"I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree."
Born in 1865, rooted in west Ireland's County Galway, William Butler Yeats died shortly before World War II broke out in 1939. Spanning the decades from Victorian to modern, his poems took on every question: love, sexuality, transience, age, death, local place and legend, mythic past and visionary future, nobility vis-à-vis common folk, country and city, dreams and responsibilities, private as against public, spiritual and earthly life, nature versus history. All this mattered in the world at large and vitally in his craft. "Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric," he said, "of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry."
One day in London, feeling homesick, Yeats suddenly remembered a small island in a lake near Sligo, and Thoreau at Walden Pond. Published in 1892 (the year John Muir founded California's Sierra Club), "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" springs from that Romantic yearning toward a distant mythic place.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
Though Yeats's yen for Innisfree (pronounced "Innishfree," meaning Heather Island) hasn't much in common with the cabin Thoreau actually built on a pond near Boston, he feels a kindred impulse to get away from society and revive the spirit. As Thoreau says in Walden, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
I will arise and go now. Knowingly or not, Yeats is echoing Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. "Travel" begins, "I should like to rise and go / . . . Where below another sky / Parrot islands anchored lie." Stevenson himself had gone to Samoa, whence he wrote praising Yeats's "artful simplicity" in "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." He doesn't mention the borrowing. In any case, Yeats reaching toward islands "below another sky" taps into childlike genius.
About poetry we often wonder, Does style drive content or vice-versa? The answer is yes. "Innisfree" was Yeats's first lyric with "my own music," for music means every bit as much as meaning here. An early draft even has noontide not midnight "all a glimmer," and midnight not noon "a purple glow" of heather! Evidently the facts of nature yield, to help get him from "pavements gray" to "lake water lapping."
Happily for the music, Yeats recited "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" on the BBC, an old man voicing a young man's poem. "I am going to read my poems with great emphasis upon the rhythm," he announces. "It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get [them] into verse, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose."
We then hear a throaty resonant chant of weighted cadences and Irish inflections: "Oy will uhroy-y-se ond go now, ond go-o-o to Innishfree-e-e . . . " Each stanza gets a startling music on the last word, raising the pitch for "bee-loud gla-a-ade" and "linnet's wi-i-ings." Then three stressed syllables close the poem, "deep heart's core," rising from a profundo "deep hahrt's" to a higher drawn-out tone on "caw-w-wr."
Poetry is not ordinary speech, it partakes of inspiration, vision, oracle, carrying us from humdrum here to a mythic there. Yeats's "there" itself resounds four times in six lines.
Civilization's dream is to get away from it all to another place, classical Arcadia, Coleridge's Xanadu, the "Country-green" of Keats's nightingale. Yeats goes into Celtic woods:
Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood's woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fears no more.
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love's bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.
Shadowy, dim, dishevelled may unnerve us, but Yeats had more in mind. King Fergus of ancient Ulster, a hero and poet as well, abdicated to live in the woods. That gesture seized Yeats from early on. He cherished Irish myth, legend, folk imagination, and a tension was already pulling on him, between poetry and power, intellect and action, country and city. So he sets it all to music, entrusting life and nature to well-woven four-beat verse.
Celtic folk tradition never let Yeats go. At 23 he edited Irish Fairy and Folk Tales to breed popular consciousness. Fairies, ghosts, legendary heroes--he takes this fabulous world at face value. His entry on banshees, female spirits whose wild wailing portends a death, reports confidently that "at Dullahan" one of them hurled a bucket of blood in a peasant's face. (He adds a sort of proof: "Mr. and Mrs. S.C. Hall give the following notation of the banshee's cry," and there on a treble staff is a spine-chilling cry!)
Throughout his half-century career, Irish places and place names bind Yeats to the landscape. In this ballad, "salley" is a willow tree:
Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.
First Yeats called this "An Old Song Resung," as it was "an extension of three lines sung to me by an old woman at Ballisodare." Enlisting in the tradition, he weaves his own words into a lilting Irish melody. What counts is popular lineage, rerooting him in native soil: "an old woman" sang "to me . . . at Ballisodare," a village near Sligo.
Place names--Sligo, Innisfree, Dullahan, Ballisodare, Coole, Ballylee, Drumcliff, Ben Bulben--charmed him no less than the natural scene behind them. Whereas Gerard Manley Hopkins fastened on organic detail, with Yeats our senses don't feel alerted to wind, moon, stream, lake, seashore, rock, woodland, tree, flower, bird. Instead, like William Blake (whose poems he published) and Thomas Hardy, he makes them symbols. Crickets singing and lake water lapping at Innisfree betoken peace, Fergus rules the sea and stars.
Nature served to offset politics, history, personal experience, especially after the Easter Rebellion when Irish nationalists revolted in Dublin. Britain executed the leaders, throwing Yeats into doubt over bravery and rashness, action, and decorum. "All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born," runs the refrain in "Easter 1916." The poem asks if historic emergency ennobles or coarsens men and women, if zeal and fanaticism sacrifice human fineness. Yet one surprising stanza shifts away from politics. With brief lines turning on idiomatic rhymes, Yeats simply depicts "the living stream" and "birds that range / From cloud to tumbling cloud."
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.
Because the stone of political monomania can only momentarily "trouble the living stream" of natural change, this one stanza needs no refrain claiming that "A terrible beauty is born." Hearty play between moor-cocks and moor-hens, changing yet unchanged, survives the convulsion that brought forth independent Eire.
Soon after Easter 1916, Yeats visited his friend Lady Gregory's Coole Park estate. The place reminds him how years before, when he was young, wild swans would
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings. . . .
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air.
The words catch a wild avian energy--"suddenly mount . . . scatter wheeling . . . clamorous wings . . . paddle in the cold . . . climb the air"--but the swans drive home a poet's loneliness: "I have looked upon those brilliant creatures, / And now my heart is sore." Years later, again remembering "sudden thunder of the mounting swan," Yeats finds "Another emblem there!"--"Nature's . . . a mirror of my mood."
Another brilliant bird turns emblem in Yeats's apocalypse "The Second Coming."
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
He never practiced the noble sport of falconry, but if it offers such recognitions--
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity
--so much the better. At any time, whatever one's take, those words may apply.
Once, during the unrest provoked by Irish rebellion, Yeats composed a perfect poem, "The Stare's Nest by My Window," balancing nature with history, birds and bees with firsthand human experience. "In the west of Ireland," he notes, "we call a starling a stare, and during the civil war, one built a nest in a hole in the masonry by my bedroom window." This time his refrain rounds off all four stanzas, moving from "honey-bees" through political mayhem toward a cry for regeneration, "O honey-bees, come build . . . "
The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother bird brings grubs and flies
. My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare
. We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war:
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
Lines of terse idiom ending on a refrain, two rhymes per stanza with one of them always on "stare," telling detail ("loosening masonry," "grubs and flies") and anecdote (a "house burned," a soldier "trundled down the road") blending with broad confessional truths ("We are closed in . . . ," "We had fed the heart on fantasies . . . "), and finally that stark cry: "O honey-bees, / Come build in the empty house of the stare"--only a poet's lifelong quarrel with himself could bring it off.
As long as Yeats struggled to unite private, public, and visionary experience within a poem, he had to be questioning art itself. "Sailing to Byzantium" tests the saving grace of art against a touchstone of natural process, "Those dying generations."
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
He looks to art for a lasting shape that flesh can't deliver:
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling.
Somewhere he'd read of artisans setting a golden bird "upon a golden bough," nature transformed into art, and yet once there they sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Great art, yes, but still it sings of mortal nature, the changing stream of what's begotten, born, and dies--those spawning "salmon-falls," like the moor-hens calling moor-cocks in "Easter 1916."
Yeats's sense of mortality led to ever-stronger writing. In July 1936, with war looming, he wrote "Lapis Lazuli," prompted by the 18th-century Chinese stone a young poet had given him. First Yeats looks to tragic Hamlet and Lear for blazing joy. Then he turns to this deep-blue gemstone, a mountain scene with three men climbing, carved into lapis lazuli so that
Every discoloration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards.
It's no small feat, turning accident into art and nature both. It takes guessing, imagining into the stone: "doubtless plum or cherry-branch." Then Yeats moves even deeper than possible into this carved lapis. One man "Carries a musical instrument," which is true, but another, we're told, "asks for mournful melodies," and "Their ancient, glittering eyes are gay."
Writing his own epitaph, W.B. Yeats turned death into art on the ground of a long-lived landscape. "Under Ben Bulben" takes its title from a mountain near Sligo where he spent his childhood. Embedding place-names in verse, the poem ends:
Under bare Ben Bulben's head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
His own words--and "On limestone quarried near the spot."
John Felstiner, professor of English at Stanford, is the author, most recently, of Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. His book Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems will come out in April.