—is identified. He has been immortalized in his art and we know him definitively. Though the figures of the first two stanzas created and destroyed civilizations, they are remembered primarily through other mediums—through other people rather than through their own productions—because they did not achieve the same unity of being that Michael Angelo in his art did. Michael Angelo is at once inside and outside history, immortalized in his paintings as he is, whereas Helen and Caesar are firmly within it. From this, it seems clear that art and its importance and immortality are not simply bound to the sexual awakening of teen girls, but that they have meaning in and of themselves. From this angle, the parody disappears. Michael Angelo’s achievement transcends time and steps outside the cycle of civilization.

Thus, I don’t want to simply dismiss the third stanza simply because of the reservations I have about its implications for Yeats’ ideas about art. It’s possible to read the third stanza as the proper culmination of the poem, balancing the images of the first two stanzas as the dancing girl between the sphinx and Buddha of “Michael Robartes and the Dancer” does, as Michael Angelo unites both the creative power of mind and body in his art. In the first stanza we see the dissociation of body and mind in Caesar. Creation in Caesar is purely intellectual; that is bod is not engaged in the process is emphasized by Yeats’ use of the article indefinite article “a” to describe Caesar’s hand—“a hand beneath his head,” not “his hand”—while Caesar’s head is a attributed directly to him, symbolizing the emphasis on mind over body. In this dissociation, Caesar is not a unity. Helen, too, is not a unity as she represents the other side of the dichotomy: all body and no mind. The focus is entirely upon her body as it moves, her feet as they move through their “tinker shuffle.” “Her feet” belong to her because she is entirely body, purely physical. It is her face (and not she herself) that will bring the towers of Troy down. Dance in Yeats, particularly when done by a young girl, is an action wholly spontaneous, free from thought and the same is true here for Helen. The only thought she has in the stanza is not a deep one and we know it to be wrong: she is being watched. Thus, the dichotomy between mind and body an their modes of creation has been established. It is Helen’s physicality that will bring Troy down; it is Caesar’s intellect which preserves civilization. They are two sides of the same coin; together, they would be a unity. However, it’s not until we encounter Michael Angelo in the third stanza that we meet such a unity.

Michael Angelo, unlike Caesar and Helen, is not simply creative, but an artist. His hand and mind are melded into a greater unity of being than either of the figures of the first two stanzas managed to achieve. “The hand” of Caesar’s first stanza is here rehabilitated as it becomes Michael Angelo’s hand in the last line of the third stanza, melded to him by the possessive pronoun “his.” And yet Michael Angelo’s stanza is pervaded by the presence of thought in the overarching purpose of the work. His creation is not spontaneous, as the movement of Helen’s feet as they go through the steps “picked up” (as if idly, absent-mindedly, half-consciously; decidedly not with purpose, by design, or through a process of learning) on the street. His is a painstaking process, the culmination of a lifetime of preparation and hours of planning and forethought. That girls might “find / the first Adam in their thought” governs the stanza, the strong word “thought,” coming at the end of the line as it does, echoing through the remainder of the lines. Michael Angelo, in his work, melds mind to hand and achieves something of a unity of creation in himself. It is this vision of unity of being in Michael Angelo and his achievement which allows him to stand outside time while at once being firmly fixed within it. His immortality transcends history but also ensures that we remain entirely aware of his exact moment and place within its stream. Like the fly on the stream of silence, he is both inside and outside time.

And here, I think, I get to something like the heart of the poem or, at least, a (still problematic) explanation for its contradictions and claims. Yeats’ understanding of the artist is just as contradictory as the poem itself. The artist must be within his time, but he must also have the capacity to stand outside of it if he is to produce something which matters, which becomes immortal and transcends time. What’s interesting about Michael Angelo in comparison with Helen and Caesar is that what he creates does not actually have huge and immediate resonance in his time. Both Helen and Caesar, whether they are in the moment of choice or not in the poem, are remembered for their choices which had both immediate and lasting impacts, whereas Michael Angelo achieves something solider and more lasting through a pure act of creation rather than a choice. It is partly this, I think, which makes the assignation of the awakening of sexuality in girls as the purpose of Michael Angelo’s art ring so false. This purpose has been invented merely to give the Sistine Chapel some parallel immediate resonance to those of Helen and Caesar so that Michael Angelo may have both immediate and transhistorical impact, when it is really the the immortality of the thing that Yeats admires and emphasizes. I think, in this, we see Yeats grappling with himself over his ideas about the purpose of art. He thinks, perhaps, that he himself tends too far towards a vision of art for its own sake and thus seeks to overcorrect this tendency through the introduction of an immediate and “concrete” purpose for Michael Angelo’s art, despite the fact that it trivializes his work and breaks down under scrutiny: for no one can really believe that Michael Angelo painted the Sistine Chapel’s roof with the purpose of enabling sexual awakening in mind. We see this struggle everywhere in Yeats’ poetry and in his life: the reconciling of poetry, of art, with life, of thought with immediate action, of immortality with immediate resonance.

In the image of the fly, Yeats presents his understanding of the artist as someone who necessarily has contact with his time, but cannot fully be in it if he strives for and achieves the sort of immortality Michael Angelo did. The fly darts about on the surface of the stream of life, of history, but he exists outside of it. The creative moment is a fundamentally lonely one and I think it is this that he seeks to emphasize with his silence and separation, though this has the (I hope) unintended side effects of producing both the ridiculous idea that a small sound might disturb the artist from his work and prevent creation and the idea of a separation between the Artists—great figures, immortal figures—and the rest of us, the little people, unimportant and helpful only if we do not hinder, lacking means in ourselves and unable to approach the Artist. Since the voices of the poem (and I do think there are multiple voices—the voice of an attendant on Caesar (“our master”), that of an observer of Helen, perhaps her maid, and of some sort of Sistine functionary, a low-level priest) are not the voices of the artist, I think Yeats is portraying in the poem what he perceives as the misinterpretation of the orientation of the artist towards life. To be in an artist for Yeats is to be fundamentally lonely. But it is not to want to be lonely, to be separate. Rather, the rest of the world interprets the fundamental loneliness, the half-in, half-out status of the artist in life as a voluntary position. Each of these three voices is made slightly ridiculous by his imperatives to the listener to tread softly, keep quiet, lest we disturb the artists’s work, but these are the demands of people who do not understand the artist and revere his work as the work of a God entirely outside life. The artist who cannot help his liminal status does not ask for silence; it is given him by the world. There is a certain powerlessness of the artist in this poem, I think, despite the celebration of the power of his work, because he is not given a voice. Rather he is interpreted and mediated by the people around him, who put him on display as if he were an attraction and they a tour guide (“There on the scaffolding reclines / Michael Angelo” the Sistine tour guide tells the globe-trotting Madam) and set him apart from life. Yeats pleads with the reader to understand that though artistic generation is lonely, it does not need to be separate, revered, placed on a pedestal.

I don’t think that this reading is simply a desperate attempt to rescue the poem from snobbery. In writing this and exploring it, I’ve actually come full circle and am back to admiring and liking it nearly unreservedly. I think Yeats did have his problems regarding his attitude towards class, but that this poem does not exhibit those problems, but rather allows a glimpse into something deep within Yeats that goes beyond his ideas about art’s role in life and gets at the heart of the man. The refrain of “Long-Legged Fly” is beautiful and, I think, melancholy. The loneliness of the poem, of the artist, comes through in the refrain, peeping through the portraits painted of the artists by the speakers of the stanzas. The refrain is the poem’s fourth voice: it is Yeats providing something of a counter view to those presented by the stanzas. In the image of the fly, the artist is dissociated from life, from reality and becomes only his mind, alone on the stream of time, in that liminal space between being in the stream and entirely out of it. It is an image entirely at odds with the ones of glorified importance of the stanzas. The mind of the artist is not god-like, not super human, not something beyond the reach of mortal men; it is like that fly on the stream: half-in, half-out, flitting from place to place in its uneasiness, never truly connected in its fundamental loneliness, and, perhaps, above all, small.³

  1. Not to mention that if the only (or at least by far the most important) purpose of art were to stimulate the awareness of sexuality in women, he might never have gotten into the sort of quarrel he did about the books to enter the National Library. If the only importance of the Sistine Chapel’s roof (and that Yeats reduces Michael Angelo’s achievement to the mere painting of a “roof,” as if he’d simply slapped a few coats of whitewash up adds to this point) is to awaken sexuality, then it has no purpose in itself as art, it has a function outside of itself. It’s clear, even just looking at his life, that Yeats had some reverence for art for its own sake; otherwise he wouldn’t have made such a fuss about the quality of the books going into the library or the fact of the Irish people’s rejection of Robert Gregory’s paintings. Yeats does revere art for its own sake as well as for the achievement of other purposes and thus his easy trivialization in both “Under Ben Bulben” and “Long-Legged Fly” rings hollow.
  2. That she likely does not realize the import of her actions (particularly given the vague way in which Yeats describes her age) is one of the main factors in the call for silence coming off as ridiculous. Surely the fate of civilization cannot ride on the concentration of one girl as she performs her tinker-shuffle, unaware that one day she will cause a city to fall?
  3. I won’t get too far into it, but I think that reading this poem in conjunction with “The Back Tower” and “Cuchulain Comforted” and even things like “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz” we can see a Yeats yearning for connection, yearning for community. Yeats (or perhaps a Yeats?) strives to connect despite the separation of the artist, constantly redefining the position of the artist in relation to life. He exists truly in a liminal state, sometimes further from life, sometimes striving towards it.
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