W B Yeats: “Memory”
Yeats’ poem “Memory” has been floating around in my mind over the last few days. I’m not sure why it’s been surfacing now in particular, but it’s a lovely little piece:
One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm,
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.
You barely notice its formal devices as you read but it has a remarkably satisfying shape that becomes apparent when the fully rhyming “lain” makes you notice the ABCABC structure of the whole.
The shape is satisfying because it’s so simple and so perfectly integrated with the development of thought. It’s like a plain, functional cottage alone on a mountain. Every line ending coincides with a syntactical pause, and there are no syntactical pauses except at the end of lines. The argument moves forward strongly with “but” and “because” clearly and emphatically placed at the beginning of lines. The simple, sequential unfolding of rhymes is in harmony with this clear argumentative progression. And because the whole poem is only one sentence and one short stanza the completion of the pattern coincides with the completion of the poem in a much more obvious way than it would with a longer poem or a more complicated stanzaic structure.
Yet all this simplicity is in strong contrast with other elements. The first line has a songlike lilt, and “lovely” is given a kind of energy by metrical stress. Otherwise the language of lines 1 – 3 couldn’t be much duller, more literal, more inert or less evocative. And then suddenly intense, complicated feeling floods the poem as literal statement dissolves into metaphor and our imaginations are filled with the vastness of the mountain, the emptiness of the grass, and the strength, speed, wildness and evasiveness of the hare. We have to intuit that he’s talking about women and realise the contrast of linguistic intensity between the first and second halves of the poem reflects the different kinds of impact that other women and the One Woman have had on him.
The complications of feeling are obvious. I can imagine someone saying that despite the lovely gathering of meanings in the word “form”, the image of mountain grass as keeping the impression of the hare is a bad way of expressing the constancy of the poet’s love, because grass is a common and obvious symbol of mortality. But that’s what makes this metaphor so poignant. Yeats is simultaneously saying that he’ll never stop loving the woman and recognising that nothing in human life is forever – if only because human life isn’t. The tenderness of the lines makes the grass’s fidelity a beautiful thing, but behind the beauty there’s a devastating cost: Yeats has neither her love in the present nor (he says) the capacity to move on from it. There’s a kind of pride in the poem (he and she belong to the same order of being – the wild “mountain grass” with the wild “mountain hare” in implicit contrast to the tame world of ordinary emotions) but there’s also an utter humility in the contrast between the helpless passivity of the grass and the wilful freedom of the hare.
It’s the complications of the poet’s feelings that give the poem emotional depth, but they’re all subsumed within a serene, tender sense of acceptance and ultimately, if in some ways ruefully, of celebration and affirmation. The form comes in again here. I don’t know quite how to express it, but it’s as if the calm formal progression of the whole poem towards the final clinchingly and ringingly full rhyme itself expresses the naturalness and inevitability of his faith, which, given the one-sidedness of the relationship, is a kind of submission (I don’t think I’m projecting this into the poem by knowing the story of his love for Maude Gonne; it’s there in the image of the mountain hare). The final image contains the idea that he and the beloved made love, if only once, but does so with such delicacy and restraint that one’s strongest impression is of a parental, even maternal protectiveness. What a contrast with the coarse boasting of “His Memories” (section VI of “A Man Young and Old”):
The first of all the tribe lay there
And did such pleasure take –
She who had brought great Hector down
And put all Troy to wreck –
That she cried into this ear,
‘Strike me if I shriek.’
That is just depressing. However, some of the other poems of “A Man Young and Old” achieve extraordinary power by giving free rein to feelings of bitterness and resentment, so that conflicting feelings clash head on.