Yeatsian echoes in Derek Mahon’s “The Lady from the Sea”

Though this poem is subtitled “from the Norwegian of Henrik Ibsen, 1828 – 1906” it seems to me that its dialogue with Yeats is at least as interesting. The line “I stare astonished at the harbour lights” echoes the ending of Yeats’ “Her Triumph” loudly and clearly:

And now we stare astonished at the sea,
And a miraculous strange bird shrieks at us.

In its rhythm and slightly mannered phrasing the line “we might have saved ourselves great misery” sounds exactly like Yeats, and that lends the word “misery” resonances from its context in “No Second Troy” (“Why should I blame her that she filled my days / With misery”).

“My wild spirit unbroken” echoes with a whole range of Yeats’ poems expressing something fundamental to his own arguments with himself. You catch one of the echoes in “The Tower”:

I leave both faith and pride
To young upstanding men
Climbing the mountain side,
That under bursting dawn
They may drop a fly;
Being of that metal made
Till it was broken by
This sedentary trade;

And of course you catch them repeatedly in poems about Maude Gonne or Iseult Gonne, or the lovely “On a Political Prisoner”. The argument is enduring and unresolved in both Yeats and Mahon, which is why it makes such fine poetry in both. Because there are so many Yeatsian echoes involved – not to mention echoes of Mahon himself, of course – exploring how they intertwine would be a complex and lengthy process. I may come back to it in another entry, but actually I think it’s something best approached in discussion between several people reacting to a group of poems. Such discussions are volatile and alive and in their nature they’re attuned to both the power and the elusiveness of the reverberations involved.

It’s because the argument is unsettled that “The Lady from the Sea” is such a profoundly unsettling and at the same time such a profoundly satisfying poem, made the more so by the delicacy of its rhythms and the quietness with which the Lady expresses her continued yearning for another life and her resignation to a sense of perpetual incompletion. I can’t resist quoting the fifth stanza for its rich musicality and the ninth for its divided and equivocal resolution:

She  Sometimes, emerging from my daily swim,
or gazing from the dock these quiet nights,
I know my siren soul; and in a dream
I stare astonished at the harbour lights,
hugging my knees and sitting up alone
As ships glide darkly past with a low moan.


She  I am a troubled woman on the land,
I am a seal upon the open sea,
but it’s too late to give my heart and hand
to someone who remains a mystery.
Siren or not, this is my proper place;
go to your ship and leave me here in peace.

Leave a Reply