Adrian Paterson ‘Stitching and Unstitching’: Yeats material and immaterial

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Adrian Paterson


W.B. Yeats’s repeated employment of textiles in poetry and plays is various, self-conscious, and revealing. Modernist textile poems, whether by Eliot, Pound, or Stevens, have in common a predilection for talking about their own procedures: Yeats, in line with his philosophical affinities, often suggests that material, whether of tapestries, costumes, curtains, or veils might be lifted to reveal a life beyond. It is significant however that this material revelation of the immaterial tends to be allied with and sometimes triggered by sound: vocal sound and song in particular. The cultural and textual histories of this interest in art and work associated with women deserves further scrutiny. This paper addresses the ‘rhapsodic’ character of the ‘stitching and unstitching’ of ‘Adam’s Curse’, and the interweaving of ‘A Coat’ with Ezra Pound’s blasting tribute to verse-speakers ‘Come My Cantilations’, as well attempting to unpick the involved theology and symbolism of silk, cotton, and damask in later dense poems such as  ‘Symbols’, ‘Fragments’, and ‘Wisdom’. In adopting sound as the essential material of poetry, these poems’ co-opting of textile-making as a central allegory for poetry’s making calls upon the collaborations of women, uncovering an important history of textile making through the embroideries of May Morris, the costumes of Charles Ricketts, and the all-female work of Yeats’s sisters Elizabeth and Lily and their apprentices at Dun Emer, later Cuala Industries. As in ‘Cuchulain Comforted’, such revivals of handcraft over manufacture might restore (in song) a communal aspect to making not readily associated with Yeats’s later aesthetics: crucially, even this most posthumous poem is not only concerned with the world beyond, but invested in the labour and economic exchanges of this one.

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