(Quoted by Thomas Carlyle) The rude man requires only to see something going on. The man of more refinement must be made to feel. The man of complete refinement must be made to reflect.
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(Quoted by Thomas Carlyle) The rude man requires only to see something going on. The man of more refinement must be made to feel. The man of complete refinement must be made to reflect.

-Thomas Carlyle

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Let us look once more at Yeats. At bottom, he was sceptical about the nonsense with which he satisfied what we can call his lust for commitment. Now and again he believed some of it, but in so far as his true commitment was to poetry he recognized his fictions as heuristic and dispensable, 'consciously false.' 'They give me metaphors for poetry,' he noted. The dolls and the amulets, the swords and the systems, were the tools of an operationalist. Yeats was always concerned that what made sense to him in terms of the system should make sense to others who shared with him not that arbitrary cipher-system but the traditional language of poetry. In this way he managed, sometimes at any rate, to have his cake and to eat it. The rough beast of the apocalyptic 'Second Coming,' and the spiralling falcon of the same poem, mean something in the system, but for the uninstructed reader they continue to mean something in terms of a broader system of cultural and linguistic conventions--the shared information codes upon which literature, like any other method of communication, depends. So too in the later plays, which analytic criticism tells us are very systematic, but which Yeats himself declared must conceal their esoteric substance and sound like old songs. So too with the Byzantium poems, and the Supernatural Songs; even a poem like 'The Statues,' which contains notions that are bound to see inexplicably strange to one who knows nothing of Yeats's historical and arthistorical opinions, takes its place in our minds not as a text which codes information more explicitly provided in On the Boiler but as one which in some measure our reading of the other poems, and the persona of the wild old man, can justify.Yeats, in a famous phrase which has occasionally floated free of its context, said that the System enabled him to hold together reality and justice in a single thought. Reality is, in this expression, the sense we have of a world irreducible to human plot and human desire for order; justice is the human order we find or impose upon it. The System is in fact all Justice; in combination with a sense of reality which has nothing whatever to do with it, it became a constituent of poems. The System is a plot, a purely human projection, though not more human than its apparent antithesis, reality, which is a human imagining of the inhuman. For a moment, in that expression, Yeats saw himself as an emperor dispensing equity, transcending both the fact and the pattern; it is what poets do. Only rarely did he forget that whatever devotes itself to justice at the expense of reality, is finally self-destructive. He might talk about the differences between the symbolic meanings of poetry and those 'emotional restless mimicries of the surface of life' which were for him the characteristics of 'popular realism,' but he understood very well the need for that 'moral element in poetry' which is 'the means whereby' it is 'accepted into the social order and becomes a part of life.' He understands the tension between a paradigmatic order where the price of a formal eternity is inhumanity, and the world of the dying generations; that is the subject of 'Sailing to Byzantium,' the poem I quoted at the outset of these talks. He was talking about this tension again in one of his last poems, when he distinguished between 'Players and painted stage'--the justice of formal poems--and 'the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart'--the human dirt and disorder that underlie them. The whole history of Yeats's style, which from the earliest times, before the turn of the century, he was trying to move towards colloquial uncertainty, reflects this regard for the reality that will not be reduced. In the end this modernism took on characteristic colours of violence, a sexual toughness and slang to represent what Yeats took to be a modern reality.

-Frank Kermode

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