By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop’ first appeared as part of the collection Words for Music Perhaps in 1932; it is one of W. B. Yeats’s later poems and part of a series of poems featuring ‘Crazy Jane’. Before we offer some words of analysis of ‘Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop’, here’s the text of the poem.
Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop
I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.’
‘Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,’ I cried.
‘My friends are gone, but that’s a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart’s pride.
‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’
‘Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop’ has a pretty straightforward message and meaning: that purity and goodness come out of sin and imperfection.
We might summarise the poem as follows – but as we proceed with the summary, we’ll offer some words of analysis. The woman known as Crazy Jane is the speaker of the poem. She tells us that she met a Bishop while travelling on the road, who told her that she is getting older and will soon be dead, so she should repent her sins and accept God so that she might earn a place in heaven.
Crazy Jane responds to the Bishop by saying that things which are ‘fair’ (pure, beautiful, good) are not so different from those which are ‘foul’ (sinful, ugly). Indeed, in order to mean anything, ‘fair’ needs ‘foul’. This may sound like an odd argument, but of course it strikes at the heart of something like structuralism, whereby in a set of two binary opposites, each term only acquires any meaning by being defined against the other. So, we know what ‘fair’ is because we know it isn’t ‘foul’.
But Crazy Jane seems to be striking at a deeper philosophical and religious truth: that what we consider to be ‘fair’ is not that far removed from foulness. The act of getting married and having children may be actively encouraged by the Church (of which the Bishop is a representative), but in order to reproduce, married couples have to have sex, which Crazy Jane (it’s implied by Yeats’s word ‘sty’ that she is a prostitute) has made a career out of.
Crazy Jane continues, telling the Bishop that her friends have died: she is growing old, but worse than that, she is growing old and lonely. Yet she meets this ‘truth’ head-on, saying it’s a truth that neither ‘grave nor bed denied’.
What she means here is less clear, but we might see the ‘grave’ as representing death of Thanatos, the death-force, and the ‘bed’ as representing the life-force of Eros and sex; however, there may also be a suggestion in ‘bed’ of death as just a sleep, as a nod to religious belief that incorporates a belief in the afterlife. Whatever your beliefs, whether you think that death is the end and you just lie in the grave and rot, or whether you believe in something beyond this life, there’s no denying that her friends are ‘gone’ from this world.
At least, that’s one interpretation. But given what follows in the rest of this middle stanza, and in the poem’s final stanza, perhaps a more likely reading of Crazy Jane’s words is this: that people die, whether you belong to Crazy Jane’s world of premature death (the ‘grave’, to which her friends have gone because of their lowly status) or to the Bishop’s world of comfort and security (the ‘bed’).
But people still die. This is a truth that Crazy Jane has learned through her lowly social position, but it would be as true for someone whose heart was filled with ‘pride’ (such as the Bishop and his ilk).
In the final stanza of ‘Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop’, Crazy Jane continues this line of argument, with two kinds of love being compared: there is the woman who is ‘proud and stiff’ when intent on love, but there is also another kind of love, that is found in ‘the place of excrement’: we’re back in Crazy Jane’s ‘sty’ of sin and prostitution.
Nothing can be ‘whole’ or complete that has not been broken first. Crazy Jane, a downtrodden and ‘lowly’ prostitute, has certainly been ‘rent’ or broken. By her logic, she stands a better chance of achieving spiritual ‘wholeness’, because she’s been in the gutter or ‘the place of excrement’.
‘Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop’ looks like a straightforward enough poem, and its overall argument – that spiritual salvation can only be attained by those who have first lived a life of sin so they have something to atone for – seems plain enough. But Yeats’s language raises further questions, making ‘Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop’ a poem worth rereading, analysing, and discussing. Perhaps there is no definitive answer to all of these questions.
About W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism.
As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.