Three different considerations of the difficulties and goals of one’s life work, one from Browning, two from Yeats….

Having written recently about the intersection of inspiration and technique in one’s art or craft, I come now to three related writings, all poems, about the commingled doings of inspiration, technique, difficulty, success, and of course everyone’s creative bugbear, failure.  Let’s begin with a story told in first person, one of Robert Browning’s famous dramatic monologues.  It’s called “Andrea del Sarto,” and has the subtitle “(called ‘The Faultless Painter’).”  It’s much too long to reproduce here, so I’ll have to content myself with repeating the gist of it and giving you the most important quoted section for my post.  It’s basically an imaginary monologue based upon the life of Andrea del Sarto, an actual painter, who was once a court favorite of King Francis I of France, but who was drawn away from court and from support of his aged parents by his infatuation for his wife Lucrezia, who was also his model, and who led him a dance.  The poem itself indicates that she grudgingly gave him attention, even to his work, which was supporting them, and instead spent her time with a largely spurious “cousin,” a usage which implies that she was cheating on del Sarto.

Browning’s monologue is one which is filled with certain regrets del Sarto supposedly has about having left court and lost his following to paint pictures of Lucrezia for the odd patron who comes along and falls in love with her beauty.  Of course, being in love with her himself to an uxurious degree, del Sarto constantly forgives her and speaks against his own ambitions.  Still, they do not go entirely unmentioned.  And when he comes to the subject of art, he not only gives himself a harsh consideration, but puts forth a “theory” of art, which shows that his work is also never far from his thoughts and that it is in fact the pull between his love and his art which is making him miserable.  This is how that part of the poem goes, with its famous lines about heaven and achievement of the utmost:

“There burns a truer light of God in [my rivals],/In their vexed beating stuff and stopped-up brain,/Heart, or whate’er else, than goes on to prompt/This low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand of mine./Their work drops groundward, but themselves, I know,/Reach many a time a heaven that’s shut to me,/Enter and take their place there sure enough,/Though they come back and cannot tell the world./My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here./The sudden blood of these men! at a word–/Praise them, it boils, or blame them, it boils too./I, painting from myself and to myself/Know what I do, am unmoved by men’s blame/Or their praise either.  Someone remarks/Morello’s outline there is wrongly traced,/His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,/Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that?/Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?/Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?  All is silver-gray/Placid and perfect with my art:  the worse!”

And so on and so forth, comparisons to both lesser and greater painters of his time continuing.  He criticizes his art, and sometimes to a hesitant and slight degree his model, Lucrezia, and says it’s “As if I saw alike my work and self/And all that I was born to be and do,/A twilight-piece.”  All of this relates to his own strange pull amongst ambition, and perfection of craft, and love, with his awareness that the nature of aspiration demands one must always have another level to ascend to, another goal, something that possibly cannot be reached.  His wife “rewards” his love for her in this manner willy-nilly, and it is as if he is a partially beaten man, wondering if his art will do the same thing.

Yeats, who has written many poems about art and artists and the life of the same has his own moments of expressing either a strange mixture of exhilaration and defeatism, or a calm acceptance of failure–the difference is, of course that the former is about his own work, the latter about that of another.  In the first poem, he documents his contrary and mixed emotions of infatuation and personal vexation with his job as director-manager of the Abbey Theatre.  It’s called “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”:

“The fascination of what’s difficult/Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent/Spontaneous joy and natural content/Out of my heart.  There’s something ails our colt/That must, as if it had not holy blood/Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,/Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt/As though it dragged road-metal.  My curse on plays/That have to be set up in fifty ways,/On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,/Theatre business, management of men./I swear before the dawn comes round again/I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.”

“Our colt” is of course the divine horse Pegasus, emblem of creative inspiration, yet Yeats shows quite clearly in this poem how he reacts to all the stops and starts and quandaries and problems of a practical nature that afflict those working in his theatre, with special reference to his own role and his temptation to “find the stable and pull out the bolt” and let the horse escape, probably more occasional than he lets on, since I suspect just writing this poem relieved some of the tension.

Finally (though of course there are so many aspects of the complicated questions having to do with inspiration and achievement that writers and artists will always have more to say), there is Yeats’s poem entitled “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.”  It is in this poem that I sometimes see the Yeats I like least, the Yeats who is not always at his hard-headed best, but who is a little sentimental, coyly daft, and perhaps a bit glib, with his famous mysticism thrown in and passing for a genuine vision, whereas in other poems it’s quite remarkable and eerily convincing.  At the end, I have to suppose that Yeats may have been aware that this poem is one of his own which is an encapsulated experience of what it is itself discussing, i.e., he may have known that this tribute was a partial failure of his own art, yet was perhaps unable to offer better:

“Now all the truth is out,/Be secret and take defeat/From any brazen throat,/For how can you compete,/Being honour bred, with one/Who, were it proved he lies,/Were neither shamed in his own/Nor in his neighbours’ eyes?/Bred to a harder thing/Than Triumph, turn away/And like a laughing string/Whereon mad fingers play/Amid a place of stone,/Be secret and exult,/Because of all things known/That is most difficult.”

On the other hand, if one looks for one of those many connecting highways and by-ways and intersections and coincidences so common in Yeats’s poems, one will notice the coincidence that he uses the work “difficult” in both poems.  It seems to suggest that possibly the “Triumph” spoken of is only actually a question of public personal acclaim, and that the work itself, whatever it may be, which his friend accomplished–or himself, Yeats was not above “dividing” himself into two and writing one to the other–was in fact a Triumph of a private sort, not a failure at all.  The familiar Yeatsian take on the “mad” person, one who is inspired by something not usual or not usually of this world, is thus included here as another emblem of the divine as it enters the humdrum world of human life, just as the horse Pegasus was seen as a ragged and whipped colt in the world of theatre politics and arrangements.  Take it as you will.  Yeats’s shoulders are creatively certainly broad enough to bear my previous charge, that he is sometimes a bit too whimsical.

Thus, to take it all in all, neither Andrea del Sarto with his wandering wife, nor the complaining theatre prime functionary, nor the “mad” talent in the third poem who is advised to let harsh words pass are any of them really expected (and perhaps are not inclined) to give up the fight and actually throw in the towel when it comes to artistic goals and aspirations.  Their trials are just the bumps one can expect to find along the road to art, should one be so “daft” as to make the artistic and creative one’s perpetual mental habitat.  So, if you are a person who for one reason or another likes to make ideas or things, or simply one who likes to mull over and meditate in print or otherwise on others’ creations, perhaps my post today will provide some fodder for your own private “Pegasus,” and keep him from kicking down the walls of his stable the next time you fight through your own creative struggles and torments.  Here’s to the high road of creative reward and difficulty alike, for my choice!  How about you?


Filed under A prose flourish, Full of literary ambitions!, Literary puzzles and arguments, What is literature for?

4 responses to “Three different considerations of the difficulties and goals of one’s life work, one from Browning, two from Yeats….

  1. D. James Fortescue

    Any form of art could be likened to travelling a once-unknown path. Beginning your venture, the path is overgrown, rough and intimidating. You keep travelling it over time, the path will clear, begin to smooth over, and what intimidated you earlier begins to lose its grip. In the end, it’s a well-worn path, smoothed over, and is no threat to you.

    So, take Pegasus and travel that unknown road. It’ll want to travel after being cooped up in the stable, and you’ll find new ways to achieve your artistic dreams =)


    • You sound positively lyrical, DJ. The thing is, I don’t think it should ever become easy, or totally lose its “threat,” because then you have to worry that you might be becoming stale or “old.” Instead, I prefer to think of always facing new challenges, and accomplishing through that arduous effort new things.


  2. Richard Gilbert

    Ah, Yeats is perfect to invoke here. He had such a total, ongoing, private mystical system worked out! I’ve never understood it, but wasn’t meant to, surely. The poems that resulted were the thing . . .


    • Yes, I’m very fond of Yeats too. He does get a bit difficult to deal with now and then, though. There’s a tale told of people sitting around listening to him chant to his psaltery, and he was getting a little weird, at which point Pound, who was among those present, took some flowers from a nearby vase and began to eat them in protest. Just like Yeats, and just like Pound, right? But as a fourth-year undergraduate, I took an excellent course on him, and was quite fascinated by the poems he wrote on Byzantium, for example. There will never be another Yeats.


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