Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop by William Butler Yeats: Summary and Critical Analysis

This short poem of three stanzas is a dialogue between an old woman and a church dignity – a bishop. It enunciates philosophy in a light-hearted vein. Yeats had seen such a woman in Dublin who had always puzzled him as to what in life she should symbolize. She was vulgar in her tongue and amoral in her life; but she was down to earth and candid. She knew no pretense that many call civilization.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

Yeats wrote about seven poems on this woman, and the most notable is this one in which the woman meets a bishop on the way, and when he tries to give her a sermon about a chaste way of life, she gives him a lecture on what reality is!

The poem is in three stanzas. Each stanza contains six lines. It is a brisk and hard-hitting dialogue of this Crazy-Jane (who is slut, a terrible satirist) and the Bishop. Even in her old age, she is after the sexual life. A Bishop reprimands her and tells her that her "breasts are flat and fallen now. Those veins must soon be dry". But no sooner than the religious man begins to deliver his homily, she overlaps his authority with a good practical philosophy. It is known (from other poems) that this man was a one-time lover of the woman. In this poem, the woman is the speaker/narrator: "I met the Bishop on the road/ And much said he and I./ Those breasts are flat fallen now,/ Those veins must soon be dry,/ Live in a heavenly mansion,! Not in some foul sty."

His point is that she should live a more religious life. Instead of feeling ashamed she turns savagely on the Bishop and argues that love (or, lust, to be more precise) should be accepted as an important part of life. She gives her argument a philosophic twist. She points out that love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement, and ends with the statement of the Platonic opposites! Every quality carries with that which is most alien to it, and without contraries there is no progression. The consummation of virginity lies in its desecration, just all the consummation of divine order lies in its reconciliation with the fallen world." Crazy Jane's philosophy is Yeats's own philosophy of those days: "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." The woman claims that she learnt her ideas from the bodily lowliness and the heart's pride, from life itself, unlike the priest who has learnt and preaches things out of books he has read and not out of the life that he has experienced. So her ideas are more authentic than his!

The soul can realize the Unity of Being through fair and foul. Jane is for the wholeness of experience which cannot be split in terms of body or spirit. Even the much vaunted sexuality of the poetry needs to be accepted in its context if it the essence of Crazy Jane as her derelict dignity in the face of circumstance, a kind of heroic inviolability amid the humiliations of the blind man's ditch. More fundamentally, however, Crazy Jane represents the conviction that the truth can only be possessed in time and that to live the truth man must consent to live it whole. The validity of experience resides in its completeness, and one can only mutilate that completeness by forging it into the categories of either body or spirit. Again and again Jane expresses the sense of wholeness, the recognition that opposites need each other to contemplate themselves, recognition consummated in the act of love, which remains the stubborn center of her wisdom. If love falls short of totality, it will be as unreal as religion. Fair and foul are near of kin, flesh and spirit demand each other and: “…..... nothing can be sole or whole/ That has not been rent". There are terribly vulgar connotations in the puns on whole/hole (the second indicating the genitals), sole/soul (as if' nothing can be soul), rent (split/cut, linked to the genitals again); besides the ‘mansion’ (palace) of love is also in the place of "excrement" or dirt, meaning that the object of love is very near or is the same as the organs of evacuation.

Through the mouth of Crazy Jane, the poet has succeeded in driving home the truth that body and soul are God's creation, hence, the two are equally holy. The claims of the one must be denied for the good of the other. Especially in the mouth of Crazy Jane, Yeats puts his profoundest metaphysical vision into snatches of a talk. To put a philosophy in homely terms and sing it light-heartedly takes complete understanding than any other way of expounding it. Crazy Jane is the final test of Yeats's faith."

Yeats has juxtaposed two opposites — experience and ideas. The sense of wholeness as the union of opposites is reinforced by the dramatic convention, the contrast between protagonist and circumstances, between the inviolable insight and the repeatedly violated body. It is underlined by the ironic convention, the wisdom of those whom the world calls half-witted and reversal of apparent values as the Bishop turns into the coxcomb he condemns. Finally, it is strengthened by the linguistic convention, the deliberate contrast, the deliberate contrast between the spiritual understanding and the sexual phrases. These incongruities bind the poem together, opening into and subtly validating the greater incongruity of its central recognition, the sense of permanence in the midst of change. Crazy Jane does not hunger for Byzantium, nor does she bless everything that she looks upon; but she knows that the tree and the moon that is hung upon it grow out of the apparent wasteland of the heart.

So Crazy Jane argues with the Bishop, relying not on God but on sensual energy and heroic joy. But the sweetness of her triumph in forcing old age to accept all the natural life of youthful desire, all its conditions and memories, is conveyed in rhythms that are tempered and made poignant by the imminence of death, the basic dramatic situation is that of a lonely, wild, even persecuted, old woman, whose love Jack the Journeyman; once straight and wild and young, is long since folded into the pathos of the dead. This situation qualifies the heroic Self-possession of Crazy Jane, her wit and joy; and elsewhere in the group there is sorrow at the transfigurations of time. "But Crazy Jane", says Richard Ellmann, "is not so wild as she appears, or as Yeats pretended, as the last two lines indicate, she shares his theories about love, and sees it is a conflict of opposites but also as an escape from them of unity, chilliness, or, to use a word which she would not have used, to beatitude. Her testimony is doubly valuable because she has never read a book. Though she prides herself on her licentiousness, she is tightly controlled by her imagination and her language to become unendurable; he exercises her from his verse".

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Sharma, K.N. "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop by William Butler Yeats: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 23 Nov. 2013,