By Frederik van Dam
As 2018 drew to a close, the Irish College in Belgium hosted a
conference on innovation and experiment in contemporary Irish fiction.
It was a lively gathering, with many inspiring speakers; the interest in and
relevance of global climate change was striking and, of course, apposite. The animating force behind this gathering was Hedwig Schwall, for whom the conference was also the celebration of her retirement. Instead of briefly
recapitulating my own modest contribution to this conference, I thought I’d pay homage to Hedwig by providing a short reading that takes its cue from her work.
This is a belated reading. Years ago, when I was scanning the field for a possible research topic for my BA dissertation, I mentioned to my tutor that I was fascinated by the poetry of W. B. Yeats. To pursue that interest, he replied, I should seek out our in-house expert on the subject. I did not heed his advice. Instead of writing on Yeats, I soon found myself working on the novels of Anthony Trollope. But this decision was only a delay. Among many other things, Trollope’s early novels, which are set in Ireland, made me more attentive to the tangled tale of Irish literature in the Victorian age. As a result, I was brought – inevitably – into Hedwig’s ken. What would I have approached her with, though, had I listened more attentively to Yeats’s fanciful poems and not been lured away by Trollope’s earth-bound prose?
I might have tried to impress Hedwig with some reflections about Yeats’s ‘The Cat and the Moon’ (first published in The Wild Swans at Coole, 1919). The poem’s title signals that it will revolve around a psychological duality that Hedwig has so often tackled in her literary criticism; a Schwallian duality, as it were. Incorrigibly and incurably self-willed, cats are conventionally seen as conscious creatures, while the moon, at once dark and faintly illuminated, is a traditional trope for the unconscious. The poem itself, however, dissolves the opposition between the conscious and the unconscious even before it has been created, and instead emphasizes similarity more than difference. The first stanza presents the comparison between the feline and Selene in the lucid terms of a family resemblance:
went here and there
moon spun round like a top,
nearest kin of the moon,
cat, looked up.
p. 167, ll. 1-4)
Initially, Yeats’s cat is ‘creeping’, which suggests that without the moon it is a mere beast of the earth. As the poem continues, however, the bond between the animal and the moon is moved into the register of the aesthetic. ‘When two close kindred meet’, the poet asks, ‘What better than
call a dance’ (p. 167, ll. 12-13)? A creature whose pupils range ‘from round to
crescent, / From crescent to round’ (p. 168, ll. 23-24), Minnaloushe is
‘[a]lone, important, and wise’ (p. 168, l. 26). By staring at the moon, in
other words, the cat’s spirit is raised, elevated. Significantly, the speaker
is excluded from the dance that he observes. The poet is the passive witness of an aesthetic spectacle that seems to take place on the other side of knowledge, a spectacle from which he, as a thinking being, is excluded. The sentiment is not unlike that found in many of Matsuo Basho’s haiku, such as the following:
moon is full
an absence –
Suma in summer.
This particular haiku expresses a sense of unfulfillment in the presence the moon, a kind of yearning for self-forgetfulness. Yeats adds a second layer to this experience by introducing a creature into the scene. It is not the moon itself but a creature staring at the moon that makes the poet (and, at a remove, the reader) feel that sense of unfulfillment, that absence, which suggests a possible cause: by virtue of the presence of the cat, the poet
is made aware, if nothing more than that, of the animalistic part of his being from which he has been separated. Without wanting to suggest that this proto-existentialist sentiment is characteristically Irish, it is a testimony to Yeats’s influence that it can be found in the many contemporary works of Irish literature of which Hedwig has been active promotor and studious scholar. Sara Baume’s A Line Made by Walking (2017) provides one of the most recent articulations of this experience.
I look up
to the turbine, which doesn’t appear to go to sleep as the flower-heads do. It
stays up at night, continues to spin. Two white lights glow from the generator
at its axis, a set of cat’s eyes, but each of the blades remains unlit. […]
feels as if the cat’s eyes are looking down, looking back at me. Watching over
the garden, the bungalow. But I’ve never been good at judging the distance or
size or position of objects in the sky. I remember riding in the back of my
mother’s Ford Estate: I was four, it was night-time, and the moon was full. I
was gazing out the window, and I couldn’t understand why it moved through the
sky at the same pace as the car along the road, why we never managed to leave
it behind. ‘Drive faster!’ I commanded my mother, but refused to tell her why,
and so, she didn’t.
turn my attention back to the tuck-up petals.
do the flowers know it’s night-time? Why is the moon everywhere?
As in Yeats’s poem, two instantly recognizable images – the eyes of the cat and the light of the moon – mutually reinforce one another in order to power a reflection on the strange and alien quality of the world that surrounds us. I like to imagine that a research proposal on the reception of Yeatsian tropes, as found Baume’s novel, would have appealed to
Hedwig’s heretic side. After such knowledge, she would have said (channelling Herman Servotte, channelling T. S. Eliot), what forgiveness?
Robert. A Zen Wave: Basho’s Haiku and Zen, 2003. Washington: Shoemaker & Hoard,
Baume, Sara. A Line Made by Walking. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Poems. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. Second edition. New York: Scribner, 1996.