Shawna Ross

Yeats By the Numbers

In 1909, Yeats wrote to a would-be playwright that he would fail, utterly and miserably fail, if he did not spend at least “five times as long” on “the mathematics of the play” as he spent on the phrasing of statements or the plotting of events. Yeats’s letters in general are sprinkled with numbers, as is consistent with a modernist poet who refused to embrace free verse, choosing instead to labor over meter and rhyme. And his interest in the occult, culminating in the publication of A Vision, led him (prompted by his wife) to create an astral geometry of personality types. Yeats, in other words, as a lover of numbers, provides a perfect modernist test-case for thinking through new digital-humanistic methods.

I am therefore currently working on an article that uses statistical techniques to track changes over Yeats’s long poetic career. More specifically, I have been interested in Yeats’s use of the dialogue form. His dialogues fascinate me for a number of reasons: 1) the relative lack of critical interest in his dialogues, 2) the ambivalence he had toward the form, 3) the similarities and differences of his dialogue poems when compared to his plays, and 4) their relationship to Yeats’s understanding of the Hegelian dialectic. I divided Yeats’s dialogues into categories, depending on the number of speakers and the position (or absence) of a narrator, and then traced the changing proportions of dialogue poems (both ratio of dialogue to non-dialogue poem, as well as relative percentages of each type of dialogue poem) among his thirteen poetry collections.

The results were surprising. 27.1% of Yeats’s poems were dialogue poems (31.9% if I count poems that incorporate the dialogue form within a larger, non-dialogue poem). Yeats relied on dialogue poems most in his first and last two collections, and between the two, his use of the dialogue poem swung rapidly. The graphs show regular spikes in his incorporation of dialogue poems, indicating an ambivalence to the poetic form that correlates chronologically to Yeats’s changing attitudes towards G. W. F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, dualist philosophies, and the dialectical method, as well as to Yeats’s involvement in Irish politics and his publication of political poetry. In addition, the high concentration of dialogue poems at the beginning and end of his career, as well as at the beginning and ending of each collection of poetry, suggest that Yeats felt the dialogue form had a ceremonial quality to it that helped him to organize and contextualize his other poetry.

My article, which incorporates Yeats’s non-fiction as well as the statistical data I have assembled, shows that Yeats takes pains to revise what perceives of as the classical dialectic. As he investigates the dialectical process through his theories of the mask and anti-self, as well as through his experimentation with mediumship, he develops a specifically theatrical dialectic tracing not the development of an individual consciousness, but instead (in the plays) the development of community consciousness and (in the poems) the fragmentation of the individual consciousness. Doing so starkly contrasts with the non-dialogic form of Yeats’s overtly political poems, and I show how we can understand better Yeats’s late interest in fascism and eugenics as a result of his experiments with the dialogue form.

Initially, my purposes was to use the statistical data on the dialogue poem to comment on Yeats’s critique of Hegel and Nietzsche. But when I found the data, I realized that a larger political context was informing his experimentation with the dialogue, and I was drawn to triangulate the relationship between Yeats’s interest Nietzsche and Hegel, his political beliefs, and his use of the dialogue. My experience with this data set is, in fact, informing my attitude toward digital-humanistic methods, as using graphs, maps, and numbers to look at literature really does seem to open up arguments that were not possible or visible before.