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Agree or Disagree?

MCQ - July 2, 2012

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

-William Butler Yeats



  1. I need context.

    Comment by annegb — July 3, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

  2. Here’s the whole poem annegb:

    The Choice

    The intellect of man is forced to choose
    perfection of the life, or of the work,
    And if it take the second must refuse
    A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
    When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
    In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
    That old perplexity an empty purse,
    Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

    I think it’s a very interesting poem and wanted to get people’s thoughts on it, especially the first half. I think it has particular application to us as members of a Church that admonishes us to “Be ye therefore perfect.”

    What does perfection mean in that context? Are we supposed to seek perfection in all aspects of out lives, i.e. to be the perfect employee in our jobs? The pefect doctor, the perfect lawyer, the perfect accountant or architect?

    And if so, how does seeking perfection in our work impact the rest of our lives? How do we prioritize and balance our efforts at perfection? Is it reasonable to seek perfection in all aspects of our lives? Yeates seems to suggest that we must choose, that we can’t be perfect in work and in our lives, we have to choose one or the other. Is that true?

    I’m curious how people view this idea, because it seems to me that there is a certain amount of weight of experience behind Yeates’ observation. We all know people who have acheived a high degree of success in their professions, but seemingly at the expense of their personal lives. If we’re going to seek perfection in work then, what is the sacrifice that we have to make to acheive that? Is there one? If so, should we be willing to pay it?

    Comment by MCQ — July 3, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

  3. I think the second half of the poem is a bit harder to understand than the first half. It seems to me to be talking about the consequences of the choice described in the first half. You either end up with no money or remorse over having spent your time solely on the vanity of pursuing wealth.

    It’s not a happy poem, and I’m not sure the dichotomy is as stark as Yeats makes it out to be. Surely there is a balance to be struck between the two. But if we strike a balance, aren’t we giving up on perfection? And as members of our Church, are we supposed to strive for balance, or are we supposed to strive for perfection?

    Comment by MCQ — July 3, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

  4. As members of the church we may ask ourselves “What is perfection”? Is perfection having doilies under every single item on a shelf? Is perfection having wonderful handouts each lesson? Is perfection 100% HT/VT? Is perfection reachable in mortality in some areas?

    To all the above – yes and no. Could perfection be dependent on individual perception? I believe so. I also believe that perfection can be fleeting – like a perfect moment; it is also a process, an eternal process.

    Yeats does get you thinking however I challenge the thought that man must choose between the two. When we consider that life and work are interrelated and not separate, do we not then see that man does not have to choose?

    To create we must pay the price – to work we also must pay the price. One is not without the other. The price being the moral “heavenly mansion” contrasting with “the day’s vanity, a night’s remorse”.

    In Yeat’s time there was an enlightening of values, morality and intellect – to challenge man that he may possess one at the loss of another is an interesting observation. Can we truly have it all?

    Comment by Jacinta — July 5, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

  5. Good points Jacinta.

    It sounds to me like you’re disagreeing with Yeats that there must be a choice between the two, but I’m not sure I agree with you that we don’t have to choose at all between perfection in life and work just because they are interrelated.

    Some perfection is certainly possible in this life: as you say, there can be perfect moments, perhaps a perfect day? We can have perfect attendance at meetings or work, perfect in paying tithing or offerings, perfect in obeying the WoW, that sort of thing. I’m not sure how important perfection in those things actually is, but I would bet it doesn’t hurt our standing with God any.

    Comment by MCQ — July 5, 2012 @ 10:30 pm

  6. I think perfection is a tool of the devil. Because it seems to indicate a focus on task rather than character. No one can have perfect character in this life, but that should be the goal.

    So many people condemn others because they’re not perfect the way they define perfection. Perfectionism sucks the spirit out of life.

    This reminds of a story I read a long time ago, which may or may not be true. A woman got up determined to have a perfect day. But everything went wrong and she went to bed discouraged. The next day she decided that no matter what happened, she would be nice. And she had a perfect day.

    I don’t know much about Yeats. This was written a couple hundred years ago, no? I would guess he was referring to actual work vs. relationships (ie life). He’s saying we must choose. I think.

    I wonder if this reflects some of his personal struggles at the time. I’m going to go research it.

    Comment by annegb — July 6, 2012 @ 8:29 am

  7. Oh, wow, I had that wrong.

    I found a website that explores Yeats’ marriage and its effect on his work. It appears that he loved a woman who married another man; many years later he proposed to her daughter. She refused and he proposed to the daughter’s friend, who accepted. This woman devoted her life to him. I THINK the choice was made at the beginning of the marriage, when he realized marriage demanded more than he’d expected.

    Here’s a quote: “The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life, or of the work,” wrote Yeats in “The Choice,” and it would seem that, for him, the choice was clear. He could be an arch, distant father (“Who is it you are looking for?” he once asked his daughter when meeting her at the family gate), a husband expert at affecting incompetence at simple everyday tasks so that his purchase on greatness might be presumed.”

    “There is something wrong, something too ingeniously self-forgiving, about Yeats’s distinction between perfection of the life and perfection of the work. Yeats was a formidable guy; he lived in a medieval tower, he talked with dead people, he wrote some of the most beautiful lyric poems in the language. But nobody has a perfect life. Every life is enriched by disappointment, driven by compromise, and to suggest that one might have been a good person if only one had not been a great artist is to diminish the integrity of art. It is to suggest that art is not fueled by human experience—from the aesthetic to the political to the apocalyptic—but somehow transpires beside or beyond it

    He wanted a wife, he wanted a child, but he never imagined that this commitment to domestic life, however mediated by the assumption of male privilege, would change him so utterly. The author of poems written in discouragement became the author of poems written in ecstacy.”

    This is a poem he wrote late in life for his wife, who was named George. ??

    I, the poet William Yeats,
    With old mill boards and sea-green
    And smithy work from the Gort
    Restored this tower for my wife


    Comment by annegb — July 6, 2012 @ 8:48 am

  8. Her name was Georgie Hyde-Lees, but I guess Georgie was a nickname because she was born Bertha Hyde-Lees. She was only half his age when she married Yeats. I don’t think he was much devoted to her. He was obsessed with Maud Gonne, who he propsed to many times, then proposed to her daughter.

    You could look at Yeats poem “The Choice” as a kind of excuse. He was saying that he had to choose his work, which meant that he couldn’t be much of a husband or father. If so, then it’s a bad excuse, but that doesn’t mean that he’s wrong about there being a choice, of sorts, for everyone in some way.

    Comment by MCQ — July 6, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

  9. But have you read anything about Disraeli? He didn’t necessarily marry for love, but he loved her deeply after awhile. I think, from what little I read about Yeats, he was a selfish man. Also immature. But he seems to have married a woman with some sense and smarts. I bet he was pretty attached to her at the end.

    I read somewhere that Disraeli’s wife said something like “He married me first for money, but if he married me now, it would be for love.” Wise and strong woman, to live with that.

    Comment by annegb — July 23, 2012 @ 9:54 am

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