Monday, March 17, 2008


The Book: THE COLLECTED WORKS OF W. B. YEATS, Volume 1: THE POEMS. Edited by Richard J. Finneran. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989. Very good book in very good dust jacket; book's edges are scuffed, dust jacket is creased at top and bottom of spine.
First read: 1989
Owned since: 1989

What can I say about this book that would not be gratuitous? God forbid I should ever have to reduce my library to ten books -- or even to five -- but if I did, this would be one of the books I'd keep.

Great art comes from conflict, from transitions and borders. Yeats lived in those borders as few have before or since. He was a Protestant in a Catholic country, an English-speaker who fought for the right to speak and learn in Irish, a man of words who inspired men with guns. He lived 35 years in the 19th century, 38 years in the 20th. He saw Ireland win its independence and squander the opportunities of freedom. He lived for Ireland, but died and was buried in France (though now he lies in Sligo).

Yeats has gone in and out of fashion since his death. He was unapologetically romantic, with everything that goes along with that: nationalism, excess, an intense and occasionally absurd personal life. He was foolish about women as a young man, and even more foolish as an old man. His great gift to us was that he knew it, and it amused him as much as it embarrassed him. In fact, many of his best poems address the indignities and regrets of age.

He was astonishingly prolific -- this book is the first of fourteen volumes of his collected works -- and not all of it is good. As a poet he was almost like a photographer, taking hundreds of verbal snapshots in hopes of getting that one perfect picture.

Which he did. He'd be one of the world's great poets if he had written only "Easter, 1916" and "An Irish Airman foresees his Death," or only "Among School Children" and "The Second Coming," or only "When You Are Old" and "Sailing to Byzantium." I quote Yeats at least once a day (if only to Dizzy).

"While still I may, I write for you/The love I lived, the dream I knew," Yeats wrote "To Ireland in the Coming Times." He was vain, no question; he knew he was gifted, he enjoyed being famous. I admire that.

He was grateful and he was passionate, and he was the one left to tell the tale. "The Municipal Gallery Revisited" is the story of how he went to a hall of portraits, only to find so many faces of people he had known slightly, known well, worked with, loved, and outlived. It ends with two lines that were not his epitaph, but might be mine, someday:

Think where man's glory most begins and ends
And say my glory was I had such friends.


Tom Ehrenfeld said...

And let's not forget The Cold Heaven ("Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven/That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice"), nor Adam's Curse, nor The Folly of Being Comforted, nor Long-Legged Fly.

In addition to all you wrote about Yeats (which I heartily endorse), I return and return to his works because he was not merely a force of nature in terms of thought; but his use of language was so precise, poetic, powerful, and outright beautiful. I believe that everyone who strives to write with clarity and spirit should read his poetry.

AnswerGirl said...

Oh, I could keep listing ... nor did I mention "The Stolen Child," which made me cry the first time I read it -- or "The Circus Animals' Desertion," which is so appropriate to the end of Yeats's career that I wonder whether he wrote the poem as a younger man and saved it for last.

norby said...

Oh Yeats.

Stolen Child is grand, but there are a dozen little poems that have about ten lines that I love just as much.

Bea said...

I had never really been moved by poetry until doing Yeats in my Language tutorial senior year at St. John's. I have a paper on "The Second Coming" lying around somewhere that I was relatively proud of.

AnswerGirl said...

It's true, Deb, Yeats makes the short pieces look so easy:

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That's all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.