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This article is taken from PN Review 229, Volume 42 Number 5, May - June 2016.

The PN Review Lecture

The Quarrel with Ourselves
Poetry and Criticism
Peter McDonald
I WANT TO CONSIDER one fairly well-known statement about poetry, and about the way we talk about things including poetry. Many will recognise its author as being W. B. Yeats:


We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. Unlike the rhetoricians, who get a confident voice from remembering the crowd they have won or may win, we sing amid our uncertainty; and, smitten even in the presence of the most high beauty by the knowledge of our solitude, our rhythm shudders.


I have no idea how often the first sentence of this has been quoted over the years, but the figure must be a high one. Naturally, it has been quoted apart from its context – but pointing this out should not be taken for some game-winning production of the critical ace (‘If you read on, I think you’ll find that what he really means is this, and not what you are saying at all’). Yeats’s remarks come from his short prose book Per Amica Silentia Lunae, written in 1917 and published simultaneously in London and New York on 18th January, 1918. To translate those dates into the author’s age, the work was written when Yeats was fifty-one, and published when he was fifty-two years old. He had been publishing poetry since he was nineteen years of age, and critical prose since he was twenty-one, so his statement here has a good deal of time and experience behind it. Yeats by this ...


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