The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Last time we had a young man, an American walking in Paris in 1913 who came upon his poem leaving the Metro. Today, another young man, an Irishman in London in 1890, is walking too. He comes to a shop window, drawn by the sound there of water splashing. Looking in, he saw a fountain on display, its upward spray buoying up a ball.

The sound of water instantly brought memories of his childhood home on the coast of Ireland—and as he had been reading Thoreau’s account of his stay at Walden Pond, a small personal fantasy occurred to him of building and living in a self-sufficient cabin on a tiny island back home. Because that Irishman was William Butler Yeats, a poem came from that shop-street window, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”

william-butler-yeats-irish-poet-and-dramatist-in-his-study-at-woburn-buildings-london

If one can’t have a solitary wattled cabin, at least one can have books

 
That poem is now one of those beloved “Poetry’s Greatest Hits.” A few years back it topped a survey by an Irish newspaper as its readers’ favorite poem, and though I can’t find a picture of this, I’ve read that it’s been printed on a page of Ireland’s passports since 2013.

Lake Isle of Innisfree

Ireland’s favorite Irish poem was written in a foreign country

 

Of course, like most any Yeats poem it sounds lovely. Its language is straightforward, and there’s not much that needs explication. For a sound medium, it’s not always that a poem’s strongest images are sounds, but here the sounds of lapping water, bees’ hum-resonance, crickets, and a bird’s wings in flight carry the story.

Pound too, with his “In a Station of the Metro”  chose to use nature images in his Paris subway poem; but Yeats makes it plain that he’s stuck in the city, walking the grey pavement, not some country path. Thoreau had presented himself as the practical man in his book, making empirical living experiments. Yeats presents himself as the Romantic, helping imagine an Ireland—then viewed conventionally as a poverty-blighted colony—as an Eden, another locus amoenus. Another unusual choice Yeats makes is switching around the way we might describe night and day: night “a glimmer” and noon “purple glow.” Even though this was written before the dawn of urban lights dimming the night starfield, that’s the glimmering I sense, and if Irish coasts are foggy, noon could have a diffused glow. 1890 London might have fog and coal-fired air pollution too, maybe London fog didn’t glow, and maybe something beyond “light pollution” dimmed the stars.

This weekend’s St. Patrick’s day has become an occasion for the Irish diaspora to look toward its former homeland; and this poem, which speaks with Yeats’ humble yet beautiful specifics, invokes generally the homesickness of travelers, exiles, and immigrants. The specific in poetry often does that, the personal history that’s included, standing for us all. This morning, as I filled my mouth with the word “peace” that Yeats wrote down twice in his poem, I could think of the island of New Zealand, and other travelers, exiles, and immigrants.

To hear my performance of Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”  use the player gadget below.

 

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I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)

Here’s a hopeful song written by a worried man during the great trauma of the American Civil War.

Those who’ve followed along on this blog in 2018 will know that I’ve performed several pieces with words written by that man, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’ve written about his once great fame and his steep fall from poetic fashion, but I’ve written little about his eventful personal life.

longfellows house in winter

Not all of what it seems: a picture postcard scene of Longfellow’s home during the Civil War.

 

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, there could be no doubt on which side Longfellow would be on. To the extent that Longfellow was political as a writer, he was resolutely against the institution of slavery. Longfellow was also philosophically a pacifist, but even before the war he was aware of the cost Abolitionist convictions could bring. His closest friend, Charles Sumner, a U. S. Senator and another Abolitionist, was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor in 1856 when three southern congressmen launched a planned assault on him. The leader of the crew beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a walking stick, while the other two held off any who rose to try to stop the assault, one brandishing a pistol to keep help at bay. Sumner was so badly injured from the attack he was unable to resume his Senate duties for three years after the attack.

By the spring of 1863, the Civil War over the maintenance of slavery was now two years old. No one knew how long it would continue or what the outcome would be, and once more someone close to Longfellow would feel its blows. Longfellow’s 17-year-old son Charley, who had firmly resolved his own feelings about the war, snuck out of the family home and made his way to Washington to join the Union army. In November of that year, his unit was reconnoitering around a Virginia location called New Hope Church. They found what they were looking for. A southern bullet ripped through Charley Longfellow’s torso sideways, just nicking his spine. Luck that, and luck that he was able to endure and survive a painful evacuation on a wagon and the woeful state of battlefield trauma care in his time. Over half-a-million fellow soldiers didn’t.

So, a month before Christmas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was searching the maze of makeshift hospitals and camps in Washington until he found his wounded son. Son found, by Christmas the Longfellows could return home for further recuperation.

Today “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”*  if listened to casually may pass as just another carol, an obligatory musical evocation of some cheerful pealing on a winter’s holiday. But to the poet who wrote these words that Christmas, and to the nation torn apart, that he and his audience were part of, this was not merely another generalized Christmas card.

I wrote a couple of hundred words, meaning to put them here next, starting to say, preaching about, what Longfellow said in his poem—but Longfellow says what he needed to say pretty well and clear for an unfashionable poet. Maybe that “clear” thing is part of what is unfashionable, but despair shared and hope earnestly put forward is  a gift.

The player gadget below will let you hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)”  as I performed it. To sharpen Longfellow’s point, I trimmed back the number of stanzas in his original poem and then again from the shorter number of verses usually sung in the hymn that was made from it. I also reharmonized the chord changes a little. Guitarists wanting to play this themselves can use this shared link to see the details of the open tuning and chord voicings I used for this. The modified tuning, with the two lowest strings on the guitar tuned down even lower, makes this very easy to play.

 

 

 

*When Longfellow’s poem was published the next year it was titled “Christmas Bells,”  but it’s now best known through the hymn/Christmas carol set to music by John Baptiste Calkin.