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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The Destruction of Sennacherib

“The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold…” This, written by Byron, is one of the catchiest first lines in a 19th Century filled with catchy lines. It’s so good that I remember reading it in high school many, many years ago—and so good, that ironically I recalled nearly nothing else of the poem, not even its title.

I, like many others since, have informally used that image of a mighty force, that wolfpack, totally overwhelming a weaker force, cast as a fold of sheep. So, even though I did not remember the poem, when I read it again this month I thought that opening line summarized what the poem described. In that first re-reading I had trouble following the poem’s plot entirely, though the poem’s rhythm, rhyme scheme, and irresistible forward motion carried me through it with some appreciation. “OK, big bad Assyrians are going to sweep all before them, destroying everything in their path, including, I guess, that ‘Sennacherib’— must be the name of a city.” The poem’s flow moves relentlessly forward, like those Assyrian horse-drawn chariots I think; and there’s death and its all-quiet-afterward corpses—but no real battle, however one-sided, that the famous first line leads us to expect. Did Byron leave something out? And what’s exactly with that last stanza?

Lord Byron plays dress up

Lord Byron in an outfit that only Prince Rogers Nelson could pull off

 

Turns out, I was misreading the poem. It’s also been a long time since I’ve read the Second book of Kings in the Bible, where Byron borrowed his story. Sennacherib isn’t a city, he’s the king of the Assyrians. In the Bible story, the Israelite king, about to be swept away like his kingdom by Sennacherib’s Assyrian army, prays for God to intervene to save the kingdom, and God RSVPs with supernatural force, wiping out that supposedly unstoppable horde from the famous first line.

Sennacherib

Sennacherib goes out to get some more of that Stronginthearm’s Armour Polish for Gleaming Cohorts

 

Once I realized that, I could properly appreciate Byron’s middle section, with it’s spooky Angel of Death sensuously breathing in the faces of the Assyrian army as it flies through it faster than any charioteer. And the gloriously grisly image of the dead warhorse whose spume from its last furious race to escape is stretched between its stilled nostrils and the dirt it now lays in.

Yes, Byron races through this story because the mysterious “glance” of God defeating the Assyrian army might be diminished in a mortal’s attempt to describe it, and when Byron jumps to the aftermath, he keeps moving fast, but each detail he chooses to notice tells.

Unexpectedly to me, this wasn’t a story about how the smart money bets, how the unstoppable force is, as we’d better well realize, unstoppable. It’s instead, the story of a miracle.

Besides my initial misunderstanding, I found the poem has another problem in modern performance. Its poetic meter is anapestic, two unaccented beats followed by the strong beat. This is a jaunty rhythm, which whether for natural reasons or from association, sounds to me either like “A Visit from St. Nicolas”  or Dr. Seuss—and neither assists with the mood of this poem! So, I attempted to break up the metrical feet, and read “against” the meter a bit, while keeping the momentum going.

Musically, it’s some guitars mixed with warbling synths, and a keyboard electric-piano bass line this time. To hear the performance of “The Destruction of Sennacherib”  by George Gordon, Lord Byron, come down like a wolf on the fold onto the player gadget below.

 

Fire and Sleet and Candlelight

Today’s piece, like my recent setting of Margaret Widdemer’s “When I Was A Young Girl”  reframes a folk song from the British Isles. Widdemer took a song traditionally about a life cut down by youthful excess and reformed it into a poem about finding love outside the realm of adventurous, romantic fantasy. However, today’s words are from Elinor Wylie, whose poetry retains its allegiance to romantic excess, even if it’s frank about the cost of that.

“Fire and Sleet and Candlelight”  takes its title from a transcription of an old English song, collected in the 17th Century, but likely much older: the “Lyke Wake Dirge.”  The “Lyke Wake Dirge”  is a striking song, even though its antique dialect is nearly as hard to understand today as Summer Is Icumen In.”  As this blog post recalls, you’d be hard pressed to make out the lyrics to “Lyke Wake”  in present-day English from hearing it, but the simple yet stately melody grabs you anyway. That is an illustration of a Parlando Project idea: the presence of music allows one to defer decoding a text’s meaning, to appreciate something before you understand it. The line Wylie extracted for her title, in fact, is likely a common misunderstanding of the line in the old song. “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight” makes an easily available winter image, and so that’s what some heard. Scholars are now of the opinion that the middle item is actually “fleet,” not sleet; fleet being an old word meaning floor, and by extension, standing for home. The line’s word-music is beautiful with either word in it, and Wylie was very good at word-music.

To summarize “Lyke Wake,”  once you’ve died your soul will be tested on an arduous journey, which will be made easier if you’ve lived a life of charity. In the long-standing Christian debate between salvation from faith or works, “Lyke Wake”  favors the works side. The soul’s journey may still be strange and testing, but charitable goodness in life is rewarded as a way through.

This is not the poem that Wylie writes however. There’s a soul on a journey in her poem, yes, but salvation is nowhere achieved or even promised. “Lyke Wake”  is foreboding, but it may only recount two or three tests on the soul’s journey, and the refrain reminds us every verse the possibility that “Christe receive thy saule.” Christina Rossetti wrote a jauntier, more modern version of “Lyke Wake”  with her Up-Hill,”  to give one example of how this could  have been restated in modern English.

Wylie’s poem instead piles on the soul-struggles until you lose track of the number depicted. Nearly every pair of lines is a fresh torment or test, some of pain, some of discouragement.

Wylie’s images for the soul’s tests are in general straightforward, nothing too esoteric. The only one that caused me pause was “trysted swords.” Tryst derives from a Middle English word for agreed hunting place. Imagery-wise I was reminded of the Tarot deck’s three of swords. What would be hunted, and injured, would be one’s heart here, and trysted puns to twisted, as in the intertwined piercing blades of the three of swords.

Three of Swords

Tired of clattering swords making a racket at your castle?
Use this easy idea to store them securely.

So, Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,”  presents a more arduous and unrewarded journey than even the spooky “Lyke Wake Dirge.”  As a 20th Century poet steeped in the Romanticism of Shelley, Byron and Keats, Wylie would hold that suffering is not to be avoided if it’s a cost for a passionate rush toward truth and beauty. I said at the start, Wylie was honest about the cost of such a journey—and in words she is—but in putting it into such singing word-music she makes the sufferings easier to bear while her word-music undercuts the real pain and danger.

Lonelysoul

Wikipedia uses this picture to illustrate “Lyke Wake Dirge,” calling it “Lonely Soul.” I can only think of it as the back cover of “Songs of Leonard Cohen.”

 

I therefore tried to emphasize the sorrowful experiences of the words somewhat when performing this. For music I went with a fairly full-fledged orchestral-folk setting this time. The vocal and acoustic guitar is actually a “scratch part,” a quick recording used to lay the blueprints for later finished tracks, but due to recent events my voice has been out of commission for a few days, so I had to leave those parts in. To hear my performance of Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,”  use the player below.

 

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (Daffodils)

It may be U. S. National Poetry Month, but one can’t deny the impact that English poets have had on poetry, particularly before the Modernists launched with significant American participation.

Modernism, as practiced by those early 20th Century Imagists sought to cleanse poetry of the rust and rot of “poetic language” and rote abstract metaphors. Strong, exact words, no more complex or numerous than necessary were to describe things that were actual things, not merely decorative analogies to describe something else. By the 1920s, that American import, T. S. Eliot, became the standard of one large stream of Modernism. Although inspired by this fresh use of language, the Eliot wing of Modernism sought to rid poetry of “romanticism,” defined as a relentlessly subjective expression of personal experience unshaped by a greater historical and cultural understanding. Poetic language might be refreshed, but the cult of the great poem returned, and said that poetry is best to be in service of great themes and elaborate—rather than elegant—structures of thought.

Early Imagist/Modernist poems were about moments. The High Modernism of Eliot allowed it to be about eras. Imagists prized images of things formerly ignored or costumed only in the rhetorical finery in 19th Century poetry. High Modernism still allowed the mundane to stand for sublime thoughts, but it often sought to display a level of knowledge and literary scholarship along with the everyday in its choice of images.

This is why it’s important to look at the early part of artistic movements. Often their best ideas become mutated as the movements develop. Their revolutions become the new orthodoxy.

Today’s piece, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (Daffodils)”  is by English poet William Wordsworth, one of the founders of Romanticism. It’s a poem that can be attached to an exact (April, Poetry Month) date: April 15th, 1802, and to a walk that Wordsworth and his sister took in rural England. But that’s not how the poem was written. Wordsworth wrote it a couple of years later. He referred to his sister’s detailed journal entry about the April walk to refresh his particulars. His wife supplied two critical lines for the final stanza. This was not a spontaneous outburst of subjective personal feeling at all.

Daffodils at Kew Gardens

I couldn’t make it to the Lake District, but even a month ago, daffodils were blooming during an English Spring in Kew Gardens
In a few weeks my lawn will look like this in Minnesota—only dandelions, not daffodils.

 

When I performed the version you’ll hear below, I made one significant change and one minor one. The minor change? I dropped the adjective golden from his line “A host, of golden daffodils.” I suspect I did this by accident as I performed it. Not to dis Wordsworth (and by the way, Billy, what’s with that obvious pen name “Words-worth” for your poetry gig?) but I think I improved the line when I sung it as “A host, a host of daffodils.” First off, daffodils are a common flower, and they are in the wild always yellow. Strict Imagists would say the golden adjective is therefore unnecessary—and it is, well, a gilding of the lily. I can’t recall my reason for the major change, dropping the next to last stanza—I may have desired to shorten the piece for performance—but it is the weakest stanza in the poem.

The resulting “Daffodils”  I perform wouldn’t have been far from what F. S. Flint or Richard Aldington would have written a century or more later as pioneering Modernists. After all, Wordsworth said that he was trying to cleanse English poetry from special, high-flown, poetic diction too, to return it to “as far as is possible, a selection of the language really spoken by men.”

I do retain something else Wordsworth does here, something I don’t recall the Imagists doing much. “Daffodils”  is presented in a framing device, while the Imagists were all about the presentation of immediacy. Wordsworth doesn’t say merely that looking at all these wildflowers, the temporary exultation of spring, was transfixing—and he says that less with that next-to-last stanza removed. This is not a poem only about letting us see them in their wild, external multitude through his eye on an April walk in nature.

No, the poem starts, deliberately, in past tense. “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” And the poem closes even more removed. The speaker of the poem is not the energetic nature-walker strolling in Spring. In the actual, unknown, later time of the poem, he’s lying on a daybed, vacant or pensive. These daffodils are now only obtainable by the “inward eye” of recollection.

Setting something in the past can be seen as a tactic of sentimentality, something the Modernists distained, but what we have here is worth that risk. How so?

I thought it a delightful little nature poem when I read it as a teenager. Then I read it decades later, as my Eagle Scout father, the angler long accustomed to waiting perpendicular on the flat surface of lakes, the man who had bicycled across his rural state many times—while then, as I re-read, he was further and further confined to lying flat in rooms with the erasing of days. In that later time, noting the wild daffodils bliss is told to us in memory, I reversed Wordsworth’s famous dictum on the origin of poetry. In my reading, in that time, it became a poem, a song, of tranquility recollected in emotion.

Here’s my performance of “Daffodils”  as I sang and accompanied it on acoustic guitar.

The Heart of the Woman

There’s two things that attracted me to T. E. Hulme, the lesser-known Modernist poet and theoretician that I’ve featured a few times this summer. The first is the sense in his poetry and critical writings of the limits of humankind. The other is his poetry’s surprising modesty and restraint, something embodied in the very brevity of its poetic expression and his images linking the mundane and the cosmic.
 
This was a man who wanted to overthrow hundreds of years of poetic tradition, and a person whose stubbornness kept him in trouble with authority figures throughout his youth, and yet Hulme expresses himself in these spare lines, as if the first lesson he’s teaching himself is to know his own limits. This seems to be Hulme’s problem with Romanticism as he saw and opposed it: humankind is not limitless, though our imagination says otherwise.
 
Today’s piece, William Butler Yeats’ “The Heart of the Woman”  moves in opposition to that outlook, but not in opposition to that expression.
 
Here in North America, many in the southern region are spending this week either cleaning up from a massive hurricane or clenching their jaws in anticipation of an even larger one due to strike this weekend. Peaceful, Rousseauean nature this ain’t. Hobbes is is a weatherman.

Hurricaine Irma

“Come in she said, I’ll give you, shelter from the storm.”

Yeats’ poem is as measured and modest as one of Hulme’s, though it is rhymed and metrical. When one is a good as Yeats is at that, one hardly notices the form. 12 lines, not even a sonnet in length. Like Hulme, this is no great ode of endless argument. On the face of it, it’s a love song, a basic trope of Romanticism, the reason we talk about human attraction and pairing as “romantic.” Its images are centered on a couple embracing.

Yeats by Sargent
Why Mr. Yeats, I didn’t realize you were, well, dreamy, without your glasses

But look closely in those dozen lines. The woman who’s singing it, has left religion (“prayer and rest”) and family, and has followed a lover’s invitation into what is introduced as “gloom”. Merely the dark of night?

No, in Yeats’ lovely line, darkness is found inside the “Shadowy blossom” of her hair which will hide the lovers from the “bitter storm.” Now we are fully in the Romantic world, where our own darkness may be willful, wishful, blissful, ignorance of the “hiding hair and dewy (blurry) eyes.”

Are there any more Romantic and romantic three lines as Yeats’ final three that conclude this piece? If there are, I can’t recall any at the moment. That the simple murmurs of human breath can seem to equal a hurricane’s—is that glorious or folly or both?
 
In the spirit of defying human limits, this is the first time you’re going to hear me sing a Parlando Project piece acapella. And though Yeats’ poem doesn’t rule out the same romantic faith on the part of the “he” in this poem, I’m somewhat troubled by the idea that romantic devotion is presented here as female, from the poem’s title onward, so I’ll undercut that by singing this. My less-able singing voice is one reason that we chant or speak-sing a lot of Parlando Project material, but my young son’s carefree acapella singing is reminding me of the value in the singing voice. To hear “The Heart of the Woman,”  use the player gadget below.