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 timing words, using rhythm and metre, syntax and phonetic adjacency to intensify their life in the reader’s mind, to somehow make them be themselves more fully. It’s partly a matter of making them stand out, partly of giving them breathing space. It’s in the last three lines of the quotation that I feel this most strongly and the words where I feel it most are simple and elemental in meaning – ‘salt’, ‘grey’ and ‘gaunt’. I dimly remember a conversation with my father when I was a sixth former in which he said that Yeats didn’t strike him as a particularly concrete or sensuous writer. I think this is true in the sense that Yeats doesn’t describe physical things in great detail. His evocations are strong but spare and depend on music as much as the meaning of words but how much more vividly concrete is it possible to be than ‘To drink of that salt breath out of the sea’? Drinking of breath is arrestingly concrete in itself (drinking breath is an old metaphor but drinking of it immediately intensifies the sense of a definite quantity of liquid of which you drink a small amount). Metre plays its part – the coming together of stresses in ‘salt breath’ both emphasizes the words and creates breathing space around them (adjacent stressed syllables slow the phrase and push apart from each other as one says them). And these aren’t just ordinary stresses. The iambic metre means that ‘that’ is in what should be stressed position but the stress is displaced onto ‘salt’. Adjusting stride to accommodate this irregularity makes one – at least makes me – throw extra emphasis on ‘salt’ and the simple physical saltiness of the sea air breathes itself more strongly into the imagination as a result. And then there’s another metrical displacement creating a pause within the line – the metrical foot is reversed with ‘out of’. So we have three strongly sounded syllables (‘salt breath out’) followed by two very lightly stressed ones. To me that creates an immediate sensation of the space between the human presence (Parnell’s ghost, or the poet imagining him) and the sea itself.

Again, thinking of how cadence can give imagined body to an image, ‘When grey gulls flit about instead of men’ seems to me almost magically evocative. It’s the line’s rhythm that makes me see and almost feel the gulls’ gliding and swerving flight. In terms of traditional scansion, an iambic foot is followed by a spondee and then another iamb but the rhythm is created by the interplay between this metrical pattern and the movement of the syntax. There are three breath units to the line – ‘when grey gulls’ pause ‘flit about’ pause ‘instead of men’ – and I don’t think you can say them without feeling the speeding up in the second and third. This speeding up of the second and third phrases around the pause between them makes me picture not the gulls but their movement very clearly.

Though it doesn’t have the physical immediacy of ‘salt’, ‘breath’, ‘grey’ and ‘gaunt’, the notionally abstract noun ‘majesty’ packs quite a punch too. It isn’t physically concrete in the sense of relating to the sensory apprehension of something outside the body, but I think strong emotional sensations are almost physical in their nature, affecting the brain in the same kind of way as physical ones do, and the word ‘majesty’ carries strong emotional associations. Yeats heightens this effect by his metaphor of the houses putting on majesty, as if it were a garment. However, he leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions around this direct, vivid impression – leaves it to us to take or not to take the houses’ gauntness as suggesting the destructive effects of English rule, for example (in which case the look of majesty they take on in the twilight might suggest Parnell’s hope for a freer and better future) or to take or not to take the illusoriness of the look of majesty as sarcastically suggesting the people’s unworthiness of Parnell, in line with the question whether the builder has been paid. This combination of forthright power with a sensitive, ambiguous play of suggestions (sometimes even of contradictions) seems to me typical of how Yeats works.

I’ve wandered a bit from my main point, though. What I’ve really tried to do is pin down why ‘salt’, ‘breath’ and ‘grey’ make such an impact on my own impression of the poem. All three are words Yeats makes vivid use of in other contexts, and like the word ‘cold’ they clearly meant a lot to him at some fundamental imaginative level.

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