Most people who know me well, know that I am not sentimental or overly romantic. So when I tell you that I love a romantic poet, you can bet there is something else about his work that I also love – the dark undertones, the mournful, melancholy themes. That poet is the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats. I remember clearly (something not so common with me) the day in High School when we were reading some of his work. I was 16, a senior and in my English Literature class. My teacher loved Yeats and told us that his work wasn’t normally discussed in HS English Lit classes because he is an Irish poet. Although he was included in the textbook, most teachers just passed his work by or only assigned one poem to be read. That didn’t set too well with me because I am an Irish American. So of course, I had to read more than just the assigned poems, of which, we read three in class. Here is the first poem of his that I ever read:
O Do Not Love Too Long
SWEETHEART, do not love too long:
I loved long and long,
And grew to be out of fashion
Like an old song.
All through the years of our youth
Neither could have known
Their own thought from the other’s,
We were so much at one.
But O, in a minute she changed –
O do not love too long,
Or you will grow out of fashion
Like an old song.
Notice the mournful, melancholic undertones in that piece. That is what drew me to his work initially, but his use of symbolism is what kept me reading him. He chose symbols that had many meanings, so that what when reading him, you get various interpretations. He also used a lot of Irish mythology in his work. He mostly wrote in classic forms, but did write some free-style pieces. In the following poem, written in his latter days, he uses a symbol that I use a lot in my own poetry – bones. It is a classic form called ottava rima and consists of 3 parts. This is probably my favorite of his poems.
The Circus Animals’ Desertion
I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last being but a broken man
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.
What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his fairy bride.
And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
`The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it,
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.
And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
If you are curious about what others have thought of that poem, you can read what some critics have said about it here. Personally, I think Yeats was reflecting back not only on his poetry, but his life in general. I think the Circus Animals represents his old age. *sighs* his language is just so gorgeous and those themes and symbols! So much in his work has inspired my own writing – themes, symbolism, the dark undertones, melancholy and mournfulness, and yes, even the romanticism. If you want to read more of his poetry, check some of them out here (you will also note that he wrote fiction, non-fiction and plays!).
Here are some of my favorite Yeats quotes:
Interesting Facts: Yeats was an Irish Nationalist and desired a free Ireland. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Irishman to do so. His muse was Maud Gonne, to whom he proposed marriage to four times, but was rejected all four times. Yeats loved mythology, mysticism, spiritualism, occultism and astrology. He was the driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival and founded the Abbey Theater where his plays were produced. Yeats died in 1939 in Menton, France and was buried at Roquebbrune-Cap-Martin. Later his body was removed and buried in Drumcliff, Ireland.
His epitaph is taken from the last lines of “Under Ben Bulben”, one of his final poems:
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!
(these facts have been taken from this source)