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Poetry Friday: William Butler Yeats


William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

The poetry of William Butler Yeats inspired a nation and the world. Born in Dublin on June 13, 1865, (Happy Birthday!) Yeats was an Irish nationalist, who became the leader of the Irish literary renaissance.

Yeats is considered a Romantic poet who evolved into a Modern poet. His poetry has such a brilliant intensity it hits home and haunts me.

Yeats drew heavily on Irish mythology and history, which he would later interweave with his interest in mysticism and occultism. He shared those spiritual interests with Maud Gonne, a 23-year old heiress and Irish revolutionary he met in 1889. Obsessed with Maud, he proposed marriage to her four times, and each time was turned down.

Yeats later served two terms as an Irish Senator, and in 1923 was the first Irishman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

Recently, I enjoyed an evening listening to actor Charles Keating (Carl Hutchins on Another World) read selections from Yeats. So powerful. Yeats’ poetry needs to be read out loud. Often.

A Man Young And Old: I. First Love

Though nurtured like the sailing moon
In beauty’s murderous brood,
She walked awhile and blushed awhile
And on my pathway stood
Until I thought her body bore
A heart of flesh and blood.

But since I laid a hand thereon
And found a heart of stone
I have attempted many things
And not a thing is done,
For every hand is lunatic
That travels on the moon.

She smiled and that transfigured me
And left me but a lout,
Maundering here, and maundering there,
Emptier of thought
Than the heavenly circuit of its stars
When the moon sails out.

This next poem has the beautiful line, “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams….”

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.

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey 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.

A Drinking Song

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and sigh.

A Drinking Song is often quoted as a toast.  Jay Scott wrote a fun parody of it:

Lunch comes in at the mouth,
And weight goes onto the thighs,
And all we learned in our youth
Is hatred of exercise.
I lift my fork to my mouth,
While reaching for the fries.

Before the World was Made

If I make the lashes dark
And the eyes more bright
And the lips more scarlet,
Or ask if all be right
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity’s displayed:
I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.

What if I look upon a man
As though on my beloved,
And my blood be cold the while
And my heart unmoved?
Why should he think me cruel
Or that he is betrayed?
I’d have him love the thing that was
Before the world was made.

Originally titled The Second Birth, Yeats wrote The Second Coming in 1919, in the aftermath of World War I, recounting the decline of English civilization. Every time we face a violent senseless tragedy like Sept. 11, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Boston, and unfortunately etc… this poem infiltrates my mind.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

A lovely reading of The Second Coming by Cyril Cusack:

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