by Nat Crawford
director of tutoring
The Irish poet William Butler Yeats made his name by writing about love, myth, and politics. His early poems, unsurprisingly, explore the complex and powerful forces of love. They capture not only the fleeting and fickle aspects of this emotion, but also its sense of power and duration.
As a young man, Yeats studied various schools of Platonism. His poetry evinces his belief in the existence of an immortal world that lies beyond this mortal one of change and decay. The philosopher reaches this world via contemplation; the poet reaches it via love. From the coals of life and breath rise the colored flames of passion that light the way to the higher, perfect world. This glimpse of immortality intoxicates the poet:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam...
Unfortunately, the reality of kettles, tea leaves, and garbage bins always intervenes, dragging the poet back down to reality. Of course, the poet has paths of escape, one being the path of beauty. In He Remembers Forgotten Beauty, touching his beloved reminds the poet of the lost beauty of art and deed:
When my arms wrap you round I press
My heart upon the loveliness
That has long faded from the world
Yeats goes on to describe a loveliness of beautiful objectsjeweled crowns, fragrant rosesthat accompany passionate deeds. All beauty, he suggests, comes into the world on the heels of passionate desire.
Yet beauty alone does not lead the poet to the perfect worldonly love can do so. In The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart, Yeats explores how awareness of beauty sets the poet on a quest to make the world perfect using the medium of a poem. Set against his thoughts of glory and beauty, the world seems full of ugliness: The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart. Caught up in his passion, the lover feels insulted that such ugliness persists. Yet if love makes the rest of the world seem ugly by comparison, the poet has a remedy in the permanent world of undying Platonic forms, which, he suggests, lies buried within his soul:
The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made, like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.
Love leads the poet to the timeless image of the rose, which in turn inspires him to recreate a perfect world within the golden casket of his poetry.
The poets struggle against ugliness is part of a more general human struggle against human weakness. In The Sorrow of Love, Yeats suggests that since the dawn of consciousness, people feel overwhelmed by nature; why should our feelings be any more significant than the cries of birds or the beauty of trees? What sets people above the natural world, though, is their capacity to feel sorrow, and their ability to understand that emotion by reading tales of love and sorrow.
The brawling of a sparrow in the eaves,
The brilliant moon and all the milky sky,
And all that famous harmony of leaves,
Had blotted out mans image and his cry.
A girl arose that had red mournful lips
And seemed the greatness of the world in tears,
Doomed like Odysseus and the labouring ships
And proud as Priam murdered with his peers;
Arose, and on the instant clamorous eaves,
A climbing moon upon an empty sky,
And all that lamentation of the leaves,
Could but compose mans image and his cry.
Again, Yeats rounds off his description of the human condition by noting the distinguishing human ability to create art.
Some of Yeatss poems speak more simply of how love comforts the mind and body.
Beloved, let your eyes half close, and your heart beat
Over my heart, and your hair fall over my breast,
Drowning loves lonely hour in deep twilight of rest,
He Bids His Beloved Be at Peace
O hiding hair and dewy eyes,
I am no more with life and death,
My heart upon his warm heart lies,
My breath is mixed into his breath.
The Heart of a Woman
Yet love brings as much pain as comfort, particularly when it is spurned. In The Fish, Yeats couches his own personal pain in the story of a fish and a fisherman:
Although you hide in the ebb and flow
Of the pale tide when the moon has set,
The people of coming days will know
About the casting out of my net,
And how you have leaped times out of mind
Over the little silver cords,
And think that you were hard and unkind,
And blame you with many bitter words.
In addition to expressing heartache, the poem expresses the power of the silver cords of poetry to create a story that will outlast the poets frustrated desire. This promise is cold comfort to the flesh-and-blood poet, however; he can try turning to another person, only to cause her pain in turn when he realizes that love is unappeasable:
She looked in my heart one day
And saw your image was there;
She has gone weeping away.
The Lover Mourns for the Loss of Love
For Yeats the Platonist, love takes people beyond the trivialities of the real world. On a simpler level, though, the heart can take people beyond their petty thoughts and hatreds, if one is true to it. Yeats expresses this thought in one of the most profound of his early poems, The Two Trees. In this poem, Yeats contrasts the holy tree of the human heart with the tree of fatal image that animates the human ego:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
. . .
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.
Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
. . .
In another poem, Yeats expresses the belief that the human heart is stronger, its observations more true, than any moral code. Like many writers of his time, he uses his poetry to seek qualities beyond praise and blame, beyond good and evil:
Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.
Into the Twilight
If hope springs eternal in the human breast, it is because we feel in the heart an almost infinite capacity for renewal.
One of the most reprinted poems from Yeatss younger period is The Song of Wandering Aengus. This poem perfectly captures the mood of Yeatss early periodthe first flame of love, the pang of its loss, the hope of recovering it, and the dream that the love helps to build of perfect, immortal worlds:
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 aflame,
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.
Table of Contents |
Improve Your English