Yeats and Violence is a stirring title, but not for this book. Michael Wood's Clarendon Lectures, given in Oxford in 2008, read like his Empson Lectures, given in Cambridge in 2003 and published under the appropriately expansive title Literature and the Taste of Knowledge. The new book appears to be a small academic exercise - thoughts on a renowned poet and his favoured theme - whereas, in reality, it is a response, or a series of responses, to "the question of what a poem, as distinct from any other sort of proposition or utterance, may have to tell us, or show us, about violence or anything else".
The poem Wood is talking about here is Yeats's "The Magi", but for most of the book his attentions are turned to "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen", a troubling, six-part poem with resemblances to T S Eliot's troubling, five-part poem "The Waste Land". It was in 1919 that Eliot wrote to his benefactor John Quinn about "a poem I have in mind", and he got properly down to work in 1921, the same year as Yeats did. Eliot's "heap of broken images" and Yeats's "tumult of images" originally went under different titles: "He Do the Police in Different Voices" and "Thoughts upon the Present State of the World". Wood does not make this comparison, but Eliot is one of the many writers whose help he enlists as he works his way around Yeats's poem and the thoughts it provokes on poetry, history and retrospective fantasy.
“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" begins "Many ingenious lovely things are gone", yet for Wood, the poem is not about loss, but the sense of loss. Of the many pretty toys Yeats claims that human society used to have, including "A law indifferent to blame or praise,/ To bribe or threat", Wood says: "We had only the illusion of having them." He has plenty to say about the poem's formal choices, structural arrangement and "historico-spiritualist hocus-pocus", as well as the poem's vision of violence in its apocalyptic and republican forms. But he is by no means confined to these things. The book is notable for the range of subjects to which Wood applies his agile responsiveness: the relationship of the topical to the abstract and the local to the global; the significance of definite and indefinite articles; the words "strange", "reprisal" and "now".
Now is the perfect time for a critic of Wood's hospitality and promiscuity. The battles between competing schools have calmed, and he is able to deploy formalism in alliance with historicism; to quote William Empson alongside, not against, Jacques Derrida, whose views Empson claimed to find "very disgusting". Wood's treatment of "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen" is pitched between Roland Barthes's forensic approach to the Balzac story "Sarrasine" in "S/Z" and the itchy-footed ruminating of Frank Kermode in Romantic Image (1957) - especially the chapter on Yeats's "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory", a poem that deserves, Kermode says, to be asked the right questions and which rewards much painful reading.
Yeats and Violence also takes a cue from Christopher Ricks's lecture-books Keats and Embarrassment and T S Eliot and Prejudice, though Wood misses a juicy opportunity by failing to consider the tough question posed by Ricks in the essay "Yeats and Facts": "The reek of the human, the stuff of life, facts, circumstance, history, are these only aerially there in Yeats's poems, so that the victories for the human imagination, for spirit and form, are too easily won?" Another rare oversight is Kermode's essay "Poetry and History", in which he argues that "good poems about historical crises" speak a different language from historical record and myth. One of Kermode's examples is Andrew Marvell's "Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland", which Wood also discusses here.
But this is not a book that may fairly be accused of laxity. Wood's criticism is exuberantly characterful, adventurous in its scholarship, and greedily, giddily speculative. He has no prejudices about what merits consideration, so that the accidental substitution of "ingenuous" for "ingenious" in one version of the poem is described "as a sort of Freudian message from the printer's font" and Yeats's use of the phrase "scot-free" in connection with a Scotch-accented soldier prompts the claim that "the unconscious is no great respecter of etymologies". The poem is trusted often at the expense of the poet; the court of appeal is the language itself.
Wood quotes from two books called The End of the Poem (by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben and the poet Paul Muldoon), but this is not his destination. The book is incomplete and unsatisfying in the best sense - Wood honours complexities by refusing to tie them up or tidy them away. There is extensive use of the words "although" (more than 30 times), "perhaps" (more than 60) and "interesting".
Henry James defined criticism, we are told, as the mind "reaching out for the reasons of its interest". Wood writes criticism with arms outstretched. He is none too convincing when he says "I don't want to get carried away here"; his real, unabashed and unappeasable personality emerges when he senses how much more a phrase or image may have to yield. And at one point he produces the ideal motto of the intrepid interpreter: "We can go further, I think."
Yeats and Violence
Oxford University Press, 272pp, £18.99
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer.