April 24, 2013

NPM 2013 - Y is for Yeats

I mentioned Yevtushenko the other day in writing about Voznesensky but given the difficulties in translating poems from Russian, I am going to go to stay away from blogging today about a famous poet of our times and am instead going to go to a very famous name from recent times who wrote poetry in English. There are some really famous Irish poets like Yeats and the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney but unfortunately I have never gotten to them. So, this is also an opportunity for me to read a handful of poems by William Butler Yeats, one of the early poets I heard of as a kid -- his name coming up in the context of his praise for the Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore.

 William Butler Yeats (3 June 1865 – 28 January 1939)


One of the leading poetry critics of our times, Helen Vendler, has written a book about Yeats and the lyrical nature of his poems and I hope to get to it some day. (There's this NYT review of the book that you can read for now.) But for here, for now, here are four of Yeats' poems. 

A Poet to His Beloved
by William Butler Yeats

 I BRING you with reverent hands
The books of my numberless dreams,
White woman that passion has worn
As the tide wears the dove-grey sands,
And with heart more old than the horn
That is brimmed from the pale fire of time:
White woman with numberless dreams,
I bring you my passionate rhyme.


When You are Old
by William Butler Yeats

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 amid a crowd of stars.


Though I have not read and studied this longer poem by Yeats, given today's date, it would be folly to not include his famous poem, Easter, 1916 here today - a poem "describing the poet's torn emotions regarding the events of the Easter Rising staged in Ireland against British rule on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916."

Easter, 1916
by William Butler Yeats 


I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse.
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vain-glorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter, seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute change.
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim;
And a horse plashes within it
Where long-legged moor-hens dive
And hens to moor-cocks call.
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.


Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death.
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse --
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


With this last poem I am going to go back to Helen Vendler, who "helps you hear a poem by showing you first how to see it." Poems have beats and musicality to them but sometimes the best of them have a shape to them too! (And I don't mean the trying-too-hard-to-be-cute visual poetry I see sometimes; won't even bother to link to one but you know what I mean. They distract me more often than not though I remember one particular poem by Mary Oliver had delighted by its shape and am sure there are others that some masters have achieved without trying too hard to be cute!) Anyways, listen to Ms. Vendler explain it here:
Look, for example, at Yeats’s famous World War I memorial for Major Robert Gregory, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” The difference between reading this elegy not as a speech, but as a poem is as simple and striking as realizing that the poem has the form of a perfect cube:
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
by William Butler Yeats
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My county is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
From THE WILD SWANS AT COOLE (1919) in William Butler Yeats, Collected Poems
That is, the shape of it is 4 x 4 x 4. Four beats in each line. Four lines in each of the “quatrains” (each in the “perfect” rhyming order a b a b, in this case). And four quatrains (not separated here into four stanzas) in the poem.

So the one-off form of the thing is as elegantly, decisively squared away as the soldierly beat of the marching monosyllables: “fate,” “hate,” “love,” “cross,” “loss,” and the rest. Form makes a tight fit with the cool, collected thought the poem voices. The form itself is a statement of the sad but settled order in Major Gregory’s mind. So the original shape of this poem becomes virtually inseparable from its “message.” Or as Helen Vendler puts it in her new account of Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, “By such formal means Yeats confirms that the airman’s choice is the correct one for his soul.”

More where that came from can be read here. Do read it and listen to the audio embedded at the link. There's a lot to learn from the amazing Helen Vendler. 


There are quite a few poems by Yeats to be read at the Poetry Foundation site and the Poets.org site but I'll leave you with these links with video lectures on Yeats from a course on Modern Poetry at the department of English at Yale University. What a treasure-trove these course lectures from Yale are. Thought I've known of them for some time now, I have not listened to any of the lectures for this course yet but hope to soon.
Lecture 1

Lecture 2

Lecture 3

P.S. Had to come back and add this when I found it just now on Youtube! Yeats reading some of his own poems!

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