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Title: W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and the associationist aesthetic
Author: Craig, R. C.
Awarding Body: University of Edinburgh
Current Institution: University of Edinburgh
Date of Award: 1978
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Associationist concepts in aesthetic theory are usually assumed to have died with Coleridge's attack on Hartley. In fact, the explanation of the reader's experience of literature developed by David Hume and Archibald Alison in the eighteenth century continues throughout the nineteenth and is pervasive in the critical thinking of W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot. The essential postulate of associationist theory is that the reader does not respond to the communication of the words on the page, but responds indirectly through the images and feelings stimulated in him by the work. The greater the quantity of associations generated by the work, the more aesthetically effective it is. Yeats derived his associationist thinking from Hallam's essay in defence of Tennyson, Eliot his from Remy de Gourmont and, in a modified form known as 'redintegration', from Bradley. The work of both poets is deeply influenced by these assumptions, for what it implies is that every poem is an incomplete object, whose full existence is only in the combination of what the poet gives and what the reader's associations provide out of his own memory. Thus the aesthetic largely deprives the poet of control over the reception of his poem, since it depends on the contents, mostly accidental, of the reader's personal memories. The central problem of Yeats' and Eliot's criticism is how to correlate the associations out of which the poem is created with those in which it will be experienced. Yeats's prose writings assert at different stages in his life a special connection between the poet and some social group - the Irish peasantry, the occult initiates, the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the community of spirits in the afterlife - whose memories will be the appropriate associations for which his poems are written and within which they will have their full existence. Eliot's 'objective correlative' is similarly an attempt to justify a direct link between the poet's associations and the reader's; its failure leads to the emphasis on a certain tradition which will define the appropriate associations and later on the delimiting context of Christian symbolism. With both poets the theory leads to the construction of poems which will be unfinished on the page and which demand completion in the reader's associations: Yeats's poems strive for a climactic image which will set in motion a chain of associative connections which are integral to the experience of the poem. Eliot's use of disjunctive images insists on meanings which each reader constructs out of the attempt to harmonise conflicting associations. Yeats's search for the primal images in the Great Memory is for those images which have developed the greatest quantity of associative potential; Eliot's use of allusion offers a similar increase in association and, in 'The Waste Land', creates a poem which is completely open in structure and exists only in conjunction with the reader's associations. To write an entirely associational poem is, however, impossible, but the non-associative content of the works of both poets is deeply engaged with the issues of associational thinking. Prime among these is the role of memory and the search for a memory which will transcend the limits of the individual's personal, limited associations. Yeats's poetry falls into four distinct phases related to his belief in the effectiveness of such suprapersonal memory: an early period in which Irish myths or occult symbols represent a memory which is instantiated in a community and transcends ordinary memory, so permitting, us access to transcendent insight; a period from 1902 to 1912 when, having lost faith in memory, he sees the poet's role as essentially denied by the modern world and man cut off from eternity. From 1912, under the stimulus of writing his autobiography and renewed occult experiments, he gradually rediscovers the potentialities of suprapersonal memory, and this memory is revealed as the ontological structure of the universe in the spirits of Per Amica Silentia Lunae. In this phase the symbol is seen not as a transcendence of time but as complicit with the temporal associations by which it is experienced. Time and eternity are not separated as in the early poetry, nor mutually forgotten, but are each other's creation, just as the image is the product of association and leads back into it. It is this process which is described in 'Byzantium'. In the final stage of his career the world's failure to meet the potentialities of his art with a significant social memory leads him to revoke his own associational technique. Eliot's poetry undergoes a parallel development. Monologues such as 'Prufrock' or 'Gerontion' are associative poems which operate by making the consciousness of the character identical with the form by which the poem is to be experienced. Thus the reading experience is reflected in the content of the poem, and it is an experience of isolation. 'The Waste Land' seeks for some communal layer of memory in the reader by acting through his associations towards the uncovering in personal memory of a mythic, unconscious memory by which poet and reader are linked. The shift to Christian associations in 'Ash Wednesday' leads later to a poetry of statement which is intended to create the context of associations in which poetry can again be fully experienced. Personal and Christian memory, associational and non-associational poetry are resolved in 'Four Quartets'. The associationist aesthetic is necessarily past directed: all meaning lies in conjunctions of past experiences. The only way that the poet can be sure of the response to his poems is if history has provided an audience with a shared set of associations. The failure of history, which Yeats and Eliot both feel to have occurred in their time, leads to a necessary engagement of the poet in politics in order. to create the continuity between past and present within which memory can be quantitatively sufficient for the existence of art. The openness of associative art, separating poet from reader, leads both poets into trying to close off the multitudinous meanings of their works by the assertion of a single, closed system of politics. The divorce between artist and audience which such politics tries to put right is, however, essential to the very nature of associationist art, and it is only poets from the peripheries of English culture, for whom that break is already a reality, for whom there is in fact no real continuity of memory inside a single tradition, who can fully exploit the potentialities of this kind of poetry. Their personal situation reflects the problems of the aesthetic and so can find expression through it. The history of poetry in Britain in the twentieth century is the history of the opposition between associational and non-associational modes, the former utilised successfully by those from cultural peripheries, the latter by those from the cultural core.
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Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
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