Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Selected Early Poems by William Butler Yeats

Source of book: I own this

Like many, my knowledge of Yeats was limited to a high school reading of “The Second Coming,” which is a memorable poem, but not necessarily one to create a desire to read more. After all, there does seem to be a curriculum writer’s goal to expose students to a certain amount of dystopian thought. (Hence the use of “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot as well.)

Yeats is considered one of the most skilled of the English language poets in the early Twentieth Century. He was Irish, and advocated for Irish independence, but was a protestant rather than a catholic. His works can be divided into three periods, with the first period lasting roughly to 1900. I chose to read the selections that I had from this period. (My book is not the complete, but the readily available collection edited by M. L. Rosenthal. My wife found it at a library sale.) 

Yeats in 1900, as painted by his father, John Butler Yeats.

The selections that I read come from three different collections: Crossways, The Rose, and The Wind Among the Reeds, for a total of 34 poems.

Yeats’ early works are lyrical and filled with imagery and legend. In fact, his liberal use of Irish legends made a few of the poems quite obscure to me. He was also fond of metaphots of the stars, moon, and the empty sky, as he puts it. The gaze is drawn from the roots and earth, with the end a searching of the heavens. His forms are always traditional, with rhyme and meter. They feel a bit like a nod to a previous era. At their best, they are well crafted and beautiful.

Oddly, many of the poems that stood out to me seem tinged with a feeling of age and the passage of time - kind of odd for a young poet. One could very well imagine them being written by the older Yeats, having experienced a series of love affairs (often one-sided) that would be farcical if they were not tragic. It is also interesting to me that he found a satisfying marriage late in life, after all of his misguided attractions and doomed relationships. I shall have to keep reading his works to see if the history influenced his later works.

“Ephemera,” from Crossways, is a devastatingly sad poem, yet with beautiful language and a sensitivity to the soft pain of a dying relationship.

'YOUR eyes that once were never weary of mine
Are bowed in sorrow under pendulous lids,
Because our love is waning.'
And then She:
'Although our love is waning, let us stand
By the lone border of the lake once more,
Together in that hour of gentleness
When the poor tired child, passion, falls asleep.
How far away the stars seem, and how far
Is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart!'
Pensive they paced along the faded leaves,
While slowly he whose hand held hers replied:
'Passion has often worn our wandering hearts.'
The woods were round them, and the yellow leaves
Fell like faint meteors in the gloom, and once
A rabbit old and lame limped down the path;
Autumn was over him: and now they stood
On the lone border of the lake once more:
Turning, he saw that she had thrust dead leaves
Gathered in silence, dewy as her eyes,
In bosom and hair.
'Ah, do not mourn,' he said,
'That we are tired, for other loves await us;
Hate on and love through unrepining hours.
Before us lies eternity; our souls
Are love, and a continual farewell.'    

Another one about love, aging, and loss, is “When You are Old,” from The Rose.

WHEN you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face among a crowd of stars.

He loved the pilgrim soul and the sorrows of her changing face. I particularly love those lines.     

Of the poems on Irish legends, I enjoyed “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” the most. Aengus was one of the gods, probably of youth, love, and poetic inspiration. The poem is loosely based on the tale of one of Aengus’ many love affairs, in which he dreams of a girl and then must wander and search to find her.

I WENT out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Believe it or not, Donovan did a folk song version of this poem in the 1970s. 

Three very short poems from The Wind Among the Reeds were among my favorites as well. Each is a tiny snapshot of an image and a mood.

“He Reproves The Curlew”

O CURLEW, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the water in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind.                        

“The Lover Pleads With His Friend For Old Friends”

THOUGH you are in your shining days,
Voices among the crowd
And new friends busy with your praise,
Be not unkind or proud,
But think about old friends the most:
Time's bitter flood will rise,
Your beauty perish and be lost
For all eyes but these eyes.                        

“He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven”

HAD I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.    

Each beautiful and melancholy in its own way. Although a few of the poems went over my head due to obscure Irish legends, I loved the rest. “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” Indeed.

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