Tag Archives: W.B. Yeats

March 24, 2014


How’s this for confluence? I spent most of the weekend with the prettiest literature professor in Pennsylvania, who’d spent Friday teaching William Butler Yeats to undergrads. I spent Sunday evening with the only father-daughter MV members, and the question was raised, who is your favorite poet? For me, a likely answer (though I refused to be definitive) is W.B. Yeats. Then I had about 20 minutes of coffee and chat on Monday morning with my old friend from BC days (also a MV member and proselytizer), in the early aughts, when we both spent a fair amount of time reading the poetry and other writings of W.B. Yeats.

I won’t go into great detail about the man today (1865-1939). He won the Nobel Prize in 1923, became a Senator of the Irish Free State in 1922, and wrote the following poem in 1921. That’s a pretty solid 3-year run of excellence. This is a great poem that deploys many of the well-known Yeatsian flourishes; even if you’re new-ish to his work, you’ll enjoy the internal rhyme, assonance, and repetition, along with a great emotional force. -ed.


Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on.  There is no obstacle
But Gregory's wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind,
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
It's certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

In courtesy I'd have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty's very self, has charm made wise,
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there's no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty's horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.

And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all's accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

Nov 14, 2011 Sailing to Byzantium

Dear readers,


At a play Sunday night, Older Lead Character told Younger Lead Character to pay attention to “what is past, or passing, or to come. That’s Yeats. But you wouldn’t know that.” I felt like the ignorant Younger Lead Character when I turned to my beloved and asked “What’s that from?” and she responded “One of the Byzantium poems…”


Indeed. It’s the concluding line to “Sailing to Byzantium,” which is the first poem in 1928’s The TowerThe Tower was Yeats’s first collection published after becoming a senator of the new Irish Free State, and, in 1923, winning the Nobel Prize for literature. It finds him in powerful voice, but turning the lens of analysis on himself, interrogating his voices, and asking mortal questions, which are all throughout this  poem. The first line is famous, too, of course, to some as the title of a McCarthy novel, to some a a clever play on the Tir na nOg that the younger, twilit Yeats had written about in his earliest published works.


I wanted to run this poem because of our mini-seminar on stanza form, and obviously Yeats is doing an ABABABCC (aka “Ottava Rima,” an Italian stanza form with a sort of stately tone) thing here, with even more repetition built in: “ing” and “ee” endings are more frequent than is necessary, and there are also repetitions of various words to link the stanzas, like rings in a chain: monument, holy, gold, sing, come. I also noticed this time, with my attention tethered to those lines from the play, that they echo syntactically line 6 of the poem, “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies”—and the echo rings on the level of theme as well: whereas the first stanza runs a lifespan and expresses human mortality, the final line is sort of pointing to birth into something else (that “other world” that always haunted Yeats). But what kind of other world? What kind of place is Byzntium? Why does Yeats describe an “artifice of eternity?”


I am eager to hear your reactions, as we all acknowledge that this is the kind of densely-packed poem that entire book chapters are written about. –ed.











That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

Those dying generations – at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.




An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.




O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.




Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.



July 18, 2011 Coole Park, 1929

Dear friends,
Thanks for the amazing weekend; nuff said. Ms. Shahjahan noted her displeasure that, having taken time and thought away from her hectic schedule, no one else had followed up on her ruminations on form. So we’re giving it another shot today, still sticking to my “Heaney conversation” masterplan.
I’ll only note that Yeats actually has an aphorism that strikes precisely at what Heaney is getting to with his comments on Keats here. I forget its exact wording, so I’ll omit it for now. The Yeats poem copied below is not a favorite–Heany describes it well, kind of humorously–and we should recognize that it’s one written in reflection, in fact probably in nostalgia for 1929, but clearly from a later vantage. All those names mentioned, and some unmentioned, would be familiar to most readers of late 19th into 20th century Irish lit, the “revival” period. Feel free to pick up the thread with opinions on Gwynn, Heaney, Yeats… or Shahjahan.
Also: How much better would we all be at our lives if we were willing to put in thirty-eight attemps at something before accepting that it is done well? -ed.
DOD: Over the years, you have often quoted Keats’s observation, “If poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.” Is that just a young poet’s perspective?
SH: Well it doesn’t mean–and it didn’t mean for Keats–that the actual labor of composition or the working on the poem is an involuntary natural function like sneezing. You have to work. One of the best books I discovered early on, when I’d begun to write, was Jon Stallworthy’s Between the Lines, about Yeat’s manuscripts. A poem like “Coole Park, 1929,” thirty-two lines long–a middle-range Yeats poem; a cruising-altitude poem where he’s not breaking any sound barriers–takes thirty-eight pages of drafts and yet he had only a few of the lines to begin with. If you have stanza form, whatever the stanza form is, whether it’s a sonnet or couplets or quatrains or whatever, you can work at that–and work with it–because the stanza form immediately calls up all other stanzas in the language. To some extent, you’re playing variations or singing in a chorus. The quick free verse poem sometimes happens quickly; but, oddly enough, my experience is that the poem comes more quickly if there is a form.
I meditate upon a swallow’s flight,
Upon a aged woman and her house,
A sycamore and lime-tree lost in night
Although that western cloud is luminous,
Great works constructed there in nature’s spite
For scholars and for poets after us,
Thoughts long knitted into a single thought,
A dance-like glory that those walls begot.

There Hyde before he had beaten into prose
That noble blade the Muses buckled on,
There one that ruffled in a manly pose
For all his timid heart, there that slow man,
That meditative man, John Synge, and those
Impetuous men, Shawe-Taylor and Hugh Lane,
Found pride established in humility,
A scene well Set and excellent company.

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a Swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,
The intellectual sweetness of those lines
That cut through time or cross it withershins.

Here, traveller, scholar, poet, take your stand
When all those rooms and passages are gone,
When nettles wave upon a shapeless mound
And saplings root among the broken stone,
And dedicate – eyes bent upon the ground,
Back turned upon the brightness of the sun
And all the sensuality of the shade –
A moment’s memory to that laurelled head.