The Yeatsian Presence in A.J.M. Smiths “Like an Old, Proud: King in a Parable

by I.S. MacLaren

     From its initial reviews over a decade ago to the most recent study by Sandra Djwa, A.J.M. Smith’s Poems New and Collected has been both celebrated and criticized for its awesome (or troublesome) range of poetic variations. Not surprisingly, since this volume alone constitutes the poet’s oeuvre, speculation has arisen as to whether only one hundred odd poems can support such a range and whether they can therefore establish Smith as a skilled craftsman. Certainly the one hundred pieces show Smith to be a chameleon — he can viciously dismiss the vacuity of ‘popular poetry’, he can articulate his committment to sing the “lonely music” or to encounter “voluptuous” death, and yet he can delight his reader with such flippant remarks as:

McLuhan put his telescope to his ear;
What a lovely smell, he said, we have here.

The question raised by the bewildering variety of Poems New and Collected is whether to assess the poems individually in their own terms or to attempt to discover whatever unity lies at the core of the collection. Neither of these approaches has proved wholly fruitful: the former has spawned only general comments, such as Munro Beattie’s observation that “Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable” resembles the poetry of the “later Yeats”;1 the latter, as in Sandra Djwa’s analysis of Smith’s corpus in terms of its metaphysical themes,2 unavoidably loses eight of the other themes in the collection, thereby tending to rob it of its multifarious vitality. It would thus appear desirable to approach each poem in its own terms and then, having estimated in unique value, to ascertain where it fits into the tenor of the collection. With this in mind, the following paragraphs offer an examination of the Yeatsian presence in Smith’s work through a close reading of the poem most often placed in the “later Yeats” category, “Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable”.

     The early poems, and here it is essential to look beyond what Smith chose to collect, to “Leda” and the embarrassingly reverential “For Ever and Ever, Amen”, demonstrate what the poet has recently called “too much” of an “obviously Yeatsian” quality.3  As poems they do no more than express in lyrical form what Smith the graduate student wrote of Yeats in his Master’s thesis. While he was preparing his thesis during the winter of 1925-26, W.B. Yeats was publishing A Vision (1925) and writing the poems of The Tower which appeared in 1928. To the twenty-three year old Smith, Yeats represented a master whose command of the language of poetry merged with his understanding and reaction against the “beauties of the Pre-Raphaelites and the evils of realism and Victorian art and literature in general.”4  Smith was delighted when his “Two Sides of a Drum” shared the pages of The Dial with Yeats’ poems in 1926. It is possible to hear a vaguely autobiographical tone in his portrait of Yeats as “extremely sensitive to nature . . .” fortunately the desolate beauty and grey splendour of the country in which he spent the most impressionable years of his youth, “for Smith himself celebrated the “desolate splendour” of the Canadian north in “The Lonely Land” which was published in The McGill Fortnightly Review during that thesis winter of 1925-26.5  “The Lonely Land” is not commonly approached from a Yeatsian perspective; yet the gap between Yeats’ “grey” Galway coast and the wild swans at Coole to the “grey grief”, “grey rock”, “grey cloud-piled sky” and “the wild ducks’ cry” of the original version of “The Lonely Land” is not a wide one. To an aspiring young poet who felt, to use Peter Stevens’ phrase, “bound by the diluted Romanticism of the older Canadian poets,”6 and threatened by Romanticism’s power to disintegrate the poetic fibre, the study of Yeats represented a turning outward to a poet who had survived his own romantic tendencies, had, almost dutifully, dealt with the ‘native’ (Celtic) twilight and had emerged from it into what he called in “The Fisherman”, the “cold and passionate” (and — in Smith’s terms — more identifiably ’cosmopolitan’) dawn of his later work.

     Smith’s thesis on “The Poetry of William Butler Yeats” indicates a close reading of the Anglo-Irish poet’s Essays and Autobiographies. It systematically judges Yeats’ early phases as Yeats himself had done and various echoes of the master’s own comments inevitably abound. Consider Yeats’ retrospective assessment of The Wanderings of Oisin beside Smith’s description of Yeats’ poetic development after that work. Here is Yeats’ view:

Years afterwards when I had finished The Wanderings of Oisin, dissatisfied with its yellow and its dull green, with all that overcharged colour inherited from the romantic movement, I deliberately sought out an impression as of cold light and tumbling clouds. I cast off traditional metaphors and loosened my rhythm, and . . . became as emotional as possible but with an emotion which I described to myself as cold. 7

Smith voices a strikingly similar view of Oisin in the thesis:

It is as though in his early poetry Mr. Yeats had dressed a tall queen in a shimmering robe made out of some fine coloured cloth decked with jewels and roses worked in gold, and had set upon her head a golden crown and strapped richly-worked shoes over her feet, and had bid all men to bow down before her, and given praise to one who might be Venus or the Mother of God. In his later poetry he has; undressed her and bid her stand upon the rock, her hair tossed in the cold wind and her feet washed by the grey tide and her body bathed in the clear sunlight. There is no colour in this poetry now save grey. It is always some scene of grey rock, grey sea, grey mist that is conjured up before the eye of the mind. The dominant symbol is the hawk, proud and lonely high-flyer, winging over the grey Irish shore and the lonely forest.8

Each passage charts in the development of Yeats’ poetry the aesthetic of ‘Intellectual Beauty’ as Yeats used the term. Each passage expresses the need to pare the work of art (poem or statue) of all but its quintessence — while Yeats seeks the “cold light and tumbling clouds”, Smith calls for a naked, grey and vital poetry.

     Whether the scene conjured up by Smith in the above passage owes its inspiration, as well as its imagery, more to Yeats’ descriptions of the Galway coast than to his own “The Lonely Land” is difficult to determine and is of secondary concern to a more striking, and for the present discussion, more important feature of the passage: the analogy made in it between poet / king and poetry / queen. The importance of the analogy resides in the facts that it immediately recalls the characters and the act of divestment or abdication in “Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable.” The fact that the thesis simile draws the Yeats / king and the poetry / queen parallels, the “bitter king in anger to be gone” phrase invites a biographical reading of the poem in terms of Yeats’ unhappy abdication of his public roles at the Abbey Theatre and else where. Divesting himself of the props of the stage role (“the hollow sceptre and gilt crown”), he “broke bound” of the “counties Green” and retreated to the north, to the rocky Galway coast. There, with his “bride”, Georgie Hyde-Lees, he purchased Thoor Ballylee in 1917 and proceeded to make the old stone castle habitable: “he made a meadow in the northern stone”. From there, until his death in 1939, Yeats sang “the difficult, lonely music” of his later poetry. This last phrase captures the Yeatsian spirit (as registered in his comment on Oisin) and cadence (the “cold and passionate dawn”). Interestingly, it did not appear in either the 1926 (The McGill Fortnightly Review) or 1928 (The Canadian Mercury) versions of the poem; it was first incorporated into the poem when it appeared in New Provinces (1936), well after Yeats’ publication of The Tower and The Winding Stair.

     The invocation of the “Father” in the poem’s last stanza, though reverential in tone, need not be confined to a strictly religious reading; indeed, other than the obvious connotations of the parable form, the religious reading does not especially suit the matter of this poem. Smith is invoking the “Father” Yeats as his master craftsman and perhaps even as his muse. The poet pledges himself:

And I will sing to the barren rock
Your difficult, lonely music, heart;
Like an old proud king in a parable.

The separation of the personal adjective “Your” from its noun, “heart” leaves the reader the length of the line to imagine that the difficult, lonely music belongs to the “Father” who is still being addressed. The grammatical connection with “heart” at the line’s end does not wholly negate the previously made association; in fact, the spiritual bond formed in the poem would suggest that the distance between the “Father” Yeats and Smith’s “heart” is not great. Further, the spiritual tie instigated and confirmed by the generical nature of “Parable” permits the last line to signify that the poet, Smith, will sing his heart’s song in the manner of the old, proud king, Yeats. In the light of this reading, Smith’s decision to introduce his last three volumes with “Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable” becomes significant: standing like an invocation at the head of Collected Poems (1962), Poems New and Collected (1967) and The Classic Shade (1978), it recognizes the inspiration and announces the aspiration of his poetical identity.

    There is, however, a less specifically Yeatsian reading of the poem, stemming still from the simile in the thesis on Yeats. The “bitter king”, bitter because deluded by the trappings of poetical convention being imposed upon him (i.e. Smith’s delineation of the demands made on the Canadian poet to talk romantically of snowshoes etc.), must divest himself of the gilt crown, the hollow sceptre, the doting but ultimately tyrannical queen (oppressively emotional poetry). Rather than stalk about in another’s apparel, the poet must start afresh, must renounce the comforts of the “fat royal life”, the easily made poetry “embroidered” by luxuriant but vacuous emotions. His act of “breaking bound” is an act of defiance, an abdication of his public role in order to answer the “heart that carolled like a swan.” This stripping away of foreign adornments is how Smith characterized the development of Yeats’ poetry in the thesis passage. It is integrated into the poem as an expression of the poet’s hope to die out of the public mask and into the naked, “proud and lonely” (thesis) self. The dialogue will no longer be conducted between king and court, but between self and soul, bridegroom and bride, intellect and emotion.

     In his 1939 memorial essay, Smith identifies two prominent themes in Yeats’ later poetry which are not mentioned for obvious reasons in his thesis; “the problem of the place and usefulness of the poet in the modern world . . . a significant problem which Yeats made dramatic because he was aware of a conflict in his own mind"; and “his natural inability to deceive himself for long — at least so far as art was concerned.”9  The revision of “Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable” to include the image of the self isolated with the self and making “difficult, lonely music” out of that confrontation, demonstrates Smith’s acceptance of the Yeatsian aesthetic in poetry: his “pride” acts both as his greatest comfort and his harshest critic and his poetry of ‘Intellectual Beauty’ is born out of the struggle with that ambivalence.

      It should perhaps be stressed that both the thesis passage and the poem’s title are verbal acts of similitude rather than of identification. Thus, the poem does not demand that the “old proud king” be identified as Yeats; in fact, it thrives on a simultaneous relationship of the king figure with several characters (the clear advantage of simile over metaphor being its capacity to relate several things at once). The king is 1) Yeats, a poet who man aged to sing the “difficult, lonely music” of the heart, 2) a quasi-mythical being who renounces the urban court for the pastoral life, and 3) an ideal to which the poet aspires. In this third capacity, the king figure is like Yeats’ fisherman in “prey Connemara cloth . . . Who does not exist, / A man who is but a dream” for whom Yeats determines to write “one / Poem maybe as cold / And passionate as the dawn.” In a moment of scorn at the thought of playing the public role and “writing for my own race / And the reality”, the “bitter” poet travels imaginatively “to a place / Where stone is dark under froth”. Similarly, Smith, refusing to play the role of a native poet painting nature scenes in whatever words rhyme, vows to a man who exists only in a parable: “I will sing to the barren rock / Your difficult, lonely music”.

     “Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable” is undoubtedly one of Smith’a most important poems: its placement at the head of his collections advises us that the poet still accepts its credo and its poetical theory. It is even possible to discern a relationship between Smith’s understanding of the development of Yeats’ poetry from pure emotion to ‘Intellectual Beauty’ and his famous critical classification of Canadian poets into “native” and “cosmopolitan” traditions. Of the “native” tradition, for example, he argues that “the concentration upon personal emotion and upon nature, while it made for an easier success, meant a serious narrowing of range and some times a thinning of substance.”10 Like Yeats, he criticizes such poetry for its “lack of complete relevancy”, and he traces its demise in the light of this shortcoming: “the tradition of romantic nature poetry became brittle and glazed, and its imagery, which in the older poets had been genuinely local, tended to harden into convention.” What was needed, Smith saw, was for poets to adopt a cosmopolitan, intelligent regard of the world around them: this would produce “the poetry of ideas, of social criticism, of wit and satire”11 whose “unassuming” and undeceived outlook would pare the “fat royal life” and emotionally romantic poetry of their “overloaded diction”.

     What clearly sets “Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable” apart from other too “obviously Yeatsian” early poems is that it transcends its sources to become a sincere, almost private, statement and a successful, self-contained poem. It is not a pastiche or a mere exercise in another’s style. It echoes and shares Yeats’ ideas but never does it need to rely on an identification with them: the poem has, does and will thrive without it. But, as Walter Jackson Bate remarked in his study of Keat’s early poetry, “We must evaluate influences to the degree that they release energies and allow one to go ahead on one’s own feet.”12  As much as any image or theme, it was Yeats’ committed spirit that affected Smith and, as “Like an Old, Proud King in a Parable” demonstrates, assured him that the struggle to express ’Intellectual Beauty’ was a noble one. Such inspiration obviously could have been culled from the work of various poets but here again, the enthusiastic tenor of the Master’s thesis suggests Yeats above all others as the initial ‘muse’. Consequently, one cannot help wondering how the Yeatsian and metaphysical strains have blended. However far Smith’s concern “with that great metaphysical question of the relation between the spirit and the senses” may be traced back to the metaphysical poets themselves, as Sandra Djwa suggests,13 a similar path down to Yeats through Blake is also readily discernible. The immediacy of this ‘metaphysical’ concern in Yeats’ “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”, “Byzantium”, “Among School Children”, and the “Crazy Jane” poems, perhaps suggested to him a portrait of Yeats as a modern metaphysical whose poetic dialectic achieved “the beauty / of strength / broken by strength / and still strong”.

     Clearly, we are only beginning to understand and document the complexity of the question of inheritance and adaptation in Smith’s poetry. It is the salient feature of Smith studies as George Woodcock has advised us:

. . . originality, I can imagine Smith as saying, if he has not actually done so, is  an illusion of the half-baked pseudo-Romantic. Experience provides the raw material for all writings, and experience is never wholly original; the experience of a literary man particularly, includes all the books he has read and all the poems that — good or bad — have sent the shivers down his spine.14

The poetry begins to gain resonance when Smith’s understanding of his predecessors and contemporaries is clarified; one suspects that the more we uncover of this nature the less Smith’s chameleon nature will strike us as troublesome.


  1. Munro Beattie, “Poetry 1920-1935”, in Literary History of Canada, (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1965), Vol. 2, p. 243.[back]

  2. Sandra A. Djwa, “A.J.M. Smith: Of Metaphysics and Dry Bones”, in Studies in Canadian Literature, (Spring, 1978), pp. 17-34.[back]

  3. Michael Darling, “An Interview with A.J.M. Smith”, in Essays in Canadian Literature, 9 (Winter 1977), p. 56.[back]

  4. A.J.M. Smith, “The Poetry of William Butler Yeats”, M.A. Thesis, McGill University, 1926, p. 2.[back]

  5. The Lonely Land”, in The McGill Fortnightly Review, Vol. 1, no. 4 (Dec. 9, 1926).[back]

  6. Peter Stevens, “The Development of Canadian Poetry Between The Wars and Its Reflection of Social Awareness”, Diss., University of Saskatchewan, 1968, p. 25.[back]

  7. William Butler Yeats, Autobiographies, (London: MacMillan, 1916), p. 74.[back]

  8. Smith, thesis, p. 64f.[back]

  9. A.J.M. Smith, “A Poet Young and Old”, in University of Toronto Quarterly, 34 (Sept. 1939), p. 257f.[back]

  10. A.J.M.  Smith, “Introduction”, The Book of Canadian Poetry: A Critical and Historical Anthology (Toronto: Gage, 1943), p. 23.[back]

  11. Ibid., p. 29.[back]

  12. Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats, (New York: Oxford, 1966), p. 78.[back]

  13. Sandra A. Djwa, op. cit., p. 30.[back]

  14. George Woodcock, “Review of A.J.M. Smith’s ‘Collected Poems’”, in Canadian Forum, XLII (Feb. 1963), p. 258.[back]