Analysis of William Butler Yeats' Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop
Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop
by William Butler Yeats
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.'
William Butler Yeats’ "Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop" is one of my favorite poems. The humor and wit in the exchange between the speakers are excellent and give one much to chew on. The interest of this analysis is to try and decipher whether Jane is indeed crazy or mistakenly identified as such. The title tells us what is happening in the rest of the poem: a woman, referred to as “Crazy Jane,” is having a conversation with a bishop. Knowing that crazy is a term used to describe those who appear to us illogical, one might be prepared to assume Jane an erratic character. Of the bishop one might expect a sympathetic disposition, seeing as he is an ordained minister of the church. And Christ is all about loving one's neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:39) and washing the feet of one's followers (John 13:1-17). But, of course, just because the title portrays one speaker as atypical and the other as respectable does not mean we ought to take the title’s opinion as factual. Besides one does not even know what the title means. For instance, saying Jane talks with the bishop could be taken to mean that Jane mostly spoke and the bishop listened or pretended to listen or was in the vicinity as Jane spoke and no listening was done. But to have a talk also means to have a conversation. Hence one wonders about the sort of conversation that issues between a bishop and a crazy woman who might not even be able to grasp his point of view nor benefit from his wisdom.
In the first verse we meet Jane as narrator of the poem and this gives one a moment of pause by the question of whether or not her account can be unbiased and how much grain of salt one ought to take her narration with. Yet, as one who is described as crazy, it is likely that Jane has no reason to alter her report of her “talk” with the bishop to her benefit, seeing as many would not even care for her story and those who give her their ears might do so for entertainment, caring little for its truths. This means there is very little reason to fabricate her account of her meeting with the bishop. Jane says she run into the bishop on the road, “And much said he and I.” The word “said” holds weight as it highlights the “talk” of the title. The notion that people talk or say things to one another brings round the question, how much listening is actually happening? Did Jane listen to the bishop? And how about the bishop, could he listen to Jane? What has a crazy woman to say to a bishop? And what has a bishop to say to such a woman?
Well, the bishop said “‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now / Those veins must soon be dry.” Aha! Go on and laugh because these lines are funny. It appears our bishop has very little good sense. A man of his ilk ought to know to speak better, especially to those he deems beneath him and thus worthy of his empathy. These lines are not very Christianly of the bishop. Seeing as he is up there where agency seems to shine, it is quite terrible that he would say such unkind things to a fellow human being––even if she is outside his congregation. It is the sort of thing one would expect Jane to say, seeing as we are told she is the crazy one. One expects mindfulness of a bishop for his whole business is to charm souls to God. So when a man meets a woman on the street and says to her, you are all withered now and shall soon die, does the woman say, please tell me more? Well the bishop does proceed with some unasked for advice, “Live in a heavenly mansion, / Not in some foul sty.’” Would you say it is fair to classify this man rude? I am not saying one has to go about flattering people and calling gray, green, but the man seems to lack respect for the recipient of his words––he is basically telling her he thinks her lifestyle no better than that of a pig's!
In the second stanza, Jane answers the bishop as such: “‘Fair and foul are near of kin, / And fair needs foul.’” In these few words, Jane shows herself in possession of more discernment and shrewdness than the bishop. Indeed, fair and foul share a strong bond, for where foul roams is merely nearby to fair's lurking. We know fair by knowing foul and foul by knowing fair, for fair is only as fair as foul is foul. This is the concept of duality. If one were to say foul would correctly classify an old woman with the name Crazy Jane, and fair classify an appointed leader in the Catholic Church, then fair and foul being near of kin is expressed in this instance of the bishop and Jane's meeting and talking. Again, expressing fair and foul as near of kin is shown in a seemingly fair role, i.e. the bishop's title, with a foul practice, i.e. the bishop's treatment of Jane. In that "fair needs foul" one may consider how the bishop's supremacy clearly needs people like Jane to keep it up. This is expressed in how the bishop's sense of the "heavenly" is opposite to what he sees in Jane. Yet whereas the bishop needs Jane for his role to hold any significance, Jane does not need the bishop for she feels that the "heavenly mansion" is not so far from the "sty."
Jane continues, “‘My friends are gone, but that's a truth / Nor grave nor bed denied.” In other words, her friends are dead and it is a fact that is neither particular nor abandoning. Again, a lot is compressed here in very few words. In saying that her “friends are gone” one can understand Jane to mean those who would empathize with her to be dead. This can be supported by the Bishop’s description of her as old and near dying. But it could also mean that those who understand her are gone, or those who would care for her are no more. And “that’s a truth,” suggests an understanding and acceptance of the circumstance. A circumstance that she feels is neither “grave”––perhaps a pun for the seriousness of the religious burial or death––“nor bed denied,” which could mean homelessness. In which case one could string “grave” with “denied,” too, which would then mean the denial of a proper burial. This is supported by the bishop’s words in the first stanza “Live in a heavenly mansion, / Not in some foul sty.’" In which case it is perhaps safe to decipher Jane has neither a worldly home nor does she engage in practices that would ensure her a spiritual one––that is the sort of life that, according to the bishop, would guarantee her body a Church's burial and thus allow her soul a heavenly ascension.
The first four lines of the second stanza sums up Jane’s perception of life and give some ideas of her circumstance in relation to material wealth and spiritual placement in regards to the Church. But the last two lines of the stanza, put as “Learned in bodily lowliness /And in the heart's pride,” seem to insinuate how Jane arrived at her present understanding of life and at the same time seem to reject the bishop's offer. “Bodily lowliness” appears to agree with the bishop’s description of Jane as someone who is led by bodily pleasure which according to the Church is sin. But one remembers that Jane’s philosophy is “fair needs foul.” Hence her understanding of “bodily lowliness” is bound to differ from the bishop’s point of view. In that “fair needs foul,” one may say Jane is pointing out that through “bodily lowliness” she has gained a spiritual insight that is probably beyond the grasp of the bishop's. Also, as lowly as the body might be in relation to the soul, it is still the vessel of the soul. This further emphasizes Jane's argument of "fair needs foul." Also it is worth highlighting the word, “learned,” which means that a lesson had been gleaned in the state of “bodily lowliness” that shapes her current state and views. And how about the last line, “And in the heart’s pride”? She does not say pride in the heart or even a proud heart but rather “in the heart’s pride.” Thus a heart’s choice rather than a choice imposed on a heart. Thus a heart that is not ruled by pride, but one that exercises its pride.
The third stanza explains further Jane's perspective of "Fair and foul are near of kin, / And fair needs foul," in saying, “‘A woman can be proud and stiff / When on love intent;” which seems to mean that one can be rigid on the crusade of love. But this line is followed by a contradicting line as, “But Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement.” Subtly, there seems to be two kinds of love on discussion. One with the lowercase l, and the other with the uppercase L. The lower love seems to demand of one pride and stiffness, while the upper Love, whose “mansion” sits on “The place of excrement” demands the opposite, humility and flexibility. Perhaps these lines also suggest the ways in which Jane and the bishop differ: Jane of the “foul sty” seems interested in the Love of humility while the bishop of the “heavenly mansion” shows the “proud and stiff” traits of one who crusades for the lower love. This knits together Jane’s earlier expressions of “bodily lowliness” and “in the heart's pride.” Perhaps suggesting an overcoming of bodily desires through experience rather than rote theory and a mere assumption of what love is. Perhaps Jane is saying that, when in search of love, one “can be proud and stiff” owing to an ignorance of what Love actually is. But upon encountering Love, one learns that Love is not proud or stiff, Love is, in a sense, like the anus. A canal that controls the removal of waste in the forms of solid, liquid, and gas. That which renders one pure; that which does the lowliest job, that which is least admired, mocked, kept in the dark but which is most necessary to keep one in good health (I have been dying to compare love to an anus for forever).
The poem ends beautifully with the two lines, “For nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.’” These are lines that wet the eyes. Let us look at the key words: “sole” can mean underfoot, or alone and archaically refers to the unmarried woman. "Whole" translates to the entirety of a unit, the fullness of a being, the complete thing. Then there is “rent” which according to the American Heritage Dictionary means “To use (another’s property) in return for regular payments” or the past participle of rend which translates “To tear or split apart or into pieces violently” or “To pierce or disturb with sound” or “To cause pain or distress to.” So what is Jane saying? One of my favorite quotes––credited to one of the authors of The Monster Within––Daniel Saint, says “If you wish to be a warrior prepare to be broken. If you wish to be an explorer, prepare to get lost. If you wish to be a lover, prepare to be both.” For that which is truly sole, is in another sense free of all others. In the standing position, the entire body rests on the sole, a most lonely part of the body, facing away from all of it. Then there is the idea of the “whole.” And what is not “whole” but that which is at ease with its variety, that which is as comfortable with its lowliest point as it is with its highest peak. That which can look both its evil and good straight in the eye without being overwhelmed...perhaps even with indifference? Then there is the “rent” word which could mean the price one pays for living in accordance to one’s values. In Jane’s case, contentedly friendless on the outskirt of her society in a "foul sty."
So who is really crazy, then? Jane, living by choice in accordance to her values, neither needing nor wanting anyone's pity? Or the reputable bishop with his orthodoxy on the good life; who is a fine example of the genuine fool: the genuine fool who thinks himself enlightened with a knowledge that lacks meditation and practice; the one who does not know and knows not that he knows not; the one who holds as wisdom that which he merely parrots without understanding? Of course, it is Jane who is the crazy one. One has to be mad to choose to live as she does!