(On the anniversary of the Easter Rebellion, April 24 1916, in which a group of Irishmen, lead by Patrick Pearse – a poet – stormed the General Post Office in Dublin and initiated what would be a long and bloody struggle for Ireland’s freedom from Great Britain. Patrick (Padraig) and his men, including other poets and writers, failed to hold the Post Office against Britain’s might and were summarily executed following the uprising. A terrible beauty indeed.)
* * *
I HAVE met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
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, vainglorious 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,
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 they 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;
The 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.
Sailing to Byzantium
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.
– – –
Perhaps I’m too young to be drawn to Yeats’ older poetry. Perhaps every once in awhile one gets preoccupied with growing old, even when one is young and shouldn’t be considering such inevitabilities yet. Either way, I rest assured that I have an equal fascination with the poetry of Yeats’ younger years, the poetry that is so accurately described in the first stanza of this poem.
Like the previous Yeats poem I presented, this poem provides a sharp contrast between the poetry of his younger days and of his elder days. However, the sentiment is reversed: in “Wild Swans” Yeats yearns for his youth and laments what has befallen him through the years. In “Sailing to Byzantium” Yeats is hardened; he dismisses youth – his own youth and youth in general – as fanciful, singing and embracing each other, listening to music and reveling in the sunshine. “This is no country for old men,” he intones, almost like a commandment or a biblical verse. He feels mocked by the younger generations. He feels useless, “a tattered coat upon a stick,” and so he decides to leave.
He heads to Byzantium, a city he studied and revered. He believed that Byzantium in the sixth century was the perfect time and place to be an artist, and so he wishes to be gathered into Byzantium’s “artifice of eternity,” where his useless body and heart will be stripped away and he will become an unnatural being of pure art (drawing on the root of the word “art” which is “artifice” or “artificial”), a golden bird placed on a golden bough, singing of past, present, and future.
As he grew older, Yeats became more and more preoccupied with death, and with his own death. “Sailing to Byzantium” is a slap in the face to death, his way of outsmarting nature and its inevitabilities. Nature cannot kill something that is not natural; becoming art/artificial is Yeats’ formula for immortality. And it worked, for here we are reading and discussing him.
Naturally, Yeats chooses a solid, artificial style to enhance his theme. The poem is in iambic pentameter, which is generally accepted to be the meter closest to normal English speech. But it is not the same as normal English speech – anyone who has seen Shakespeare performed knows that. The relationship is much like a bird on a treebranch compared to a golden bird on a golden bough. The meter is quite old as well; perhaps Yeats feels a kinship with it.
I’ve enjoyed reflecting on this poem after reading the novel No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and seeing the movie. The connection is a philosophical one. Both texts have at their base one broad idea: the rejection of nature. Yeats sees sorrow in nature; there is fun to be found in youth, mockery to be found in old age, and death waiting at the end. McCarthy’s vision of nature is essentially the same, although he outlines it in a much more violent manner. In the book a serial killer named Chigurh roams the Texas border country; his goal is to kill one particular man, Llewelyn Moss, who has stolen a couple million dollars from the scene of a drug deal gone bad, but Chigurh ends up killing another dozen or so people along the way, some of them simply for guessing wrong on a coin toss. The sheriff tracking Chigurh muses toward the end of the novel that it’s not Chigurh who’s evil, but the land itself. Nature is the spring of violence. The sheriff, Bell, is an old man too; like Yeats he sees recklessness in youth, marveling as he reads the paper and walks down the street at the things kids these days think up to do to themselves (piercings, pink hair) and to others (murder for fun). As the narrator for the book, Bell becomes the novel’s golden bird, singing out the times, and he lives on as art. I like to imagine Yeats and Bell hanging out in ancient Byzantium, trading stories and feeling, at last, some freedom.
The Wild Swans at Coole
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
– – –
This is one of my favorite poems by someone who used to not be one of my favorite poets. Yeats is the sort of poet you hear your parents grumble about having to read and recite when they were schoolchildren. I imagine it was these rote lessons that made so many folks find poetry and certain poets unappealing. (The dictionary entry for “rote” is telling; the sample phrase is this: a poem learned by rote in childhood. There is something so sad about that!)
Mentioning Yeats especially seems to bring a certain look of distaste to the faces of many. Conversely, people my age would be hard-pressed to name but a single Yeats poem. We were spared the memorizations, but we seem to have been spared poetry altogether. Until taking an Irish literature class senior year of college, I really could’ve cared less about Yeats. I can’t remember ever reading Yeats in school until then, but my impression was always that he was a bit of an old grouch. (He is, but it makes for good poetry.) It’s a shame, though – not only is Yeats’ repertoire filled with incredible, beautiful poetry, his place in English literature and thought deserves to be appreciated. We don’t need to deal with all of that right now, as I’ll surely be presenting more Yeatsy offerings in the future. The simple point is this: I’d like people to read a Yeats poem without looking like they’re sucking on a lemon.
To that end, “Wild Swans” seems like a good place to start. Yeats’ poetry and his life as a poet have two distinct eras. In his younger years and in his first published poems, Yeats was an image-heavy post-Romantic, his books filled with lyrical descriptions of the Irish countryside and his home, County Sligo. These were the poems that made him famous in Ireland; their use of Irish myth and patriotic themes provided fodder for the growing Irish Independence movement. The books Responsibilities and Wild Swans at Coole signaled a sea change; as he entered his late forties and early fifties, his poetry became less playful and quite serious. Wild Swans especially, published in 1919, contains frequent meditations on death, old age, and the loss of youth and love. The poem “Wild Swans at Coole” encapsulates this latter-day heartache in the lyricism of his younger days, making it the perfect tipping point for his career.
The rhyme and meter are both complex but rambling. Written (mostly) in iambs (flat syllable + accented syllable, or -‘), the first and third lines of each stanza are tetrameter (-‘-‘-‘-‘), the second, fourth, and sixth lines are trimeter, and the fifth line is pentameter. But the prosody is hardly exact, and little syllables find their way in throughout. The rhyme scheme is ABCBDD. The end result is a poem that seems to move slowly and unsteadily, but with purpose, perhaps like an older man walking around a lake. One of Yeats’s greatest assets as a writer was his liberal use of rhyme and meter, and the way he manipulated both to reflect the meaning of the words themselves.
As for the subject of the poem, well, Yeats had every right to feel dejected and melancholy. Coole is the estate of Lady Gregory, his patron and friend, the woman who first gave him his start. Simply being at Coole takes him back to his early years, when the world lay open to him. Now it is autumn, and “all’s changed” since he was last here, 19 years ago. “Wild Swans” was written in 1917, and the years 1916-17 were not great for Yeats. The Irish rebellion against the British failed miserably, the Easter Rising resulting in the execution of many of the leaders of the Irish movement. World War I was reaching its bloody climax.
During these years love eluded Yeats; the infamous Maud Gonne rejected him for the last time, as did her daughter; after much persistence he landed a woman named Georgie, who was half his age, and for the first few years of marriage he was quite unsure about the relationship.
By contrast, the swans Yeats watches at Coole are all paired off, “unwearied still, lover by lover.” These swans, he knows, are mated for life, blissfully united, flying in the air, swimming in the water, together. They almost seem to mock him. They have no cares or worries, there are no executions or wars in their world. Yeats, however, wanders the lake at his life’s definite low point, his goals (minus poetry, of course – that would only continue to get better. Unfortunately the most interesting poets are always miserable.), love and a free Ireland, have eluded him. The only things he has are memories, which are brought into fine, painful focus by his surroundings and his beautifully ignorant companions.