He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Here’s a romantic poem by William Butler Yeats, in both senses of that word. “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”  is Romantic in the literary and artistic sense in that it seeks to reconcile personal emotional experience with some sublime otherness through imagination, and it’s romantic in the sense that the poem takes a courting stance, that it’s an expression of love for another.

Yeats is one of those “bridge” poets who did substantial work in both the 19th and the 20th centuries. Always fiercely lyrical, he was able to recast his poetry so it continued to be read into the Modernist era. This poem, though written in the 19th century—and proving it by using an entirely antique word “Enwrought” to start off its second line—remains in circulation as some lovers still recall its ending.

It’s a short poem, only eight lines, so it can’t waste time.*  The first four lines are devoted to a nicely rendered image of the sky and a richly embroidered cloth, the sort of thing that would indicate high fashion when it was written. Of course, this is self-consciously an image on the poet’s part, he acknowledges that he’s made it as poets make images, as a new way to apprehend reality.

Oliver Tearle, over at the always Interesting Literature  blog, points out that prime English Modernist T. E. Hulme made his own version of this sky/cloth image only a few years after Yeats when he wrote his “The Embankment.”  Hulme saw himself as setting out to overthrow Romanticism, and I’d suppose it’s possible that he could even have been thinking of Yeats’ poem as he created his different one. Considering the two poems together makes for an interesting contrast.**

After those first four lines, Yeats goes on to reference something that was once a widely-known tale—just as untrue, but just as commonly known as Washington copping to chopping down the cherry tree. In the English mythical tale, Walter Raleigh, acting as a paradigm of Elizabethan courtly love and devotion was said to have taken off his expensive cloak and laid it over a muddy spot on the road so that Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t soil her royal footwear. And so it is that Yeats says he’d make this beautiful image and then allow his beloved to trod all over it.

Yeats monument at Drumcliff

Yeats’ poem enwrought by sculptor Jackie McKenna in Drumcliff Ireland. Photo by Eric Jones.

 

There’s also something more here than just self-abasement or Yeats’ confidence in his brand of detergent: by saying he could put the plane of the heavens underneath his beloved, he’s also saying his poetry could take her to Heaven. But blink and you’d miss that implication.

Yes, the closing three lines are the poem’s best remembered, still quoted by those who have put themselves in the danger of love, or the danger of love refused. Romantic and romantic, and like most anything by Yeats, it just sounds so good! I performed it with acoustic guitar, electric bass, and a bevy of woozy keyboards, and you can hear it with the gadget I have spread below under your feet (or finger or mouse). Click softly.

 

 

 

 

 

*Here’s the text of the poem for those who like to read along. When the poem was originally published, Yeats used a persona as the poem’s speaker. Aedh was a kind of John-Keats-besotted nebbish character from what I read, and in doing so, Yeats is hedging his bets on the poem’s Romanticism, kind of a “I’m just asking for a friend” deal. When he included the poem in later collections, he dropped the persona.

**Here’s Tearle’s run-down of how Yeats’ does it in this poem, which also has links to his post about Hulme’s “The Embankment.” To hear my performance of Hulme’s “The Embankment,” you can click here. Beside producing one of the best daily literature blogs, I owe Dr. Tearle for introducing me to the work of T. E. Hulme, the pioneering Modernist poet and theorist who I’ve often featured here.

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From Queen Mab Canto II

It’s not often that we think of English Romantic poets along with science. We tend to think of them as pure examples, an engraved picture of an enraptured youth subject to the throws of inspiration, to be found next to the words “poet” or “fool” in a dictionary.

Percy Bysshe Shelley is no exception to this. In my mid-20th Century American school-days he was seated with the Romantics, and biographically some mention would be made of his notoriety during his lifetime, the matter of which would be ascribed with a summary of libertine sexual behavior in the Byron and Shelley households. I suspect many of those descriptions, brief and bloodless as they might have been, were attempts to woo additional interest in poetry from otherwise little-interested adolescents.

Part of the joy of this project is finding surprising things in poetry among the accidents and intents of looking for material. At the end of last week, I read of the memorial service held for physicist Stephen Hawking at Westminster Abbey.

Vangelis is going to stream a musical piece with Hawking’s famously synthesized voice out to the galaxies! Somewhere out there, the odds say, a curious alien will detect this light-years from now; though probabilities also say they will have likely forgotten to bring earbuds along on their saucer-ride.

And there were celebrities! Elgar, Stravinsky and Holst got played! The ticket application form allowed future birthdates, in case time-travelers wanted to apply to attend!

But reading on I find that astronaut Tim Peake read a bit of, what, Shelley. From “Queen Mab”  accounts said.

I find a copy of “Queen Mab.”  Turns out it’s another kind of Shelley from the school-book aesthete. “Queen Mab”  is a fairly long blank-verse epic, but I didn’t have to read far to find the parts you’d want to read for a cosmological tie-in. Right there in Canto II, Mab, the queen of the fairies, has Uber’ed up a human soul to her palace, which is more or less an atheist’s heaven, which is to say a philosophical location above the cosmos—and there, the human soul gets to observe the wonder of this perspective. Mind-blowingness ensues.

This is the kind of thing which visionary poets and scientists share, and that thing is wonder. Stacks of SciFi books would lift one nearly that high; but why couldn’t poetry, the literary artform best-suited to grasp tiny pieces of the un-graspable do that too?

percy_shelley

What if instead of sitting at a cave entrance, I was at a place of immense gravity, where even light falls into it? If I ever go back to England that’ll make a good bedtime story for little Ada, who’s always too busy using her wooden blocks to solve equations.

 

Here’s something else I found remarkable, a series of notes on the issues in the poem, written by Shelly, a young man of 18 in the early 19th Century. Here’s a portion of the first one:

Light consists either of vibrations propagated through a subtle medium, or of numerous minute particles repelled in all directions from the luminous body. Its velocity greatly exceeds that of any substance with which we are acquainted: observations on the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites have demonstrated that light takes up no more than 8′ 7″ in passing from the sun to the earth, a distance of 95,000,000 miles.—Some idea may be gained of the immense distance of the fixed stars when it is computed that many years would elapse before light could reach this earth from the nearest of them; yet in one year light travels 5,422,400,000,000 miles, which is a distance 5,707,600 times greater than that of the sun from the earth.

I was an English major, I had to look this up. Shelley, or early 19th century science, was off several billion miles on the length of a light-year, and a couple of million miles off on earth-sun distance—hey, I knew that last measurement, though from an early-childhood advertising jingle. However, ask yourself, how likely would it be that the most facile poet in any first-year college creative-writing class be conversant in those measurements, and how they are empirically proved?

So, thanks Stephen Hawking, Tim Peake, and whoever planned that part of the Westminster Abbey internment service. I now think of Percy Bysshe Shelly differently.

Musically, I started by noting in Shelley’s poem the description of deep-space orbs “in mazy motion.” I thought immediately of Mazzy Star, that late 20th Century indie band. Does mazzy/mazy go back that far? Turns out that the word mazy was something of a English Romantic poet favorite. Wordsworth, Southey, and Keats all used the word. Coleridge used it in “Kubla Kahn.”  Mazzy Star is a band with a predominate sound, and though they have some great cuts with wild electric guitar, there’s more often a strummed acoustic guitar, a droning organ, and some occasional violin, all the songs are taken at a slow tempo and modest volume. The band’s lead singer,  Hope Sandoval, has a style that superficially sounds easy to do, but in practice isn’t, and so my singing skills deferred trying.

So, it’s spoken word, not sung, but here are those words of Shelley’s used this month to memorialize Stephen Hawking. Use the player below to hear it.