I love Yeats. I find both his poetry and his life endlessly fascinating, and the two massive volumes of Roy Foster’s definitive biography are among my most prized possessions. It’s no surprise then that I couldn’t let the 150th anniversary of his birth go by without a post… With so many newspapers, radio and tv show, social media pages etc. encouraging people to nominate their favourite Yeats poems in honour of the occasion, I’ve decided I may as well jump on the bandwagon myself (lack of originality not very Yeatsian, I know, but it’s been a long week).
I like so many of the poems that choosing a selection of favourites is very difficult, but trawling through the lists, it appears that his lyric love poetry has a special place in my heart. The first Yeats poem I fell in love with was “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”, which I originally read as the most amazing expression of love and vulnerability. The beautiful metaphor of the cloths of Heaven is one which I still find most appealing, and even learning more about the complex and often torturous love affair between Yeats and Maud Gonne has never spoiled my enjoyment of the sentiments in this little poem.
He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven (1899)
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.
My next choice is somewhat of a corollary to the above. “Never Give All the Heart” is full of the bitterness of the rejected lover, a feeling many of us – myself included – can easily understand, whether we want to admit it or not! While Yeats’ habitual self-pity is evident throughout, the desolation of the final couplet is undeniably poignant.
Never Give All the Heart (1904)
Never give all the heart, for love
Will hardly seem worth thinking of
To passionate women if it seem
Certain, and they never dream
That it fades out from kiss to kiss;
For everything that’s lovely is
But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.
O never give the heart outright,
For they, for all smooth lips can say,
Have given their hearts up to the play.
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.
Maud Gonne features in all the poems I have chosen, and number three is the wonderful “No Second Troy”, in which she is compared to Helen of Troy. The bitterness is there again, and an element of blame, but also a grudging admiration and an acknowledgement that any attempt to divert this strong-minded woman from her revolutionary path is futile. Along with the subject-matter, I love the alliterative description of her “beauty like a tightened bow” and the long vowel sounds which permeate the poem and add to its musicality.
No Second Troy (1916)
Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
I decided in advance to pick four poems, but I just couldn’t choose between “To a Child Dancing in the Wind” and “Among School Children”, so I’ve decided to include both. Yeats’ 150th anniversary only comes once after all!
A regular beach-walker myself, I really love the first section of “To a Child Dancing in the Wind”, particularly the opening lines – “Dance there upon the shore; what need have you to care for wind or water’s roar,” which sum up beautifully the carefree nature of childhood. The bitterness creeps in quickly, however, with the reference to “the fool’s triumph” and “love lost as soon as won.” And as for section II… Are there any more vicious lines in poetry than that warning that the young Iseult Gonne, daughter of Maud, would “suffer as [her] mother suffered, be as broken in the end”? The emphasis on the age gap between the two is interesting, given that Yeats would (much) later propose to her…
To a Child Dancing in the Wind (1916)
Dance there upon the shore;
What need have you to care
For wind or water’s roar?
And tumble out your hair
That the salt drops have wet;
Being young you have not known
The fool’s triumph, nor yet
Love lost as soon as won,
Nor the best labourer dead
And all the sheaves to bind.
What need have you to dread
The monstrous crying of wind?
Has no one said those daring
Kind eyes should be more learn’d?
Or warned you how despairing
The moths are when they are burned,
I could have warned you, but you are young,
So we speak a different tongue.
O you will take whatever’s offered
And dream that all the world’s a friend,
Suffer as your mother suffered,
Be as broken in the end.
But I am old and you are young,
And I speak a barbarous tongue.
He certainly does!
And finally… “Among School Children” is one of Yeats’ later poems, and the longest of my choices. As an old man and a Senator – “a sixty-year-old smiling public man” – he visits a primary school. Obsessed with and despising the aging process, the setting provides a perfect opportunity for reflection on his life, and of course, Maud Gonne appears again as he “dream[s] of a Ledaean body.” His reflections on their relationship, and how “their two natures blent”, eventually move to the present day as he describes how both have aged – she is now “hollow of cheek” and he “a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.” Cheerful sentiments indeed! His observations on the aging process become more complex as the poem progresses, and the Platonic image of the “yolk and white of the one shell” is reflected in the final lines, “Oh how can we tell the dancer from the dance?” (A line which, bizarrely, always reminds me of the Killers’ song, Human). Yeats’ later work is often very difficult to understand, but you don’t have to understand every image to enjoy the beautiful language or to pick up the mood of the poem. Just enjoy!
Among School Children (1928)
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy —
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.
Her present image floats into the mind —
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once — enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her Son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.
Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
So that’s it – these are my favourite Yeats poems, though there are so many more I could have included. If I’m still around for his 200th birthday, I’ll pick another five!
What are your choices?