Saturday, June 13, 2015

Happy 150th Birthday to W. B. Yeats

Yesterday I found out quite by chance that today is Wm Butler Yeats' one hundred and fiftieth birthday.  So it seemed appropriate to give one of his poems here. Yeats gets my vote for the greatest poet of the last century, a man who was constantly re-inventing himself and forging ahead into new territory: lyrical late Victorian, Irish mythologist, personal confessional poet, war poet, witness to the modern era, poet of meditations on old age and endings. Which means there are so many to choose from. Some value the early wistfulness of "Down by the Salley Garden" and "Lake Isle of Innesfree", some the evocation of Irish legend in "Fergus and the Druid", the Cuchulainn poems, or "The Stolen Child". Perhaps his most famous poems convey something of the terrible upheavals of World War I, the Irish Rebellion, and the Irish Civil War: "Easter 1916" ("a terrible beauty has been born") and "The Second Coming" (which summed up the age: "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity"). But more than anything I think of Yeats as the poet of letting go: "Sailing to Byzantium", "Politics", the last two parts of Under Ben Bulben" (including his own epitaph), and above all "Lapis Lazuli".

But when I came to pick a poem to celebrate the day, I decided on one of his lesser-known works which, though deceptively simple, has haunted me since I first read it back in Dr. Kimpel's class during my time at Fayetteville.

"Two Songs of a Fool" [1919]

A speckled cat and a tame hare
Eat at my hearthstone
And sleep there;
And both look up to me alone
For learning and defence
As I look up to Providence.

I start out of my sleep to think
Some day I may forget
Their food and drink;
Or, the house door left unshut,
The hare may run till it's found
The horn's sweet note and the tooth of the hound.

I bear a burden that might well try
Men that do all by rule,
And what can I
That am a wandering-witted fool
But pray to God that He ease
My great responsibilities?

I slept on my three-legged stool by the fire,
The speckled cat slept on my knee;
We never thought to enquire
Where the brown hare might be,
And whether the door were shut.

Who knows how she drank the wind
Stretched up on two legs from the mat,
Before she had settled in her mind
To drum with her heel and to leap?

Had I but awakened from sleep
And called her name, she had heard,
It may be, and had not stirred,

That now, it may be, has found
The horn's sweet note and the tooth of the hound.


--at first this seems a straightforward account of a simple man worried about something which does in fact come to pass. But then again, it could just as easily been called "Answered Prayers": he prays to be eased of his burden, and his burden is taken away in a way he had not intended. Free and rejoicing, dead and devoured; he'll never know. And that we're told Providence is to us like the speaker is to his cat and rabbit is a final chilling thought.

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