April is National Poetry Month and to celebrate, I like to profile a poet. This year, I chose to celebrate the poetry of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), the great Irish dramatist and poet.
According to the critic M.L. Rosenthal, who has compiled the poetry of Yeats:
“William Butler Yeats is the most widely admired, by common reader and sophisticate alike, of all modern poets who have written in English. Early and late he has the simple, indispensable gift of enchanting the ear…”
Yeats had a life-long interest in mysticism, spiritualism, occultism, and astrology, Irish myth and folklore, and contemporary political issues. All of these interests are reflected in his verse. As Rosenthal explains, it was not Yeats’ gift with words that made him great, but also his investment in political questions of his day, especially in Ireland.
Yeats received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. As his Nobel Prize web page points out:
“Yeats is one of the few writers whose greatest works were written after the award of the Nobel Prize. Whereas he received the Prize chiefly for his dramatic works, his significance today rests on his lyric achievement.”
As my contribution, I am posting some of my favorite poems by Yeats. There are any number of interpretative books and articles on the Web if you care to consult them, but I like the poems well enough just for the musicality of the words.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
Note: Yeats wrote of the origin of this poem, “I had … the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill…”
“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
Note: The Irish airman in this elegy is Major Robert Gregory (1881-1918), only child of Yeats’s friend Lady Augusta Gregory. He was killed on the Italian front.
“I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balance all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
When You Are Old
Note: This has always been one of my very favorites.
“When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars
Who Goes With Fergus
Note: Believe it or not, this is my favorite poem by Yeats. (It was also James Joyce’s favorite Yeats poem, so I feel I am in good company.) Fergus, a recurring character in Yeats’ poems, was a king in Irish legend who gave up his throne to become a wandering poet. He has one step in reality and another in the realm of desire and imagination. In this poem, he (or Yeats, invoking his cause) seeks to lure the reader into the dominion of dance and dreams. As the Yeats scholar Frank Hughes Murphy writes: “In “Who Goes with Fergus?” the imagination wins its most triumphant moment. Here, in a compact but richly articulated structure, we gain a vision of imagination’s triumph over all creation.”
“Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.