On approaching William B. Yeats poems

2024-02-12 @Literature

I tread much of Yeats' verse these last two years. A few printed sheets have occupied my backpack the entire period. Some hand copied. Some I find at libraries on rare occasions.

[You’d think this ultra-conservative, strictly paper reader might concede to the electronic for some meager two-three stanzas from time to time? I’ve tried. Result: pathetic. Can’t reflect in the same wise. Digital anxiety creeps. Verse is an encoded form of expression. Far greater time, care and repetition demanding of those compact strophes. And thus the strain. Can’t adequately interact.]

Among the Irish, Joyce makes my preferred prose author par-excellence; Shaw, the dramatist; Yeats, the poet. Each, unsurprisingly, explored all three territories; Yeats, extensively. But I prefer his verse.

In the course of endless rereading, breaks of months in the interim, something in the symbology and cadence I didn’t feel prompt to address.

Much of the allusion still challenges. But after a year with the French symbolists, I’ve began to derive greater melody across Yeats; possibly even greater meaning, and hence somewhat more authoritatively ready to comment.

A heavily symbolist poet, consider Yeats the crossroad between the 19th-century romanticism and early 20th modernist schools. But unlike Guillaume Apollinaire whose caliber really extends the two schools, Yeats never precisely arrives at that style I deem modernist, continuing to versify in his own distinct manner, though incorporating surging values. Nor does Yeats cater to the 19th-century decadents.

Grossly, three periods divide the verse: the early, the middle, the late.

A mysterious quality pervades the entire opus. The verse often feels older. Prophetic. Chanting. Something out of popular scripture. Out of apocryphal gospels. Blake and Wordsworth (the Williams) too evinced that character a century earlier.

But all periods of Yeats saw astounding output. Yeats is a legend to have produced this much quality into the late 60s.

How about these lines of The Sad Shepherd, that man whom Sorrow named his friend:

The sea swept on and cried her old cry still,
Rolling along in dreams from hill to hill;
He fled the persecution of her glory

And the unexpected arrangement of the following two leaves me in awe:

But naught they heard, for they are always listening,
The dewdrops, for the sound of their own dropping.

Within The Cap and Bells you might identify some of Poe’s earlier prosodic traits. Charming.

Or Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days! The beautiful interplay between the legendary and the plebeian values. These two lines never cease to stir:

Come near, come near, come near—Ah, leave me still
A little space for the rose-breath to fill!

A Poet To His Beloved Lyrics

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.

Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

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.

The following alexandrines of Fallen Majesty offer timeless rereading:

Although crowds gathered once if she but showed her face,
And even old men’s eyes grew dim, this hand alone,
Like some last courtier at a gypsy camping-place
Babbling of fallen majesty, records what’s gone.

The lineaments, a heart that laughter has made sweet,
These, these remain, but I record what’s gone. A crowd
Will gather, and not know it walks the very street
Whereon a thing once walked that seemed a burning cloud.

The Cold Heaven follows in a similar character.

Nothing short of epic are Sailing to Byzantium and Byzantium, both of the late period.

Sailing to Byzantium, strophe III:

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.

Byzantium plunges even further into the mysterious, abundant in recurring symbols: complexities, the mire of blood/veins, the gong-tormented sea, fury, Hades

Strophe IV:

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

The Tower is a meditative three-part essay in verse to be read without pretension.

The Winding Stair, produced alongside Byzantium, too, essay-like, in two parts, counterpoises the soul and the self in a dialogue exchange.

Something remarkably primeval in the above two. Something from the sages: Horace, Martial, Catullus perhaps (had he lived longer).

And there you have it. Though rather superficial, this survey, feel free to plunge deeper. Yeats pursued extensive mythology, philosophy and mysticism throughout a long career that I’m by no means equipped to further analyse.

Tread softly.

Questions, comments? Connect.