Eliot makes a very interesting point when he says that people ordinarily incline to suppose that in order to enjoy a poem it is necessary to discover its meaning, a meaning which they can expound to anyone who will listen, in order to prove that they enjoy it. “But,” he writes, “The possibilities of meaning of ‘meaning’ in poetry is so extensive that one reader who had grasped a meaning of a poem may happen to appreciate it less, enjoy it less, than another person who has the dissertation not to acquire it too insistently.” If it were not for the question of the meaning of ‘interpretations’ there wouldn’t be half as many books on literary criticism as there are today.
Not being a philosopher, I cannot give you the exegesis of the meaning of meaning. Centuries ago, those who possessed knowledge tried to interpret the burning questions of their era through hermeneutics. In the West the Reformation intensified hermeneutic activity as Protestant theologians tried to form an autonomous interpretation of scripture. Then came, what we call, ‘Enlightenment Rationalism’ and interpretive procedures were codified. Efforts were made to achieve a general hermeneutics that would underlie all specific interpretation and provide them with a system of understanding.
There has always been a difference of opinion between those who think that the important thing is to understand the text and those who believe that it is far more important to reconstruct the lived experience of its author.
Epistemologists tell us that there are two processes involved in knowing: reason and feeling. Philosophy, of course, concentrates on reason and feeling has come to be associated with literature, poetry and drama.
Feeling is synonymous with emotions and it is an accepted rule that any creative work, no matter how purposive its cognation, unless it is imbued with feeling is dry and dull, and, therefore, ineffectual.
Western aesthetic theories differ in the interpretation of feeling. It has been argued that feeling is itself formulation, that is, it prefigures thought or reasoning. Other aesthetes are of the view that feeling itself participates in knowledge and understanding. Still others hold the feeling should be restricted to mean not another and vital way of reality, but a set of signs and personal attitudes. Renowned critic, I.A. Richards believes that there are some who can read signs (feelings) particularly well, and such people, when they create something which allows us to read some of these signs better, are great artists. For Richards, it is not the intensity of the feeling that matters, but the organisation of its impulses.
So where do I place W. B. Yeats? I say this because I think he reads what Richards calls ‘signs’ better than most poets, thus bringing to light ‘a vital way of reality’ to his poetry which is often couched in eclectic mysticism.
When I first read Yeats I found it hard to enter into his imaginative musings. I read him without knowing anything about the metaphysical knowledge in which his work rested. Many of his points of reference were unfamiliar to me, and it irked me. I could sense that he found materialistic ideology as unacceptable, and that he had a cosmology of his own. I had not yet realised that one could be moved by a poem without necessarily knowing the meaning of meanings.
Yeats was a poet steeped in knowledge. He drew his inspiration from all kinds of sources; magical studies, Irish folklore, Japanese and Arabic literature as well as Vedanta, I also realised that my first impression of Yeats as a poet who harked back to the past was wrong. Yeats weaves into his work old knowledge — the sacred knowledge embodied in all traditions — as new knowledge:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
* * * * *
Eliot was not enamoured of Shakespeare. He did not think that Shakespeare had a real philosophy. If he had, it was what he called a ragtag philosophy, not one that could have any design upon the amelioration of our conduct and behaviour. We must not forget that T.S. Eliot liked poetry to be deeply Christian — and Roman Catholic — in flavour. He does concede, however, that Shakespeare made great poetry out of an inferior and muddled philosophy.
Shakespeare may or may not have had a philosophy of his own but his characters do, and they show an amazing understanding of the human heart and human behaviour. In his own era he so excited the envy and wrath of the University-educated dramatist, Robert Greene, that he called him “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tyger’s hart wrapped in a Player’s hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you.”
Shakespeare not only understood the problems of the state and the government, the highly complex religious wrangles, the triumphs and failures of historical characters, but also the rights of individuals. He wrote several plays to please two autocratic monarchs — Elizabeth and James — but ever so subtly questioned the divine rights of kings.
Shakespeare is singular only in his enormous faculty for assimilating the intellectual ferment of his times in associating it with living characters and fixing it in the matrix of his dramatic situations so powerfully that he leaves other dramatists, who followed him, miles behind. He wrote universal plays of unparalleled brilliance. Othello, Lear, Macbeth and Hamlet are plays — masterpieces, I should say — that soar about the events of the day. His great tragic or historical characters all learn, in one degree or another, the vanity of power. The mighty King Lear, standing in the great storm takes heed of all the miseries that had eluded him when he ruled his Kingdom.
“Poor naked wretches where whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm
How should your homeless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you
From seasons such as these? O! I have ta’en
Too little care of this…”
And Prince Hamlet is painfully aware of the miseries that befall the poor: “The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely/…the law’s delay/the insolence of Office, and the spurns/that patient merit of the unworthy takes…”
Shakespeare’s villains suffer because they have sown the seeds of their own destruction rather than because a god has intervened. His work contains a whole world; it captures numerous aspects of humanity. In Ben Jonson’s memorable line, he was “not of an age but for all times.”