W B Yeats, “First Love” from “A Man Young and Old”

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.

From the first this poem proceeds by explosive contradiction. In the first two lines alone, under the violent reversal of overall feeling between lines one and two, there’s a whole series of more specific clashes, like nurture against murder, the serene, virginal remoteness of the “sailing moon” against both nurture and murder, the sympathetic associations of “nurtured” against the generally derogatory tone of “brood” when used of people. These rapid, unpredictable switches of tone and feeling at its start give the whole poem tremendous dynamic intensity. The way feelings and ideas seem to spring out in raw, immediate, unfiltered conflict with each other creates an almost instinctive suspense about how they’ll be reconciled.

There’s a roughness, baldness, casualness about the style at times that adds to the sense of spontaneous emotional outpouring. What mainly comes through for most of the poem seems to me to be bitterness and sarcastic anger, tinged with yearning and wry humour. The Beauty’s devastating impact on the young man is expressed with a power far beyond anything in “Memory”. A trapped intensity comes from the huge amount of repetition – moon, moon, moon, heart, heart, hand, hand, awhile, awhile, things, thing, maundering, maundering, thought, thought – and from subtler extensions of these verbal repetitions by repetitions of syntactical pattern that make whole phrases parallel each other (eg “walked awhile”, “blushed awhile”).

Then in the last two lines there’s a really stunning shift that releases us from this trap. It’s been hinted at by the sudden grandeur and spiritual associations of the word “transfigured”, even though immediately after that word we seem to bump back down to earth with the maundering lout. The actual transfiguring image, of course, is that of the wide starry heavens so flooded with the moon’s light that the stars themselves disappear. Caught in that blaze, “emptier of thought” now suggests not loutish vacancy but absolute openness to and fullness with an almost mystical vision. The sense of suddenly opening out space is underlined by the expansion of the penultimate line to something that hovers between the expected iambic tetrameter and a pentameter.

At this point I think the hearing the poem read aloud and reading it for oneself on the page would have a significantly different impacts. I think that if I just heard the poem, this final vision would seem to almost completely supersede earlier impressions and the poem would come across as an almost complete vindication and celebration of overwhelming romantic love, despite its cost. Hearing a poem one is, or at least I am, strongly bound to sequence and progression towards a climax that is both literally and metaphorically a last word. But reading such a short poem on the page, I experience it more as a loop in which the different moments are much more equally co-present in the mind, so that instead of breaking free of what’s gone before, the tremendous final impression is itself challenged by it.

I talked earlier about repetitions in the poem creating a sense of trapped intensity and the ending releasing us from the trap. No doubt you’ve been almost shouting out that the whole poem returns to its starting point with the “sail-” and “moon” of line one are repeated in the last line, so that either the trap is still closed or verbal repetition isn’t all that important to it. I’d say that “when the moon sails out” feels completely different to “the sailing moon”. This is partly a matter of context, partly of the recasting of a not very emphatic participial phrase into a climactic active clause. The effect is that the same thing is seen in utterly different ways, but one way of seeing doesn’t invalidate the other, it coexists with it. Yeats doesn’t say that the Beauty’s beauty was less murderous than the young man once thought, or that her heart was warmer or less stony than it seemed in stanza two; he makes us – or me – experience a state of wonder in which her coldness and remoteness don’t matter. And then as I go back to the beginning they matter again. The contradictory responses are equally true but can’t be felt simultaneously.

This, I think, is the fundamental difference between “Memory” and “First Love”. In “Memory” complicated and even contradictory feelings are adjusted to each other and subsumed within an overall attitude and tone. It’s a touching and lovely piece. “First Love”, though, seems to me to be in another league, to reach real greatness, because of the power and sureness of touch with which it exposes the equal truth and equal force of feelings that are incompatible with each other.


I talked earlier about a certain roughness or casualness in the style. Of course I don’t mean that Yeats was really writing casually. He’s using art to conceal art. The brilliant emotional accuracy of the writing depends on a technical mastery that can be glimpsed in the apparently effortless way in which he makes each stanza a single sentence, despite the fairly complex stanzaic pattern which adds an alternation of tetrameter and trimester lines to a quite tight rhyme scheme.

I love the way in which the body-parts imagery of hands and hearts is bent into the almost surreal fantasy of a hand travelling on the moon.


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