Poetry Wednesday: William Butler Yeats is not Thomas Hardy

“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

—“The Stolen Child,” William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats isn’t just one of The Irish Poets, but one of The Poets, full stop.   The man won a Nobel Prize for his stuff and it’s almost required that every poetry anthology includes one of his verses, or at least his name.

He’s revered and honored and read for very good reason—his poetry is smooth and slow-moving and evocative and truly lovely.

But you know . . . he’s kind of an Eeyore, isn’t he?

A Drinking Song
(William Butler Yeats)

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.

Yeats’ natural state isn’t one of defiantly drinking death under the table with two fingers upraised, is all I’m saying.

So many of his poems, even the ones that appear hopeful, seem to have an invisible coda:  It doesn’t matter if you don’t trample carelessly on my dreams (though most likely you will) . . . we’ll all be dead in a couple years, anyway.

And some of ’em aren’t so subtle:

A Drunken Man’s Praise Of Sobriety
(William Butler Yeats)

Come swish around, my pretty punk,
And keep me dancing still
That I may stay a sober man
Although I drink my fill.

Sobriety is a jewel
That I do much adore;
And therefore keep me dancing
Though drunkards lie and snore.
O mind your feet, O mind your feet,
Keep dancing like a wave,
And under every dancer
A dead man in his grave.
No ups and downs, my pretty,
A mermaid, not a punk;
A drunkard is a dead man,
And all dead men are drunk.

This poem isn’t about defiance—it’s about the inevitable moment when the exhausted dancers all fall down.*

And you might think all this would put Mr. Yeats in Thomas Hardy territory.**  But for some reason, his stuff works for me in a way that Hardy’s doesn’t.

Maybe it’s the style, or maybe it’s because Yeats doesn’t assume that our troubles are our fault and shame on us—as Hardy tends to do.  Things happen, for whatever reason, and you deal as best you can, with varied results.

A Crazed Girl
(William Butler Yeats)

That crazed girl improvising her music.
Her poetry, dancing upon the shore,

Her soul in division from itself
Climbing, falling She knew not where,
Hiding amid the cargo of a steamship,
Her knee-cap broken, that girl I declare
A beautiful lofty thing, or a thing
Heroically lost, heroically found.

No matter what disaster occurred
She stood in desperate music wound,
Wound, wound, and she made in her triumph
Where the bales and the baskets lay
No common intelligible sound
But sang, ‘O sea-starved, hungry sea.’

It’s a fatalistic philosophy—cough, Irish, cough—but it’s not a patronizing one, or a self-pitying one, and it’s never mean.

And often, his gloom is transformed into something wry and real and lovely:

A Prayer For My Daughter
(William Butler Yeats)

Once more the storm is howling, and half hid
Under this cradle-hood and coverlid
My child sleeps on. There is no obstacle
But Gregory’s wood and one bare hill
Whereby the haystack- and roof-levelling wind.
Bred on the Atlantic, can be stayed;
And for an hour I have walked and prayed
Because of the great gloom that is in my mind.
I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And-under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.
May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never finds a friend.
Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-legged smith for man.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of plenty is undone.
In courtesy I’d have her chiefly learned;
Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned
By those that are not entirely beautiful;
Yet many, that have played the fool
For beauty’s very self, has charm made wisc.
And many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.
May she become a flourishing hidden tree
That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,
And have no business but dispensing round
Their magnanimities of sound,
Nor but in merriment begin a chase,
Nor but in merriment a quarrel.
O may she live like some green laurel
Rooted in one dear perpetual place.
My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.
An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?
Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy Still.
And may her bridegroom bring her to a house
Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious;
For arrogance and hatred are the wares
Peddled in the thoroughfares.
How but in custom and in ceremony
Are innocence and beauty born?
Ceremony’s a name for the rich horn,
And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

Not like Thomas Hardy at all, is our Mr. Yates.  And bless him for it.

____________________

*Or that’s my interpretation, and I’d love to hear arguments, because Yeats is worth arguing over. . .

**Not to be confused with Tom Hardy territory, which is actually sort of my Happy Place, especially since I decided to ignore his role as Heathcliff—not that he didn’t play the role beautifully, but not even a brilliant talent such as his can make Heathcliff less of an ineffective, moor-walking emo.  But I’m not tackling that one until I run out of poetry.

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7 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: William Butler Yeats is not Thomas Hardy

  1. Love Yeats. I never understood the feminist critique’s of Thomas Hardy. We’ve read a lot of Hardy and think he was actually trying to show what women were up against given the social mores of the times. I don’t think he blames his characters for what happens to them as much as he blames their limited options.

  2. I’m going to commit that drinking song to memory. You never know when the occasion will require it.

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