Continuing our National Poetry Month celebration, here’s another poet’s love poem, loved by other poets, William Butler Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.” If Millay’s “Rosemary” portrays a relationship turned cold, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” is more at the wooing stage.
The speaker in Yeats poem begins by saying that they’d offer their beloved heaven or the heavens — well, to be exact, a luxurious simulation as some kind of cloth — and then not care that the beloved might just use it like a rug and walk all over it. And then they say they don’t have those cloths of heaven, only a dream. Still, the beloved can walk on that, the poet’s dreams; but the poem finishes with a plea that they should walk softly on that treasure, the wooer’s dreams.
In this short eight-line poem, Yeats does some fine things. First — no surprise if it’s Yeats — it sounds beautifully, and he does this almost entirely with meter, supplely alternating two and three foot beats in my scansion of it, though you can force an iambic feel.* Unlike many poets and poems that pour on the consonance seeking musical sounds, he avoids this here other than “dim and dark.” Nor is end rhyme a factor, though there are 2.9 internal rhymes in the entire poem (“night” – “light,” “spread” – “tread,” and “cloths” – “enwrought.) Instead, Yeats leans on repetition of words, even though one can read or hear this poem without noticing just how heavily repetition is used. These words are repeated at least once: “cloths,” “light,” “feet,” “I,” “dreams,” “spread,” “under,” “my,” and “your” along with generally-repeatable articles like “and” and “the,” and with only 61 words in the entire poem, almost half the poem has another half echoing it.
It’s also subtle in it’s meaning. Yes, it has been used in “real life” as a wooing poem by others, but being subtle in a valentine is a risky business. Yeats himself originally published this as a persona poem in the voice of a character as “Adah Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” even though many identify this as an expression of his in-real-life love for Maude Gonne. But notice this: the poem’s speaker would be extravagant with something he doesn’t own (and maybe no one could own fabric as rich as heaven) — but he’s asking for some mercy with the actuality of his immaterial dreams.
So, there’s a lot here for other poets to admire, but there’s more: this poem restates the situation of most poets when they are writing too. We plan to create the closest we can with words and their weave to the heavens — and those plans, those wishes, are our dreams. And then — like Maude Gonne, the plausible love interest this poem may have been directed to — people walk, not on them, but around them. Don’t be dismayed, such is life. All Artists Fail. We are the wooers, and then when we read or perform poetry such as this one by Yeats, we become the lovers, the beloved.
Watch here for views of a statue depicting this poem created by Jackie McKenna that I much admire. One thing I just noticed when doing this video: the crouching figure of the wooer looks quietly satisfied viewed straight on, and then in the final profile shot, a little sad or resigned. Intended or trick of the light?
Three ways to hear my music and performance of Yeats’ “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven:” there’s a player gadget for some, this highlighted link for others to use, and, at least for now, I’m continuing to create new lyric videos for this National Poetry Month series, and that is available above.
*That sort of repetition with variations, trod gently, gives a better musical effect in most cases.
Readers often hear different poems when reading the same text. It’s unavoidable, even though it causes some authors to despair at how they are misread. So, it should be no surprise that it is possible in performance to recast poetry considerably without changing a word.
Around 1902 Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote a poem taking exception to a too-easy consolation meant to comfort. He cared for the poem enough that around 20 years later he revised it slightly, to emphasize his response to this well-meaning gesture, explicitly writing out the one word concise enough to underline his feelings at the offer of comfort: “No.”
Those who study Yeats’ life are pretty sure this poem is biographical and is based on his unrequited courtship of Maude Gonne. That’s a long story, and to say that these were two complicated individuals is to understate the matter. If one reads today’s text, that poem “The Folly of Being Comforted,” in that biographical way, it makes sense. Here’s a link to that text. That reading, coldly condensed, would have it that someone told Yeats, “Hey, that hottie that you are so enamored with — I’ve heard she’s getting older, grey hair, older skin around her eyes. Sure, they say with age comes wisdom, but never mind any of that, she’s no longer so attractive that others will be chasing her. So now, maybe your chance will come around.” And to this Yeats gives his “No,” explaining that as he sees it, she’s not lost a step beauty and attractiveness-wise.
There’s a perfectly good romantic love sonnet there, and that’s not what I performed today.
I’m mentioned this year that I have family and others I know going through infirmities and transitions. It’s not my nature to talk about them, or even to directly write of my own experience of those situations. Even though one of the principles of this project has been to seek out and to present “Other People’s Stories,” I’m hesitant to speak over their own voices* in the same way that I’m comfortable talking about those long dead and in some cases too little remembered.
As I was working today on finishing the mix of the audio performance you can hear below, Dave called me to tell me that our friend and poet Kevin FitzPatrick had died last night. We were planning to visit him in hospice tomorrow. Now we’ll visit him when we think of him. Visiting hours are now unlimited.
For many years Kevin and Ethna would celebrate poetry in a public reading on St. Patrick’s Day in Minnesota.
Another poet we both know, Ethna McKiernan, is also facing a serious illness this year. When I read and then performed Yeats’ poem, I was thinking of these things. I recognized it was a romantic love poem, yes, but I read all sorts of undertones in it. We are meant to pass over them in the “correct” reading. Maude Gonne was all of 35 when Yeats first published his poem, the grey hair and “shadows…about her eyes” were likely subtle things. We’re all more than double that. Age is not subtle at that volume. When I read Yeats’ simple elaborating line “I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.” I felt my own lack of useful care or comfort I’ve offered Kevin or Ethna, partly because I fear I’d be rather bad at it, and partly because I’m less close to either of them than even Dave is. That said I’ve been acquainted with Ethna for about 40 years. I may have not been close to her in her “wild summer,” but I knew her when. Yes, the fire “burns more clearly” with her even now as Yeats says. After all, when you get our age, there’s more fuel.
Yeats called his poem, “The Folly of Being Comforted” and he ended the poem with that title. He likely had real feelings in this matter, long ago when he was alive. When I think of these mortal matters, now, here, my feelings are different than a witty sonnet about someone’s crude mistake regarding his estimate of Maude Gonne. And so I performed my feelings, using Yeats words.
The player to hear that performance is below for many of you, but some ways of reading this won’t display that. So, I also offer this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window and play it.
*I feel I must guard myself in that partly because I’d easily fall into it if I didn’t.
My time and energy is short tonight, so this post will reflect that, but I wanted to present this supple poem by William Butler Yeats written near the end of the 19th century, but, I think, applicable in our American year 2020.
How many of us as couples, as friends, as families this year have felt the need to be support and comfort for them; or in return, needed that from others? A year of shocks, changes, challenges, revelations, of noise and force. Cold deaths, hot fires. This past Tuesday’s national image of that televised, trampled talking over, the faulty assay that volume and audacity can just as well substitute for truth. That absurd equation that one can talk the longest and take the least responsibility. Is that what words are for, is that all they are for?
Two images, one with physical mass, one auditory are weaved through this short poem. The massive one is the horse and in its plural sense, the Horses of Disaster. In Yeats’ 19th century the horse was still a large part of military force* and one of the largest animals that would be encountered daily in much of his British Isles. Our age may reduce that intimate knowledge. Someone like me, never part of the horsey set, who kept his small purse away from horse racing stakes, and rural in his youth in a tractor and truck sense, can only rely on fairs, events, and exhibitions to feel something of what Yeats’ horses meant to his contemporary reader. To stand, as I have, near a draft horse or to watch horses run at full gallop, and to imagine in my sparser memory that collection of momentum and force, is to feel something Yeats intended to convey.
But there may be accrued in the sparcer memory, that lack of daily familiarity something too. The horse, the Horses of Disaster, are more mysterious, more occult in daily fact than they may have seemed to a reader in 1896. One can often get out of the way of an actual run-away horse—our modern Horses of Disaster, not so much.
“Vanity of Sleep, Hope, Dream, endless Desire” The picture is “Self Portrait (Inn of the Dawn Horse)” by Leona Carrington, a Surrealist who deserves to be better known.
The other image, the auditory or conceptual one the poem weaves, is tumult—uproar, confusion—by definition, unpredictable, illogical, chaotic, the body and hooves one cannot sidestep easily.
So, I read this poem as a spell—and Yeats artistry is striking regardless of the efficacy of magical beliefs or practices.** There is after all, the spell we cast with those we love and comfort. Come, the world will carelessly or concertedly hurt you, but I will not.
I’ll often choose a piece to present here from an instant impression. I’ll be reading another blog, looking at a writer connected with something else I’m looking for, or paging through an anthology and there’ll be this poem that strikes me as more interesting than the one before or the next one after.
Somewhere last month that happened with this piece. You can find the full text of Charles Kingsley’s “The Poetry of a Root Crop” here. It starts off as a garden poem (I may have been looking for one of those) but it soon gets a bit strange. “Swede” is the British term for what I (and Swedish-American Carl Sandburg) would call a rutabaga. “Golden globe” is a turnip. The “Feathered carrot” is a nice image, I see the root tendrils—but by the second stanza we’re getting weirder: “angel’s alchemy” is somehow involved and “blood and bone.” I think of the orthopedic snap of crisp root vegetables and what, beet juice? Sure, it is rhymed couplets, but this is very modern imagery. I knew nothing of its author: I thought late Victorian or maybe one of the “Georgian poets” from around the time of WWI who often use modern imagery inside of traditional forms.
And then the poem starts to take on visionary or prophetic imagery. There are also elements in here, pace the “angels’ alchemy” phrase that call to mind esoteric terms of alchemy.* Where is this going? As the poem closes it becomes clear. This is a graveyard—and/or a garden. Which is it? I think it’s to be both.
By the time I’d finished reading the poem for the first time I’d decided I wanted to write some music and perform this. Those who consume the Parlando Project as a podcast hear only the short audio pieces, and I already knew this would be arresting there if my music worked out. But here, for my blog readers, I’d need to find out something about the author. Who was Charles Kingsley? I’d never heard of him, and it’s likely you haven’t either.
Charles Kingsley. If the British royal family is related to Odin, is there a part for Queen Elizabeth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
The weirdness didn’t end. First off, this poem was older than I figured it was. It was written in 1845. On first reading I would have guessed a contemporary of Yeats, but instead William Wordsworth was still alive. And Kingsley was strange. He was an ordained minister of the Church of England. He knew the British royal family and Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. He was an early proponent of Christian Socialism, and he was an advocate for increased worker’s rights.
But he believed in a historic basis for the old Norse gods, and thought the British monarchy was descended from them. He attacked Catholicism and thought Emerson and the American Transcendentalists were poppycock. He was a defender of the brutal suppression of the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica.** If one wonders if that last was some technical or procedural objection, Kingsley’s Wikipedia page quotes what has to be the trifecta of a racist statement written in a letter to his wife after a visit to the County Sligo*** in 1860: “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country [Ireland] … to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.”
So there you go: if you are a person of color, Irish, anti-colonialist, anti-racist, Catholic, an atheist libertarian, or I would suppose, a sentient chimpanzee, Kingsley is despicable.
Yes, these ideas caused, and cause, suffering and death, but his little-known poem brought me some pleasurable surprise. Big and little things.
Maybe I’m a bit glad that this poem is older than I thought. The vegetative minerals of Charles Kingsley are long absorbed into the earth, and I’ve performed Ezra Pound poems, so I guess you can put me down in the group that says the art can exist—at least eventually—separate from the artist.
Is the opposite so? The better, the more evolved, just, and righteous that a reader is, the smaller the number of poets they will be able to read?
**Wikipedia says Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Charles Dickens and Alfred Tennyson also served on a committee with Kingsley defending the actions of the British colonial governor of Jamaica.
***I’m moved to mention that within a decade, a certain young boy named William Butler Yeats was in that same County Sligo a lot during his childhood. Some chimpanzee, Kingsley. See Yeats moving poem in his primitive tongue: “Me Tarzan, You Maude Gonne.”
Are there people today still falling in love, or not falling in love together, or remembering love and almost love? Seems like a silly or rhetorical question doesn’t it.
So, yes, I suspect there are, as there have been before.
People fall in love on marches, at the barricades. Policemen fall in love. People fall in love in the time of plagues. Old people fall in love. Young people remember love or almost love. Oppressed people fall in love. People fall in love, but their partner doesn’t, and sometimes that partner is the wiser of the two.
So, is this the time for a poem of romantic love to be the most popular piece this past season? This is a time of new dangers and old evils. This is a time that predicts greater uncertainties and promises change if we act, and despair if we don’t. Can poetry put its “Queer shoulder to the wheel” as Ginsberg wrote? Should it?
I’ll be honest, I think about that a lot this spring. It’s a large part of why it’s hard for me to get around to creating new work here as this spring unfurled. Honestly I have little right to present short pieces here on Emily Dickinson, Du Fu or Arthur Rimbaud, but I may have even less authority to write briefly on politics, economics, sociology, or epidemiology—much less American racial dichotomy and all it’s injuries.
My observation that many who do write of these things have no more authority than I do is not helpful. Another observation is that all us artists have is that: our observation. We must strive to be careful seers and more exact sayers of what we see, though we tend to be flat seers. Heaven and wildflowers: that’s leveling. Romantic love, that often-brief thing; and disaster, that sometimes-brief thing that harms long and painfully, we see them both, we write about them as if they’re equal.
The player gadget to hear Yeats’ “When You Are Old,” this love poem written by a 20-something about old age, is below. Thank you very much for reading and listening, and an extra thank you to those who’ve helped spread the word about the Parlando Project. There’s a lot of stuff here from the four years of this project to listen to, and I’ll still attempt to have new pieces here soon.
Continuing on with our countdown of the most popular pieces here this past spring, I find a few things that break the usual patterns. So let’s get on with it and see what we find that were the most liked and listened to since March 1st. The bold-face titles are links to the original post presenting the poem, so you can easily visit those to read more about it and what I said back then.
4. To a Fat Lady Seen from a Train by Frances Cornford. This short poem in the tricky triolet form is as catchy as a nursery rhyme and is fairly well known in Cornford’s native Great Britain. Besides that earworm quality, the poem is weird in it’s shocking and concise frankness of observation, even more so when one considers it was published in 1910, pre-“Prufrock” and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” It seems to have raised a little ruckus in its time too, as A. E. Housman and G. K. Chesterton both wrote parodies of it, and so by way of equal time I performed Chesterton’s parody as well in my presentation of Cornford’s poem.
Pattern breaking? This is a second poem by the same poet to appear in this Spring Top Ten, and it’s quite different from the charming Walter de la Mare-like narrative of “The Old Nurse.”
3. We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Pattern breaking? This isn’t a piece that was presented this spring, but back in February. Most of our pieces get a third or more of their listens in the first week, and in this one’s example, those listens were counted last winter—but listens continued this spring at a high enough level that here it is at number 3.
Dunbar is America’s first successful Afro-American poet, and this poem is often read as an eloquent statement of the burdens of bearing up under racial oppression. And that it is, and so it retains a still unavoidable relevance. If you follow the bolded link, the original post includes the guitar chords for my conversion of Dunbar’s poem into a broadside to sing.
Here’s the wisest thing I know about protest songs. Does singing a protest song change the world? Not necessarily. But for the moment you sing the song, perhaps together with others, it likely changes you, for as long as the song continues. Therefore, it’s good that we continue to remember Dunbar’s poem in voice and song.
Not to trivialize the immensity of the struggle against the evil of racial oppression, but as I write this in June 2020, I’m struck by the marchers and mourners here and elsewhere during our Covid-19 pandemic wearing their masks, a gesture to help protect others from the spreading of that virus. “We Wear the Mask” indeed.
“We wear the mask” photo from Minnesota protests on the killing of George Floyd. photo by Derek Montgomery for MPR News.
2. The Stare’s Nest at My Window by William Butler Yeats. Odd how this poem snuck up on me. I noted a Yeats book it was in had moved into the public domain, and I read the entire poetic series it was part of with an initial shrug. The esoteric mysticism of Yeats is not what attracts me to him, and these poems seemed overdependent on that aspect.
So, what about Yeats attracts me? Well, the beauty of his language certainly, but also his quests to see poetry as something again suitable for performance and to revivify the cultural heritage of his nation which had been much damaged by colonialism.
Somehow I wanted to know the context of the poems, and to find that this poem was written in the midst of a civil war made it more pointed, more charged. Then, later this spring I sat in my room, flames and smoke within my own tower’s view. “A man is killed” and “We had fed the heart on fantasies” are phrases in a poem. Nice words, they scan well, just phrases in a poem?
I’ll be completing the countdown soon with the most listened to and liked piece from last spring. Hit follow or check back to find out what piece that’ll be.
It’s been a rough series of days in the Twin Cities. Other than no great new loss of life (only fear of it) there’s not been much accomplished in my home or in my city.
I have a few new pieces in various stages of completion, and ordinarily I’d be working on additional ones for this project. This spring the pandemic quarantine measures have been bothersome, but so far Dave and my family have been coping and doing the best they can. Given the number of people sickened and killed by Covid-19, bothered and coping might as well count as “the best we can do.”
Then comes a public act of callous manslaughter. Worse for not being unprecedented. Worse for being tied to the sickness of racial oppression. We have a vaccine and a natural immunity for that: It’s empathy and love. Yet, many refuse to be vaccinated, or don’t have the vaccine available to them.
The phrase “the best we can do” has fallen into disrepute. Perhaps you’ve come upon this piece after reading or hearing someone else remarking on why this phrase is dispensed with, or should be dispensable.
For the last two nights the quarantine from the virus has been trumped by the fires and murmuring crowds. Crowds with the wisdom of crowds, which is to say, not much. Crowds work like a jangling overstimulated nervous system, tingling with pleasure and pain receptors, with a prejudice for why not.
My family, my friends, my artistic compatriots, my neighborhood are at the epicenter of this. Long time readers may know that alternate voice here Dave Moore was associated with a 20th century literary magazine that called itself “The Lake Street Review.” Minneapolis’ Lake Street is (insert here the English verb that needs to be invented that stands for the balance of hope/fear/despair in our present moment poised in is/was/will be) a multi-ethnic, multiclass (if mostly working class) strip of enterprises where you can get diapers, groceries, your prescription filled, that part to keep your old car running, foods from fast to global, places where bands used to play before Covid-19, bookstores, libraries, arts labs, paper and toner for your printer, intoxicating beverages, hardware stores, your laundromat-load destination, where you go when your car needs gas and air for the leaky tire. It’s were the Latin Americans and African and Asian immigrants have their shops. Lake Street is an early 20th century construction. Apartments still over the retail ground-floors in older buildings, houses and apartments right next door behind the stores, closer than modern codes allow. Great portions of this are now gutted, looted; still smoldering from last night or cold ashes from the night before that.
I’m sure what we live is a hugely interesting phenomenon for commentators, political philosophers, or folks just looking for a “news hook” to write or say something. Some will be civic sports-bar-tone arguments for who needs to be shot on sight for the sight of their targets, others will be earnest explainers about how rioting is the only effective language of the dispossessed, and that the wreckage of the places that a large percentage of those from the middle on down to the homeless frequent and depend on isn’t the disaster for them that it looks like to those less-evolved in their political consciousness.
As I’ve said already, I myself fear I’d dishonor this with my broken prose and dim eyes. And what old men think about this is less important than what those younger who may read this think, resolve, and do.
Yeats poem written while sequestered in Ireland with his wife during a civil war. “Stare” is a old name for the starling, considered a nuisance bird.
Beneath the beach, more paving stones.
Friends of my family since both our children were born spent the hours around midnight wondering if the unchecked flames from a torched gas station would spread to the homes next door. My neighborhood post office (the same one where Lake Street Review submissions used to come in) went up in big black smoke as it was deliberately broken into and set aflame. I’m not sure if anyone looted stamps.
My wife asked around midnight if we should flee.
“Where would we go?” I asked.
“Away from the flames.” She said.
All this is happening in a mix of memorializing assemblies at the site of the callous killing, protest marches with pointed aims, and then the looting and vandalism. I’ll offer one piece of observation that you may have not seen in the reports and thumb-sucking think-pieces: the memorializing, the protestors, and the vandals are an integrated lot. Skin tone and hair, those markers for ethnicities we use in our great cultural mythology of race, is My Rainbow Race in these events from the pious, to the protest, to the break and burn brigades. Watching cell-cam videos and media long-shots has impressed on me that the palette of the sufferers and perpetuators of these actions are not one shade. Racists are going to need to ignore these visuals as they form their illness’ distortions. The guy smashing the library window, setting fire to the auto parts store, or acting like a drunk frat boy he would never righteously be as he shoves the burning dumpster nearer to the building might well be white in these nights.* And the “Nothing-ever-changes” cadre of gloomy-Gus activists** are likely too tired and weary to notice that the white, Asian, and Latin American participation has increased markedly in this time’s repetition of events sad, demanding, and chaotic.
I used gendered pronouns in moving to the vandal side of things, as that part does tend to become a sausage-fest. My wife is going off to join others this afternoon to sweep up broken glass. Not to get into gender stereotypes here, but how much do you want to bet that the gender mixture there will be distinctive too?
Tonight, I do not know what will happen. The memorializers will continue to do so, for George Floyd is still dead. The protestors will continue to protest, for it’s still wrong. And the vandals, not even interested in the materialist desire of the looter *** for a case of beer, a flat-screen TV, a book of Yeats collected poems or LeRoi Jones’ liner notes will continue to maintain that the best refutation of a failed “the best we can do” is: “the worst we can do.” The tao is too strange for me to know. Blessed be if they are right.
This is all the squishy thinking and writing I’ll be capable for a while. Tonight, I will probably not sleep, or fall asleep in imponderables. Will my wife be able to sleep the night before our anniversary? Will someone’s laddish fire, set with self-congratulating righteousness, find its equivalent of four Birmingham Sunday-school girls? When will America’s Valkyrie gunfire (I say with dread: remarkably rare so far) begin to sing? Will progressive change crest and recede? How happy is Donald Trump, our king of misrule, as his empire expands while progressives proclaim nothing ever changes as proof of their progressive acuity. Tell me, I want to believe, I need comfort: are you sure too it can’t get worse?
This is a week where I have been in my own little run-down tower, seeing out my window as Yeats showed me. Brothers and sisters, read the last stanza of Yeats poem in tears—even though they don’t put out fires directly.
Rather than a link to the text you’ll see it above in its entirety because I urge you to do that. If you’d like to hear my performance and music for this, the player gadget is below.
*Having tasted but not absorbed the fibrous materials of current cultural appropriation tropes, do any white anarchist allies as they smash the state at the library window, or get all dewy being a revolutionary fire-starter in a multi-ethnic neighborhood wonder if they are being authentically respectful of non-white culture from their skin privilege?
**I have long wondered at the futility of the salesman (as an agitator is, to a large degree) who paints their product as ineffective in use and their allies and audience as always deficient. I’m an old man. I understand being sick and tired. I’ll buy the “I can’t believe we’re still fighting these same old battles” T-shirt. But don’t tell me it itches, it’s guaranteed to fall apart, and isn’t available in my size.
***A few years back someone, who I cannot remember in order to credit, said that rioting with looting combines the two least attractive tendencies in American culture: shopping and violence.
A few months back I presented a series of poems about old age that turned out to be written by young poets. Here’s another one written by the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats when he was in his 20s.
“When You Are Old” is generally considered to be written about Yeats’ love for Maud Gonne, who like Yeats was active in Irish cultural nationalism and their country’s struggle for political independence. Yeats’ largely unrequited love for Gonne has a long and complicated story, the kind I’d often delve into here—but not today. This widely assumed context for “When You Are Old” makes plain the poem’s historical, denotative meaning. One could paraphrase it like this: “You think I’m just another lovelorn suitor asking for your hand, and possibly other leading bodily parts, now—but someday you’re going to be old, and you’ll realize that the others around you were just after you ‘cause you’re a major hottie who seems to have it going on cultural-politically. I’m not like that. I’m your soul mate, who respects that you’re busy with this, and loves you even though you’re out searching for other things. That’s OK. Just know that someday, like when you’re old, you’re going to miss me. You’ll probably want to google William Butler Yeats some night and see if I’m still alive and what I’m up to….”
Did I just loose a bunch of readers* with this base summary of a beautiful poem that is sincerely loved by so many people? Don’t understand me too quickly, I’ll get back to what I think when I encounter this poem before I finish.
Indeed, this poem is especially well loved by older people and by a great many women.** If there’s a greatest hits of love poems in English, this poem is there. And I don’t think they’re wrong or missing some unavoidable explication of the poem’s context. I can’t say Yeats’ intent when he wrote it as a young man, or when he published it still being both of those things; but I doubt it was simply to dis an ex that wasn’t exactly an ex. And those that love the poem Yeats made are experiencing it in other contexts close to their own hearts and lives.
I’m close to Yeats’ age when he died, though still younger than Gonne who lived to be 86. The future mood predicted in this poem written by a twenty-something doesn’t ring false to me. I don’t dwell in the past, but it comes to visit me from time to time, and I’ll think of old lovers and not-to-be lovers absent and missing in time and place. For older people, some of those people remembered are dead, and so their present times and places are further obscured by the crowded stars. We often expect our poets today to write of their experience, but it turns out that we aren’t necessarily going to trade Yeats’ skill with a beautiful line for an authentic memoir-poem by an age-group peer.
One could trash this poem on gender role/sexual politics counts. Fine if you do—art is argument to a large part—but I doubt the women who love this poem do so all because they have self-worth issues. And after all, the poem doesn’t predict crushing regret at not bedding W. B. Yeats, or a reader’s personal equivalent. It only asks for a quantity of “a little sadly,” which doesn’t hurt anybody. Patriarchy aside, I suspect every letter in every acronym can accumulate such thoughts over a life-time. And throw out love, sex, and success, and we still cherish memories of any connection where someone saw and bowed to the pilgrim soul inside us. The youth in us seeks it, the old in us remembers it. Even 20-somethings.
So where does this pilgrim soul stand on “When You Are Old?” That want for connection it speaks of and the word music it’s sung in captures me entirely. It’s good not to trust poetry and poets entirely, but to give oneself over to this song is worthwhile.
I’m sure this poem has been set to music often, but that didn’t stop me. I used an interesting acoustic guitar tuning that someone said had been used by Mary Chapin Carpenter: C G D G B C for this, and then added another of my simple-is-all-I-can-do piano parts. That’s one of the joys of music: sometimes it doesn’t have to be complicated to please us. The player gadget is below to hear my performance. Here’s the text of Yeats’ poem if you’d like to read along. We’ll be back soon with more of our April celebration of National Poetry Month. Spread the word if you can.
*I’m hopeful I didn’t, if only because listener/readers here should already know that I’m going to mix things up. If you think today’s music is what I’ll do next time, you should hear the #NPM2020 piece I’ve been working on—and you probably will be able to in the next few days.
**Here’s a 10 minute video where someone old and someone woman both declare their love for this poem.
It should have been just a throw-away line in Modernist novelist Ernest Hemingway’s first novel. A character describes how he went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”
That line, or the concept of it: gradually, then all at once, has persisted because it encapsulates something that occurs more broadly than the accumulation of debt obligations. Economics, politics, artistic movements all work socially in ways that may be tied to some very deep concepts, deeper than mere humanity.
Earlier this winter I presented William Butler Yeats “The Stare’s Nest at my Window.” It’s Yeats musing on his country, which had so recently achieved colonial independence and yet had then fallen so soon into sectarian civil war. The “stare” is an archaic word for the common starling, and despite its presence in the title, this bird doesn’t really appear in the poem. Instead, Yeats’ poem is asking for honeybees, rather than starlings, to build in the nesting cracks in the deteriorating masonry of his home.
In talking about how I experienced the poem, I felt that Yeats may have been speaking to an understanding of starlings as a harmful, invasive species. European starlings are obnoxious, capable of displacing other birds, and they are artless, bereft of any sort of lovely birdsong or plumage. Their large flocks can damage crops, eating grain, fruit, young plants, and even the very seeds before the crops have become anything. Honeybees, as I read Yeats’ wish, are some better, more directly constructive creatures.
When a country is in turmoil, acting against its own as well as humanity’s best interests, doesn’t it seem as if such is evidence of base and selfish forces that are natural and therefore incapable of change? Evil, greed, and self-dealing seem ingrained, the result of some gradual deteriorating evolution toward greater and greater failures of heart and mind.
As it turns out, starlings, those deplorable birds, do have something marvelous that they can do. In flight, flying near to each other so as to seem to be grains in a sand painting or facets in a mosaic, by the hundreds and by the thousands, they can shift and change direction in such an amazing way—gradually, then suddenly.
Though this video has some cutesy elements, it’s one I could find that both shows the murmuration behavior and a theory of its mechanism.
These birds, certainly those individual birds in the flock, cannot know that this is beautiful, yet they do it anyway. Human observers may think they have seen a miracle, a sign of the divine, or at least some unprecedented event—but what they have really seen is just as ingrained in nature: a physics of change and of glorious new shapes.
In a comment on “The Stare’s Nest at My Window,” alternative voice here at the Parlando Project Dave Moore remembered that he too had done a starling piece, so we’re overdue to present it to you today. His song is called “Murmuration,” and it’s about this startling flight behavior of starlings. You can hear it performed by the LYL Band with the player below.
I’ve done a number of William Butler Yeats poems here over the years as part of this project. We might agree that occurred because his words on the page just demand to be sounded. But there’s another side to Yeats that attracts too. He can write about political subjects with that same lyrical voice.*
One potential problem with political poetry is that a poet may not share the reader’s political stance, and while Yeats later dalliance with Fascism seems less ardent than Ezra Pound’s stronger convictions, the excellence of a poet’s lyrical gifts can’t save all examples.
Where Yeats succeeds in his political poetry, it’s often when he’s expressing complex moments of political disappointment or even disaster. This is properly the lyric poet’s area: the form where poetry isn’t about ideas but the experience of ideas. When Yeats does this the details that led to these moments are sometimes sketched in, but the poem can succeed even if one knows nothing about them.**
After all, every person with a cause eventually knows days when the cause seems damaged, perverted or defeated.
Today’s Yeats poem is a case in point. In my parochial ignorance I knew nothing about the events of the Irish Civil War of 1922. Reading a bit about it could add some more resonance to the harrowing tale Yeats tells in this poem taken from a short sequence of poems he wrote that year about the conflict, but I don’t think the reader needs to know those details for the poem to be powerful.
The poem has a central image, referred to in a refrain at the end of each stanza: honey bees and starlings*** are both nesting in the deteriorating brickwork of the place Yeats is staying in Ireland during this civil war, symbolizing those Irish factions fighting. Yeats seems to stand with the honey bees, which I read as the industrious, pragmatic, and fruitful symbol. The starlings are only raising their own brood in the same wall crevices, but from what I understand the starlings of the British Isles are somewhat of a nuisance bird, lacking in beauty and melodious song.**** Note too the detail that the starlings are being fed “grubs and flies.” Maybe the starlings aren’t evil, but what they’ve been given to subsist and grow on isn’t portrayed as lovely, a thought echoed in the final stanza.
Not quite an ivory tower. Yeats had bought this old castle tower in disrepair. This page says they are still trying to repair it.
So, written in the sorrow of a civil war in his freshly independent country, Yeats’ plea is for a time when the chippering and tweeting loudmouths will eventually give way to those who may one day make his country prosper, though they will do so building in a country that has been emptied and hollowed out by the current disaster. That’s not a political platform, but it is an experience that you and I may resonate with now.
Musically I didn’t stint on the discordant effects this time. Despite spending a few days with this one, it may take more time and listens for me to decide if I did right by Yeats with it. The full text of the poem is here if you’d like to read along, and the player gadget to hear my music and performance is just below. If you don’t see that gadget, here’s another way to hear my performance, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*Although Yeats wrote about a variety of subjects, it’s easy to find him fitting into the same bag as other poets seeking to reform their culture out from under colonialism. In that effort he may be more of a cultural nationalist than a functioning politician (despite his eventual term in the Irish legislature), but this concern was central to his art.
***Yeats chose to use an archaic name for the common starling: “stare.” Yeats claimed the name was still in use in Western Ireland, but it still seems to be a deliberate choice . Stare does give him more rhyming words, but I also wonder if Yeats was thinking of punning undercurrents of stare as in looking—looking as in out his Irish window at his vision for a new independent Ireland; and “stair” as in a climb toward a higher, more perfect purpose than centuries of colonial exploitation followed by civil war. Or even “state.”
****Despite the bird’s little-liked vocalizations, starlings can learn and repeat other sounds in their environment. The best story I came upon in looking for information on why Yeats might have chosen the starling for his poem was the tale of the composer Mozart’s pet starling who could sing Mozartian passages. The starling’s discontinuous song has also been posited as an inspiration for Mozart’s famously odd-ball “A Musical Joke” (K. 522)