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Yeats – giving words life in ‘To a Shade’

The first stanza of Yeats’ ‘To a Shade’ ran round my head on my walk this morning (I’d mentioned it in an email to a friend yesterday). Here are the lines I was thinking of:

If you have revisited the town, thin Shade,
Whether to look upon your monument
(I wonder if the builder has been paid)
Or happier-thoughted when the day is spent
To drink of that salt breath out of the sea
When grey gulls flit about instead of men,
And the gaunt houses put on majesty …

It came to mind in the email as just one example of Yeats’ wonderful gift for … Continue Reading

Auditory Imagination in Yeats’ ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ (stanza 1).

‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ begins

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

I’ve loved it since school days, when I used to carry Norman Jeffares’ Selected Poetry by Yeats around with me and read it repeatedly. I can’t remember just what I liked about this particular poem then but my feeling for it now crystallises around the beauty of its sound, especially in this first stanza, and around the strange way some of its words and phrases seem to … Continue Reading

POUND, YEATS, REMORSE – Pound’s Canto CXVI and Yeats’ “Man and the Echo”.

I’ve been dipping into Ezra Pound again, moving from the Selected Poems edited and introduced by Eliot, which I devoured as a sixth former in the late sixties to the very useful New Selected Poems and Translations edited by Richard Sieburth. The selection from The Cantos in the latter brought me to Canto CXVI, which excited me enormously in the early seventies. I seem to remember seeing it cited as showing that Pound finally “got it” in the sense of feeling remorse at his role as Mussolini’s propagandist in the Second World War. I’m not sure about that, at least … Continue Reading

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 … Continue Reading

The Power of Form: W B Yeats, “On a Political Prisoner”

I’ve just been looking again at Yeats’s “On a Political Prisoner”. What a beautiful and endlessly rereadable poem it is. Like so many older poems, it makes me wish I had enough formal skill myself to use set stanza structures properly.

Dogmatic opponents of traditional forms talk as if they were automatically cold, mechanical and external. Rubbish, as this poem among so many others amply demonstrates. Of course metrical and stanzaic forms can be applied in a cold, mechanical and external way, but then free verse can be limp and vacuous.

Yeats’s own famous statement about his style emphasises the link he … Continue Reading

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 … Continue Reading

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 … Continue Reading