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.
His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).
Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
I’ve lived in Sligo for years and passed by Yeats’s grave and famous statue countless times. One of my favourites, though, bless him, he wouldn’t have had time for the wife of a working-class man like me :)
Still, in the last stanza of the poem, he catches Jane’s (and other Irish women’s) connection with the practical, the earthy, even the animal. We do the poem a great disservice if we don’t get Jane’s slightly mocking allusion to the fact that we urinate and defecate and bleed every day from the same set of genitalia that we romanticise (“proud and stiff when on Love intent”) as the source of sexual pleasure. Jane considers a woman to fully know herself to be a woman only once she loses her virginity (is “rent” in order to be “whole”), and only knows herself as an individual (“sole”) in the context of her (disconnected) relationships with men, she laconically reminds the (celibate) bishop.
The second stanza has Jane reflecting on the fact that she has lost her friends, she learned, either to death itself, or to the fact that the men she might otherwise have befriended can relate to her only as the debauched woman they embraced (bodily lowliness), and the women she might have befriended can only defend their own social standing and perceived purity by shunning her (heart’s pride). There’s no middle ground of tolerance in a prudish but by no means perfect little Irish Catholic town, and Jane knows whose door to lay her mistreatment at, the bishop’s who condemns her from the pulpit.
We don’t hear his response in the poem. Yeats did not mean for the bishop to have an answer to Jane’s sharp and damningly true heresy.
Haha, the title itself ‘Crazy Jane Talks To The Bishop’ would make anyone curious about the poem’s content. W.B.Yeats was such a writer!!