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Ferry, Bishop, Yeats

What does it mean for greatness to be primal?

The end of the lecture compares Gilgamesh and Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” as poems that achieve a seriousness of purpose in pitting themselves against death, deploying art as a monument to civilization. The poems do this work in part by acknowledging the elemental truths of mortality—for Yeats, the soul is “fastened to a dying animal.”

But even if the language of these poems is largely formal, high, ornate, lyrical, the primal nature of the subject creates a sense of immediacy and an effect of identification—a reader may not have thought of one’s human body as a dying animal before, but once the poet puts it that way, a reader may feel that there’s no turning back. The line crystallizes and expands a thought that was already lurking in the mind. This kind of insight embodied in a phrase and an image, at a certain level of intensity, provokes the term “great.” It involves, besides eloquence and force, a sense of kinship or even shared ownership of a thought the poet’s words have clarified. Though the scale of a poem may be grand, this identification with what’s elemental is personal, in a way, intimate.