What Is Joy?

Matthew Mutter spoke on the principles of Yeatsian joy as the first speaker of the new Faith and Imagination lecture series.

yeats_boughtonPROVO, Utah (Nov. 3, 2016)—Irish poet W. B. Yeats asked, ”What is joy?” Most would likely answer that it is a feeling of great happiness or pleasure and then give no more thought to the matter. But Yeats was unsatisfied with so simple an answer and dedicated much of his writing to the topic, working out his own definition.

Matthew Mutter, assistant professor of literature at Bard College, visited BYU as the first guest lecturer of Faith and Imagination, a new lecture series hosted by the Humanities Center. His presentation, “‘What is Joy?’: Yeats, Paganism, and the Passions,” explored Yeats’ search for an answer to the question of joy in his 1932 poem “Vacillation.”

“Joy for Yeats is not merely one emotion among others,” Mutter explained. “It is the condition for the possibility of all intense emotions and the underlying energy found in all of them.” Yeats’ umbrella of joy covers many emotions that today are considered outside of the realm of happiness, including grief, rage and even hate. Yeatsian joy is multifaceted, even paradoxical. Yeats’ poem opens by addressing this conflict:

Between extremities
Man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath.
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night;
The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?

What follows this verse is a sustained dialogue between Yeats and the Christian tradition he has inherited. “[Christian] joy is conceived as a participation in God’s reality through connection, penetration and fusion with and by Him,” Mutter said. “Human joy is made possible by the boundlessness of God’s own joy and it recognizes that its power, because it is dependent on that source, is gratuitous, rather than the result of individual agency.” Thus, according to philosopher Simone Weil, experiencing joy requires a loss of self.

Yeats, however, disagreed with the idea of joy without self. Yeatsian joy depends on self-dominance, and any forces that attempt to impede only make it more powerful. Mutter explained, “The question does not ask, as has often been assumed by critics, how do we find joy in the face of death and remorse. Rather, the implication is that the ‘brand, or flaming breath’ might be called something better. Not death or remorse, but joy.”

In his later poetry, Yeats would develop these ideas into what he called “tragic joy,” a concept highly influenced by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Mutter explained, “For Nietzsche, the destruction of the heroic individual entrapped in drama yields not pity or terror but joy, because the hero returns to the primal oneness that made his passion possible in the first place.” Then, quoting Nietzsche, he added, “In this tragic state, ‘pain is experienced as joy . . . [and] jubilation tears tormented cries from the breast. At the moment of supreme joy we hear the scream of horror.’” Thus, Yeats welcomed challenges to joy, even catastrophe, believing that catastrophe is the ultimate challenge and therefore yields the greatest benefits.

Closing his remarks, Mutter explained, “Yeats says that passive suffering ‘is not a theme for poetry,’ and while I understand the sentiment, I think it is dangerous, for it allows us to marginalize those who suffer without agency or voice. And the other danger of Yeatsian joy is precisely that it welcomes catastrophe, rather than asking us to do anything to prevent catastrophe.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.