Wednesday, October 18, 2023


Has any poet written as many beautiful and memorable lines as Yeats?  I confess that I am biased by circumstances.  I discovered the poetry of Yeats at an impressionable age: in my sophomore year of college, in a course titled "Yeats, Pound, and Eliot."  I was smitten from the start.  Imagine a melancholic, romantic lad, 19 years of age, reading this: "A pity beyond all telling/Is hid in the heart of love." ("The Pity of Love.")  Or this: "And bending down beside the glowing bars,/Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled/And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars." ("When You Are Old.")  Or this: "She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;/But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears." ("Down by the Salley Gardens.")  Or this: "I have spread my dreams under your feet;/Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."  ("He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.")  Prior to taking the course, I had a fitful interest in poetry.  But, when I came upon Yeats, that was it: my life changed.

As I have noted here in the past, I am fondest of the fin de siècle Yeats, the Yeats of the Celtic Twilight.  This no doubt suggests that I have failed to progress emotionally over the past five decades.  The "critical consensus" favors middle and late Yeats: the "mature" Yeats. But I don't find these sorts of critical assessments to be helpful.  (Am I to look askance at "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" because Yeats wrote it at the age of 25?)  There is great beauty to be found in all of Yeats -- early, middle, or late.  Best to just read the poems.

Thinking of poems by Yeats set in autumn, this comes first to mind: "Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,/And over the mice in the barley sheaves . . ."  ("The Falling of the Leaves.")  And then this: "The woods were round them, and the yellow leaves/Fell like faint meteors in the gloom, and once/A rabbit old and lame limped down the path;/Autumn was over him . . ."  ("Ephemera.")  These two poems appear beside each other in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, which was published in 1889, the heart of Yeats's Celtic Twilight period.

Still, despite my fondness for the younger Yeats, I am more than willing to concede that, when it comes to his autumn poems, this (from his middle years) is the finest:

         The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount 
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

W. B. Yeats, The Wild Swans at Coole (Macmillan 1919).

As I asked at the outset: has any poet written as many beautiful and memorable lines as Yeats?  Each stanza of "The Wild Swans at Coole" has lines that one is unlikely to forget, having read them but once.

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998)
"Stobo Kirk, Peeblesshire" (1936)

The autumn mood is the autumn mood at all times and in all places. Thus, reading "The trees are in their autumn beauty,/The woodland paths are dry," I think of this, from China in the Ninth Century, during the great T'ang Dynasty period of poetry:

                           The Cranes

The western wind has blown but a few days;
Yet the first leaf already flies from the bough.
On the drying paths I walk in my thin shoes;
In the first cold I have donned my quilted coat.
Through shallow ditches the floods are clearing away;
Through sparse bamboos trickles a slanting light.
In the early dusk, down an alley of green moss,
The garden-boy is leading the cranes home.

Po Chü-i (772-846) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, More Translations from the Chinese (George Allen & Unwin 1919), page 57.  The poem is written in the eight-line lü-shih ("regulated verse") form, which, in addition to having tonal and rhyming requirements, calls for verbal parallelism in the second and third couplets.  (See Burton Watson, The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry: From Early Times to the Thirteenth Century (Columbia University Press 1984), pages 8-12, 374.)

Waley's More Translations from the Chinese and Yeats's collection The Wild Swans at Coole were both published in 1919.  It is lovely to think that the two of them may have been working on "The Cranes" and "The Wild Swans at Coole" during the same period of time.  Po Chü-i had written "The Cranes" ten centuries earlier.  Twilight. Bright leaves.  Dry paths.  Swans and cranes.  Nothing had changed. Nothing has changed.

Malcolm Midwood Milne (1887-1954), "Barrow Hill" (1939)

In February of 1694, Matsuo Bashō wrote to a friend in Ueno (the town in which Bashō had been born and raised): "I feel my end is drawing near."  (Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters: Selected Hokku with Commentary (Stanford University Press 1991), page 370.)  In June of that year, he made the long journey from Edo (now known as Tokyo) to Ueno (which is located near Kyoto).  In November, Bashō was still in Ueno, staying in a small cottage located behind his brother's house.  On November 13, he wrote this haiku:

     Along this road
Goes no one,
     This autumn eve.

Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 342.  Bashō included this headnote to the haiku: "Expressing how I feel."  (Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters, page 406.)  The Japanese word which Blyth translates as "eve" is kure.  Kure can mean "sunset," "dusk," or "evening;" it can also mean "end" or "close."  Hence, the final line of the haiku has sometimes been translated as, for instance, "the end of autumn" or "autumn's close."

On the same day, Bashō wrote this:

this autumn
why am I aging so?
to the clouds, a bird

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), in Makoto Ueda, Bashō and His Interpreters, page 407.  The poem is prefaced by this headnote: "A wanderer's thought."  (Ibid, page 407.)  Bashō does not identify the type of bird.

Swans and cranes.  And, finally: "to the clouds, a bird."  Autumn.

[A postscript.  Bashō died on November 25.  This is his final haiku:

on a journey, ailing --
my dreams roam about
on a withered moor

Bashō (translated by Makoto Ueda), Ibid, page 413.]

Alexander Sillars Burns (1911-1987), "Afternoon, Wester Ross"